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Norwegian partnership for an inclusive workplace

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

An "intention agreement for an inclusive workplace" was reached between the government and the Norwegian social partners at the beginning of October. Over the next four years, the parties will work actively towards reducing absenteeism by 20 %, getting more disabled people into work and encouraging people to stay working for longer. The agreement will be reviewed after two years.

"With this agreement for a more inclusive workplace, we have made good progress towards our vision for a new working life," says Gerd-Liv Valla, President of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO).

Between 1995 and 2000, absenteeism rose by 46 % and is today higher than at any other time. It leads to anxiety for the individual who runs the risk of being alienated from the labour market and results in major costs for companies and society alike. The debate on what action needs to be taken to reduce absenteeism and rising costs has been around for some time now and has occasionally become rather heated. In Norway, employees are entitled to sick pay equivalent to 100% of their pay packet from the first day of absence. It has been argued that reducing sick pay would be a way of reducing absenteeism.

LO President, Gerd-Liv Valla, is one of those giving her full support to the argument for sick pay to be left unchanged. Another measure that has been discussed involves extending the period covered by the employers. It is now clear that the Norwegian government and the social partners are opting for a different tack. It involves a mutual obligation from all parties to work towards a more inclusive workplace.

Procedures for signing an employee off work must be made earlier than they are at present and must be linked to the work-place. This will require greater awareness and more open dialogue between employers and employees. People from different work-places are also joining forces to work constructively towards preventing alienation.

The agreement provides incentives for both employers and employees. One of the ideas is to make it economically worthwhile for all partners to work actively towards creating an inclusive work-place. Tackling preventative working environment issues and including people with disabilities at work has to be seen to be worth the effort.

If they so wish, companies can come to their own agreement with the authorities, for example, in the health insurance area. They are then committing themselves to working systematically towards reducing absenteeism and earning the right to call themselves "inclusive workplace companies". For their part, the authorities undertake to provide practical and financial help in supporting the companies in their work. For example, companies who have signed the agreement will have their own personal contact at the social security office and will benefit from lower social insurance contributions. Employees will also have a greater opportunity to sign themselves off sick without a doctor's note.

Another important issue is to get disabled people into work and create a work-place where it is possible to work right up to pensionable age. One of the obstacles facing the older workforce often quoted by employers is that it has become expensive to employ older people. Employers are now being offered a reduction in social insurance contributions for everyone over 62. NHO, the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry, is also happy with the agreement.

"LO and Norway's Confederation of Vocational Unions, YS, have now recognised that absenteeism in Norway can be reduced by at least 20 % and that the employers' organisations want to work actively towards achieving this," says Finn Bergesen jr., NHO's Managing Director.

If the 20 % target is reached, it would save between eight and nine billion Norwegian kroner, half of which is borne by employers. Bergesen is also positive about the way the government is enabling employees to be bought out of the hospital queues, that moves are being made to encourage active sick-list periods and that companies are intensifying their rehabilitation work programmes.

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