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FEATURE

Are international workers the answer to Denmark’s labour shortage?

Denmark’s low unemployment rate is creating recruitment challenges for Danish companies. A recent government initiative aims to resolve the issue, but some say it overlooks the importance of international labour. 

Are international workers the answer to Denmark’s labour shortage?
Business organisations have called for Denmark to do more to enable companies to draw on skilled foreign labour. Photo by Darth Liu on Unsplash

On September 10th, Denmark became the only European nation with no Covid-19 curbs. Denmark is also one of only six European Union countries whose economy has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, reports Statistics Denmark. And, it is one of only four EU countries where unemployment is now lower than before the pandemic, according to recent figures from Eurostat.

Although this sounds like a hat trick of good news for Denmark, the country now faces a new challenge: maintaining economic growth while facing a severe labour shortage.

Earlier this month, Statistics Denmark announced that the number of job vacancies in Denmark reached its highest level in more than a decade. Data from the Danish Agency for Labour Market and Recruitment from the month of June show 22.5 percent of companies’ recruitment attempts were in vain. 

“It is gratifying that unemployment is falling rapidly in Denmark, but it also means that there will be fewer people taking vacancies,” said Steen Nielsen, head of labour market and policy at Danish Industry (Dansk Industri, or DI), an organisation representing approximately 18,500 companies across Denmark. 

“Without more employees, we will very soon experience a significant slowdown in economic growth,” Morten Granzau, DI’s deputy director, said.

What is Denmark doing about the labour shortage?

When Denmark’s government announced its 2022 budget proposal August 30th, critics claimed the proposal didn’t do enough to resolve Denmark’s labour shortage. Little more than one week later, the government announced a new initiative, Denmark Can Do More (Danmark kan mere I) that aims to increase employment by more than 10,000 people by 2030. 

The initiative consists of several efforts to increase Denmark’s labour force. It cuts the standard monthly unemployment insurance payment and shortens the eligibility period for new graduates to encourage them to join the labour force, requires some migrants to work a minimum of 37 hours per week to receive welfare benefits, and incentivizes employees to work past retirement age, among other policy changes.

It is the first in a series of reform proposals that aim to increase growth and employment in Denmark, according to the Ministry of Finance (Finansministeriet). 

Although Denmark’s business community says the initiative is a good start, it falls short of resolving Denmark’s labour shortage – especially in the short-term. DI, the Danish Employers’ Association (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening), and the Danish Chamber of Commerce (Dansk Erhverv), among others, have expressed this concern and reiterated the important role of international labour.

“With just over 10,000 more sets of hands, the government only offsets what it has already lost in the workforce,” said Jakob Brandt, CEO of SMVdanmark, an organization representing 18,000 small and medium-sized companies in Denmark. For example, the 16,000 applicants for Denmark’s early retirement scheme and the 25,000 new public sector jobs created since the start of the pandemic.

According to hospitality trade association HORESTA, Denmark’s hotel and restaurant industry alone is short-staffed by 12,000 people. Recent data from Statistics Denmark shows that four out of five hotels and two-thirds of restaurants experienced labour shortages in August.

“The problems are of such a magnitude that we can not solve it alone with the people who are already in this country,” Kirsten Munch, political director at HORESTA, said.

What role does international labour play?

Within the same week the initiative was announced, the leaders of Denmark’s liberal, conservative, and far left parties all expressed the importance of foreign labour in resolving the shortage. 

Sofie Carsten Nielsen, leader of the Social Liberal (Radikale Venstre) party, said foreign labour may be the fastest way to alleviate the urgent need for labour. “We know how it works, and it does not take long negotiations,” Nielsen said. “Giving companies better access to pick up skilled labour outside Denmark and outside Europe is low-hanging fruit.”

One suggestion to attract foreign labour is to reduce the salary requirements for skilled non-EU nationals to qualify for Denmark’s Pay Limit Scheme (beløbsordningen), a visa scheme only currently available to those with a minimum annual salary of 445,000 DKK. 

“[Reducing the Pay Limit Scheme minimum compensation] will make us more competitive in terms of attracting the foreign workforce that many other countries are also longing for at the moment,” said Brian Mikkelsen, CEO of Dansk Erhverv.

However, the now-governing Social Democrats have continued to oppose the reduction of the Pay Limit Scheme‘s minimum salary requirement.

Minister of Employment Peter Hummelgaard said the party is “generally pleased” with the current arrangements for recruiting qualified foreign labour, but are open to adjustments if they prove necessary in the future.

“It is the government’s first priority to ensure that the unemployed who are already in Denmark have the opportunity to get a job,” Hummelgaard told The Local. “If there are areas that are not possible to cover with Danish labour, we must of course turn our attention to the EU and next to third countries for qualified foreign labour.”

The Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) has also expressed opposition to reducing the scheme’s minimum salary to prevent underpaid labor and social dumping.

“Dansk Folkeparti prioritises finding or creating jobs for the group of unemployed people in Denmark who are able to work before importing a workforce from other countries,” Bent Bøgsted, the party’s labour market spokesperson, told The Local.

The anti-immigration party believes Denmark’s unemployed workers could meet current needs, albeit with some upskilling.

“Unfortunately we see employers favouring cheap labor from non-EU countries and Eastern Europe instead. …This is unacceptable,” Bøgsted said.

Will attracting international labour be included in future initiatives?

After the “Denmark Can Do More” initiative was announced September 7th, several parties in the country’s parliament continued negotiations on additional reforms to reduce the current labour shortage, along with industry stakeholders. 

“We (DI) are part of those discussions and though we don’t know what will come of those discussions yet, it’s clear that the government and other parties of parliament recognise the need for international labour as one way to solve that,” Søren Kjærsgaard Høfler, a political consultant in global mobility at DI, told The Local. 

“Though DI appreciates the suggested reforms we see a need to act now, since the situation on the labour market calls for action right now,” Høfler added.

Any additional policy changes may be included in the financial act coming out later this autumn. 

 “Whether we bring workers into the labour market sooner, keep them longer, or bring in foreign labour with fewer hurdles, everyone wants to make sure there is enough labour for Danish companies to thrive,” Høfler said. “Some problems can be resolved through structural changes in Denmark’s own labour market, but we also know international labour is crucial. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.”

Updated September 21st, 2021 to include comment from Danish People’s Party and on September 22nd, 2021 to include comment from Social Democrats.

Member comments

  1. Reducing labor rates is the fastest way to put downward pressure on all labor rates as companies will always select cheaper foreign workers over more expensive nationals. This scheme is why real wages in the USA have reminded stagnant for years, pre-COVID, as citizens struggle to compete for jobs taken by immigrants, many illegal. Currently the US is suffering a labor shortage as well but a lot of that is due to political decisions which do not require any work from those receiving public assistance. Data indicates that low skilled workers if their family is included receive more in public assistance than they produce for a net loss! If this scheme is ever implemented there will be no going back. The solution may be short term contract workers who must leave at the end of their contract and can not bring family members or if they do they are not eligible for any financial assistance . And if they do not depart at the end of their contract the employer is fined.

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For members

WORKING IN DENMARK

Can foreigners lose their Danish work permits if they take part in strikes?

Membership of a trade union in Denmark can occasionally result in your union requiring you to take part in industrial action by going on strike. But can that put foreign workers at risk of losing their work permits?

Can foreigners lose their Danish work permits if they take part in strikes?

Around two-thirds of people in employment in Denmark are members of a trade union.

Union membership forms a core part of Denmark’s “Danish model” by which the labour market regulates itself through collective bargaining agreements between the trade unions and employer organisations.

These agreements form the basis of salaries – rather than laws – and also ensure standards for working hours and vacation time under the agreements made in various labour market sectors.

As such, it’s common to be a union member in Denmark and foreign nationals working in the country are also likely to find it in their interests to join a union.

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One aspect of union membership is that members may be required to participate in industrial action, such as strikes, blockades, or solidarity actions.

For example, the 2021 Danish nurses strike organised by the Danish Nurses’ Organisation (DSR), which represents 95 percent of nurses in Denmark.

“The nurses’ strike is an example of the results of unsuccessful negotiations on the renewal of their collective agreement,” Peter Waldorff, international consultant at FH, Denmark’s largest trade union confederation, told The Local.

In this case, he continued, DSR called the strike and decided which members would be required to withdraw from work to join the strike. As the strike continued from June to August 2021 (one of the longest strikes in recent Danish history), an increasing number of union members were called to strike until the dispute was resolved. 

In such a situation, it is conceivable that some of the workers asked to take part in the strike would be foreign nationals from countries outside of the EU or EEA, who need a work permit to take employment in Denmark.

READ ALSO: How can you get a work permit in Denmark if you are not an EU national?

Foreign employees who are union members would participate in the strike just as Danish members would.

Although the employees involved in the strike would stop receiving their salaries they would instead receive conflict aid from the union, “meaning the person would not need to receive dagpenge or other social aid,” Stine Lund, senior legal consultant at the Danish Society of Engineers (IDA), a trade union for engineering, science, and IT professionals, told The Local

That is an important distinction for internationals working in Denmark because receiving social benefits can impact the ability to fulfil work permit criteria.

The employer would also be required to re-employ all employees once the conflict is resolved, Lund added. 

According to FH’s legal department, Waldorff said, participation in legally-called industrial action should not affect work permits. 

The Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI) confirmed this to be the case.

“Third-country citizens will not have their residence permit revoked on the basis of employment, if they don’t work at their employer due to the reason that they participate in a legal labour dispute during their employment. EU/EEA citizens residing in Denmark will not lose their right to reside in Denmark on the basis of participating in a legal labour dispute,” SIRI said in a statement to The Local.

Although foreign workers can be asked to strike, the likelihood they will have to remains relatively low.

“In Denmark, strikes are relatively rare,” Waldorff said.

In the academic labour market, collective agreement conflicts almost never happen, according to Lund.

“We haven’t been in a situation where that measure has been taken for many, many years,” she said.

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