STOCKHOLM -- Thousands of migrants from Central Asia have joined Sweden's labor force without a work permit in recent years through a backdoor that keeps them under the radar -- obtaining a legal Swedish tax number by pretending to buy a used car.
An investigation by Swedish TV4 and RFE/RL has documented how one shadowy "identification factory" in Stockholm has used the scheme since 2016 to enable more than 1,100 migrants to illegally obtain jobs with various Swedish companies.
The ID factory is run by an immigrant who arrived in Sweden in 2004 and is identified in the investigative report by the alias Akmal.
Akmal charges 200 to 500 euros ($220 to $550) for each fake car purchase that he arranges using the address of the apartment he rents in Stockholm's western suburb of Hasselby.
He has used that address to register the sale of the same car 112 times. Most of his clients never saw the car and none of them had a valid driver’s license.
Most of the jobs that migrants obtained after getting the tax number through Akmal's ID service are at construction sites, hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers. Some work as cleaners at universities, hospitals, and even government buildings.
One migrant who used Akmal's service was eventually hired by a contractor to work as a janitor for the Swedish Border Police at Stockholm Arlanda Airport -- the very authorities who are supposed to stop illegal immigration.
Looking The Other Way
Sweden's ID factories rely on the fact that most Swedish employers never ask job applicants to show a work permit as long as they have a valid identification number from the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) that allows them to open a bank account in the country.
The scheme also works because the Swedish Transport Agency (Transportstyrelsen) determines the identity of individuals assigned a tax coordination number, known as a "samordningsnummer," whenever a car purchase is registered to a foreigner who doesn't have a Swedish social security number.
In practice, the Transport Agency is far less scrutinous than Sweden's tax authority or the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket). It obtains the coordination number from the Tax Agency based on copies of documents that are faxed or e-mailed to it.
Pia Bergman, an anti-fraud expert at the Swedish Tax Agency, explains that the samordningsnummer "unlocks the entry door" to Sweden's labor market.
"You unlock the possibility to work here," Bergman says. "You unlock the possibility to get a bank account here, to get an address, to buy things. It unlocks everything you can think of that requires a Swedish social security number. In these cases, you can use the samordningsnummer instead."
The process of obtaining the tax coordination number takes about 25 days and the Transport Agency does not charge for the service. That gives Akmal and the operators of other ID factories a large profit margin -- often as unreported income -- for staging a fake car sale.
Legal Gray Zone
Swedish officials say Akmal is not technically breaking the law when he registers a fake car sale.
It is the migrants themselves -- and the companies that hire them without confirming whether they have a work visa -- who are the wrongdoers.
The TV4-RFE/RL investigation found a total of 476 companies that have hired the 1,100 migrants who've received a tax coordination number through Akmal's ID factory.
About half of those companies have solid credit ratings, including large firms that have blanket orders with city councils or the state-owned operators of public buildings.
The other employers are so-called "mayfly" firms that only exist for a year or so before disappearing with huge debts.
Anders Bjorkenheim, a Swedish fraud-prevention expert, says some firms hire migrants without asking for a work permit because of flawed background checks.
But he says there are many unscrupulous Swedish firms that intentionally hire migrants who only have the tax number -- and, perhaps, a Swedish bank account -- because those job applicants are willing to accept exploitative work conditions for pay that is half the minimum wage.
The minimum monthly wage in Sweden's hotel and restaurant industry, for example, is 21,930 Swedish crowns, or about $2,320.
Such companies "have made it their business plan, or at least a part of it," to put migrants to work without asking for a work permit, Bjorkenheim says. "No questions asked."
When presented with evidence about the widespread abuse of the loophole by these ID factories, Swedish Transport Authority Deputy Director Anna Berggrund said her government agency is obliged to continue supplying the tax coordination numbers.
"To transfer the ownership of a car is not a crime," Berggrund said. "To redirect your mail is not a crime. We will say 'no' only when we feel that the provided documentation of the identity is insufficient. We act according to the instructions that we have. We receive and review."
"If the application looks alright, then we can't refuse to approve it even if one could suspect there is something shady going on," she said. "It is difficult for us to judge if it isn't a person that, out of good will, helps friends and family by putting forward documents -- someone who knows the language and is used to filing and being in contact with authorities."
But Bjorkenheim warns that the fake car sale scheme has become "a tool for organized crime."
Many migrants who've hired Akmal say they learned about his ID factory by word-of-mouth within Sweden's migrant communities or from advertisements on social media.
Bjorkenheim notes that a growing number of similar ID factories now openly advertise the scheme on the Internet for migrants from Russia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and other former Soviet republics.
TV4 and RFE/RL found that migrants only need to enter Sweden legally with a tourist visa from another country within the visa-free Schengen zone and pay an ID factory a fee of up to 500 euros ($550) to obtain the tax coordination number.
Bjorkenheim says that the legal loophole makes the Swedish state an "enabler" of criminal activity that includes "modern slavery."
Indeed, many of Akmal's clients have later found themselves with working hours and conditions that qualify as "modern slavery" under Swedish law.
Women labor migrants without work visas say they also face sexual exploitation and some are even forced into prostitution.
"I was offered a job if I agreed to work for free for one week," said one Uzbek woman who was employed as a cleaner at a Swedish university. "When that week came to an end, they gave me a choice: Either you sleep with the boss or you won't get the job. What choice do you have?"
"Many women turn their faces away, think about their children [back home], and go through with it," she said. "They go along with it. They do it because they have to. They need the money to support their children."
Bjorkenheim concludes that if Swedish authorities don't take action to "vigorously control" the fake car sale scheme and tighten loopholes for getting the tax coordination number, it will be exploited even more.
"You can describe it by saying that we are enablers," Bjorkenheim says. "These are the cold, hard facts, actually. And that goes for all of the Swedish authorities."
Managers of firms that have hired Akmal's clients defend their situation by saying that they fire illegal workers whenever such a case is brought to their attention.
But Bergman, the financial fraud expert at the Swedish Tax Agency, says Swedish employers have a responsibility to ensure they are not hiring illegal workers in the first place.
"If, as many of these companies claim, they want to stand for a decent labor market -- a decent policy and an ethically defensible posture -- then they must also support the system," Bergman concludes.
"They haven't done their part when they haven't made sure that they don't have people working illegally in their own workplace," Bergman says.