NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s over-reliance on relatively low-paid foreign workers in a variety of industries, not least fishing, has become glaringly apparent during the Corona crisis. It has also contributed to the demise of the working class in Norway, and may explain why the Labour Party has been losing voters for years.
Problems first started literally cropping up late last spring, when Norwegian farmers suddenly faced problems getting enough farmhands in the fields for summer berry-picking and other harvesting. A lack of flights, new infection control measures and quarantine rules disrupted an annual migration of workers from Vietnam, for example, and then shipyards and construction companies started facing staff shortages, too.
Then Corona virus infection imported by workers who did arrive from abroad became as big a problem as that which had arrived with affluent Norwegians returning from skiing holidays in the Alps last winter. The skiers brought Covid-19 to Norway, and imported infection has continued to be a major threat. It was behind outbreaks on Hurtigruten ships last summer, after the cruise line put newly arrived Filipino crews to work without adequate testing or quarantine, and it continued into the New Year, when both NATO soldiers and workers arriving to take jobs in the offshore industry also brought new strains of the virus with them.
When the government finally felt compelled to close Norway’s borders in late January, though, it didn’t take long for national employers’ groups and industrial organizations to raise loud objections. Fishing industry officials went into crisis mode because the workers they generally fly in from Eastern Europe for the annual cod season couldn’t come to work. Nor could hundreds if not thousands of workers from Poland, Lithuania, Romania and other Eastern European countries come to work on building sites or in offshore yards any longer. Manadatory quarantine delays were one thing. Closed borders cut off the low-cost labour supply entirely.
Employers had themselves to blame
Many were quick to note that Norwegian employers, keen on getting the most work done at the lowest labour cost, had allowed the situation to occur and could only blame themselves. Since expansion of the EU in 2004 and 2007, the numbers of labour migrants legally allowed to work in Norway have skyrocketed. There were only around 6,400 foreign workers in Norway in 2003, according to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), compared to 173,000 at the beginning of 2019 and more when the Corona crisis began.
They’ve largely taken over the jobs working-class Norwegians used to do. They’re eager for the work while employers are eager to take advantage of foreign workers willing in many cases to work long hours for much less than Norwegians. With their families far away, they also accept cheap temporary housing during their time in Norway before returning home again.
When Prime Minister Erna Solberg ordered the borders to close late last month for at least 14 days, the head of national employers’ organization NHO quickly warned that it would have “extremely dramatic consequences” on many businesses even after just two weeks. Ole Erik Almlid had to admit that Norwegian business and industry had become utterly dependent on their foreign workforce, while labour union officials called the situation “a national catastrophe.” The latter refused to go along with requests to alter labour laws and agreements that would allow what many consider further exploitation of the foreign workers, to get more out of those already in the country or keep them here longer, since they currently can’t be replaced.
Others, including Fisheries Minister Odd Emil Ingebrigtsen, started turning to the roughly 200,000 Norwegians idled by the Corona crisis. The government wouldn’t force unemployed Norwegians to take on jobs in the fishing industry, but encouraged it. “Right now there are 3,000 unemployed just in Nordland (the northern country that’s home to a large fishing industry) and surely a lot in Troms and Finnmark, too,” Ingebrigtsen told DN. The government also asked state welfare agency NAV to “put more pressure and emphasis” on recruiting Norwegian workers.
Norwegian employers reluctant to hire Norwegians
Many unemployed Norwegians actually want to work in the fishing industry, but one young man laid off as a waiter in Fredrikstad told state broadcaster NRK this week that he applied to 16 different Norwegian fishing firms without getting any offers. He was told he was “overqualified,” while even many of the firms complaining about a lack of workers admitted they were reluctant to have to train Norwegians how to butcher cod and pollock and package the fish quickly for shipment.
Another young man with a master’s degree in mathematics was luckier. He called 11 fishing firms in Northern Norway and finally got an offer from Saga Fisk in Lofoten. They warned him of hard work and long days when tons of newly caught fish arrive on boats in the harbour at Svolvær. He earns basic pay of NOK 189.30 (USD 22) per hour and is only paid for the hours he works, but he’s thriving so far. His friends back home in the affluent Oslo suburb of Bærum “think this is cool” and that’s he’s being a good sport. “They back me!” he told newspaper Aftenposten.
Not all employers are as “sporty” as Saga Fisk, though, and commentator Anita Hoemsnes in DN thinks it “utopian” to think that unemployed Norwegians can replace foreign workers. Mobility within the Norwegian workforce is generally low, with NAV itself confirming that only around 5 percent will move to get a new job. Some Norwegians’ unemployment benefits can even be higher than what the fishing industry will pay them, so there’s little incentive.
As calls go out to even send soldiers to Lofoten and Vesterålen to help with the winter fishing season, there’s little question that Norway has lost much of the working class it had before the country’s economy was pumped up by its oil industry and far more young people go to college instead of trade schools.
“If anything positive has come out of the Corona crisis, it’s that the workers who keep the wheels turning have become more visible to the public,” wrote commentator Bjørgulv Braanen in newspaper Klassekampen last weekend. Many are no longer Norwegian, though, and that’s the problem. They don’t live in Norway and they can be vulnerable to exploitation.
While debate has swirled that the working class was disappearing, Braanen added, “the Corona crisis has shown us how dependent we are that workers are on the job every day.” They drive the trucks that keep stores stocked, build roads, work in the health care sector, on oil platforms and in the fields. Problems arise when they’re exploited by employers and pay levels fall and labour unions are weakened. “People from Poland and Lithuania are good workers,” Braanen wrote, “but it’s not their unique competence in slicing up fish that prompts employers to fly them in to work in the Norwegian fishing industry.”
Foreign workers don’t vote
The disappearance of Norway’s own working class, replaced by foreigners from abroad, can also help explain why the country’s once-dominant Labour Party has become a shadow of its former self. It only claimed 17.5 percent of the vote in one recent poll and is struggling to remain relevant and find a new niche. The workers who once voted for Labour now often don’t live or vote in Norway. With nearly 200,000 foreigners working in the oil, gas, offshore and other industries, questions can also rise about the constant importance politicians place on job creation. When Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party defends the need to keep supporting the oil industry because of the jobs it creates, it’s worth examining who’s getting many of those jobs. Often not her own constituents.
A recent government commission stressed that Norway will lack tens of thousands of skilled workers in the years ahead. The country needs far more carpenters than consultants, and efforts are being made to strengthen trade schools and make careers as plumbers, electricians, painters or welders more attractive. Everyone working in Norway, whether they be from Poland or Porgrunn, should also receive the same Norwegian pay levels and working conditions, contend left-wing politicians determined to abolish social dumping.
Expectations were high that Norway’s Conservatives-led government wouldn’t keep borders closed very long, because of the consequences the closure has on business and industry. The current border closing runs until later this week and may be extended, especially given outbreaks of new strains of the Corona virus. When borders do re-open, infection control measures are expected to be much improved as well. It’s unlikely the flow of foreign workers will subside much, though. The fishing and construction industries are more likely to remain dependent on foreign workers.
“We are very vulnerable,” Frode Alfheim, leader of labour organization Industri Energi, told Klassekampen last week. “This should all be seen as a serious warning for the future. I’m not against labour migrants, but we should be able to do more of the jobs ourselves. I expect more debate on this in the years ahead.”