Why is Norway an important country to include in the Research On Workforce Mobility network? A starting point.

Karen Christensen, Norway

Norway and immigration


One of the most important characteristics of Norwegian society today is that it has become a country with a high percentage of immigrants. Until 1975 when Norway implemented the so-called “immigration stop”, which actually introduced immigration regulation and rules, immigrants had free access to the country. In the years between 1975 and 2004, the year when the European Economic Area agreement (the EEA agreement) was extended to new East European countries, immigrants came to Norway for humanitarian reasons (war in the home country, political protection etc.) or because they had family members living in Norway already. After the EEA extension the immigrant group entering Norway started to change as the fastest growth was in economic immigrants coming from East and Central European countries.

Norway has now become one of Europe’s most attractive markets for employment, not least because Norway has not really been affected by the economic crisis. Generally, Norway has a strong economy and a high standard of living. In broad terms, policy on immigration to Norway is characterised by relatively strong regulation of access to the country combined with generous welfare services and programmes once the immigrants have entered the country. The control of immigration, however, is restricted to countries outside the EEC because Norway is committed by the EEC rules regarding free workforce mobility. Thus, like the UK, there is an important difference between immigration of persons from EU/EEC and those outside the European membership from Africa, Asia etc. Norway, moreover, places immigrants from Nordic countries at the top of its immigration hierarchy.

Norway’s immigrant population today

Today the immigrant population in Norway – including both immigrants and those born in Norway to immigrant parents – amounts to 600,900, which is equivalent to 12.2 % of Norway’s population (Statistics Norway 2011). In other words, at least one in ten people in Norway are immigrants. Half of the immigrants are from Asia, Africa, Latin-America and North America and half of them come from European countries.

Among the more than 200 different source countries, Poland is the country with the largest immigrant group in Norway. If those people born in Norway to parents born abroad are included, the biggest groups (in descending order) are from Poland, Sweden, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Germany. There are currently more than 60,000 Polish people living in Norway. A study focusing on work-and-living conditions among Polish people in Oslo has shown that they earn less, have longer working days and generally are in a weaker position compared to Norwegian people working within the same jobs (Friberg & Tyldom 2007).

The Norwegian welfare model

Basically, what is called “The Norwegian welfare model” belongs to the Social Democratic model in Esping-Andersen’s (1990, 1999) three “worlds of welfare capitalism”. The main characteristics of this model are the intention to provide conditions for high employment rates, a well regulated working life (including a so-called three party cooperation between the state, employee- and employer-organisations), a tax financed public welfare system, a universal welfare system with generous benefits and services and an expanded family policy strengthening gender equality (NOU 2011:7). These characteristics, seen together with the fact that immigrants – as soon as they live in the country (and independent of their citizenship) – get full welfare rights to health and care services, and also the kinds of benefits that are offered independently of employment and residence time, makes Norway a very attractive country to move to.

Migrant working in health and social care in Norway

Health and social care is the sector in Norway employing most immigrant workers. Among 523,000 employees 49,000 are immigrants (Statistics Norway). Looking at who the immigrants are within the health and care sector, the biggest group (23%) comes from Africa, Asia etc. while 19% are from Western countries and 9% from Central and East Europe (NOU 2011:7).

Possible avenues of research

Care workers in the municipalities

The Norwegian health and care sector separates health services (called “specialist health services” taking place in hospitals) from “municipal health and care services” controlled and regulated by each municipality (there are currently 430 municipalities in Norway). And over the last decades these municipal services have played a role of increasing importance in Norway’s health and care sector. One factor strengthening this development is the ageing population, as the responsibility for welfare services for older people is placed at this municipal level. In addition, the newly introduced New Norwegian Public Health Act, focusing on ways of strengthening the coordination between specialist services and municipal services, stresses the central future role of the municipalities.

The central role of the Norwegian municipality may be one important argument for focusing possible new research within the ROWM network on the care work force within the municipal sector, to include those working in institutions for older people and disabled people as well as those working in the “open care sector”, the services taking place within people’s homes.
In Norway the municipal long-term care sector includes three main groups in which the migrant workers (with different or equivalent qualifications) may all be of interest to possible new research:

  1. One group includes nurses with three years’ university education. On the same level are also the smaller groups of physiotherapists, occupational therapists and social educators (vernepleiere). The leaders within the municipal health and care sector are primarily recruited from among the nurses. It is also primarily nurses (and not social workers, as in Britain) who do the assessment work leading to decisions about how much help and what kind of help to offer older people and other groups who fulfil the requirements for public services.
  2. Another group has, for many years, included nursing assistants (hjelpepleiere) with one year of education. However, this one year course has been replaced by a three year upper secondary school based education for so-called “care workers” (omsorgsarbeidere, now: “health and social workers” helse- og sosialarbeidere). Thus, this group is placed in between the university educated staff and the unskilled group and it comprises various subgroups.
  3. The third group is the group working most closely with the users of long-term care: home helpers and unskilled care workers in nursing homes etc. Many of them have no care education at all or have only taken short courses.

Unqualified migrant care workers

The Brockmann committee, which wrote a public report on migration and welfare (NOU 2011:7), has stressed that the Norwegian model in particular makes the country attractive to poorly qualified workers because the labour market is well regulated and seeks to protect vulnerable workers. The risk of “social dumping” has been an important Norwegian issue because it is documented that immigrants in Norway seem to unionize less and also are willing to accept working conditions below the Norwegian standard. In the end they can therefore become a threat to the Norwegian model in regard to the care labour market. This Norwegian issue may be another argument for focusing new possible research particularly, but not only, on unqualified migrant care workers in Norway.

Refugees and asylum seekers moving into care work

Another group which may be of interest to possible research would be those refugees and asylum seekers with the potential, especially among the women, of moving into the care work force in Norway.

Since the so called Induction Act passed in 2003 it has become clear that Norway has one (general) immigration policy directed at immigrants in general and a further special policy directed at refugees and asylum seekers, that is vulnerable immigrants. It has been shown that members of these groups typically have lower qualifications, language problems and that in particular in these groups – though it varies – many women are not participating in the labour market due to different cultural values from the Norwegian ones about division of labour in the home and family and the perceived relative importance of women’s participation in paid work.

The existence of a group of female refugees and asylum seekers and their (for some of them, at least) potential inclusion in the care sector through specific labour preparation courses and programmes directed at them by the Norwegian municipalities raises two sets of issues: that of unqualified migrant workers with the potential of becoming care workers, and issues around the impact of gender and cultural values among immigrants on their orientations to paid care work.


Esping-Andersen, G. (1990): The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1999): Social Foundations of Post-Industrial Economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friberg, J. & Tyldom, G. (eds.)(2007): Polonia i Oslo. En studie av arbeids- og levekår blant polakker i hovedstadsområdet (Polonia in Oslo. A study of work-and-living conditions among Polish people in the capital city area.) Oslo: Fafo, Institute for Labour and Social Research. Fafo-report 27.

NOU 2011:7. Norges Offentlige utredninger: Velferd og migrasjon. Den norske modellens framtid. (Norwegian public report: Welfare and migration. The future of the Norwegian model.)