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What foreign residents in Norway should know about workers’ unions

Pictured are Sky scrapers in Oslo.
There are several things foreign workers should know about joining a union in Norway. Pictured are sky scrapers in Oslo. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
Norway’s trade unions play a massive part in working life in the country, with almost two million members and many of the countries key industries heavily unionised.

Why are unions so prominent in Norway? 

In Norway, almost two million people are part of unions, according to Statistics Norway. Working life in the country can best be summarised as a system of tripartite cooperation where employers, employee organisations and the government work together on matters regarding employment in the country. This is also referred to as the ‘Norwegian Model’.

For example, the country’s labour minister will meet with the Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) and Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises (NHO) several times a year to discuss issues with working life in Norway, regardless of whether they belong to a pro-union government or not.

However, unions’ influence on the government will change somewhat depending on the political stance of the parties in power. 

Another reason unions have become so prominent is that workplace practices and regulations are a hybrid mix of law and collective union agreements that can apply at both industry and national level.

“Norway is a pretty unionised country, and the regulations surrounding working life in Norway are mainly based on a mixture of laws and collective agreements,” Jan Olav Andersen, union leader for the Electricity and IT Association (ELogIT Forbundet), told The Local.

The most obvious example of this, and perhaps surprising for newcomers to Norway, is that the country doesn’t have a minimum wage governed by law.

Instead, unions will negotiate collective wage agreements with employers or entire industries.

“We negotiate collectively at both a national and a company level. If you are not a member of a union, then you will have to act on your own, as we used to say ‘alone we beg, together we negotiate’,” Andersen said.

READ ALSO: Why Norway doesn’t have a national minimum wage and how fair pay is ensured

What can unions offer workers? 

In addition to negotiating collective agreements for salaries and working conditions, unions can also offer legal support to workers who feel their rights have been infringed upon.

“Unions can also ensure members are able to exercise their legal right to proper working conditions. If you do not get what you are entitled to by law or get unfairly dismissed, you probably will not have the financial power to take your employer to court. We have a huge legal department. If you are a member of a union, we will take care of the costs,” Andersen explained. 

Andersen added that unions also take a proactive approach to ensuring that working conditions are adequately met, rather than waiting for employees to speak up.

“There are double standards, conditions close to slavery. But, with these issues, we have a system and representatives who can uncover these things. These legal officers can take these things to court, and we have the negotiating power to go the clients of companies that break the law,” he said, referencing instances where his union had uncovered foreign workers from Eastern Europe being exploited.

Should I consider joining a union? 

The importance of joining a union may depend on the sector where you work. For example, Norway’s construction industry is highly unionised, whereas its service sector has a much lower membership of unions.  

Additionally, there are also union fees to consider. Payments can be made in a variety of ways, such as a percentage of your gross pay being deducted or paying a fixed amount every month, quarter or year.

The fees will vary from union to union. However, Andersen has stressed that foreign workers should look at unions as another form of insurance.

“I would think if you were a foreign worker in Norway, union membership would be one of the cheapest insurances you could buy. In our union, we charge 1.2 percent of the salary. However, when we have discovered people being paid 100 kroner per hour and when we look into the matter their wages are doubled, so just by handling that issue for them the union fee pays for itself,” Andersen explained.

Aside from the traditional benefits of joining a union, membership also comes with the benefit of being tax-deductible and offering networking opportunities as the organisations are typically centred around a specific sector or profession.

Can foreigners in Norway join a union? 

Foreign workers in Norway have the same rights to join a union as Norwegian employees. Many unions’ websites have a section in English, which will give an overview of the types of professions it covers to make it easier for foreign workers who may not have Norwegian language skills under their belt yet.

Andersen said that he would encourage all foreign workers to join a union to ensure they work under Norwegian conditions.

“We as workers in Norway have come to the position where we are dependent on foreign workers coming to the country. We welcome foreign workers to Norway, but we are very strict that working in Norway means working under Norwegian conditions,” Andersen said.

“Our position is: ‘welcome, but join a union and know your rights,’” he added.


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