So many cleaners, but green card mess remains

The problem of educated foreigners moving to Denmark just to end up in unskilled jobs isn’t new, but the government has been slow to react

Educated foreigners are moving to Denmark for jobs that don’t exist, with skills that aren’t needed, and for a new life they may never get.

This is the result of the government’s Green Card Scheme, which was introduced in 2007 to allow foreigners with particular educational qualifications, job experiences and language skills to live in Denmark for three years while they look for work. But the scheme has not been a resounding success. DR Nyheder recently contacted 149 green card holders and discovered that 80 percent had only found unskilled work, while 27 percent earned less than 60 kroner per hour.

Already in 2010, a study by Rambøll revealed that 43 percent of green card holders had only found unskilled jobs, and 60 percent of those in work were only working part-time. And in July 2012, The Copenhagen Post published several stories about green card holders who felt let down by a system that they say offered them little support in navigating the labour market once they arrived.

No political movement

While the problems are well known, the solutions have been slow arriving.

Last April, coalition partner Radikale promised that changes would be on the way in the autumn. These changes never materialised, however, and following DR’s report, Employment Minister Mette Frederiksen (S) repeated the promise to adapt the scheme by the spring. In the meantime, the number of green cards being issued has exploded, with 2,193 handed out in the first eleven months of 2013 compared to 1,215 in 2012.

While Denmark needs highly-educated foreigners to fill gaps in its labour market, the question is whether the Green Card Scheme is actually helping, or simply attracting foreigners to start new lives in a country that doesn’t really need them?

100 applications, no interviews


After completing his second master’s degree in Sweden, Rezni Abbas returned to Sri Lanka in 2008. He first found work as a tourism project co-ordinator before becoming a sales executive at a mobile phone company.

In September 2011, he left his wife and daughter, now four, and moved to Denmark on a green card to further his career. But despite applying for at least 100 jobs, he has yet to even be offered an interview.

“I was lucky to get odd jobs in a restaurant as a waiter. But I feel depressed thinking about what to tell my friends and family. I wonder why I bothered to get so much education if I was just going to end up in a kitchen,” Abbas said. “Coming to Denmark was a risk, but I thought that the existence of the programme meant there would be jobs for me.”

Expectations vs reality

Mia Mortensen, whose thesis at Roskilde University focused on the Green Card Scheme, recently completed a report with recommendations for how to reform the scheme. She identified two major failings.

The first is that green cards are not distributed according to demand from the labour market, and the second is that Green Card holders are provided with insufficient support to find work once they arrive, leaving them unemployed or in poorly-paid jobs and not integrated into Danish society.
“They expected to find a job that used their skills, but get disappointed when they can’t. It is a common phenomenon that work migrants experience mental problems when they fail to integrate into the labour market,” Mortensen said.

Based on her interviews with 250 green card holders, she recommends that the government tailor the Green Card Scheme to select individuals with skills that are demanded by the labour market as well as individuals with at least three years of work experience. Currently, applicants can successfully qualify for a green card by possessing a qualification in a field where there is no labour shortage, without speaking Danish, and without any notable work experience.

“It’s too optimistic to think that a newly-qualified student from South Asia can arrive in Denmark and immediately find a job. Newly educated Danes find it difficult enough,” Mortensen said.

She added that many businesses choose to recruit directly from abroad because they are unfamiliar with the Green Card Scheme and unaware that there are thousands of skilled foreigners already within Denmark’s borders.

Is it really a ‘Green Card’?

Saeed Ur Rehman (pictured on the cover) left Denmark in December after arriving with a green card the previous May. With a PhD in post-colonial theory from the Australian National University, he expected to be able to use his academic expertise.

“I was hoping to work at a university, NGO or think-tank on issues related to multiculturalism. I have worked as a consultant in this field before. But I couldn’t find the work, and instead I had to take unskilled jobs in kiosks,” the Pakistani national said.

After seeking the help of a union to be properly compensated by a former employer, he started receiving threats and decided to leave the country because he felt unsafe. He argues the Green Card Scheme is misleading.

“The Danish green card does not allow the holder to buy property or start a business,” he said. “So really, it’s a mere three-year work visa disguised as a green card.”

Businesses support scheme

Despite its failings, businesses are pleased with the Green Card Scheme which, according to the lobby group Dansk Industri (DI), helps small and medium-sized business find the talented foreign workers they need.

“What’s special about the Green Card Scheme is that it lets foreigners move to Denmark without having a job in advance. Big companies can rely on relocation firms to help them in the recruitment process and attract workers living abroad, but this is a challenge for smaller companies,” Claus Aastrup Siedelin, a labour market expert at DI, told The Copenhagen Post.

“So it’s important that we keep the green card scheme, but we admit that it isn’t functioning optimally. Based on the latest stories, it’s clear that many green card holders aren’t finding jobs, and this shows that there’s a mismatch between the types of workers coming to Denmark and the demand from the labour market,” Siedelin said.

The Consortium for Global Talent (CGT) – a joint initiative between 18 of the largest international companies based in Denmark – agrees that the Green Card Scheme is useful for ensuring that Danish businesses find the talented workers they need.

“We think green cards are particularly useful for international students who complete their education in Denmark. They should be given more time to find a job after completing their education. We don’t think they should just fly out of the country,” CGT CEO Tine Horowitz told The Copenhagen Post.

Minister declines to comment

The Copenhagen Post asked the employment minister to respond to the recent reports about the plight of green card holders, why it has taken so long to accept the scheme’s problems, and how she intends to change it. Frederiksen declined to comment.

“With all its errors, the scheme is an exploitation of overly-qualified labour,” Mortensen said. “Cleaners in Denmark have never been more highly-qualified.”