More trouble for big Oslo hospital

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Norway’s largest hospital, formed through a highly controversial merger of several hospitals in the capital, is now grappling with questionable hiring practices that have led to charges of human trafficking. The case involves three nurses from the Philippines whose jobs at Oslo University Hospital were arranged though a Norwegian man to whom they became indebted. Other Filipina nurses may have been exploited as well.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported last week that the three women had to borrow NOK 300,000 each (around USD 55,000) to pay for their travel to Norway and cover the alleged costs of their so-called “agent,” Lars Backer, who is married to a woman from the Philippines and otherwise works as a furniture dealer.

Turned over their income
The women allegedly had to turn over their income from the jobs he arranged for them at Oslo University Hospital, pay NOK 13,500 in rent to live in a flat Backer owned in Oslo’s Holmenkollen district, and pay him NOK 4,500 for training in the Norwegian language.

The women have told NRK they were not allowed to tell anyone about their working situation, or have any contact with others from the Philippines in Oslo. They have described Backer as “very strict” and they ended up heavily in debt to him, but allegedly were threatened with being sent back to the Philippines if they complained about their situation to anyone.

They finally did confide, however, in hospital colleagues who alerted union representatives. Now the hospital is under police investigation over charges of human trafficking filed by the conservative Progress Party.

Several administrative irregularities
Newspaper Aftenposten has reported that hospital administrators in the orthopedic department where the women worked were aware as early as 2010 that they were represented by a furniture company but raised no further questions. Aftenposten also reported that the women, who ended up working as nursing assistants because they lacked certification to work as the orthopedic surgical nurses they were trained as, apparently failed to receive pay slips from the hospital, were never paid for overtime they worked or the higher rates paid outside normal working hours.

“It looks like everyone has been negligent in this case,” Frank Ryghaug, an employees’ representative at the hospital, told Aftenposten over the weekend. His colleague Merete Norheim Morken has been even more blunt: “This is entirely unacceptable. If the hospital has been aware of what’s emerging around their recruitment, I’m shocked and very disappointed. This is terrible.”

Backer admitted to Aftenposten that he also brought “three or four” other nurses to Norway from the Philippines but says through his lawyer that he’s “shocked” over the charges of human trafficking. He claims the hospital had contacted him for help in recruiting specially trained nurses from the Philippines, and Backer thought it would be a good arrangement for all parties.

Backer’s lawyer Nils Storeng also told Aftenposten that Backer thought the women were satisfied and would wind up with around NOK 6,000 (USD 1,100) in “pocket money” each month after their other expenses were paid.

‘Very serious’
Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen has called the charges against Backer and the hospital “very serious” while new hospital director Bjørn Erikstein has ordered a “thorough review” of the nurses’ case, to find out who was involved and what kind of documentation was arranged both with Backer and the women.

The hospital has since helped the women find new accommodation and arranged for their permanent, direct employment. Erikstein said his staff was cooperating with the police investigation.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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