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The story of the common Nordic labour market

The story of the common Nordic labour market

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo:

The common Nordic labour market was established with little fanfare in 1954. Yet over time it has become one of the main pillars of the Nordic cooperation.

The Nordic cooperation picked up pace after the end of WWII. Sweden had removed a work permit requirement for workers from other Nordic countries as early as in 1943. The country had had good experiences from welcoming Norwegian and Danish refugees into its labour force during the war. When it ended, more people flowed into Swedish industry workplaces, which were positioned to be able to export most of what Europe needed for the post-war reconstruction.

That is why the proposal to establish a common Nordic labour market was one of the first initiatives to emerge after the war. Already in September 1945, the issue was raised at a meeting of Nordic social ministers in Copenhagen.

Yet there was no public demand for the creation of a common labour market. In a 1946 survey in Sweden, only 22 per cent answered yes when asked whether other Nordic citizens should be equal to Swedes in the labour market. 47 per cent said no while the rest were undecided.

Denmark and Sweden signed an agreement on a common labour market in October 1946, but the other Nordics did not join.

A golden age

But this was nevertheless a golden age for building bridges between the countries – both figuratively and literally. On 16 June 1946, the Svinesund Bridge between Norway and Sweden was opened. Its construction was nearly complete when war broke out, but it was mined on the Swedish side so it could be blown up in the case of an invasion of Sweden. But rather than German soldiers storming across the bridge, lightning struck and set off the explosives. 

When the bridge had been repaired and opened, traffic was soon so heavy that cars might have to wait four hours to cross. They also had to change from driving on the left in Sweden to on the right in Norway.

The rapid rise in travel also impacted the number of Nordic citizens holidaying in neighbouring countries. Before the war, 36,000 people arrived annually in Norway in cars or buses. By 1957, the number had increased to 700,000. The 1952 passport union also helped the acceleration of tourism.

SAS aircraft

More people also travelled by air. The SAS airline was established on 1 August 1946 when the national airlines of Denmark, Norway and Sweden merged. SAS started flying regular routes on 17 September that year. It soon grew to be the world’s tenth biggest airline and SAS competed with KLM among the European airlines to carry the most passengers across the Atlantic.

The Nordic cooperation suffered setbacks in other areas, however. In 1950, a proposed customs union was voted down by Norway. A Nordic defence union also never saw the light of day. But the Nordic Council was founded and held its first session in Copenhagen in 1953. It had a pretty unique composition of parliamentarians from – after a time – all of the Nordic countries. 

Not a great effect

In the beginning, the common Nordic labour market did not have any great effect. When the Nordic publication Fri Fagbeveglese summed up the first three years in 1957, it wrote:

“The labour force has moved across the border – to and from the country – in approximately the same way as it did before we got a common labour market. There is a tendency that more and more Norwegians travel to Sweden and find work. But the figures we see from this remain pretty much the same.

“On the other hand, the relationship with Denmark has developed in the opposite way. There is a considerable increase in the number of Danes arriving in Norway compared to the number of Norwegians going to Denmark.” 

The reason numbers were not that big at first was also linked to the fact that job seekers’ education for many professions had to be recognised. Nor were entrepreneurs automatically allowed to set up shop across the border.

Barbro Hellerud

The Nordic publication Aktuell wrote about Barbro Hellerud in 1956, two years after the common labour market was introduced.

It can be hard to understand now just how strict some of the rules were. The Norwegian publication Aktuell wrote a story called “The Mrs became a Norwegian School misstress” with the introduction:

The common Nordic labour market in practice: Unreasonably difficult for a Swede to become a teacher in Norway. 

The publication had interviewed the Swedish teacher Barbro Hellerud, who had married a Norwegian. Because of the lack of housing in Oslo, she could not move in with him until 1952. Yet Norwegian education legislation stated that she would have to live in the country for ten years before getting a full timre job as a teacher – even though she was now a Norwegian citizen. She would also have to take a one-year education to be recognised as a teacher. Barbro Hellerud appealed to the Norweigan parliament, which unanimously decided she should be naturalised.

Over many years, Nordic agreements were negotiated to recognise various professional qualifications regardless of which country the person had studied in. This included everything from doctors and dentists to teachers and accountants. These negotiations often took many years.

Emigration from Finland largest

In the 1960s and 1970s, labour migration from Finland to Sweden increased. In 1969 and 1970, the immigration wave was so large that the Finnish population shrunk. Between 1945 and 1999, 530,000 Finns emigrated to Sweden. Half of them later moved back to Finland, according to Arkistojen Portti/Arkivens Port.

For a country like Iceland, the Nordic labour market has always been important. The country experiences large economic fluctuations and became an immigration country later than Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The Kingdom of Denmark has also seen movements between the mainland and Greenland and the Faroe Islands. 

The latest larger movement started in the 2000s when many Swedes found work in the construction industry, healthcare and hospitality in Norway and Denmark. After the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004, Swedish construction workers lost out to workers from Poland and Lithuania. 


Today, we might ask whether the common Nordic labour market is actually underutilised. Only 0.5 per cent of the Nordic population commute to a different Nordic country, compared to the EU average of 1 per cent. The number of people moving to a different Nordic country is also low at 1.7 per cent, compared to the EU average, according to Nordregio.

What does the agreement for a common Nordic labour market really mean? Does it offer more than what is now regulated by other agreements within the EU/EEA and Schengen? 

If you read the agreement on the common Nordic labour market as it appears after a 1982 revision, it only makes up a few points which can be summed up thus:

  • Work permits should not be demanded from citizens from other Nordic countries. 
  • A country must not treat citizens from other Nordic countries worse than its own citizens. This includes wages and working conditions.
  • Employers who wish to recruit labour from a different Nordic country should use the public employment service.
Building bridges

The Svinesund Bridge in 1952, here from the Swedish side. The changeover from driving on the left to the right took place on the Swedish side, just before entering the bridge.  Sweden was one of the last countries in mainland Europe that changed to right hand driving, in 1967. The year  after Iceland also changed.

Refugees found work in Sweden

 Norwegian refugees

Although Sweden remained neutral during WWII, the country welcomed around 200,000 refugees. Among them were 70,000 unaccompanied Finnish children. The idea was to shield them from the horrors of war and to allow them to grow up in a peaceful country. 60,000 people fled from Norway, 30,000 from the Baltics and 16,000 from Denmark. Sweden went from being a country of emigration to one of immigration. In the picture above you see four Norwegian refugees in Uppsala. Photo:


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