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Norway: strike against labour law reform, tough conflicts ahead

Norway: strike against labour law reform, tough conflicts ahead

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

Will more short term contracts lead to more jobs for more people? Will it make it easier to access the labour market? Would it create more jobs or just more temporary staff? These questions are at the core of Norwegian workers’ fight against changes to the working environment act.

“The government claims that its liberalisation of the working environment act is only an adjustment, but it would actually mean a tougher working life. Both job security and working hour regulations are under pressure,” the leaders of the three trade union confederations LO (the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions), YS (the Confederation of Vocational Unions) and UNIO (the Confederation of Unions for Professionals) wrote in a joint opinion piece in the daily VG on 28 January. 

The confederations represent 1,500,000 workers, and that same day they called for a two hour long general strike, because “The overall effect of the proposed changes to the working environment act shakes the very foundations of the Norwegian social model”. 

The Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Robert Eriksson, does not agree:

“We need a working environment act which is more modern and adapted to today’s working life. That is why the government is proposing several changes which will give more flexibility and workers more power over their own working day.” 

He has made up his mind and published the government’s white paper before Christmas. It is now out for consultation and is being discussed in the parliamentary standing committee on labour and social affairs. It is still unclear whether a compromise can be reached with the government’s supporting parties, the social liberal party Venstre and the Christian Democrats, which would secure a parliamentary majority.

The opposition Labour Party and centre-left parties promise to reverse the proposed ease of temporary employment regulations if they get back into power. The employers support the proposed changes and say the trade unions are overreacting.

On 24 March parliament will vote on the changes to the working environment act. The head of the committee on labour and social affairs Arve Kambe (Conservatives) is now working to secure a political majority (Prop. 48 L (2014-2015).

“I want to have a good dialogue with the social partners, both the employees and employers. It is important to me to secure the broadest possible support for the changes to the working environment act, and to get changes which will stand the test of time,” Arve Kambe tells the Nordic Labour Journal, and adds that this is only what the parties promised in the run-up to the election.

“This is part of the Conservative Party and the Progress Party’s manifesto and part of the government’s coalition agreement.”

“Defend the working environment act”

was the slogan when 20,000 strikers lined up outside of parliament in the drizzle to show their opposition to the government, and to listen to the appeals from the leaders from LO, YS and UNIO. They called for a continued fight against the government’s proposed changes to the working environment act. The strike’s nationwide support clearly demonstrated the workers’ massive opposition. Even in Vadsø, in the high Arctic north, strikers fought a blizzard to show their opposition to the proposed legislation.  

“I have a dream,” says the Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion, Robert Eriksson, and argues for making it easier to get into the labour market:

“We have more than 600,000 employable people who are outside of the labour market. That’s why it is important to have legislation which supports today’s working life and prepares Norway for the future, when we will need all the available resources.”

The core of the conflict

The proposed legislation would allow employers to hire staff for twelve months. This is meant to give people outside of working life a chance to try working, and to give businesses greater flexibility.

Limits have also been suggested to prevent temporary staff carrying out work which is permanent in nature. Also: if a worker is not given a permanent job at the end of a temporary contract, the employer will have to wait for 12 months before being allowed to hire someone else to carry out the same tasks.

There is also a quota of no more than 15 percent temporary workers out of the total number of staff. It would not be possible to hire temporary staff on top of temporary staff, and employers will not be allowed to enter into individual agreements to calculate a temporary worker’s hours on the basis of a fixed average.

Extending the use of calculating working hours on the basis of a fixed average is another contentious issue. It means that it will be possible to work longer hours and more Sundays in a row, even though there is no increase in the total number of working hours. This is meant to improve the employers’ opportunity to negotiate the number of working hours.

“The proposal does not mean more working hours, more overtime or more working Sundays in total, but the government wants to make it easier to control the working hours in a way which will suit the individual worker and the individual workplace,” says minister Eriksson.

Happy employers

“I believe it is important to remember that all those who have permanent jobs will still have those jobs, and when you hire for a position which could become permanent it will still be permanent because it will benefit the company. There is a labour shortage. Attractive workers will not want to accept a temporary job if they have the chance to get a permanent one. Some are suggesting that everything will be temporary now, but only 6.8 percent of jobs in the private sector are temporary today,” Kristin Skogen Lund, President of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

“Of course it is unfortunate if you get a temporary job instead of a permanent one, but we believe in temporary employment as an alternative to no job at all. It is safer to get into working life, get a chance, get some experience. And we know that more than 50 percent of temporary staff are hired on a permanent basis after one year. 

“We believe that this is an important stepping stone into working life. We consider it an alternative to not being in work at all, more than an alternative to permanent employment.

“Anyone who has the skills to get a permanent job will choose a permanent job and get it. Then there are some businesses which will be able to expand for instance by hiring a temporary worker. We might see an increase in temporary employment, but that would be an increase in the number of jobs. And that is a good thing. I think that if we got more temporary jobs as a result of fewer permanent jobs, we would be failing. This is not what we want, but I believe we need to achieve a certain growth in the number of jobs.

You are willing to change the practice after an eight years trial period. That is not going to be simple?

“Why not? It is completely unproblematic and no damage will have been done. You can just reverse it.”

More than 60 percent of NHOs members want that option. Do you believe they will change their minds so easily?

“If it doesn’t work we would have to admit to it. Our members are not interested in more temporary jobs. They are interested in creating jobs."

What do you think about the unions strike?

“I think it is an overreaction and that it shows a lack of understanding for the need for change within the Norwegian economy and working life,” says Kristin Skogen Lund.

Vibeke Madsen, CEO of Virke, the Enterprise Federation of Norway, the second largest employers’ organisation after NHO, agrees.

“In our view, the most important thing about this proposed legislation is that businesses facing restructuring and changes are allowed to consider their capacity. With temporary staff you reduce the risks for the employer and this will give results,” she says.

You are not worried about an erosion of peoples permanent link to working life?

“What I hear when I travel around the country is that it is very important for our members to be able to attract important skills and to get important workers into their companies. There is fierce competition, and they know that permanent jobs are the only ones that count. But they also need to secure their businesses financially. Our goal at Virke is to create more jobs, but we believe this must happen in a way that reduces risk.”

Strikes are rare in Norway. The Norwegian model is based on cooperation between the social partners. When you disagree you talk through the problems and reach an agreement, often built on compromise. Now the Minister for Employment and Social Inclusion, Robert Eriksson, has alienated the unions not only because of the changes to the working environment act — he is also being accused of refusing to listen.

The trade unions want to be heard

A marathon session in front of the parliamentary standing committee on labour and social affairs running from 9am to 7pm on 21 January heard from nearly 40 different organisations, led by LO and NHO.

Jorunn Berland, head of the Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) was one of the speakers.

“What we have been saying is that in this process we have arrived at a situation where we have been forced to say no. We wish we could have had a process where we could have said yes. This means there are things we could have accepted, but not as it stands today. If we could have kept a dialogue going it would have been much better, because we don’t really believe it is OK to just say no.”

So are you more upset about the process than the content?

“It has a lot to do with the process, and I believe the content could have been different if we had managed to get a good dialogue going. We are not now at a stage where we can accept the current proposals. If we could have had a dialogue aimed at making some adjustments, things would have been more palatable for us.”

UNIO is the third major trade union to take strike action. Their President, Anders Folkestad, is sure a compromise can be reached.

“I don’t think any government would benefit from being in conflict with the trade union movement and that is what the current government is. We disagree and we are in a conflict situation, and I think that is worrying. The political parties understand that they need to find other solutions,” says Anders Folkestad.

Is this a conflict about the process more than the content?

“This is definitely about content and the actual proposed changes to the working environment act. A lack of dialogue has amplified the anger, but the main reason is that we want to talk about the working environment act,” says Anders Folkestad.

He is worried that the proposal could hurt women in particular.

The government is arguing for major changes both to the rules on temporary jobs and working hours, not least within the health sector. These are female-dominated sectors which are facing increased pressure both when it comes to working hours and terms of employment, and that could damage gender equality. Uncertainty surrounding the terms of employment could also have a negative impact on people’s desire to start a family,” he thinks.

LO President Gerd Kristiansen says she is working to have the proposal returned to the government. Are you on the same track?

“Yes, I believe that would be a good thing, especially as it would allow us to look at the impact of the proposed changes to rules surrounding temporary jobs, but I don’t see the majority in the committee pointing in that direction.”

Power shift

The leader of the Norwegian Nurses Organisation, Eli Gunhild By, thinks the current working environment act is more than flexible enough.

“When we see the proposed changes we know that these can easily be made using the current legislation."

The committee wants to cooperate to secure as broad an agreement for the changes to the legislation as possible. Can you participate here?

“We are more than happy to cooperate and to come up with suggestions for the government, individual politicians and the committee, but it seems to me that they have already made up their minds. They are riding roughshod over us to get this through because it is the political will especially from the Minister for Employment. 

“What they really want to do is to remove all our power. We are not interested in the power shift they have presented.”

Gerd Kristiansen
LO president, Norway, in front of the demonstration against the working environment act (picture above)
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