Hundreds of public-sector jobs look set to be intentionally moved from the Norwegian capital of Oslo to other locations around the country, and, in the private sector, possibly out of the country. The pending job relocations are generating both outcry and some praise.
The most reaction has erupted over the conservative state government coalition’s announcement that it plans to re-locate around 225 jobs within state-controlled and funded agencies, plus another 400 jobs in newly established state ventures. The government is also considering relocating another 1,200 jobs, including those within the state police academy, from Oslo to other cities and towns around the country.
The stated goal is to “spread competence” nationwide and create new jobs in outlying areas, not least so that newly educated young people who left their hometowns to study in Oslo will be tempted to move back home. It’s all part of Norway’s long-standing “district politics,” which aim to keep outlying areas populated and even thriving.
“This plan will create new opportunities for people and local communities, and contribute towards growth and development both in cities and districts,” said Jan Tore Sanner, the government minister in charge of local governments and administration. He’s had an extremely busy week after also announcing the controversial consolidation of many Norwegian counties and municipalities known as kommuner.
The government’s announcement is also clearly an attempt to counter a wave of discontent and noisy demonstrations lately, often led by the district-friendly Center Party, against what many otherwise claim are government reforms that will centralize instead of de-centralize everything from agricultural to defense operations. There’s been a string of efforts lately to pit urban areas against more rural ones, in an apparent polarization that’s drummed up concerns over “Trump tactics” in Norway.
The looming public sector job relocations announced late last week, though, set off immediate protests, not least from those holding the jobs who will be directly affected. They include 100 employees within the national complaints board for health care services (to Bergen) and an unspecified number now working at the state consumer council (Forbrukerrådet, from Oslo to Tromsø) and the state agency in charge of agricultural management (Landbruksforvaltningen, to Trøndelag). The Norwegian language council (Språkrådet) will also be affected, with 34 employees to be transferred to an as-yet unidentified location.
Employees at a long list of other state agencies including those in charge of equality (BLD), waterways and energy (NVE) and environmentally friendly purchasing (KMD) are also subject to being moved.
Peace Corps on the warpath
The 40 employees of the Peace Corps in Norway, which is part of the Foreign Ministry, were perhaps the most shocked and upset by the prospect of being re-located, either to the mountain town of Førde in the county of Sogn og Fjordane or to Trondheim or Stavanger. The first they heard of the pending relocation was in the media, and that prompted the Norwegian Peace Corps’ leader, Nita Kapoor, to hurry home from travels in Malawi.
“Spending state funds to move the Peace Corps out of Oslo equates to taking away money that otherwise could go to helping some of the poorest people in the world,” Kapoor told newspaper Aftenposten. “And it will be expensive.” Kapoor also claimed that the new government proposal is akin to using foreign aid development funding to develop outlying areas of Norway instead, in a country already widely viewed as among the world’s wealthiest.
Neither she nor any of her shocked colleagues can see the logic or economic sense of relocating Peace Corps workers who often travel out to poor areas around the globe and who also receive many foreign guests in Oslo. Travel costs alone for all of them would rise, much less all the costs of reloation.
What’s worse, Kapoor notes, it would only create around 40 jobs in the new location outside Oslo and destroy the expertise within the Peace Corps’ existing staff that she claims has been carefully built up over the past 16 years. That’s because hardly any of those now working for the Peace Corps will be willing to move to Førde, Stavanger or Trondheim. Their homes and families are in Oslo.
That argument is also being used by workers in just about all the other agencies targeted for relocation and subsequent disruption, including even the agricultural agency. Its farming-oriented workers generally argue strongly in favour of policies that benefit rural areas as opposed to urban ones, but clearly not when it affects themselves.
‘Can be demanding’
Another complaint, in addition to all the uncertainty the plan has generated, is simply that neither Sanner nor other government officials involved in the job relocation plan have consulted any of the agencies involved so far. He promised they will be now.
“I understand that getting the message about something like this can be demanding for the employees in these agencies,” Sanner said. “We will now assure them of good processes moving forward, where the employees will be heard. We also have good programs in place for those affected by the restructuring.”
All told, around 1,800 jobs may be affected, many of them to be created through the location of newly established state agencies in areas outside Oslo. Among them, for example, is the new state cultural council’s office called Kreativt Norge, which will be situated in Trondheim.
The ‘high price’ of district politics
Others also claim that forced job transfers are a poor and expensive way of carrying out policies aimed at benefiting the districts. Labour unions oppose it, because of how it affects workers, and newspaper Dagsvisen editorialized this week that earlier projects have shown that it can take a long time to build up new competence in new cities. “The government is paying a high price to satisfy (its government partner) the Liberal Party,” wrote Dagsavisen, noting how the Liberals have pushed hard for state job decentralization. The plan announced by Sanner is a political compromise that resulted from months of negotiations within the government coalition.
While the job relocations should satisfy the Center Party, which champions district politics, it immediately claimed that it was “only a plan and not concrete actions.” The party also complained it’s only likely to encompass 1,200 jobs, not nearly enough to relieve the concentration in Oslo. The Center Party hasn’t seemed satisfied by another government attempt at appeasing it either, through a new move to possibly reinstate a wolf hunt, and instead seems to prefer keeping conflict levels high in the run-up to the national election in September.
Officials within the City of Oslo, who are protesting the pending loss of jobs at a time of economic uncertainty, seem doomed to loose. Their protests, noted newspaper Aftenposten, can only strengthen the government’s claim that it is not only centralizing functions but decentralizing jobs, in direct response to their critics’ complaints.
Private sector jobs may move abroad
In the private sector, meanwhile, there are concerns some jobs may even be moved out of the country, following a recent wave of foreign investment in and acquisition of Norwegian companies. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported this week that fully half of all companies sold in Norway last year went to foreign purchasers. Swedish investors were most active and China was surprisingly absent, but there’s clearly been an overall boom in sales of Norwegian businesses abroad.
At the same time, foreign investors are pumping new capital into Norway and the trend is continuing this year, according to Harald Hellebust, a partner at the Oslo law firm Wiersholm, which assists many foreign clients in Norway. Wiersholm keeps track of statistics over business sale transactions, and along with those traced by state statistics burean SSB (Statistics Norway), they show increased activity among foreign bidders.
That raises concerns that the foreign owners may want to transfer jobs to their countries, cut costs or simply consolidate. One out of ever four jobs can be affected by the foreign acquisitions, reported DN. “I’m very worried that we won’t mange to keep Norwegian ownership in the country,” Elisabeth Holvik, chief economist at Sparebank 1-gruppen, told DN. She claims there’s also a danger that more Norwegian ideas, product development and innovation processes can move abroad, “and then good jobs will disappear.”
Others claim the foreign investment and capital it brings is a good thing. Bjørn Hesthamar of investment firm Nord Kapitalforvaltning doesn’t think it’s sad at all that a company like Hepro, which is based in Rognan in Nordland County and develops various solutions for elderly people to remain longer in their homes, was sold this week to stocklisted Addlife of Sweden.
It was Hesthamar’s firm that sold its 70 percent stake in Hepro to Addlife and he claim to DN that “it’s positive that Norwegian companies are attractive abroad. This is a cornerstone company in the local community. Its 40 jobs mean a lot, and its founders are local heroes. This sale wouldn’t have been possible if the founders didn’t have ambitions for growth. That shouldn’t be sad, it should be a goal for everyone.” Addlife’s chief executive Kristina Willgård shares those growth ambitions, while other involved in the deal believe it can “lift” local Norwegian companies into the international arena.