For years, Norway’s oil capital of Stavanger needed and welcomed engineers and other oil industry workers from other countries. Now, with the boom years over and companies slashing jobs, a former mayoral candidate from the conservative Progress Party has a message for unemployed foreign workers: “Go home.”
Christian Wedler, who lost his party’s bid for the mayor’s seat but remains a leading member of Stavanger’s city council (bystyre), made it clear to local newspaper RogalandsAvis (RA) this week that workers from other countries are no longer welcome in a city that now faces rising unemployment.
Least welcome are those from countries within the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS) because they qualify for unemployment benefits in Norway. Those from outside the EEA don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if they lose their jobs, and many have already been forced to pack up and leave the country. Among them are those whose Norwegian work visas were tied to a specific employer. When that employer no longer employs the foreign worker, expats can also lose their residence permission in Norway. The strict immigration practice has been called unfair by some labour organizations, and already has caused no small degree of trauma for oil industry workers from countries outside the EEA, from Australia and Asia to North America.
They’re not getting any support from Wedler, who hails from a Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) known for being skeptical towards immigration. “My advice to all of those who are long-term unemployed, and who can’t speak Norwegian, is to travel home or to some other EEA country where there’s a need for workers,” Wedler told RA.
New figures from state welfare agency NAV, which administers everything from pension to unemployment benefits in Norway, show that 42 percent of those registered in the Stavanger region as being unemployed and out of work for 12 months or more are foreign workers. That’s not necessarily surprising, since foreign workers often figure highly among those laid off when Norwegian employers first see a need to cut staff.
Wedler is unmoved by the plight of many expats in Norway at present. “When nearly 50 percent of all long-term unemployed in the county (Rogaland) are foreign, it’s clear that it’s time to do something,” he said. He sees no reason for EEA residents to collect unemployment in Norway in the hopes the job market will improve, nor does he see any reason for the public sector to provide language classes to improve their chances of finding new jobs in Norway.
“The point of the EEA agreement (which allows European workers to move freely from country to country) was to make it possible to move to where the jobs are,” Wedler told RA. “Providing new measures for people for whom there are no jobs isn’t just illogical, but it undermines the whole system.”
He admitted that the Stavanger region “had great use for these foreign workers, who also had great use for us. We have had good workers in times when they were needed, and they were well-paid. Now it’s time for them to travel home.”
Annamaria Gutierrez of the Liberal Party (Venstre) strongly disagreed, saying Norway shouldn’t risk getting an image as a bruk og kast (literally, “use and discard”) society. “Many unemployed foreigners have worked in Norway for many years, they have paid taxes to Norway,” Gutierrez, who’s orginally from Budapest and has lived in Norway for 17 years, told RA. “They have children who are born here, who attend day care centers or go to school. We’re not just talking about job migrants, but families with spouses and children who belong in Norway.”
She also supports publicly funded language programs to help foreigners learn Norway and become better integrated. Wedler objects to a local Labour Party proposal to offer funding for a volunteer organization, Caritas, that teaches Norwegian to foreigners, but Gutierrez supports it.
“You become better integrated (after learning Norwegian), and can more quickly find work,” said Gutierrez, speaking on the basis of personal experience. “We have a lot to gain from equalizing immigration groups,” she added, a reference to how refugees are offered language training, but most all others must learn Norwegian at their expense. Gutierrez also proposed offering tax relief for foreign workers who attend Norwegian classes, or for employers who offer language training.
Wedler, an attorney who revealed details just prior to last year’s election campaign of his difficult childhood in a home characterized by violence and alcohol abuse, was unconvinced. Instead of “paying for (unemployed foreigners) to remain in Stavanger, we should rather use the funds to create new jobs,” he told RA. He added that expats should thus “travel home, and come back in the future if there’s a need for them.”