• Elaine

How hard can it be to follow the rules? Pt. I: Perhaps ask "The Boss"?

“My conclusion is that if 99 % of all (work permit extensions) are granted, how difficult can it be to follow the rules?” - Min. of Justice & Migration, Morgan Johansson said in a televised debate on kompetensutvisning.


This is the story of me and my family, 'following the rules' in Sweden.


Hello, my name is Elaine. I'm from South Africa, near the border with Mozambique. I grew up 20 minutes from the Kruger National Park, where you can see an elephant, cheetah, rhino, buffalo, leopard and rare birds in the same day, in the wild.


By profession I am a pilot, and started in the South African Air Force. My specialty was landing small planes in the bush, with short runways at night. My husband, Noel also began his career as a soldier, conscripted at 18 before becoming a Security Specialist. He continues to be my best friend since I was 5. After the war we opened a small business together automating security for businesses and farms. Our lives changed when I was 45 and the doctor told me that I was pregnant, years after having given up. Our most cherished blessing is our 8 year old daughter, who is our world.


Me, second from bottom-left in my flying days

Given our background and where we're from, one could say we know about risks a bit more. In a combat situation, as horrible as it is, you know exactly what you have to do. You may not like it, but you know what is required of you to survive. It's simple. But in 2013, we encountered a risk, in a civilian situation to our family that was beyond anything we experienced. It's not open for discussion, but it was unprovoked, consistent, and very real. It was then that we decided to leave for a safe life.


Within 20 days a permit was issued by Migrationsverket for Noel, and to myself and our daughter as 'dependents'...

As both Noel and I are both healthy, willing to work and able to help ourselves we naturally spent months searching and applying for jobs on the EU' jobs portal, Eures. Noel was offered a job at a farm in Skåne, as an agricultural machinery mechanic.


Within 20 days a permit was issued by Migrationsverket, the Swedish migration agency to Noel, myself and our daughter as 'dependents,' since Noel was employed. With a signed, permanent (tillsvidare) employment contract, an approval from Migrationsverket, and Sweden being a country where the rule of law prevails, what could go wrong?


From left: Noel, myself, and Jabu, our foster son who unfortunately passed, after we moved to Sweden

We arrived in Sweden, determined to succeed, my husband threw himself into his new job. Noel went to work, our daughter went to school, and I started to study Swedish. We made friends in the community and at our daughter's play groups. For the first year and a half everything was great. We were proud to be settled in Sweden. To be honest, our only troubles in Sweden were with The Boss. He began pushing the boundaries of the law, and our dignity.


You may not believe it, but the last 5 years of our lives have been turned upside down, because of spraying agricultural chemicals on plants

This is the type of spraying Noel was asked to do. It requires specific training & (functional) equipment

You may not believe it, but the last 5 years of our lives have been turned upside down, because of spraying agricultural chemicals. In the 3rd interview with Noel's boss (I call him 'The Boss' for reasons you will soon see), right before the bare bones contract was signed the spray issue came up. The ability to be certified for spraying these types of toxic chemicals required a specific certification, once a worker has it, you are more versatile in the job market. The Boss said:


"If you take this job for a lower salary, now, I will pay you 18,400SEK a month. Then, I will pay for you to be certified to spray, and we can renegotiate your salary."

Noel's original contract

Noel said yes, but after a year he still had no training or certification, and he was still asked to spray. When he raised this again with The Boss, he was told his Swedish was not good enough. The Boss explained that because he, himself was certified, Noel was covered as the crop spraying was under his supervision. However, this is neither true, nor legal, and wasn't the original agreement. These smaller wrongs began to pile up.

This document is private
'The Boss instructs Noel to spray chemicals'

Noel and I have faced a few problems together. In our experience, if something is wrong we raise the issue, politely setting out the basic outline which ideally ends with both sides compromising, and moving forward. In Zulu this is called an "indaba." So, in January, 2016 Noel and I decided the best way forward was for Noel and I to have a sit down with The Boss. Noel was worried that he would be dismissed, and I was happy to join. I brought our daughter as well, as we had no one to look after her.


Nearly 5 years later, it's almost painful to see how naïve we were.... it was the beginning of even more abuse...

During the sit down, Noel asked The Boss for feedback on his performance to which he replied:


"Of course we want to keep you Noel, if you want to stay."


We did. Then Noel politely told him that after talking to the Swedish Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket), it was his understanding that he could not spray these chemicals. The Boss responded:


"Ok, thank you, that's good to know."


Then we raised the most important issue to us, our residency permits for the whole family. On the Migrationsverket website back then after the 'migration crisis' it was posted to send these requests in as early as possible. Our permits would expire in 6 months, and we wanted this all taken care of in advance.


"Of course, no problem."


Nearly 5 years later, it's almost painful to see how naïve we were. The idea for the meeting was to set things on the right track, and we believed it worked. But, it was the beginning of even more abuse from The Boss. Now he knew how desperate we were for our right to simply stay. The Boss' demands became more frequent, more demeaning, and well beyond the scope of Noel's job. The Boss would call Noel at all hours, any day and if Noel didn't pick up, he would call me:


“Can you go and heat up the jacuzzi? I am in Italy and the kids want the water hotter.”


Another time after a party on the weekend:


"There's some broken glass at the house that needs to be cleaned up."


Or:


"Light the barbeque, I am on my way to the house with guests."


Noel grudgingly agreed to things like this. But it got worse. Things were getting dangerous He was asked to use a tractor that had failing breaks and intermittent steering. Much of his work equipment was falling apart, and dangerous. Then there was repeated, unpaid overtime. This, in addition to what we would later find out: lack of insurances, sick pay, and vacation day pay. The list started to grow, Noel began documenting everything. Meanwhile it was obvious that The Boss was using our residency permit extensions as leverage.


We first notified Arbetsmiljöverket, the Swedish Work Environment Authority. They promised to make contact, but despite our persistence for over 2 months, the only reply we ever received to this day was an ‘out-of-office’ email. With our work permit deadline approaching, Noel had silently started to talk to other employers, but the farming community is small. What would happen if his boss found out? Would he get fired right away? If so, what about our residency permits? Would we still have 3 months to find a job if he just quit?


“We cannot comment on issues with the work permit, but Noel's work environment is not according to Swedish labour law.”

This is when we contacted Kommunal, the labour union which commented on the original work permit and contract with Migrationsverket. Noel called several times, but couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Both Noel and I had only limited Swedish at the time. I kept calling, for two weeks, and made contact with ‘Leif’ who spoke some English. When I told him about Noel’s situation at work, and ours as a family he said: “we cannot comment on issues with the work permit, but Noel's work environment was not according to Swedish labour law.” However, since Noel was not a member of Kommunal, there was nothing to be done. But for us, just joining a union was not so simple.

Kommunal's comment (yttrande) on Noel's working conditions, from when we first came
Kommunal's comment (yttrande) on our first work permit.

On more than one occasion, The Boss outright told Noel, (and later me) that he cannot accept an employee joining a union as that “is an open attack on his business.” Noel's attempts to engage directly with The Boss would lead to empty promises, walking away while he was talking, or laughing in his face. But, at the same time, we needed our work permit extensions filed, on time. His threats about joining the union worked, we were afraid to join.


We remained focused on just getting the extensions in, and I took charge of this for our family. Despite our request to him months before in person, and my continuous help to him in completing the application, The Boss repeatedly delayed various steps - specifically submitting the application to the union for comment. It was now late May, and we had less than 3 weeks to submit. But our plan worked.


We held on, and the application was posted on June 1.


There was a loud banging on the back door of the house...The Boss was on my porch demanding Noel go to work.

But we learned that this extension came with a cost, just three days later. It was about 8 o'clock on a Saturday morning, on the 4th of June, 2016 and we had just gotten up. My (then three year old) daughter and I were playing our "silly buggers" game, where we chase after one another giggle, and yell about the house. Noel was making breakfast.


There was a loud banging on the back door of the house. Noel went to the door, and our daughter, his ever sidekick, followed. Noel’s boss had apparently called 3 times, but the phones were off. It was the weekend. Now, The Boss was on my porch demanding Noel go to work, to do crop spraying, to be specific. "You must go spray," he said


“I'm so sorry - no, I have made plans for the weekend.” was Noel’s reply.


The Boss became very angry. I heard his voice raise from the kitchen and peered around the corner. Noel was in his shorts and a t-shirt, holding open the door. In Sweden, the doors open to the outside. I saw The Boss grab the handle from him, and stepped into the doorway, almost nose to nose with Noel, who had remained quiet. My husband, a combat veteran, with our daughter hanging onto his leg, remained totally calm. And repeated, "I'm sorry, no." The Boss left, revving the car engine, stones flying out from under tyres in our driveway.


The reality of our situation had hit home, literally.

After that Saturday, nothing was the same. The following day, The Boss tried to call Noel and then me but we didn't answer. On the following Monday, Noel went directly to speak to The Boss about this incident, and told him that while he was welcome to our home for a coffee, showing aggression in front of his family was unacceptable. His reply was:


"I can't remember if I was there, and if I was I certainly wasn't angry."


The reality of our situation had hit home, literally. We knew things would only get worse from here. The event with The Boss at our home, happened exactly 13 days before our permits expired. However, with the extension sent in on time, and since Noel had a permanent contract, we should be able to get another permit extension for all of us for another 2 years, and in theory, Permanent Residency after that. Of course, there was the possibility to change jobs, but what if Noel or I couldn’t find something in 3 months? Once the permit had expired it would be too late to find another job, and apply for an extension - as we may need to leave the country. On one hand, the situation with The Boss was unacceptable, and on the other we were tied to him. Our stability in this country we grew to love was on the line. ‘What if?’ became a big part of our daily life.


Noel (left) on base in his army days

That Monday, after speaking to The Boss with no success Noel had had enough. Noel has been my husband for 30 years, and I know when he has been pushed too far - he goes silent. He joined the union that evening after work. Noel was extremely worried, but something had to happen.

Elaine is an international professional, Kompetensutvisning Survivor, and Chief Operations Officer for Real People. She wants to share this story, for others going through this to make sure they feel that they’re not alone.


How Difficult Can it Be to Follow that Law? Pt. II: The Rules Feel a Bit Dangerous

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