Norway accused of discriminating against foreign North Sea divers

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Oil industry divers who risked their lives in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea during the early days of Norway’s oil industry fought for years to win compensation for injuries they suffered. Claims filed by divers who weren’t Norwegian, however, have been consistently rejected because they weren’t members of Norway’s social welfare system, and now the state’s anti-discrimination agency claims that practice violates Norwegian law.

“When the requirement for claiming compensation for these pioneering divers was membership in norsk folketrygd (the Norwegian welfare and social security system), many foreign divers have been cut off,” Elisabeth Lier Haugseth of the anti-discrimination agency LDO (Likestillings- og discrimineringsombudet) told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “It means there’s been an exclusion of many divers who aren’t Norwegian.”

‘Discrimination based on national origin’
Haugseth, deputy leader of LDO, said the practice also means that the foreign North Sea divers, most of whom came from England and Scotland, have thus suffered discrimination based on their national origin.

LDO officials brought their concerns to the attention of Norway’s Labour Ministry, where officials did not agree. LDO thus believes that Labour Minister Robert Eriksson of the Progress Party and his predecessors in the former Labour Party-led government have violated Norway’s anti-discrimination law.

Dagsavisen reported that the Labour Ministry’s rejection of LDO’s conclusion on behalf of the foreign North Sea divers has prompted the head of LDO to file a complaint with the state board charged with evaluating discrimination cases, Likestillingsnemnda.

According to LDO, the exact number of foreign divers who’ve failed to win any of the compensation finally accorded to their Norwegian counterparts is unclear. It’s believed as many as 2,000 should, in LDO’s view, be eligible, most of them from the UK. LDO’s complaint is based, however, on the case of an American diver whose compensation claim was rejected. He worked for a Norwegian company on the Ekofisk field from 1975 to 1977 and suffered injuries and illness tied to the pioneer diving to great depths in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Hailed but snubbed
The North Sea divers have long been hailed for the contribution they made to the development of the offshore oil industry and how that fueled Norway’s welfare state. Legal battles raged for years, however, over who was responsible to compensate them for the physical injuries they incurred. Henning Olav Haug, leader of the offshore divers’ union ODU, told Dagsavisen that many Norwegian divers are still waiting for compensation and the union didn’t have capacity to investigate whether the divers received or were eligible for compensation in their home countries.

Oil researcher Helge Ryggvik at the University of Oslo noted that foreign divers in the North Sea have meant a lot for Norway’s economic development and were involved in many of the early accidents in the North Sea. “I think more of them could have a share of the settlement,” he said. He thinks the Norwegian government is relying on membership requirements in the state welfare system to limit the state’s financial liability.

Norway’s Parliament, however, has shown willingness to accept moral responsibility for the injured divers while the state bureaucracy has resisted it. Ryggvik told Dagsavisen that his research suggests the ministry “feels like a loser in the process and has been overruled by the politicians,” and therefore continues to resist claims. “Since the foreign divers are the weakest group, they’re suffering the most,” Ryggvik said.

Neither LDO nor the state board can order the ministry to pay out compensation, but state officials would be expected to follow the board’s ruling. If they don’t, only a court could order compensation payment if the foreign divers or their descendants were to prevail in a lawsuit.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund