Refugees are absolutely necessary for the Danish labour market

A new study shows that the 'paradigm shift' has negative consequences and pushes refugees to work too hard

“‘Den gode flygtning’ – en etnologisk undersøgelse af ansatte med flygtningebaggrund på danske arbejdspladser” (2019). Master thesis, Copenhagen University, Ethnology. For further information about the thesis, please contact Anna Lyngdal Wulff or Emma Froma Feil ( The authors know the real names of the informants and the companies.

Access to the labour market and finding employment are seen as the most urgent aspects of integration and are moreover often discussed as evidence of how integrated refugees really are. Recent refugee politics, however, have had profound consequences for refugees’ conditions on the Danish labour market. This article illustrates some of the strategies that refugees use to enter and stay in the work place. It also explains why refugees, despite more repressive policies and a focus on sending them back to their origin countries, are indispensable to the Danish labour market.

'The paradigm shift' has consequences for the Danish labour market

February 21st 2019, the Danish Parliament voted through the legislative reform L140, better known as the paradigm shift. This paradigm shift means that focus moves from integration of refugees and giving them permanent residence in Denmark, to temporary residence permits and sending refugees back to their origin countries. This has consequences both on an individual level as well as for society on the whole. According to the Danish ministry of immigration and integration statistics, 8.700 workers active in the Danish labour market will have to go as a consequence of the paradigm shift (Mandag Morgen). In addition to this, the Danish Employers' Association quotes figures prepared by the National Board of Labor Markets and Recruitment, which estimates that there were 67.000 positions with unsuccessful recruitment during the second half of 2018 (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening).

In August 2019, we finished our master thesis from Copenhagen University, Ethnology, on refugees in the Danish labour market, in the light of the paradigm shift. The paper is a qualitative study based on interviews with representatives from four Danish companies with refugees employed, as well as with thirteen refugees. It was written with the ambition to contribute to more nuanced research on refugees employed in Denmark by showing the faces behind, and has explored which spoken and unspoken expectations refugees have to navigate in their work places.

Expectations on the refugees in the work places

How refugees are supposed to meet the expectations of companies is not something they can learn in school or at an integration course. This is instead something they have to learn in practice. In their everyday lives refugees develop strategies which enable them to navigate work tasks handed to them by the companies, as well as social relationships.

The study shows that refugees have to work harder than their Danish colleagues in order to meet the expectations of the work place. Because of, among other things, linguistic challenges refugees compensate by working harder and longer, and the refugees learn to adapt to the social codes at the work places to not stand out in an inappropriate way. This includes de-coding their manager’s mood and acting accordingly, figuring out the best workflow, laughing at colleagues’ jokes in the right places, learn the jargon of the company, or seeing employment as something valuable.

Refugee Ayub, for instance, explains that he works hard now to secure his future, as he does not know what will happen. He had to start from scratch when he arrived in Denmark, and therefore it seems likely that this could happen again. Therefore he does everything he can now to secure his future and to prepare for what the future might bring. Refugee Omar is also convinced that it is by his work ethics that he can distinguish himself. At the same time he is terrified of being sent back or to lose his rights during his residence in Denmark, a fear which works as a motivator for distinguishing himself at work.

”Danish people don’t go to work if they have a headache, or if they didn’t sleep well. I never sleep well, but can you imagine what wold happen if a refugee did not show up for work just because he didn't sleep well? The next day you will se in TV ”Refugee did not show up for work because he didn't sleep well!’”, says Omar

Refugee Amina also explains that she distinguishes herself by going to work even if she has a migraine. She explains that supervisors and colleagues try to convince her to go home, but that she proudly insists on continuing her work. In this way, the stories about the high work ethics and loyalty of refugees are becoming a trademark for them. When refugees make big efforts adapting to the expectations and de-coding the implicit rules and norms of the work places, it is because they are aware that they have to perform better than their Danish colleagues in order to, in the best way possible, secure continuity in their employment and thereby in their living conditions in Denmark.

Refugees constitute some of the best manpower available to the companies

One of the conclusions in the paper is that refugees are absolutely necessary manpower. One of the reasons for this is that the municipalities are responsible for making sure that refugees are employed as quickly as possible, which means that they often gain employment within fields where there is already a shortage of manpower. According to the Danish Employer’s Association there is a shortage of manpower especially in the trades for hotel and restaurant, industry and cleaning industries (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening). According to the companies themselves this shortage stems from Danish people not being ’bothered’ to apply for this type of unskilled work. As factory owner Kenneth says, to a group of emplyers, all facing problems recruiting necessary manpower:

”We want them [the refugees] to integrate into our society, and at the same time we tell them that they should expect to be sent home. What is this? What if we did not have people like them working here… I don’t have any Danish people applying here. There is a long time in-between having anyone applying. They know very well it is factory work. This is not something that Danish people can be bothered with” - factory owner Kenneth

Refugees who are employed in places like this are therefore seen as indispensable, as they constitute manpower that the companies otherwise would not manage to recruit. As the refugees at the same time are aware that they must perform better than their Danish colleagues, they not only constitute necessary manpower, but in addition perform their tasks so well that the companies cannot imagine where they would be without them.

The paradigm shift might mean that entire companies will lack indispensable manpower. Besides constituting necessary manpower on the Danish labour market, employed refugees also pay taxes, and if they are sent home, taxes which could have ended up in the Danish treasury will not contribute to Danish growth. At the same time, many refugees find employment within social and health care, sectors which already have a shortage of manpower, and sending them home will therefore result in an even greater shortage of warm hands caring for the elderl

The paradigm shift is problematic for the integration of refugees in Denmark

The study shows that the consequences bear on an individual as well as a societal level. Individual consequences consist of refugees not daring to show their weaknesses in front of supervisors and colleagues because they are afraid of drawing negative attention and thereby lose their employment in the event of a potential firing. This is despite supervisors otherwise trying to meet the needs of refugees.

The paradigm shift remains as it was adopted following the parliamentary elections June 5th 2019. However, the labour market’s demand for manpower has been taken into account. This has, amongst other things, resulted in the change that refugees who have been employed in Denmark during two years might be allowed to stay in Denmark while they are employed at the same place, or at a similar place under similar conditions. Thus the pressure on refugees has increased, as their residence in Denmark is evaluated on the basis of whether they are employed or not.

In this way, the more repressive migration and integration policies move focus from integration to pure survival. This complicates for instance refugees’ possibilities for education and for upgrading their competences while they are still in their current employment.

The paradigm shift states clearly, that as long as the individual refugee resides in Denmark, he or she cannot be dependent on social benefits, and above all has to be employed. It is not clear, however, what happens when a colleague with refugee background becomes worn out — physically or mentally — and what possibilities in that case exist for him or her to stay in Denmark.