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Anniken Huitfeldt: Minister of Labour with an eye for equality

Anniken Huitfeldt: Minister of Labour with an eye for equality

| Text: Berit Kvam

”More people can do some work” says Anniken Huitfeldt when I meet Norway’s new Minister of Labour just as we enter 2013. There are parliamentary elections in September. So where will she make her mark in the next six months; where does she want to make a difference as Minister of Labour in Jens Stoltenberg’s government?

“Work is what carries the welfare state,” says  Anniken Huitfeldt and adjusts the Labour Party’s slogan ‘More people in work’ to better fit today’s challenges: ‘More people can do some work‘.

Norway is booming; employment figures are generally high among women as well as men and unemployment is low. The Minister of Labour will work to make sure sick people, the elderly and people with disabilities can do some work even though they cannot work full time.  

“My European colleagues face a situation of high youth unemployment and falling birth rates, very unlike what we’re experiencing in Norway,” she says, and tells me she has given advice to her colleagues and others.

“Use the economic crisis to prepare the ground for a family friendly working life.” That was her advice when she recently met Frances O’Grady, the first female General Secretary of the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella organisation for British trade unions.

“This was also my message when I met several government ministers at an OECD meeting: use this situation to facilitate increased employment among women.”

Is a crisis and unemployment the right time for this?

“This is what we did towards the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s. We faced major economic problems and high interest rates, and many people were loosing their jobs. We prioritised the building of nurseries and increased parental leave to increase employment among women. This is where you find some of the reasons for Norway’s current good economic situation, the fact that a larger percentage of our population is in work,” says the social democrat Anniken Huitfeldt, and continues:

“High unemployment, low retirement age and short working lives eat up a lot of public budgets. If young people graduate at 25 and retire on average at 59, like they do in Italy, and you also have few women in work and we live for longer, then you have few people of working age to carry public expenditure. This has a lot to do with why so many countries are experiencing a crisis now. They have lowered taxes to create growth which has not materialised, there are fewer people in work and fewer to pay for welfare services. Work is what carries the welfare state. Getting people to work for longer and getting more women into working life is engaging everybody,” says the Minister of Labour.

From youth politician to government minister

Anniken Huitfeldt fits the Scandinavian term ‘political broiler’ - a Scandinavian term for a politician reared for office from an early age. She has held various leadership positions in the Labour Party and its youth wing AUF since she became a local AUF leader aged 16. She has grown up in and with the party and climbed the grades in AUF and in the mother party one decade behind Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. She has served as a minister in his governments since 2008: Minister of Children and Equality (2008-2009), Minister of Culture (2009-2012) and now Minister of Labour. 

As Minister of Labour Anniken Huitfeldt is responsible for the government’s entire labour and welfare area. She faces the challenges of increased globalised competition and a Europe in economic crisis while having to secure good working conditions and a safe welfare system for all Norwegian citizens.

“It might as well be called Minister of Labour and Welfare, because in reality that’s what I am. The forerunner for this ministry is the old Ministry of Social Affairs which is 100 years old this year. Johan Castberg, our first Minister for Social Affairs, helped create our employment protection legislation and the Castberger children’s legislation which meant children born out of wedlock were secured an inheritance and the right to carry their father’s name just like children born from married parents.

“This happened after years of fighting the political right. It is a proud tradition,” the politician adds.

Increased immigration and focus on social dumping

High employment rates and low unemployment has meant Norway post EU enlargement has also seen high and rising labour immigration. Polish building workers and cleaners, Swedish health workers and not least Swedish youths in their thousands have in later years come across the border to find work in Norway, the latter especially in the service industry.

“Now more Danes are coming too,” says the Minister as she keenly looks for the news story where she picked this fact up. This is positive, we need the labour, she says.

Do you see the danger in the fact that labour immigration is now increasing from European countries with high unemployment?

“We want labour, but of course some of the work we have done in later years has been focused on maintaining Norwegian standards in working life as more workers wish to come to Norway. That’s why we, together with trade unions and employers, have introduced authentication schemes for the cleaning industry and in the building trade to prevent labour from other countries and less than serious companies undermining our working life standards. We have given the Labour Inspection Authority an increased mandate to carry out controls, so we are getting a better system which will secure that companies keep to the standards they have committed to under Norwegian law.” 

The nightlife industry living dangerously

Where do you see the greatest challenges when it comes to social dumping right now?

“We target trade after trade to develop precise tools. Right now we are looking for less than serious players in the nightlife industry. We have met the parties. They are focused on the fact that the industry has access to a lot of cheap labour and that there are some employers who are not playing by the rules. This is where I want to focus our work together with employees’ and employers’ organisations. 

“We introduced the Agency Workers Directive from 1 January. Its aim is to secure equal treatment of labour hired through an agency so that all workers get the same wage and working conditions across businesses.

“In order to maintain Norwegian workers’ standards we need to make employees’ and employers’ organisations able to uphold Norwegian employees‘ rights, so we have introduced a range of new measures. One example is the joint liability for employers. This means providers who choose to outsource services are responsible for making sure salaries and working conditions follow Norwegian rules throughout the supply chain."

There’s an election this autumn. What else will be your focus in the next six months?

Strong increase in mental health problems

“Firstly I want to focus on mental health issues and working life. What we need now is a great drive to make it easier for people suffering from mental health problems to take part in working life. The number of people on sick leave is falling, but over the past ten years sick leave has risen by 145 percent among people where mental health is the cause. This is a strong increase. That’s why helping people with mental health problems in working life and getting people to do some work represent important goals.

“Graded sick leave, meaning people do some work, has helped reduce the general absence due to illness. I want to achieve the same for people with disabilities. Today 90 percent are registered as 100 percent disable. No doubt many of those with disabilities can work to an extent. It is important to get more people with reduced work capacity into working life, and to have a working life which allows you to do some work. The same goes for older workers. 

"Two thirds of old age pensioners under 67 do work, but often part time. So we need to make it easier to do some work. That’s the most important thing, because work brings good health, work keeps you healthy for longer, work keeps you young. So we need a working life which to a greater extent makes it easier for people to work a bit, whether you are ill, has partly reduced work capacity or are an older worker.” 

Strengthened youth guarantee

“Another important issue is all the young people who don’t get a place in today’s working life. The number of young people with disabilities outside of working life has remained steady in recent years, but we need to make sure more of them are followed up at an earlier stage. That’s why we have agreed on a new youth guarantee. It means young people with reduced work capacity are followed up quicker through targeted youth projects.”

OECD praises Norway in its report ‘Closing the Gender Gap’, but underlines the fact that the country has a very gender divided labour market.

Why is it so hard to improve gender divisions in the work place?

“There have been enormous changes in several areas. Theology, medicine and law were all very male dominated areas 30 years ago. Now there are more women than men in all of these. To a large extent it has to do with role models. We haven’t managed this well enough in traditional female occupations. It is difficult to work with areas where young people need to make a choice about jobs when they are 15 or 16 - an age when people tend to be very keen to express their own gender through their choice of occupation and education. 

"This is where the greatest challenge lies. We are struggling here. People still make very traditional job choices in occupational training. More untraditional choices were made 15 years ago, but if the welfare state is to improve we need more men in occupations where women are in a majority."

Women who work part time loose out both in terms of salary and pension points. It’s often called the gender trap of our time. Why is it so impossible to achieve something here?

“The number of women in work with children under 16 has increased a lot since we achieved full nursery cover, and the number of women working part time has fallen. This proves that adapting things for families with children does have an effect.”

Are you satisfied?

New pension system stimulates people to work more

“It is a choice for the individual, but we see that the new pension system means benefits based on earnings have become even more central than before, which again means it is of even greater interest for women to be in work. We also see that the interest in full time positions for instance among younger nurses is much greater than among older nurses. Previously it was often the case that women who started working combined house work and working life, while a new generation of women have very different demands. Yet the largest change in later years has happened to the man’s role. Surveys show men spend far more time doing house work than they used to, they work less and spend more time with their children than they did 20 years ago. So the greatest changes are women work more and men work less.”

Yet it is still the case, is it not, that many women who want to work more than part time struggle to get more hours?

“Yes, and that’s why we presented a white paper just before Christmas which would allow women to demand contracted employment reflecting the number of hours they actually work.”

What is the greatest challenge when it comes to gender equality in your view?

“We have made a lot of progress when it comes to families. We have achieved full nursery cover, halved nursery fees, we have one full year’s maternity leave and 12 weeks daddy leave. Now we see there are great challenges in today’s working life. Some young women experience sexual harassment at work, others aren’t allowed to work the number of hours they want, and we have pay gaps. But the most important reason for pay gaps is part time work and differences in pay between the private and public sectors above a certain level of employment. There is more equal pay in the public sector.”

What can you do about that?

“This is about moderation. We need the same level of moderation in the private as in the public sector. We have collective wage agreements in Norway. If we manage moderation we also manage to be competitive, because of course it becomes a challenge to compete internationally when we have a high salary level here in Norway - the costs to industries exposed to competition make our goods too expensive. That’s why it is everybody’s responsibility to secure moderate wage agreements.”

If you had one choice, what would your priority be?

“The full picture. This is the Ministry of the Full Picture. It is important to contribute to working life and that more people can do some work.”

1 minute interview

What book are you currently reading?

“Posthornet (the Post Horn) by Vigdis Hjorth, a great book. I got it for Christmas. I really love Vigdis Hjorth as an author and have read nearly everything she has published. Posthornet is partly about becoming politically engaged. I have also just read ‘Jeg nekter’ (I Refuse) by Per Petterson, a previous winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize. I also liked that a lot.

Which work tool do you appreciate the most in your office?

“The iPad. After I got that I hardly ever use a PC.”

What is your hidden talent?

“I remember song lyrics very well. I’m looking forward to a new musical at the National Theatre with songs from [the Norwegian band] deLillos. I know all the lyrics.” 

As a child, what did you want to become when you grew up?

“A teacher. I could very well imagine being one. I really enjoy welcoming pupils to my office. I think it’s particularly exciting to meet people between 16 and 21. That is when most people are being shaped into the human beings they will become. What you read, the music you listen to or theatre plays you watch at that age often have a deep impact. Later in life you often point to books you read at that age as the books which have had the greatest influence on you.” 

Johan Castberg (1862-1926)
  • MP for Arbeiderdemocratene (the Labour Democrats) during three periods between 1901 and 1926.
  • Norway’s first Minister of Social Affairs when the Ministry of Social Affairs was established in 1913.
  • Became known for the Castberger children’s legislation, which gave children born out of wedlock the rights to inherit and the right to their father’s name, equal to children born to married parents,
  • as well as the laws on sickness insurance (1909, 1915), factory supervision (1909), accident insurance for fishermen (1908) seafarers (1911), and the law on the protection of industry workers (1915).


Anniken Huitfeldt on the Norwegian model:

“For me it is about comprehensive cooperation between employees’ and employers’ organisations, it is about the fact that we have relatively high tax rates and little privatisation of welfare services; most people’s paths will cross either through school, in the elderly care sector or in hospital. It is basically about welfare and taxation levels and conditions in the working life, where there is a great degree of cooperation and small pay gaps.”

Facts about Anniken Huitfeldt
  1. Minister in Jens Stoltenberg’s government since 2008
  2. Minister of Labour from 21 September 2012, formerly Minister of Culture and Minster of Children and Equality
  3. Elected to the Norwegian parliament in 2005,  
  4. Deputy representative during 2001-2005 and 1993-1997 parliaments. 
  5. Researcher at research foundation FAFO, 2000-2005
  6. Leader of AUF (the Labour Party’s youth organisation) 1996-2000,
  7. Leader of the Labour Party’s women’s network from 2007. 

Anniken Huitfeldt graduated from the University of Oslo as a Master of Philosophy after studying history, political science and geography. She is the mother of three children aged seven, nine and eleven.


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