About 80,000 Polish people are registered as living in Norway, making it the biggest immigrant group in the country. However, researchers estimate that more than 100,000 Polish people are now employed in Norway, as more and more choose to live in Poland and commute internationally for work.
The number dwarfs the 43,000 Swedish residents who make up Norway’s second largest immigrant group according to Statistics Norway (Statistisk Sentralbyrå, SSB).
Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004 opened the door for Poles to legally seek work in other EU countries. It heralded the biggest exodus from Poland since World War Two: more than two million Poles are estimated to be living outside the country, newspaper Aftenposten reported.
A report by Norwegian research foundation Fafo showed higher wages are the main reason Polish people seek work in Norway. Poland has had a high unemployment rate for a long time, currently 10.4 percent compared to Norway’s 3.6 percent. In the under-25 age bracket, unemployment is as high as 26 percent. Wages in Poland are low compared to the cost of living.
At the same time, many industries in Norway have become dependent on labour immigrants. “The lack of workers in many industries is structural and ongoing,” said Fafo researcher Jon Horgen Friberg. “Norwegian youths are looking away from work in building trades, farming, industry and service. All these areas have become dependent on an international workforce. Norway needs people who are willing do these jobs.”
In recent years, the fastest growing immigrant groups have been from eastern European countries including Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The influx of workers has positives and drawbacks, Professor Rolf Jens Brunstad from the Norwegian School of Economics (Norges Handelshøyskole, NHH) told Aftenposten.
“We have great pay inequality domestically,” Brunstad explained. “In sectors with many immigrants, like construction, heavy industry, service and some parts of health care, people fall behind in wage increases. It doesn’t benefit Norwegian employees who work in these sectors already. It breaks from the Norwegian model, where equality is of high value.”
A recent Fafo survey found 30 percent of Polish in Oslo have undeclared work. Many don’t have written contracts or pay tax. Every third Polish worker surveyed reported being cheated out of wages and overtime pay, and refused sick pay or benefits.
However, low wages in many sectors have kept prices down. “Without labour immigrants, pay levels would have become higher and these services more expensive,” said Brunstad.
Easier to move
The way Polish people migrate to Norway has changed over the past decade. Fafo’s first survey of Polish workers in 2006 showed most workers were in temporary accommodation, or living in share houses with colleagues.
“When we undertook the same survey four years later, the majority lived together with their families here in Norway, and only a minority had family in Poland,” said Jon Horgen Friberg. He believes it’s easier to move to Norway now than it was 10 years ago. “Migration drives further migration. It’s easier to travel if you know someone who knows someone in Norway. Many Polish have a network in Norway when they travel here.”
Janusz Adamczyk is a 45-year-old bus driver who lived with his cousin when he first came to work in Norway. But cheap airfares have allowed him to join the ranks of the many Polish workers who still call Poland home, but commute internationally for work. Adamczyk works around 10 days in a row in Norway, then returns to his home north of Krakow for three to five days. He’s one of 12 in his street with similar arrangements.
Adamczyk told Aftenposten he was working as a department manager in a Polish grocery store and had just taken out a home loan when his net monthly salary was cut back from the equivalent of NOK 7,000 (USD 1,1oo). Despite both working full time, he and his wife Beata have five children and the family bank account was empty at the end of each month. Then, Adamczyk spotted a newspaper advertisement seeking Polish bus drivers to work in Norway.
“I knew many who worked internationally and had heard that Norway was a stable and safe country,” Adamczyk said. “When I saw the ad, I thought that it was my chance.” He got a temporary job, soon secured permanent work, and now earns about NOK 22,000 a month. Deducting costs for commuting and rent, Adamczyk still earns three times the amount a bus driver in Poland would.
“We spend the money sensibly, and look at it as an investment in the future, and for our children,” explained Adamczyk. “That’s why I work in Norway. In Poland, we unfortunately see no future.” The family members see Adamczyk’s job as a doorway to a better life, and plan to move permanently to Norway once their home loan is paid off.