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"Every Polish worker's dream is a steady job in Norway"

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The sizeable immigration from former Eastern European countries to the Nordic countries - and to Norway in particular - calls for integration measures which also include labour migrants, say Norwegian researchers.

“If we want to keep a sustainable working life and welfare system in the Nordic region we need to aim integration measures not only at refugees but also at labour migrants, especially when it comes to language skills,” says Jon Horgen Friberg at the Norwegian Fafo research institution.

Alongside colleague Line Eldring, Friberg has edited and written the report ‘Labour migrants from Central and Eastern Europe in the Nordic Countries’. It was presented at the Nordic conference on an inclusive working life in Stockholm on 28 November last year. Together with research colleagues from Poland and the other Nordic countries they demonstrate in the report the movement of workforces between the old Eastern European countries and the Nordic region since the 2004 EU expansion. 

They have examined who it is who are coming, how they are included into existing labour market structures and how protected they are from exploitation. They also looked at how well labour migrants are being integrated into the society in which they work. Work is often considered the most important tool for integration, but is it enough or are other measures needed? And do Polish workers really want to be integrated or are they just visiting? All of this varies, but one thing is certain: they want safer working conditions and better terms of employment. 

“I have interviewed hundreds of Polish workers and never once met someone who didn’t dream of a steady job in Norway,” says Jon Horgen Friberg. 

Working abroad in their own language

Integrating immigrants into the labour market is one of the major challenges facing the Nordic countries. Language and skills are considered key components and many integration projects reflect this. But the labour migration shows a different pattern. Hundreds of thousands of people have quickly entered the Nordic labour markets without speaking the host country’s language. 

This has been especially true for labour migration taking place after the 2004 EU expansion. Between 2004 and 2011 330,000 labour migrants came to the Nordic countries, and to Norway in particular. If you count those who have come to do short-time jobs, the figure jumps to 600,000 over those seven years. 

“We often talk about language and skills being the major challenges in the integration of refugees, so it is paradoxical that more than 100,000 people have entered straight into the Norwegian labour marked without any [Norwegian] language skills,” says Horgen Friberg.

Different countries — different criteria

Polish workers have been topping the list of those moving north in the hunt for jobs, and most of them have chosen Norway. Many have also found work in Denmark and in Iceland. Sweden has not seen as many labour migrants as the other Nordic countries, and immigration has mostly been dominated by asylum seekers. 

The report is therefore focussing on Polish labour migration to the three capitals of Oslo, Copenhagen and Reykjavik. Who are arriving, what are they doing and what are their living conditions like? And what are the differences between the three countries?

Both in Oslo and in Copenhagen you find Polish workers in different parts of the labour market where insecure employment, temporary positions, subcontractor work and cleaning jobs are driving forces for low pay and bad working conditions. In Oslo people working for subcontractors are particularly exposed to salary dumping, while those in insecure positions are most exposed to exploitation and bad working conditions. 

New rules aimed at preventing social dumping have been introduced in Norway lately, but Polish workers are still exposed to loopholes in the legislation. Denmark’s labour market is more regulated through collective agreements than Norway’s, and this explains why conditions are somewhat better there. Yet here too conditions for labour migrants are different from those for native workers. Iceland is a different story. Polish workers are included into the system but end up bottom of existing agreements. This means they will earn considerably less than in Oslo or Copenhagen, but on the other hand they enjoy a larger degree of job security.

Best paid in Norway

The reason why so many Polish workers have come to Norway is a structural labour shortage especially within construction and heavy industry — low status and low paid jobs which tempt few native workers. Norway remained relatively untouched by the 2008 economic crisis, and had jobs to offer when the rest of the world was struggling. 

“We have seen migration based on demand where employers have adapted jobs for Polish supervisors and groups,” says Jon Horgen Friberg. 

Polish workers arriving in Copenhagen are often young, while those who chose Norway or Iceland are older. In Norway the average age for Polish workers is 36. Iceland sees entire families arriving, while in Norway Polish men were the first to arrive, leaving their families at home. 

Those who stay for more than one year tend to settle down and there is an increasing trend of women and children joining their men. Living apart simply becomes too much of a strain in the long term. Most of those arriving in Norway have an education. 62 percent have vocational training while only 17 percent have further education. 

“Many are skilled workers but they don’t speak Norwegian and will therefore be used as a flexible buffer in the labour market. This means they become very vulnerable and end up in a very weak position in the labour market,” says Jon Horgen Friberg. 

A two-tier labour market

The large number of Eastern European workers has meant the emergence of a two-tier Norwegian labour market, he claims. Over time they risk getting stuck in a secondary labour market which lacks most of what is usually considered to be conditions of a good working life — having the opportunity to develop professionally, enjoying a good work environment, regulated working hours and a safe job. Migrants often think of themselves as a B team in the Norwegian labour market, and try to keep the dream of a steady job alive. 

“We get self-perpetuating spirals. Without Norwegian language skills they are dependent on working for Polish supervisors and loose the chance of developing further,” he says.

People used to think Polish workers would arrive to perform short-term temporary jobs and that they therefore would have no impact on the Norwegian labour market. 

“It’s a classic story. You import labour and get people instead,” says Jon Horgen Friberg.

The debate around Eastern European labour migrants and their work conditions often centres on social dumping. A growing gap in the labour market is putting pressure on both welfare systems and labour market institutions in countries which traditionally have been aiming to minimise economic inequality. 

When you can get cheap labour from foreign countries you also upset the power balance in working life. But those who represent cheap labour today risk ending up in marginalised poverty in the long term. That is why Jon Horgen Friberg thinks it is important to also work towards the integration of labour migrants and to increase their chances of finding work in the ordinary labour market, where they would enjoy decent wages and proper protection. 

“The idea of cheap and flexible labour is not sustainable for the welfare state. Integration and social dumping are linked and you could ask what or whom you are most worried about - the worker who arrives here or the institutions.

“Those who have the worst conditions, likely low wages and a weak position in the labour market, are those who struggle the most to integrate and lead a normal life. But there is little focus on this and there is for instance no public ambition with employers or politicians to create a system which makes it easier for labour migrants to learn the language,” says Jon Horgen Friberg. 



More than 330,000 citizens from the newest EU member states have immigrated to the Nordic countries between 2004 and 2011. The number of labour migrants rises to around 600,000 if you include those who have come to perform temporary work. Most work in the construction and manufacturing industries, in agriculture or in other unskilled trades. The UK is the most attractive country followed by the Nordic countries, and in particular Norway. Most labour migrants come from Poland and Lithuania. Estonians make up the largest group in Finland. 

Norway has as many labour migrants form former Eastern Europe as all of the other Nordic countries put together. Iceland saw relatively few labour migrants (per capita) before the 2008 economic crisis. 

An increasing number of immigrants stay, despite the fact that many of them are poorly integrated into the Nordic labour markets. Wages, work conditions, employment protection, work environments and the opportunity for skills development are usually all worse for immigrants compared to native workers.

Minister of Social Inclusion Solveig Horne answers

People in the weakest positions, with low pay and weak positions in the labour market, find it hardest to integrate and lead a normal life. But there is little focus on this and there is for instance no official ambition among employers or politicians to create a system which helps labour migrants access language training, says Jon Horgen Friberg at FAFO. 

Good language skills are crucial for integration. We want to strengthen immigrants' Norwegian skills. We want to offer good access to Norwegian classes also for labour migrants who do not qualify for free training, and money has been set aside for online Norwegian training. The online LearnNow program is developed by NTNU [the Norwegian University of Science and Technology], it's freely available for all and is now aimed especially at immigrants in working life. This offer can be used in remote learning and as supporting material in ordinary classroom based Norwegian training. But I also want to point out that employers carry a responsibility here," says government minister Horne.


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