Asylum seekers exploited in internship scheme

The Swedish government is planning to reform an internship scheme administered by the Migration Agency after Swedish Radio revealed it has led to exploitation of asylum seekers.

Irene Wennemo, a state secretary responsible for issues concerning labour policy, made the announcement Tuesday following an investigation by Swedish Radio's local P4 Blekinge station, which showed that asylum seekers have been exploited and in effect used as cheap labour.

The scheme, administered by the Migration Agency, offers unpaid internships to asylum seekers who can work for a single employer for up to six months while waiting for their residence permits.

However, the scheme has become a way for some employers to hire workers off the books, according to Swedish Radio's investigation. Reporters found 10 asylums seekers in the Blekinge region who have been hired as interns but who are effectively used as low-paid employees and are paid small amounts under the table.

Swedish Radio spoke to one asylum seeker who said he works 12-hour shifts six days a week at a restaurant in Blekinge. The man, who wanted to remain anonymous, earns just over SEK 10 per hour. He said: “It feels horrible to work so hard for so little, but I can either accept the owner's conditions or not have a job at all.”

Wennemo said the situation in unacceptable and that several unions had also warned that interns are being exploited as cheap labour. The unions have now suggested that the government hand over responsibility for the internship programmes to the Employment Agency, and the government has said it will consider the suggestion.

Under the scheme, the Migration Agency signs deals with employers who have to prove they are legitimate businesses and do not owe any outstanding taxes.

"The Employment Agency is not focused on asylum seekers but, on the other hand, we can see great problems with keeping the internship scheme under the responsibility of the Migration Agency," said Wennemo.

Wennemo added: "The Employment Agency has established systems for communicating with the various actors on the labour market, and here we demand guarantees to prevent exploitation."

At this point, the government is not giving any details about how the reform will potentially happen, but it will give notice sometime this spring, according to Wennemo.