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Chasing nurses and sailors - Norway's ethical dilemma of importing workers

Chasing nurses and sailors - Norway's ethical dilemma of importing workers

| Text: Björn Lindahl, Photo: NSA

The lack of skilled workers is a big problem in Norway, where unemployment has fallen to less than two percent. Healthcare and shipping might seem like very different sectors, yet both are trying to attract foreign workers.

Industrial countries are attracting professionals from the third world, and are increasingly getting involved in educating them before they leave their home country. In Norway, this situation has led to a debate over what ethical guidelines should apply.

The Norwegian Shipowners' Association has supported training programmes in the Philippines, China and Russia for more than a decade. Last year a record 450 cadets joined the Norwegian Training Center Manila (NTCM). Since 1993, 2,100 cadets have finished the programme.

It is free for those who are chosen to participate. After two years of education, one year in training on a vessel followed by a fourth year of education, the cadets are guaranteed a job as an engine or deck officer for a Norwegian shipping company.

Earlier this year, the Norwegian Minister of Labour and the Minister of Development addressed the challenge that a shortage of workers presents.

“We will need at least 100,000 more employees in the health sector over the coming decades. I don't see how we can fill that number with people who are already in the country”, said Erik Solheim, Minister of Development.

Third World nurses

 One solution, said Minister of Labour Bjarne Håkon Hanssen, could be for Norway to pay for the education of nurses and other healthcare professionals in poorer countries. At the end of their education, they would be invited to move to Norway.

”It's a win-win situation both for Norway and the foreigners”, said Hanssen, who believed that most of the foreign workers would choose to continue to live in Norway.

”But some would move back to their original country after a while”, he said.

The two ministers soon found out that there is a large difference between sailors and nurses.

Their suggestion was immediately criticised by the head of the Norwegian Nurses Organisation, Bente Slaatten.

”I can't believe that Norway should go to poor countries to fetch nurses! The lack of nurses is global. In Europe we have ten times as many nurses per capita as in Africa. South of Sahara they need 600,000 new nurses to fulfil the UN millennium goals.”

According to the Bente Slaatten, many Norwegian nurses are still only offered part-time jobs.

”In Norway there are 91,930 nurses, health visitors and midwives, but there are only 53,709 whole-time equivalents. Newly educated nurses are still offered part-time jobs. The wages are far below that available to people in other professions, with the same amount of education.”

African brain drain

The two ministers rapidly backtracked. They said what they were actually talking about was how to secure international rules to prevent a brain drain from the Third World.

”We need to prevent aggressive recruitment. Norway does not wish to drain the poor countries of their highly qualified workers, as some seem to think. What we need is a system that can handle the fact that well-educated people from poor countries now actively try to find employment in the west, instead of working in their own countries”, said Erik Solheim.

The debate on nurses highlights the acute need for skilled workers in many professions. Norwegian authorities have already actively recruited nurses and other health workers from Europe for several years. In Sweden 18.5 million Euro will be spent over the next three years to speed up the process of giving health workers from countries outside the EU the necessary qualifications to work in Sweden.

Ten times the native salary

The Norwegian Shipowners' Association, NSA, began supporting a training programme for Philippine sailors in 1993.

”You don't educate 100.000 people over night”, says Einar Schiefloe, Head of Competence and Recruitment at NSA, when he hears the number of professionals needed in the health sector.

In shipping, the ethical dilemma of importing labour is not comparable to that of the health sector. For this sector it really is a win-win-situation. A Philippine sailor earns much more than what he would get working onshore. If he advances o become a captain, the salary is, in some cases, more than ten times that of a director of a local Manila bank.

Norway has the fifth largest commercial fleet in the world, as well as an offshore sector with many vessels. The maritime industry employs 58,000 people. Only a quarter of them are Norwegians. All in all some 20,000 Philippines are working on Norwegian-controlled ships.

The shipping boom

”Shipping is a cyclical business, but the last years has seen a tremendous boom. There is no way we can educate enough Norwegians for all the new ships and rigs that are being built”, says Mr Schiefloe.

The Norwegian education system can train around 500 – 600 engine and deck officers per year.

”The maritime sector will need another 18,000 sailors just over the coming three years. Even if we have special programmes to attract more young Norwegians, there is no way we could get that many.”

A special campaign website, (“”) has been set up to get more young Norwegians interested in working for the shipping industry.

”The results have been good so far. According to a fresh survey, three out of ten young people say that they could be interested in working in shipping. The goal is to raise interest significantly. We primarily want to attract candidates with an interest in a maritime education”, says Einar Schiefloe.

NTCM in the Philippines has been followed by similar programmes in China and Russia. There is also a need to continue training for those who already work on Norwegian ships. The NTCM offers more than 60 courses, which can run over 1 – 2 weeks, in close co-operation with 80 - 90 shipping companies. Since the start in 1990, more than 50,000 sailors have been given such supplementary education in Manila. Last year the total number was 9,500.


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