As layoffs in the oil industry abound, many foreign workers and expatriates who’ve lost their jobs in Norway are discovering that they’re being denied unemployment benefits. They’re often forced to leave the country when faced with the loss of income, and the national union for engineers and other workers in the technology sector is crying foul.
“This is a ‘lose-lose’ situation (as opposed to the ‘win-win situation’ cliché),” Kirsten Rydne, a lawyer for NITO (Norges Ingeniør- og Teknologorgan- isasjon), told Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen. NITO, also called The Norwegian Society of Engineers and Technologists, (external link), has around 78,000 members and has actively recruited foreign workers who came to Norway during the boom years of the offshore industry, when there was great demand for engineering and technical competence.
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Now many of those workers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), including such sources of expertise as Australia, India and North America, are being laid off. To make matters worse, they’re discovering that they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits or assistance from Norway’s state welfare agency NAV.
The reason, according to Rydne, is because they often are not viewed as “real job seekers,” willing to take any job offered them if they’re put on furlough. In many cases, their legal residence permission in Norway is tied either to a specific area of professional expertise or to a specific employer, who had convinced Norway’s strict immigration authorities that such special talent or competence was needed and Norway’s own labour market couldn’t supply it. When such a foreign worker’s employer no longer needs them because of an economic downturn, NAV officials also turn them down for benefits on the grounds they don’t meet the conditions to be actively seeking another job. It’s also been documented that foreign workers often are among the first to be let go by Norwegian employers when times get tough.
It’s a “lose-lose” situation, Rydne contends, “because employers lose valuable competence and the workers run into serious problems. They may suddenly have to break leases or sell off property and cars and leave the country on short notice because they simply can’t afford to stay,” unless they quickly find a new job on their own with a new employer willing to back them. The loss of a regular income, and no unemployment benefits, makes for “a critical situation,” Rydne said, that’s “deeply unfair.”
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NITO maintains it’s also unreasonable, Rydne contends, because it means that benefits are extended based on where an immigrant came from. If they moved to Norway from a country within the European Union and the EEA (formed by countries like Norway that cooperate with the EU), they qualify for benefits. If they come from Sydney or New York or New Delhi, they don’t, and are treated differently than Norwegians or Europeans.
“We believe that all employees who are laid off must have the right to receive dagpenger (the cash benefits paid out by NAV while a newly unemployed person seeks a new job),” Rydne told Dagsavisen. “Very many of our members are affected by the ongoing reductions in the workforce in the oil and oil supply industry.” Dagsavisen reported that as of August 1, the residency permits held by 7,448 immigrants were tied to a specific employer.
One of them recently complained about the situation. “I was one of the many who were laid off in Norway (because of) the low oil prices and a reduction in offshore work,” one worker from Australia wrote to newsinenglish.no recently. “I am on a skilled immigrant visa and have paid 38- to 50 percent tax to Norway for the last 10 years. I live (in Norway), have a daughter born in Norway, a house and worked for a Norwegian company. I applied to NAV for unemployment benefits … my application was rejected … the appeal was rejected too.”
Rydne noted that employers are also adversely affected by the rules. In some cases, she argues, employers feel a need to avoid laying off foreign workers (even though the job they do is no longer needed) in order to keep them and their competence in the country for when the economy improves. Seniority rules, however, can prevent that. “It’s a very difficult situation,” Rydne said.
Authorities unwilling to bend
NITO recently contacted the Labour Ministry and proposed a change in the rules, but has met resistance so far. Ellen Christiansen, director of NAV, confirmed in an email to Dagsavisen that “the requirements for being viewed as a real job seeker are strictly followed. This group (of workers coming from outside the EEA) as a rule don’t fulfill all the requirements for getting unemployment benefits.”
Officials at the Labour Ministry don’t appear inclined to order NAV to loosen up. State Secretary Kristian Dahlberg Hauge of the conservative Progress Party-controlled ministry even claimed it would be “extremely unreasonable” to apply the rules more leniently to job seekers from outside the EEA than for all others applying for benefits. Hauge said that would “poke holes” in the main rules and risk an increase in payments of unknown proportions.
“Another objection is that it would be risky to base the right to residence on access to public support when the residence is based on an agreement between two parties in the labour market,” Hauge said.
Rydne scoffed at his arguments. “We’re talking about a few thousand workers here, and not all of them will be laid off at the same time,” she said. Of the 7,468 foreigners in Norway with residence permits tied to their jobs, fully 22 percent work in the education sector, 13 percent within health care and social services, and another 13 percent within public administration and the military. Statistics from immigration agency UDI show that 12 percent secured their permits on the basis of professional, scientific or technical competence and 8 percent because of industrial ability. That would imply that around 20 percent are working within the oil and offshore sector (1,500 people) and liable for layoff.
“It is perhaps unclear how much this would cost (the welfare state), but it certainly wouldn’t be much,” Rydne added. “We view this as subject to an easy fix.” If, that is, government authorities follow through on earlier acknowledgment of the need for international expertise in Norway, and want to fix it, at a time when many Norwegians are losing their jobs as well.