UD faces claims of discrimination

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Staff employed locally at Norwegian embassies around the world, all run by Norway’s foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD), claim they’re often treated quite differently than the diplomats and staff sent to the embassies from Norway. Lower pay, poorer benefits, less protection and longer work hours are among complaints being lodged with UD officials back in Oslo.

Norwegian employees sent from their Oslo offices here at the foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) to work at Norway's embassies and consulates abroad have much better pay and benefits than workers hired locally. Now UD is facing a rising chorus of discontent from locally employed staff. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norwegian employees sent from their Oslo offices here at the foreign ministry (Utenriksdepartementet, UD) to work at Norway’s embassies and consulates abroad have much better pay and benefits than workers hired locally. Now UD is facing a rising chorus of discontent from locally employed staff. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“I love my job, but local (embassy) employees experience discrimination at all levels,” Urd Milbury, newly elected leader of the local staffers’ organization UDLAF, told newspaper Aftenposten.

Milbury herself said she was paid much less when she took over the job of a Norwegian employee at Norway’s embassy in Washington DC in 2009. “I was promised the same pay as she got, USD 49,000 a year,” Milbury told Aftenposten. “On my first day at work, I was given a contract with the pay set at USD 43,000, 14 percent lower than agreed. I got a clear message of ‘take it or leave it.'”

The Norwegian foreign ministry (UD) has more than 600 Oslo-based employees stationed at Norway’s embassies abroad. Their jobs are viewed as prestigious with good pay and benefits.

In addition come the roughly 1,000 embassy employees hired locally. An estimated 300 of them are Norwegians who live abroad while the rest are generally citizens of the country where the embassy is located. All the local employees work under  different terms than those sent to the embassies by UD, claims their organization, even though they often have the same duties and work side-by-side with the diplomats and others from Oslo.

‘Insecure, unclear’ work conditions
“The employees hired locally at UD’s foreign stations work under insecure, unclear conditions worthy of criticism,” Milbury said.

Not only are pay levels much lower than those for the Oslo-based workers (who arguably face financial obligations back home in high-cost Norway and likely wouldn’t accept a pay cut to be sent abroad), the locally employed often are offered pay that’s even below local standards, according to Milbury. UD spokesman Svein Atle Michelsen countered that the local employees are paid “competitive” wages, but he admitted that Norway’s embassies don’t want to offer pay higher than that paid locally.

Michelsen also claimed that it was “not unfair” that locally hired staff also have different job terms, arguing that they need to comply with local standards and laws. He claimed their work hours and paid holiday time was “at least” in line with Norwegian standards, though, and that overtime is paid in accordance with local standards even though Norwegian personnel sent from Oslo have no right to overtime pay.

Milbury further complains that locally employed staff aren’t protected from security threats to the same degree Norwegians sent from Oslo are. At the embassy in Nairobi, for example, which also covers Somalia, Norwegian workers were provided with security fences and alarms where they lived. Locally hired staffers received no such security provisions. And in Morocco, when Norwegian diplomats faced threats and were sent home, local staff were expected to keep working as usual and received no protection. Michelsen responded that “we take security for all our employees seriously,” but that “risk evaluations can be different” for local employees than for those sent from Norway.

Conflicts worldwide
Several specific conflicts nonetheless are ongoing at Norwegian embassies in Morocco, Kenya and Guatemala, and also at the Norwegian consulate in Rio de Janeiro. A pay battle in Rio has been raging for several years, Aftenposten reported, because pay levels for locally hired staff at the consulate are far below the local market level, as they also are in the US, Africa and elsewhere in South America. Michelsen claimed said officials at UD were working to improve the low pay conditions in Rio.

At issue is whether the embassies or UD itself is responsible for setting job terms of locally hired staff. Michelsen said the individual embassies are responsible, even though they can “consult” UD in Oslo when disputes arise. Since UD has foreign stations in more than 100 countries worldwide, he said it would be “impractical” for UD to have a central personnel office in Norway. UD thinks it’s better for each individual station to handle its own local hiring.

Milbury disagrees, and her organization is now trying to be heard as a collective bargaining group for local workers at Norwegian embassies, many of whom are likely viewed as valuable and knowledgable workers with local expertise that a Norwegian sent from Oslo wouldn’t have. Even though UD is currently run under a Labour Party-led government known for championing workers’ rights, UD so far has refused to negotiate with UDLAF, claiming it has no collective bargaining rights.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund