High executive pay stirs up protests

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It now only takes 21 work days for top executives in Norway to earn what’s considered to be the country’s average full-year salary of NOK 524,600 (USD 68,000). New figures outlining pay and benefits for the chief executives of Norway’s major companies show a widening gap that’s provoking some politicians and labour union leaders.

Alf-Helge Aarskog, CEO of salmon producer Marine Harvest, topped the list of executive pay disclosed by Norwegian companies. PHOTO: MyNewsDesk

A survey conducted by Frifagbevegelse.no, the Internet portal and newssite for Norway’s largest trade union confederaton LO, found that chief executives of Norway’s 100 largest companies were paid an average annual salary of NOK 6.7 million in 2016. That’s 13 times Norway’s overall average salary, putting the executives’ daily pay at not much less than average monthly take-home pay for other workers.

In many cases the gap was far more extreme: The chief executive of salmon producer Marine Harvest, Alf-Helge Aarskog, was listed as receiving nearly NOK 19 million in pay and benefits from the company, including salary and bonus, in 2016, the most recent year for which such numbers are available.

Eldar Sætre is the CEO of Norway’s largest company, Statoil, but other chief executives earn more than he does in Norway. PHOTO: Statoil

Aarskog topped the listing of executive pay, earning much more than the CEO of Statoil, Norway’s largest company. Its top executive Eldar Sætre earned NOK 11.4 million, putting him in seventh place. The CEOs of offshore firm Subsea 7 Norway (Jean Cahuzac, NOK 15.97 million), grocery retailer and wholesaler NorgesGruppen (Tommy Korneliussen/Runar Hollevik, NOK 14.1 million), industrial firm Orkla (Peter Ruzicka, NOK 12.4 million), oil services firm Aker Solutions (Luis Araujo, NOK 12.1 million) and seafood investment firm Laco (Helge Singelstad, NOK 11.5 million) also earned more than Statoil’s boss.

There may be more, since privately held companies or units of larger foreign companies declined to disclose their executives’ pay. The CEOs at Norway’s state-controlled companies like Telenor, DNB, Yara, Norsk Hydro and Kongsberg Gruppen earned from NOK 8 million to more than NOK 10 million a year.

The pay levels irritate some Members of Parliament (who earned above-average salaries of around NOK 900,000 a year themselves in 2016) who think they’re excessive. They contend Norway’s conservative government coalition contributes to the differences in pay in Norway by not increasing, for example, the standard tax deduction for union membership fees. It’s stood still at NOK 3,850, even though many union members pay fees that are much higher.

Low pay ‘standing still’
“Ordinary workers are encouraged to show moderation, while the pay for those at the top soars to the heavens,” Kirsti Bergstø, acting leader of the Socialist Left party (SV), told Frifagbevegelse.no and news bureau ANB, which brought the survery to a wider audience. “The lowest pay levels in the private sector have almost stood still in recent years.”

“This means that differences in our society are increasing,” said Bergstø, who’s also concerned that fewer Norwegian workers are now organized in labour unions (49 percent of the workforce as opposed to a solid majority in years past). “It’s through organization that folks can do something about differences. It allows you to negotiate pay collectively instead of standing alone.”

Bjørnar Moxnes, leader of the Reds Party and also a Member of Parliament, agreed. “We need to make it more attractive to organize,” he told ANB. Many of the employees at companies like Statoil, Aker Solutions and Yara are organized, however.

Erlend Wiborg of Progress Party, a member of the government coalition, denied the government has made it unprofitable to join labour unions. “We’ve carried forth the standard deduction (for membership fees),” Wiborg told ANB. “I think it’s an advantage to be organized, but the choice has to be made by the individual.”

Gap still narrower in Norway than elsewhere
Pay differences between executives and workers remain narrower in Norway than in countries like the US and UK, where executive pay has always been much higher and exploded with stock options and bonuses. Kristin Skogen Lund, head of the national employers’ organization NHO, agreed that executive pay lies far above average pay in Norway, but remains lower than in neighbouring Sweden and Denmark.

Trade union officials at LO like deputy leader Peggy Hessen Følsvik claim wider pay gaps illustrate “a work life we don’t want here in the country. More temporary employment, more workers hired in and more unorganized workers contribute to the development. The government needs to intensify the fight against social dumping and strengthen organized employment through actual measures, and not just words.”

The executive pay levels were published as workers’ and employers’ representatives gear up for annual negotiations over pay and benefits, with some fearing strikes later this spring.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund