Not easy being a Swede in Norway

NEWS ANALYSIS: When Norwegian skiing star Petter Northug flaunted his prowess and tried to humiliate his Swedish arch rival at the world championships last week, it was just the latest in a long list of recent jabs against Norway’s neighbours. Swedes have had to tolerate a lot of abuse in Norway, and not just on the ski trails.

Norwegian skier Petter Northug, moving ahead of his Swedish arch-rival Marcus Hellner at last week's world championships in Oslo. Northug had earlier tried to humiliate Hellner after the men's relay. PHOTO: Sven Goll

Northug angered a lot of Swedes and quite  a few Norwegians as well, when he sashayed over the finish line in the men’s relay and seemed to try to block it for his Swedish rival coming up fast behind him, Marcus Hellner. A few days later, Northug won the men’s 50-kilometer endurance contest, badly beating Hellner again. His relentless teasing of the Swedes continued.

Asked whether Northug hoped to win all the gold medals when Sweden hosts the world championships in 2015, Northug said he hoped the Swedes would dominate it. “Do you mean that?” asked a surprised Swedish reporter. “No,” Northug responded.

Another Swedish reporter ventured to ask whether Northug would pay a bonus to the man who prepares his skis, Perry Olsson, who’s actually a Swede himself. “Yeah, there will be a little bonus,” Northug replied. How much? “In Swedish kronor, it will be quite a lot!” Northug exclaimed, making a clear jab at the strength of the Norwegian currency compared to the Swedish.

Anti-Swedish fashion show
While the Swedes, not least Hellner himself, appear to take much of the teasing in stride and dish out some of their own to their “oil sheik” neighbors, some of the seeming injustice they endure in Norway is far more serious. In the past month alone, both Norwegian and Swedish media have been full of reports of new unfavourable relocation rules for Swedes in Norway, slumlords who exploit young Swedish workers in Oslo and working terms and conditions that most Norwegians wouldn’t need to tolerate. There was even an anti-Swedish fashion show held in a town outside of Trondheim famous for its name: Hell.

A model at Anti Sweden's fashion show in Hell last week. PHOTO: Trigger Oslo

The show last week was mounted as a protest not only against Swedish fashion but against the “established” Oslo Fashion Week as well, which was held in February. The Norwegian jeans brand behind the show, actually named “Anti Sweden Jeans,” was billed as being best-known for its “rebellious identity and close relation to the black metal scene,” hence its penchant for staging the fashion show in Hell.

“We’re tired of Swedish brands taking complete control of the Norwegian market,” claimed Anti Sweden Jeans founder Kjetil Wold in some pre-show promotional material. “We’re tired of fashion snobbery and toothless arenas for the exposure of Norwegian design. Now we want to launch our new collection on our own terms.” Among the models were Calico Cooper, daughter of rock legend Alice Cooper, and Sigurd Wongraven, vocalist in the Norwegian Black Metal-band Satyricon and billed as “an obvious guest in Hell.”

Wolves at the door
The Swedes were also blamed for a recent spate of wolf appearances in Norway that have rattled residents of eastern Hedmark County. Research into some attacks on sheep that are allowed to graze openly in the area actually blamed the sheep losses on Swedish wolves crossing the border.

The Swedes did get some sweet revenge when they won the opening event at the world championships, only to fare poorly in later events. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

But perhaps the worst, and most serious, of the injustice facing Swedes are the conditions some face in the job market in Norway. Thousands of young Swedes have moved to Norway in recent years after being unable to find jobs at home or simply seeking higher pay. Not all succeed, with Swedish national broadcaster SVT recently airing a documentary about young Swedish women agreeing to peel bananas in a local food plant for short-term and relatively low pay, while others were forced to show up before dawn at controversial employment agency Adecco, in the hopes of getting a day job. Hardly any of the eager young Swedes were offered full-time employment, instead accepting part-time work at lower wages than their Norwegian colleagues and zero job security.

This occurs even though many Norwegian employers are delighted to hire Swedish workers, claiming their work ethic is higher than most Norwegians’. The head of employment agency Manpower Norge recently told the website for newspaper Aftenposten that four out of 10 employers surveyed ranked Swedes ahead of Norwegians, which Manpower attributed to Swedes being accustomed to a tougher job market than Norwegians.

Relocation trauma
Yet Norwegian officials recently made it harder for Swedes to work in Norway, imposing controversial new rules from January 1 that forced them and other “guest workers” to appear in person at local tax offices to get new tax cards, confirm their identities and declare their country of residence. Norway’s attempt at cracking down on identity fraud has hit Swedish workers hard, insisting that they declare residence in Norway if they’ve been in the country more than six months. That’s set off a storm of protest, because it means Swedes who commute over the border would lose their residence status and benefits at home in Sweden. Finance Minister Sigbjørn Johnsen has since put forced relocations on hold and promised to re-evaluate the new rules and their effect on Swedes. Many Norwegian employers don’t want to lose their Swedish workers and also are lobbying on their behalf.

The Swedes, meanwhile, rank much higher than Norwegians for their success in integrating foreign workers in their own country. A recent survey by the British Council ranked Sweden as best in the world for integrating immigrants, suggesting Norway has a lot to learn from its neighbors.

The teasing, though, wasn’t expected to stop any time soon. Petter Northug was invited to appear on the popular Swedish-Norwegian talk show Skavlan on Friday, where he was expected to fire off a few more derisive comments. Maybe not, though, since he’d risk offending a fellow guest on the show in person, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The undersigned is the product of three Swedish grandparents who emigrated to California. She remains mighty proud of her Swedish heritage, even after 22 years of residence in Norway.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
Join our Reader Response forum if you’d like to comment on this story.