Norway: Latest working life developments – Q4 2016

A slight fall in unemployment, new legislation on workplace violence, as well as formal notice from the European Surveillance Authority about the general application of collective agreements, are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Norway in the fourth quarter of 2016. 

Legislative challenges

The Norwegian Parliament adopted several minor legislative amendments in 2016 designed to increase the protection of employees. Violence and threats of violence are important risk factors for long-term sick leave. Such risk factors are present in many occupations and industries, for example health and social work. Violence and threats in the workplace are associated with high costs for society, for businesses and for the workers involved. In 2016, the administrative regulation on the conduct of work (Regulation No. 1357 of 11 December 2011, Forskrift om utførelse av arbeid) was amended, imposing stricter obligations on companies to assess the risk of threats and violence against their employees as well as to train their employees on how to prevent and deal with threats and violence. Furthermore, new regulations to reduce the use of non-competitive clauses in employment contracts were adopted to try to increase mobility in the labour market.

Following several articles in the media on whistleblowing, as well as research findings that the treatment of whistleblowers is getting worse, the government has appointed an expert commission to discuss the need for legislative amendments to protect whistleblowers. The commission consists of researchers, whistleblowers and representatives from employer organisations and trade unions, and is expected to deliver its report in March 2018.

The State institution, the Tariff Board, decided to prolong the general application of several collective agreements. In September, agreements were extended in the construction, electrical and shipbuilding sectors. In order to do this, an assessment is required of whether foreign workers have lower wages and worse labour conditions than Norwegian workers. The Tariff Board concluded that this was still the case within these industries. In November, the Board also decided to continue to extend the agreement for the fish processing industry.

Norway also received formal notice about the general application of collective agreements (PDF). The letter, from the European Surveillance Authority (ESA), comes after Norwegian employers challenged the decisions to extend provisions in collective agreements on travel, board and lodging. The employers said this infringed the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement in relation to shipbuilding, but the Supreme Court ruled the decision as legal in 2013. However, the employer organisation, the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) then turned to the ESA, which has concluded that all decisions on extending agreements with such clauses infringe the EEA agreement. The government must reply to the letter at the beginning of 2017.

The government has decided to transpose the Enforcement Directive (2014/67/EU) into Norwegian law. A bill to do this has been sent to the Parliament and will be discussed in the first half of 2017.

Doctors strike over working time

In 2016, most industry-level sector agreements were renegotiated. Even though most agreements are renegotiated during the spring, some were concluded in the third and fourth quarters. In the fourth quarter, a strike by doctors and other academics in the hospital sector was stopped by the government because it felt that this was a danger to people’s lives and health. The strike was related to a demand for more control of working-time schedules for doctors. The dispute will now go to compulsory arbitration.

White paper on petroleum safety announced

The Norwegian petroleum industry is faced with changes as a fall in oil prices has led to a need to cut costs and become more efficient. Several serious incidents during 2015–2016 on the Norwegian continental shelf have raised questions and sparked debate on safety issues in the industry. The authorities and the parties involved disagree on whether cost reductions are putting pressure on safety. Therefore the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Anniken Hauglie, has asked for a white paper to be prepared, which thoroughly reviews the state of health, safety and the environment in the industry. The white paper will also address topics such as cooperation between the parties, participation and industry accountability.

Commentary

One of the most discussed issues in the fourth quarter seems to be the decision to stop the strike within hospitals. The trade union confederation, Akademikerne, had tried unsuccessfully to limit the strike in order to avoid any risk to life and health. This indicates the problems of using strike action effectively for physicians and other health sector employees. The decision by ESA to send a formal letter of notice to the Norwegian government was met with disappointment by trade union officials. This came around the same time as the dock workers’ trade union lost an important case in the Supreme Court, and where the EEA agreement was one of the main arguments raised in the case. Both these cases will lead to discussions at the congress of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) in May 2017 and could lead to a decision by the congress on whether Norway should try to renegotiate, or terminate, the EEA agreement with the EU.

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