“We have given three years of our lives to Denmark, and I want to get something out of it. I am not here for fun but to boost my career.”
Amsarul Haque from Bangladesh is among the 500 people who came to Rådhuspladsen in central Copenhagen to protest the termination of the green card programme. It’s a warm day in late May and families stand huddled in small groups as children hand out cardboard green cards to be held aloft beside banners stating:”Denmark, Keep your promise!”
“I gave up my job in Dhaka and moved my wife to Denmark,” says 31-year-old Haque. “My family has expectations.”
The green card programme was introduced in 2007 to attracted talented labour from outside the EU, but amajority in Parliament now want to scrap the programme. The law is still being formed, but as it stands on this May afternoon, current green card holders will not be able to extend their stay beyond 2018 – hence the broken promise.
“People have children who now speak perfect Danish,” says Solman Javid Khalili, a green card holder originally from Iran who now works at pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk. “We are not happy that the rules are constantly changing. People want to plan their lives.”
Not a success
The green card scheme was introduced to allow foreigners with particular qualifications, language skills and experience the opportunity to find work in Denmark. It’s been amended a few times, but as it currently stands, successful applicants are given two years to find a job with an average salary of 315,000 kroner a year. Thereafter, they can apply for three-year extensions.
It hasn’t been an overwhelming success. A 2010 report from Rambøll found that only 22 percent of green card holders were working in a field related to their education and work experience, and 43 percent were working in hospitality. Haque is among them – he works in the kitchen of a Claus Meyer restaurant.
The Danish People’s Party (DF) has proposed scrapping the law, arguing that they had only supported the programme in the first place because they thought it would attract the labour that industry was demanding.
“The businesses that said they lacked sufficient labour have simply not taken advantage of the programme,” integration spokesperson Martin Henriksen told Berlingske.
“All it does is increase the labour force through immigration. That makes sense from a narrow business perspective, but it leads to wage dumping.”
Left-wing parties agree, and together with Socialdemokraterne, Socialistisk Folkeparti and Enhedslisten, DF has secured a majority to end the programme. The unions HK and LO also support closing the programme. During the public hearing on the law, they wrote to Parliament to say that the programme undermined the Danish labour market.
As DF’s proposed reform now stands, no new green card applications will be accepted after June 10, but a late amendment might allow current green card holders to continue extending their visas using the scheme, as long as they satisfy the minimum pay requirement.
After June 10, the best option for economic migrants is the Pay Limit Scheme, which allows non-EU workers access to the Danish labour market as long as they secure a job paying at least 375,000 kroner a year.
This programme is also likely to be reformed, however, as the Social Democrats (Socialdemokrater) have secured a majority in Parliament to increase the minimum salary to 400,000 kroner per year.
“If businesses lack employees worth less than 400,000 kroner per year, they can employ people in Denmark,” Socialdemokrater MP Mattias Tesfaye wrote on Facebook. “If they can’t find qualified labour, then they need to educate unemployed Danes. We cannot open our labour market to the entire world.”
Hard to legislate
This is the central conflict the government faces, argues Assistant Professor Nana Wesley Hansen of the Employment Relations Research Centre (FAOS) at the University of Copenhagen – how to maintain strict immigration laws that do not deprive the labour market of the talent it needs.
“It’s a very difficult area to legislate, and the result has been a set of very selective policies,” she says.
Hansen argues that there are industries in Denmark in need of foreign labour, from computer game programmers to heavy industry workers. If they can’t find the right talent, some jobs may leave the country, while a lack of labour may produce bottlenecks preventing investment and growth.
But even though the work programmes are designed to keep jobs in Denmark, some unions have argued that they may actually be putting Danes out of work or pressure wages.
“In some industries that already outsource their work, such as the IT industry, global labour is much cheaper than in Denmark. So companies can use the pay limit scheme to offer jobs to foreigners at salaries that are very low in the Danish context, but high compared to where the worker comes from,” according to Hansen.
Increasing the pay limit to 400,000 kroner could have an impact on some industries that are in need of foreign labour but don’t offer very high wages, such as the metalworking industry. With unemployment continuing to drop, there simply isn’t the time to train Danish workers to fill the demand.
Tough first steps
The green card programme is the only visa scheme not to require immigrants to have a job before they arrive in Denmark. Without a local network or language, and with no access to state support, including from job centres, it can be hard to get your foot in the door.
“I know that green card holders started getting many more job offers after they got their first professional job in Denmark,” says Hesam Hashemi, who arrived in Denmark in 2014 with a Masters Degree in Material Science, but who has yet to secure his first professional job.
“We didn’t study here, and apparently that’s important. In some interviews, they said directly that if I had studied at the Technical University of Denmark they would have hired me. In Scandinavian culture, it’s important to have that trust, I have found.”
Hansen acknowledges this issue, but doesn’t necessarily see it as a problem that so many green card holders found unskilled jobs in Denmark first.
“There’s nothing wrong with working in a hotel while they learn the language, but I understand the concern, since there is much less social mobility among immigrants. The Rambøll report showed, however, that green card holders are much better at developing Danish networks, so they are much less isolated. And it’s the isolation that is normally the problem. So I don’t look at them so bleakly.”
After introducing a minimum pay in 2014, green card applications dropped from 1,241 to 863. Lobby group the Confederation of Danish Industry (DI) argues that the drop demonstrates the reform is working, so there is no need to scrap the programme.
“The problem with the green card was the number of people in low-paying jobs, but that has been addressed by introducing the minimum pay,” says DI’s deputy director Steen Nielsen, who also argues that the government should lower the minimum salary required by the Pay Limit Scheme.
“Many companies are having trouble finding qualified people right now. Unemployment is around 4.2 percent, and is even lower in some industries, which makes it difficult to find labour. I think we need to do what we can to open up the labour market to foreigners. They are a benefit to Danish society and businesses.”
Hashemi thinks the current situation could have been avoided if green card holders were given more support in entering the labour market in the first place, rather than being left to their own devices. For some, the time on their CV outside of their field could end up having a negative impact on their career.
“Some professionals will feel like they have failed if they have to go home. The time they spent outside the labour market can make it difficult to get back in.”
He doesn’t think he’ll be sticking around in Denmark if the reform passes, but he’s not worried.
“I’m positive about the time I spent here. I didn’t come looking for a specific job, and I gained lots of experience and made some money. For me, it was just three years being abroad.” M