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Norway renegotiates tri-partite inclusive workplace agreement
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Norway renegotiates tri-partite inclusive workplace agreement

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

‘Everyone’ was there when Norway’s Ministry of Labour staged its annual conference on the inclusive workplace agreement. It was also the first public meeting between the new Director General at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise and the President of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions.

The original inclusive workplace agreement - known in Norway as the IA agreement - was reached in December 2001, after a worrying increase in the level of sick leave at a time when Norway was suffering a considerable labour shortage. 

The agreement has been extended three times already. The current agreement ends in just over a year, but the social partners are already looking at negotiating an extension beyond 2013.  

There has been great progress on two out of the three goals set down in the IA agreement, especially within the private sector. The level of sick leave has fallen and people retire later than before. 

“I believe we have succeeded because of a high level of awareness among business leaders combined with great effort from trade union representatives and from those working with these issues in the companies,” said Kristin Skogen Lund, the Director General at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO).

More bureaucracy

“I don’t want to appear negative, but we hear that bureaucracy surrounding how you record sick leave has increased. We cannot allow the IA agreement to impact negatively on businesses who choose to take part,” she said.

Despite the many good examples, disabled people as a group remain as excluded from working life as before. 

Looking at the 500 people gathered in the main conference hall in Oslo’s largest hotel to listen to government minsters, the speaker of the parliament, researchers and business leaders, you could see why so little is happening to include physically disabled people. It’s been a while since we have seen such a homogenous gathering. The list of participants included nearly exclusively traditionally Norwegian names. Only six names were Eastern European and there was one single Asian name.

“There aren’t many wheelchair users here, or blind or deaf people either,” commented Geir Lippestad, the lawyer best known for defending Anders Breivik, but who for six years served as Secretary-General at the Norwegian Association for the Hard of Hearing. 

Lippestad

At home he has responsibility for six children, two of them are wheelchair users.

“One of my daughters is called Josefine and she is 15 years old. Like many other 13 to 17 year old girls she idolises Justin Bieber. He is the great cultural icon, the one they talk and tweet about.

“This summer he was coming to Oslo to sing and my daughter ordered tickets. She was told ‘wheelchairs are not allowed in that area’.

“‘It is not the wheelchair that wants to see Bieber, it is me,’ said my daughter,” Lippestad told the audience. He used the story to illustrate how people with physical disabilities are still treated as one group and not as individuals.

Nordic inspiration

“We talk about the physically disabled, and not with them,” said Rigmor Aasrud, the Minister for Government Administration, Reform and Church Affairs. She took part in the conference as the Nordic Minister for Cooperation.

“The Nordic region is an important arena for us when we are looking for solutions to our challenges. During Norway’s presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers our focus has been on a sustainable Nordic welfare state,” she said.

Cristina Husmark Pehrsson was invited to talk about Sweden’s experience. She has been responsible for the government report ‘Lower thresholds, high ceilings’ which suggests changes to how Sweden works towards a more inclusive workplace.

Lippestad

Nothing will happen without strong support from both employers and local trade unions. Norwegian MP Dag Terje Andersen talked about Norway’s parliament’s work - not as legislator but as the employer of 450 people, in addition to 169 MPs and as many political advisors. 

“We have decided not to outsource groups who traditionally have been pushed out of working life, so we have retained those who clean and those who serve food. Everybody knows that if you outsource these services you get more square metres which must be cleaned for less money.”

The Norwegian parliament is well within the aims stipulated in the IA agreement when it comes to levels of sick leave, which stood at 4.7 percent in 2011. 

But Dag Terje Andersen took most pride in the cooperation between parliament and Fontenehuset (the Fountain House), a clubhouse for people with psychiatric problems.

“25 people from Fontenehuset have been working in parliament since 2004. Four or five of them have been offered permanent jobs and the rest have got a valuable addition to their CV,” he said.

Lippestad

Norway’s Minister for Labour, Anniken Huitfeldt, spent much of her speech looking at why the number of women on sick leave is rising. 

“No, sick leave is not high only within traditional female occupations. It is also high among female lawyers, truck drivers and salespeople. The differences between the sexes is actually largest among highly educated people below 40.

“Ten years ago 50 percent more women than men were off on sick leave. Now that number stands at 60 percent. This has happened at the same time as men have taken greater responsibility for home and children.”

Risk of conflicting goals

There is, however, a great risk of conflicting goals when you work towards three goals like the IA agreement does, warned Solveig Oseborg Ose from the research institute Sintef Helse.

“We have evaluated the IA agreement several times. The common denominator is increasingly strict rules on the follow-up of people on sick leave,” she said.

“This one-sided focus on people on sick leave means a lot of resources are being used on checks and controls. This is the only thing employers have to do. The rest is voluntary. Often the employer has three choices:

  • To pour a great amount of resources into preventing sick leave.
  • To get rid of those who are sick the most often.
  • Or not to hire people who are at greater risk of becoming ill.
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