Global Threats

No one is supposed to worry in Norway.

The Nordic model has been meticulously engineered to provide universal living standards that are bountiful by global norms.

Workers enjoy five weeks of paid vacation a year. Everyone receives health care under a government-furnished program. Universities are free. When babies arrive, parents divvy up a year of shared maternity and paternity leave.

All of this is affirmed by a deep social consensus and underwritten by stupendous oil wealth.

Yet even in Norway, global forces are exposing growing numbers of workers to new forms of competition that limit pay. Immigrants from Eastern Europe are taking jobs. Temporary positions are increasing.

In theory, Norwegian workers are insulated from such forces. Under Norway’s elaborate system of wage negotiation, unions, which represent more than half of the country’s work force, negotiate with employers’ associations to hash out a general tariff to cover pay across industries. As companies become more productive and profitable, workers capture a proportionate share of the spoils.

Employers are supposed to pay temporary workers at the same scale as their permanent employees. In reality, fledgling companies have captured slices of the construction industry, employing Eastern Europeans at sharply lower wages. Some firms pay temporary workers standard wages but then have them work overtime without extra compensation. Unions complain that enforcement patchy.

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Peder Hansen, a process operator, at the Nikkelverk refinery in Kristiansand, Norway.
“If they were to increase our wages too much, the company would lose customers,” he said.


Credit
David B. Torch for The New York Times

“Both the Norwegian employer and the Polish worker would rather have low paid jobs,” said Jan-Erik Stostad, general secretary of Samak, an association of national unions and social democratic political parties. “They have a common interest in trying to circumvent the regulations.”

Union leaders, aware that companies must cut expenses or risk losing work, have reluctantly signed off on employers hiring growing numbers of temporary workers who can be dismissed with little cost or fuss.

“Shop stewards are hard pressed in the competition, and they say, ‘If we don’t use them then the other companies will win the contracts,” said Peter Vellesen, head of Oslo Bygningsarbeiderforening, a union that represents bricklayers, construction workers and painters. “If the company loses the competition, he will lose his work.”

Last year, companies from Spain and Italy won many of the contracts to build tunnels south of Oslo, bringing in lower-wage workers from those countries.

Mr. Vellesen’s union has been organizing immigrants, and Eastern Europeans now comprise one-third of its roughly 1,700 members. But the trends can be seen in paychecks.

From 2003 to 2012, Norwegian construction workers saw smaller wage increases than the national average in every year except two, according to an analysis of government data by Roger Bjornstad, chief economist at the Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions.

When Mr. Karlsson, the painter, came to Norway from his native Sweden in the mid-1990s, virtually everyone in the trade was a full-time worker. Recently, while painting the offices of a government ministry, he encountered Albanian workers. He was making about 180 kroner per hour, or about $23, under his union scale. The Albanians told him they were being paid barely a third of that.

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Ola Karlsson, a painter who came to Norway from Sweden in the 1990s, at a building under construction in Lillestrom, an Oslo suburb. “I haven’t seen my pay go up in five years,” he said.

Credit
David B. Torch for The New York Times

“The boss could call them, and 20 guys would be standing outside ready to work,” Mr. Karlsson said. “They work extra hours without overtime. They work weekends. They have no vacations. It’s hard for a company that’s running a legitimate business to compete.”

He emphasized that he favored open borders. “I have no problem with Eastern Europeans coming,” he said. “But they should have the same rights as the rest of us, so all of us can compete on equal terms.”

Even in specialized, higher-paying industries, Norwegian wage increases have slowed, as unions and employers cooperate toward improving the fortunes of their companies.

That is a pronounced contrast from past decades, when Norway tallied up the profits from oil exports while handing out wage raises that reached 6 percent a year.

As the global financial crisis unfolded in 2008, sending a potent shock through Europe, Norway’s high wages left businesses in the country facing a competitive disadvantage. That was especially true as mass unemployment tore across Italy, Portugal and Spain, depressing wages across the continent. And especially as German labor unions assented to low pay to maintain the country’s export dominance.

Starting in mid-2014, a precipitous descent in global oil prices ravaged Norway’s energy industry and the country’s broader manufacturing trades. That year, Norwegian wages increased by only 1 percent after accounting for inflation, and by only a half percent the next year. In 2016, wages declined in real terms by more than 1 percent.

Peder Hansen did not relish the idea of a smaller pay raise, but neither was he terribly bothered.

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Mr. Hansen at his home in Kristiansand. This year, his union accepted a raise of 2.5 percent, a tad above inflation.

Credit
David B. Torch for The New York Times

Mr. Hansen works at a nickel refinery in Kristiansand, a city tucked into the nooks and crannies along Norway’s southern coast. His plant is part of Glencore, the mammoth Anglo-Swiss mining firm. He sits at a computer terminal, controlling machinery.

Much of what the refinery produces is destined for factories in Japan that use the nickel to make cars and electronics. Lately, nickel prices have been weak, limiting revenue. This year, Mr. Hansen’s union accepted an increase of about 2.5 percent — a tad above inflation.

“If they were to increase our wages too much, the company would lose customers,” Mr. Hansen says. “It’s as simple as that.”

He exudes faith that his company’s fortunes will be shared with him, because he has lived it. At 24, he earns 630,000 kroner a year, with overtime, or more than $80,000. He owns a two-story house in Kristiansand, and he has two cars, an Audi and an electric Volkswagen. The lives of company executives seem not far removed from his own.

“The C.E.O. of the plant is a humble person,” he said. “You can say ‘Hi.’”

But for some workers, the plunge in oil prices has tested faith in the Norwegian bargain.

In Arendal, a coastal town of wooden houses clustered around a harbor, Bandak, a local employer, succumbed to the crisis. The company made equipment connecting oil pipelines. As orders grew scarce in late 2014, a series of layoffs commenced. Workers ultimately agreed to a 5 percent pay cut to spare their jobs.

“We wanted to keep all of our employees, so we stuck together,” said Hanne Mogster, the former human resources director. “There was a lot of trust.”

But the company soon descended into bankruptcy. And that was that for the 75 remaining workers.

Per Harald Torjussen, who worked on Bandak’s assembly line, managed to find a job at a nearby factory at slightly better pay.

Still, his confidence has been shaken.

“It feels a lot less secure,” Mr. Torjussen says. “We may be approaching what it’s like in the U.S. and the U.K.”

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