Bjurstrøm takes over labour ministry

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Hanne Bjurstrøm, who’s been leading Norway’s international climate negotiations for the past two years, came home from the UN climate conference in Copenhagen to immediately take over as Norway’s new cabinet minister in charge of labour on Monday. Huge new challenges lie ahead.

Bjurstrøm barely had a chance to catch her breath before officially taking over the role to which she was appointed last autumn. She’d been given leave to continue leading Norway’s march towards Copenhagen.

The tough negotiations, and disappointments along the way, likely have prepared Bjurstrøm well for taking over one of Norway’s toughest ministerial posts. As Labour Minister, Bjurstrøm will need to tackle unemployment issues, the troubled reform of welfare agency NAV and the country’s skyrocketing rate of sick leave.

She’ll also be in charge of all pay and benefit negotiations with public sector labour unions and ongoing reform of the state pension system.Any one of these issues would be more than a full-time job for most. She claims she’s looking forward to the challenges, and labour leaders have high expectations.

“She seems like an energetic and clever woman,” Turid Lilleheie, head of the union representing many of the workers in NAV, told newspaper Dagsavisen . “She has to recognize that the challenges in NAV aren’t going to go away, and make an immediate evaluation of what has to be done, both for the employees and for the public.” The so-called “NAV reform” that combined the employment and social welfare departments has been harshly criticized, for failing to handle claims and exhausting its staff.

Bjurstrøm, after collecting the key to her new office, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that she’ll take part in a hearing on the NAV reform in the Parliament in January.

Bjurstrøm faced news already Monday morning that fully 20 percent of unemployed Norwegians haven’t even applied for new jobs in the past year, indicating they’re happy collecting unemployment benefits and don’t want to work. Opposition politicians seized on the new survey, and demanded Bjurstrøm find ways to motivate welfare recipients and get them back to work.

Bjurstrøm, age 49, is a lawyer who has worked for Norway’s environmental protection agency since 2003 and started leading the country’s international climate negotiations in 2007. She’s also worked as a judge and been a corporate lawyer for industrial firm Aker RGI (now Aker Solutions), in addition to working for the Council of Europe and the Justice Ministry.

She’s known Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Raymond Johansen, now Labour Party secretary, since they all were high school students in Oslo. Bjurstrøm, married with two children, is a member of the Labour Party.

“I want to first of all wish her welcome and good luck in a new and exciting job,” said Svein Oppegaard of employers’ organization NHO.Sick leave costs,now hitting record levels, are a major concern for NHO, and he added that he hopes she’ll listen to “experts” and all participants in the work force.