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Polish immigrants in Norway – with only one foot in the labour market
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Polish immigrants in Norway – with only one foot in the labour market

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Polish labour immigrants travelled to Norway rather than to Sweden or Denmark, which were closer, when Poland joined the EU in 2004. Most did not intend to stay, but after some years their families joined them in Norway. Because of short work contracts, the immigrants are in a kind of limbo. They have a job, but little prospect of promotion.

“The authorities are spending billions of kroner to integrate asylum seekers, teaching them Norwegian and various social skills. None of this is available to labour immigrants or their families,” says Kristian Tronstad, who has been researching Polish labour immigrants in Norway.

Most of Norway’s expertise on what is by far Norway’s largest immigrant group recently gathered for a seminar at Oslo’s Litteraturhuset. No-one knows for sure exactly how many Poles live in Norway. If you include those who say they are in the country on a temporary basis (but who often stay for longer), the number is around 120,000. Other countries have received more Poles, like the UK, Germany and France, but in those countries the Poles represent a small minority of the population.

Ireland is the only European country which can compete with Norway for receiving more Polish immigrants per capita. Outside of Europe you will find 10 million people of Polish heritage in the USA, three million in Brazil and one million in Canada. The population of Poland itself is nearly 38 million, and if you count everyone with Polish heritage you get around 60 million people.

 Map

Poland is in black. Countries with more than one million people of Polish heritage are red, those with more than 500,000 are orange and those with more than 100,000 beige. Source: Wikipedia

The latest wave of Polish emigration took place when the country became an EU member in 2004. Kristian Tronstad, who works at NIBR – The Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research – has studied Polish labour migration together with Swedish author Pernilla Andersson. They point to the paradox that more Poles chose Norway over Sweden, even though the latter is closer and had no restrictions.

Christian Tronstad

“The main reason is the strong Norwegian labour market. Between 2004 and 2010 employment rose with 280,000, from 2.3 to 2.6 million people. 56 percent of the new workers were immigrants,” says Kristian Tronstad (above).

Jon Horgen Friberg has a PhD in Polish labour immigration and has carried on working with the topic at the Norwegian Fafo foundation. He wants to kill the myth that Poles came to Norway because they already knew the country from having worked there as strawberry pickers.

“That was actually one of my working hypothesis, since networks are important when it comes to migration. For many years it was possible for seasonal workers to come to Norway during the summer months to work in agriculture. That is why this was one of our questions in a survey. It turned out that there were few who had that experience.”

Instead, the Polish labour immigration is mainly a question of demand. Norwegian companies travelled to Poland and offered people jobs.

“Most of those who came to Norway did it because they had been offered a Norwegian job while they were still living in Poland. Norwegian employers have been the gatekeepers. This is not like in Canada, where the authorities impose certain criteria and quotas for how many people in each job category are allowed into the country to start looking for jobs,” says Jon Horgen Friberg.

Mainly manual labour

The rules for staffing agencies were eased in Norway around the same time, and according to Jon Horgen Friberg, Norwegian trade unions did not manage to keep up. The number of Poles arriving in Norway meant that certain trades, like construction, cleaning and the food industry ended up with a large proportion of Polish workers. While 19 percent of Norwegians are manual labourers, 82 percent of Poles in Norway are the same. 

“It is eight times more likely that a Polish worker is working for a staffing agency compared to a Norwegian worker,” says Kristian Tronstad.

The uncertainty this leads to – never having a contract which lasts for more than six months – is the largest problem facing Polish workers in Norway. With limited opportunities to learn Norwegian, social mobility is low too.

“In 2016, just 36 percent of Norwegian employers respected the demand that they should be offering training also for their Polish staff. That is the same level as in 2009, so nothing has happened. Polish workers must pay for their own language tuition,” says Ada Engebrigtsen at Nova, Norwegian Social Research.

In the basement

Jon Horgen Friberg explains how he arrived at a workplace to interview Polish workers, but to his surprise could see none.

“The Poles? They are in the basement,” he was told.

“Workers are often divided into different teams, with Poles only working alongside other Poles. They are paid 30 percent less than Norwegian workers, and employers steal much of their working hours by making them work unpaid overtime,” he says.

“You could say the Poles have been very successful at getting one foot into the Norwegian labour market. But they are struggling to get the other foot in.”

Chart: Jon Horgen Friberg, FAFO

The chart shows how many of the Poles who came to Norway a certain year remained the year after. 50 percent of those who came in 2005 returned already after one year (yellow line). Of those who came in 2011, almost 90 % remained after one year (purple line).

For each new group arriving in Norway, the number of people settling for good increases. Those who first came to Norway had no intention of staying.

The aim for them was to establish a family by earning money abroad. But when they came home and saw that their children no longer recognised them, the family moved to Norway. Later generations came to a Norway which already had many Poles living there. They first integrate into the Polish population, before starting to integrate into the Norwegian population, says Jon Horgen Friberg.

Jon Horgen Friberg

Is a researcher at the Norwegian Fafo foundation. He participated at a seminar on Polish lives in Norway, at the Oslo Litteraturhuset. It was hosted by the Oslo and Akershus University College, HIOA, on commission from Norwegian and Polish authorities

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