Working in Norway
A high number of foreign nationals work in Norway and a high number of foreign nationals want to work in Norway. Can the Norwegian welfare state and the strong Norwegian labor unions be a part of the explanation?
Having been a ‘permanent resident alien’ of the country for more than 20 years, I experienced firsthand the country’s welfare state benefits. For instance, I discovered when working that the flat corporate structure allowed me to call my boss by her first name, and I discovered when not working that I got generous unemployment benefits that tided me over until I found a new job.
Somewhere along the way, the thought had formed in my mind that all these work-related benefits came about because Norwegians were, quite simply, just ‘nice’ people.
But when I began bringing up this point in conversations with Norwegians, my naïve belief caused a lot of laughter and headshaking. They told me that, contrary to niceness, Norway’s welfare state was brought about after several years of intense negotiations between the country’s political parties and labor unions. Starting in the 1970s, these different sides came together to hammer out policies that remain in place today as part of Norway’s social democracy.
But is this struggle over? Have employees’ needs all been met?
According to Katrine Olsson, senior advisor in Tekna, the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’.
In fact, although around 50 percent of the labor force is already organized, Olsson thinks that even more employees should join labor unions.
So, similar to other unions in Norway, Tekna has never stopped working to push its membership numbers up and strengthen its political position in the country. This campaign has extended to foreign nationals working here as well.
How have they responded to the idea of joining this type of organization?
Tekna member Philipp Pasolli, who left his native Austria to first study and then work in Norway, gives us his view on the matter. Passolli currently works as a research and development engineer at offshore company MacGregor in Arendal.
Why did you come to Norway?
My first experience with Norway came when I went on an exchange semester while studying for my Master’s degree because my university in Austria (FH Vorarlberg) is a partner university with UiA- Grimstad. After finishing my degree, my goal was to pursue a PhD, so I kept in contact with my former supervisors from FHV. Two years later they mentioned to me that there were open PhD positions in Grimstad. I applied and ended up getting a position. I didn't really think about how that would impact my life since I was familiar with the area already to some degree and the stay in Norway was originally supposed to only last for the duration of my studies. So I made the decision [to study there] spontaneously with no hesitation.
Why did you decide to stay in Norway?
During my PhD studies, I learned a lot about the country, including its benefits and cultural values, which are rather in line with what I’m used to – they’re also intriguing to me. After finishing my PhD, where I specialized in control theory, I made the decision to search for a job up here. I did this because the offshore industry in southern Norway is rather specialized, and I knew it’d have challenges for me to try and solve in a field where I’m very interested to work. Ultimately, I ended up at Macgregor, which managed to provide me with a job where I can strive through working on complex tasks and problems which are challenging - exactly what I want.
Why did you wait awhile before joining a trade union in Norway?
One main reason why I was holding back from becoming a union member was that the concept as in implemented in Norway was rather new to me since we have a different system in Austria where there is one big union deeply integrated into the political system and supporting the entire employee class across the country. Another reason was from talking to other Austrians who weren’t familiar with the topic of unions like they exist up here in Norway; their feedback was a rather mixed bag with a negative tendency with regards to if it was wise to join such an organization. These were definitely reasons that made me more hesitant in the beginning.
Why did you change your mind?
Again, from talking to people, in this case Norwegians, about my joining a union, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and everybody was very supportive, even if they were also in engineering but in different unions. The concept of unions is quite well understood here, and it seems that people are very well aware of the positive impact that membership has on their (work) lives. And after explaining the trade union concept as it is in Norway alongside its history, what work life in Norway is like and the benefits you gain from becoming a union member, my Austrian friends and family were definitely more openminded and more understanding about why I wanted to join one.
Why did you join Tekna?
For me it was kind of a combination of getting recruited and also interest from my own side. It wasn't of too much interest to me during my PhD studies besides some insurance benefits and especially since my mindset was still to move back to Austria after concluding my studies. But especially once I transitioned to industry, I was in a lot of contact with a friend of mine who is also in Tekna and pointed out the many advantages of membership. The conversations with him were the ultimate reason why I decided to join Tekna. So I think you could say that I was recruited in an indirect/self-driven- but-inspired-by-others kind of way.
After investigating myself, I figured that it’d give me some rather big advantages for my life in Norway with respect to my private and work life due to Tekna "funded" services like insurance and, of course, being backed up during salary negotiations and any troubles in my workplace. So in the end, although the concept was new to me in the beginning, I was told from several people that it was the way to go – and I’m glad I did.
As Pasolli’s comments indicate, working in Norway gives many foreign workers a unique opportunity to be part of a labor force where members belong to a working model in progress and whose basic framework is the result of intense and ongoing efforts that strive to guarantee good employment conditions and fair benefits for everyone, both native and ‘non’.