Foreign divers head into court

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Two foreign divers who worked in the North Sea during the early years of Norway’s emerging offshore oil industry are stepping up their claims for compensation from the Norwegian state. They’re among many who have suffered ongoing health problems and feel discriminated against, because they have not received the same amounts of compensation as their former Norwegian colleagues.

James Baker (left) and Patrick Stevens were among the pioneering North Sea divers who helped establish Norway's oil industry. After years of trying to obtain compensation for how the diving damaged their health, they're now suing the state, represented by a Norwegian attorney who's able to take the case all the way to Norway's Supreme Court. PHOTO: XXX

James Baker (left) and Patrick Stevens were among the pioneering North Sea divers who helped establish Norway’s oil industry. After years of trying to obtain compensation for how the diving damaged their health, they’re now suing the state, represented by a Norwegian attorney who’s able to take the case all the way to Norway’s Supreme Court. PHOTO: Danielsen & Co AS

Norway’s own North Sea divers carried on a lengthy legal battle to receive compensation themselves, and only won when the European Court of Human Rights struck down Norwegian court rulings against them. While Norwegian divers reportedly have since received as much as NOK 700,000 each, their foreign colleagues have been offered just NOK 67,000, if anything at all.

“No one has taken responsibility for the foreign divers in Norwegian waters,” Norwegian lawyer Per Danielsen stated when reporting over the weekend that he’s “taking the Norwegian State to court for discrimination” on behalf of British diver James Baker and Irish diver Patrick Stevens. Both worked on the development of Norwegian oil fields such as Troll in the North Sea, and feel wrongfully excluded from the compensation ultimately awarded to former Norwegian colleagues.

Danielsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the Norwegian state did not offer compensation to foreign divers filing claims tied to health problems because they were not members of Folketrygden, Norway’s national insurance system. “But all the divers have paid tax, they’ve operated on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, they’ve had a Norwegian employer,” Danielsen told NRK. He argues that they should be entitled to compensation as well.

Pioneers
Both Baker and Stevens performed pioneering dives in the 1980s, including deepwater test dives down to as low as 450 meters, they told NRK. Both claim they’ve paid a high price in terms of health problems including personality change, hearing loss and memory loss. The now-68-year-old Baker also blames nerve problems and a skin disease on his years of diving, plus the trauma that came from at least two near-death experiences that still choked him up while relating them on camera. “My vision closed down, I thought ‘this is it,'” he said in recalling one incident in which he was rescued by a colleague.

Stevens said he’s been trying to claim compensation for the past 12 years, to no avail. Hopes rose when the Norwegian North Sea divers finally won their lengthy compensation battle in 2013. Last year, Norway’s own equality and anti-discrimination ombud agreed that Norwegian officials’ consistent rejection of foreign divers’ compensation claims violated the law. Now Danielsen, who’s qualified to argue before Norway’s highest court, is set to take the case forward.

The North Sea divers, both Norwegian and non-Norwegian, met obstacles regardless of whether the governments in power were led by the Labour or Conservative. State officials have seemed most concerned about the costs of compensation, which can run into the billions of kroner, and who should be held responsible for the divers’ injuries. While politicians in Parliament have hailed North Sea divers for the contributions they made to establishing Norway’s oil industry, officials in the state bureaucracy have fended off their compensation claims.

NRK reported that Norwegian Labour Minister Anniken Hauglie said she was unaware of the pending lawsuit and couldn’t comment on a case that would be handled by the courts. According to Danielsen, nearly 300 Norwegian divers have secured compensation. It remains unclear exactly how many foreign divers may be eligible for compensation, but Danielsen reported that of all the divers certified and registered at the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authorite, more than 1,200 are British, 217 Swedish and more than 200 are from the US and Canada.

‘Pretty determined chaps’
Rolf Guttom Engebretsen, one of the Norwegian divers who spent more than 25 years fighting for compensation, said he was happy that Baker and Stevens are filing suit. “I really look forward to seeing my foreign friends bringing their cases forward (to) challenge Norwegian authorities,” Engebretsen stated in a press release sent out by Danielsen’s law office in Oslo. “They should be honoured for the work they have done. Without the foreign divers, Norway would not have an oil and gas industry as big as it is today.”

Baker said he and Stevens are “pretty determined chaps” who he thinks have been “overlooked by government departments” in Norway. “We were all divers, we all worked together, the Norwegians, English, Americans, Swedish,” Baker told NRK. “We all did the same job. We all made Norway very, very rich.”

Asked whether the pending court claim is all about money, Baker said “no, it’s not about money. There’s a principle involved here, and we’re determined to see it through. We’re not going to go away, we’re not going to give up.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund