Working conditions and social dialogue — Norway

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 02 April 2008

Kristine Nergaard and Steinar Aasnæss

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

In the Norwegian working life, the tradition for social dialogue in issues that concerns working conditions (broadly defined) are strong, and vested in law as well as in collective agreements. The social partners emphasises the importance of the activities that take place as part of the tripartite Agreement for an Inclusive Working Life, both at national, sector and company level. However, both unions and employer organisations also stress the importance of social dialogue over working conditions and company development more generally. It is argued that the successful outcome of such co-operative measures depends on the parties being able to anchor the social dialogue at enterprise level.

A. Mapping of existing research and administrative reports

1. Surveys

Present a summary of the survey(s), its findings and methodology, including any caveats about the researchPresent, where relevant, the exact wording of the questions that address the relationship between working conditions and social dialogue

This section could also include secondary analyses based on survey data

1.1 Surveys that covers the whole labour market


The Norwegian Working Environment Surveys (usually conducted every 3 years) are surveys carried out among employees, and do not directly address the issue of social dialogue.

A survey from 2001 (Torvatn and Molden, 2001, "HMS-tilstanden i Norge i år 2001", Sintef) included questions where employees were asked to give their opinion on the degree to which company level trade union representatives (shop stewards), safety officials and management contribute to a better working environment and safety at the work place. The survey also maps the views of employees with regard to the effectiveness of the present working environment legislation. The same survey also asked if steps had been taken to improve health and safety over the last 12 months, and if yes - the bodies that had been involved in the introduction phase as well as in the implementation of such measures (among others company level union, managing director, shop stewards, safety officials etc).


  • "Who are pushing for better working environment and safety at your workplace?" Unions were mentioned by 36 percent of the respondents with regard to working environment and 38 percent with regard to safety matters; the management by 42 percent (working environment) and 44 percent (safety at the work place) while 45 percent mentioned safety officials in both questions. There is no information on whether there actually are unions present at the work place or not.
  • At workplaces where such initiatives had been taken (see above), shop stewards were mentioned by 21 percent/24 percent of the respondents (initiative/implantation). Safety officials were listed as active by 39/43 percent of the respondents, whereas the managing director was mentioned by 48/60 percent.

This shows that safety officials are the most active employee representatives in such matters, but do also show that shop stewards will be involved in a number of cases.

Surveys among employers

In the Norwegian Work Place Relations Survey (ABU 2003) interviews have been conducted with managing directors or HR-directors in 2350 private and public sector companies with more than 10 employees. Also here a few issues with relevance to social dialogue and working conditions are addressed. One question concerned the extent to which the union and the employer/enterprise had entered into negotiations on working time arrangements, training as well as more traditional issues such as pay, productivity and pensions. Another question concerned the existence of co-operative/consultative bodies such as a contact committee in the company, and the extent to which these had dealt with the sickness absence level, reorganisations, competence issues etc over the last 2 years.


  • Issues dealt with in co-operative/consultative bodies: A little less than 50 percent of the private sector companies had discussed issues connected to sickness absence in such bodies over the last 2 years. Around 40 percent of the companies had discussed issues related to competence needs and re-organisations (all companies, incl. those without this kind of bodies). 60 percent of companies with more than 10 employees had some kind of co-operative/consultative body – the implication is that 60-70 percent of the relevant companies (i.e. companies with this kind of bodies) had discussed issues such as sick leave, competence and reorganisations.
  • Issues dealt with in firm level negotiations: Putting such issues on the bargaining agenda means a stronger role for the unions. Among companies with a union presence (79 percent), 36 percent had entered into negotiations on training, 45 percent had negotiated working time issues, 32 percent on reorganisations and 30 percent on downsizing.

Studies based on this survey also include trade union presence/union density as an (possible) explanatory factor in the analysis of the probability of companies introducing measures to improve employability, measures to ease the situation for sick employees, training etc. These findings are among others referred to in Torp, H (ed), 2005, "Nytt arbeidsliv, Medvirkning, inkludering og belønning." Gyldendal Akademisk.

Other surveys among companies/employers

The strong tradition for company level (as well as sector/central level) social dialogue in Norway means that the role of unions, shop stewards and co-operative/consultative bodies often are on the agenda, as well as touched upon in surveys.

Sick absence and firm' social responsibility (Trygstad 2006)

One of the topics discussed is the relationship between social dialogue/co-operation and the working environment/prevention of sickness absenteeism. Both employer representatives as well as employee representatives are interviewed. Among the questions asked were: are there co-operative/consultative bodies present, how often do these bodies meet, which issues are discussed and have the employee representatives been involved in reorganisation processes (if such had taken place). In addition, a number of questions regarding sickness absence and measures to reduce it were asked.


Companies with Inclusive Work Life agreements, IW-agreements, i.e. an arrangement that springs out of the tripartite initiative to enhance a more inclusive work life, see below) and collective agreements tend to take more 'social responsibility" for employees who need their work place adjusted due to illness/disabilities. It also seems as if a well-developed social dialogue (characterised by collective agreements and regular meetings between employee representatives and management) means that working environment and sickness absence issues more often are on the company's agenda.

Is there a predominance of cases or more information available in certain sectors? Are any particular issues emerging? Has any monitoring or evaluation been carried out?

We have no impression that there is more information available on certain sectors, but no monitoring/evaluation on the number of studies or cases with social dialogue has taken place. Lately a number of studies have been concerned with sick absence, "seniors" and ways to better include migrant workers and people with disabilities into the working life.

2. Qualitative research

This section could include case studies and specific research work

Present a summary of the research, its findings and methodology, including any caveats about the research

Norway has a long tradition for social dialogue. The Nordic model is described as a well organised democratic system where the social partners and the government share a joint commitment to contribute to increased welfare for all. By facilitating mutual and confident cooperation between the social partners in the workplace, the employers can obtain reduced costs related to an improved work environment, an increased drive among employees, reduced sick leave and less work-related injuries. The Nordic model with strong relations and a close network among the social partners, is contributing to the social capital (Coleman, J. (1988) Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital American Journal of Sociology 94 Supplement S95-S120. University of Chicago.) of the enterprise. The characteristics of the work environment at the company level in Norway are predictable relations, the willingness to find a solution, large degree of trust between the social partners, reduced costs because of good work climate, strong relations between local and central trade unions and employer organizations. In addition, the existence of strong legal structures as well as a strong commitment by government towards tripartite cooperation strengthens social capital.

The Norwegian qualitative research tradition on "social dialogue" is to a large degree based on active participation in processes at firm level (either as facilitators/advisors or by developing instruments). In the mid-60s a program called “Samarbeidsforsøkene” ("The cooperative efforts") was initiated by the social partners. In this was a co-operative venture politicians/authorities and researchers were invited to cooperate in the initiation of enterprise development. The projects included o rganizational development (OD), particularly the development of theory around participative work design structures including the application of Socio-Technical Systems principles and techniques to the humanization of work. The following worker’s demands were focused upon, the need for job content, the need for learning new tasks, the need for decisionmaking, the need for respect (at least interpersonal support and respect to a certain extent), the need for a meaningful work, and the need for seeing the job commpatible with a future wished fo (Emery FE, Thorsrud E, Trist E.Form and content in industrial democracy : some experiences from Norway and other European countries). The initiative was instrumental in brining about the new Work Environment act (1977), the introduction of the employee representation on company boards (Limited Liability Companies Act 1976) and the inclusion, into the private sector Basic Agreement, of provisions on social dialogue on enterprise development. From 2002 this set of common initiatives, (i) helped to reduce sick-leave, (ii) improve work environment training, (iii) strengthen equal rights and (iv) enterprise development was integrated into the same organisation ( link to homepage). The practical implementation of the program is yet seen.

The social partners agreement based joint action program (Hovedorganisasjonenes Fellestiltak) has been the foundation of research programs on enterprise development (BU2000 from 1994, VS 2010 from 2000 and VRI from 2007). These programs have been co-financed by the Norwegian Research Council, relevant Ministries and the social partners. The empathies of work organisation as a central topic when planning for the research program BU2000, in particular cooperation and the need for systematic work on development issues. The module implemented by Rogalandsforskning (today: International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS)) had a strong focus on methods based on cooperation, procedures and working methods in the enterprises opening for the addressing of work environment as an integrated part of the enterprise development activities. The enterprises established forums where both development and work environment could be discussed, in particular §12 of the Work Environment Act (the paragraph addressing psychosocial and organisational work environment (now §4.2 and 4.3 in the revised Working Environment Act). Based on the experiences drawn from BU2000, the emphasis on common tools and working methods was not enough to achieve a united effort on the work environment and enterprise development. The projects have shown that an important premise for success is the involvement of the right participants in the project. In relation to the organisational work environment a strong involvement of employee representatives is necessary for success. The BU2000 experiences also show that involvement of work environment supervisors and consultants is an important prerequisite.

The experiences from BU2000 and VS2010 show how the Basic Agreement(s) between the social partners has served as a provider of premises for research and development in the enterprises, with the research institutions acquiring a role as agents for change. BU2000 is also an example of how the commitment vested in the “company level development work”and carried out in a research program has provided an environment for a joint initiative on enterprise development and work environment improvements Arbeidsmiljø og partsbasert foretaksutvikling. Erfaringer fra nordiske utviklingsprosjekter. TemaNord 2005:545, Copenhagen, publication in Nordic languages.

Is there a predominance of cases or more information available in certain sectors? Are any particular issues emerging? Has any monitoring or evaluation been carried out?

In Norway the tripartite initiative to enhance a more inclusive work life (IW) involves among other things efforts to establish IW-agreements in companies. From this initiative, several research projects have emerged (link to the original tripartite IW-agreement in English). Over the last years Norwegian (social science) research programs have to a large degree been directed at issues related to questions on how to improve the mechanisms of inclusion in the working life. A number of evaluations have been carried out; among others evaluations of the research based development programs BU2000 and VS2010.

3. Administrative reports

Public reports, such as reports from the health and safety authority or labour inspectorate, including reports drawn up by consultancy firms made on demand and financed by public authorities may be a relevant source of information on the relationship between working conditions and social dialogue

Do reports from Labour Inspectorate / Health and Safety Authorities exist where the absence of dialogue between the two sides of industry on OHS matters is mentioned? (present the findings briefly)

In 2005 the Labour Inspectorate undertook an inspection campaign in 22 public and five private hospitals. This campaign was evaluated by the Work Research Institute (AFI) (Forsberg EM, Wathne CT, Sørensen BA, Gamperiene M. Evaluering av tilsynsmetodikken i Arbeidstilsynets God Vakt!-kampanje, link to report in Norwegian). Recommendations for later work called for a stronger involvement by company level social partners, in particular when defining the level of cooperation on work environment, and to what extent there is a common opinion regarding work environment challenges and status.

The Labour Inspectorate has also undertaken a campaign in 2002 among municipal units within home-based care. An evaluation report is found here with a summary in English. Here the role of the safety deputies was discussed. The campaign indicated that the safety deputies often experienced that the employer forgot to involve them, and too sparce contact with the trade union officials was a problem. It was suggested to establish a forum where the safety deputies could meet and discuss topics of common interest.

The Labour Inspectorate will normally consider situations where the communication/dialogue between safety deputies or working environment committees do not work well/needs improvement.

Traditional social dialogue (i.e. between trade union representatives/shop stewards and the employer) will normally be a matter for the social partners, not the Labour Inspectorate. If this type of social dialogue does not work well, the sector level social partners (if any) will normally be involved.

Is there predominance in a certain sector?

No information available. The Labour Inspectorate will focus on sectors/work places where the risk is considered high.

When so, mention the five most quoted sectors.

See above.

The role of Labour Inspectorate in an advice / information role to get the social dialogue going whether establishment-specific or not.

This will not be the role of the Labour Inspectorate.

Is the gender aspect taken up in OHS, is it taken up in the OHS social dialogue, who puts it on the agenda and what is its outcome, if any?

No info on this.

B. Actual examples of social dialogue influencing working conditions

The objective of this section of the CAR is to find out the views of the social partners on the influence of social dialogue on working conditions and to report real-life examples of where social dialogue has had an influence on working conditions. Our focus is on the “success stories”, where there has been a positive and reported outcome, but we would also welcome “failure stories” where, for whatever reason, social dialogue either broke down or did not have the desired influence on working conditions, or a particular intervention was tried and failed. Bear in mind that failure stories may be under-reported and success stories may be over-reported.

Please limit your answers to this second section (questions 4 and 5) to 2,500 words. National centres are asked to report at least two, but no more than four, cases in this framework. Please report, where possible, cases that are considered to be typical for your country.

4. Examples of social dialogue

Please ask the social partners in your country for what they consider to be successful or unsuccessful examples of social dialogue influencing working conditions and the criteria on which they make these judgements. This section could also include social partner views on which case studies are representative of the situation in your country.

The Agreement on an Inclusive Working Life (IW-agreement)

The most encompassing present example of social dialogue on working conditions is the Agreement on an Inclusive Working life (IW-agreement), and the many activities undertaken under this framework agreement. The IW-agreement was signed in October 2001 and renewed from 1 January 2006 for the period 2006-2009 (NO0110107F; NO0311104F; NO0601101N). Important goals of the agreement are to reduce sickness absence and the number of people on disability pension by among othe things making adjustments to the work place/work situation. Other goals worth mentioning are that of retaining older employees in employment longer than today and to better the employment situation of migrant workers.

The parties to the agreement are the major trade union confederations and employer organisations in Norway, and the Government (9 employer and employee organisations, covering all parts of the labour market). The implication is that the agreement covers most parts and sectors of the labour market. Firms/establishments have to enter into individual company level IW-agreements (based a standardised agreement formula).

The IW-agreement as such is a framework agreement at the central level (covering all sectors and organisations). In addition companies/establishments sign individual agreements with the local Labour and Welfare Office (NAV-office). The implication is that not all employer-organised companies are IW-companies, and companies out-side the employer organisations may be IW-companies. Among the responsibilities of the social partners (at sector and national level) is the recruitment of (more) companies to join the IW effort, and to distribute information on IW activities. The national level social partners (confederations) are also active in the IW work by developing new instruments together with the relevant public bodies. Among these are measures that shall ensure a closer follow up of employees on sick leave and the establishment of NAV Workplace Centres with special competence to advice companies on issues such as sick absence, senior employees etc.

The main focus of IW activities is the company level and measures to enhance "more inclusive workplaces". Individual firms sign up by concluding firm level agreements (with the local NAV Workplace Centres). This gives the employer access to a number of special measures/help from the Labour and Welfare Offices (see NO0110107F; NO0311104F; NO0601101N). The importance of involving shop stewards and safety officials in the IW-activities at company level is stressed in the agreement, as well as by the social partners more generally.

The success of the IW-agreement are subject to substantial debate, especially as the reductions in sickness absence rates have not been as substantial as presupposed in the first IW agreement. However the Norwegian social partners (employer organisations as well as trade unions) strongly support the agreement (NO0609019I ; NO0611029I), and argue that the agreement and the co-operative measures, and the social partners involvement, have contributed to increased awareness about the challenges connected with an inclusive working life, and has also substantially changed the way employers, employees and doctors deal with sickness absences. It is also argued (from the trade unions) that the IW-agreement has contributed to give unions /employee representatives a stronger position in issues such as sick absence, senior employees etc, as the agreement state that the parties should cooperate on such issues.

Example of branch-level IW-activites (the Spekter-area)

In the 2004 Spekter (former NAVO) Basic Agreement renegotiations the parties (3 employee organisations and the Spekter employer organisation which organises among deregulated state enterprises and the state owned hospitals among others) agreed to co-operate on 3 earmarked issues: recruitment of migrant workers and inclusion of these at the workplace, development of a culture of cooperation at enterprise level and competence issues. The committee has developed information material on these issues as well as having arranged seminars. The booklet/guide on recruitment policies contains among others examples on "best practices", i.e. advice from enterprises that have succeeded in recruiting and integrating migrant workers. The parties have together initiated research and seminars on competence development. A booklet/guide on how to develop good cooperative relations between the parties at company level will be published. The employer organisation (Spekter) stress the long term positive effects of cooperating on such issues, as well as the importance of linking such initiatives to the challenges and needs at the enterprise level (adapt for activates at local level).

The LO-NHO joint action programme (Hovedorganisasjonenes Fellestiltak, HF)

A number of projects and activities have been initiated under the HF umbrella. The HF (Hovedorganisasjonenes Fellestiltak) is a number of co-operative measures between The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) and The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO), based in the chapter XVIII in the LO-NHO Basic Agreement 2007-2009. These measures includes both branch programs, regional based programs, as well as projects that only cover a single company. The projects are financed partly through funds allocated by the social partners, partly by the participating companies themselves. The projects cover among others issues such as working conditions, sickness absence rates, and work organisation and competence development. Moreover, LO/NHOs bipartite activities within the IW-agreement as well as some other collaborative activities are also organised under the HF umbrella. The social partners initiate projects together, and the activities are based on social dialogue/co-operation both at central level, sector level/regional level (where relevant) and at company level. The program covers the LO/NHO agreement area (the funds come from the LO-NHO collective agreements), and trade unions and employer organisations within the LO-NHO agreement area (involving substantial parts of the private sector).

Project groups etc. will always involve both employer representatives and trade union representatives, and the program is administered by a full-time representative from LO and NHO. Branch- and sector level projects will normally involve a number of participating companies (partly entailing activity within each company, partly common seminars etc). This type of activities have long traditions in Norwegian Working Life (especially within the LO-NHO area), and are seen – by the social partners – as an important instrument to develop the social dialogue as well as contributing to enterprise development and improvements. The importance of involving company level employers and union representatives, as well as the employees, is also stressed. Projects are financed partly by the participating companies, and partly through funds that the social partners (LO and NHO) have at their disposal.

Some examples are:

  • A larger producer of meat with 30 sites all over Norway undertook a company wide project in the period 2002-2005 (report in Norwegian). The focus of the project was to improve the work carried out in relation to work environment and safety (HMS). By the end of the project period sickness absence was down from 12,5 to 9,0 percent and new HMS-networks were established. The social partners in the company concluded that the program had triggered a common awareness of the work carried out in relation to work environment and safety, and the importance of work environment to the companies’ added value and results. The program has generated increased openness not only on matters dealt with in a proper way, but also on matters not considered to be under control. The program had strengthened the feeling of belonging, and the wish to do a better job.
  • In another project initiated by social partners in the hotel- and restaurant sector, the main idea was to improve cooperation between the company level social partners through joint work on development projects in five enterprises (link to report in Norwegian). The project improved the climate for cooperation and several new ideas regarding work organisation and work environment was implemented.
  • In connection with a third project undertaken in a nationwide service organization (cleaning, health care and catering) the idea was to establish a personnel policy opening up for deferred retirement among older workers in the company. The project was carried out in the period 2003-2006 in two locations of the enterprise in two different counties in Norway. The report from the project is not yet available. This initiative was also motivated by the tripartite IW-agreement.

A forth project supported by HF (as well as by other funds) is "Friskbuss" (bus transport). The aim of the project (where a number of private and public bus companies participated) was finding better ways of organising working time (shift work arrangements) and also how to improve organisational aspects of the working environment (lack of information, stress etc). It was introduced against the backdrop of increasing health problems among bus drivers (high sickness absence rates, large numbers on disability pensions etc). Special attention was given to the development of better and less stressful working time arrangements, as well as how to reduce stress by improving the communication and interaction between bus drivers and their first-line managersIn all these projects (and others) an important principle has been that projects should be initiated and run by the social partners together, and that social dialogue is an important factor in achieving results. It might also be added that latest development is that LO and HSH (the Federation of Norwegian Commercial and Service Enterprises, HSH) have decided to organise their joint initiatives in the same way as the LO-NHO joint action programme.

State sector

In the 2006-2008 State sector collective agreement (Hovedtariffavtalen i Staten), the parties agreed to earmark NOK 10 000 000 (ten million NOK) for joint training and development measures. Employer representatives and trade union representatives/shop stewards will be trained in what is labeled "cooperation competence". The parties (The Ministry of Government Administration and Reform and the 4 main state employee confederations) have together developed the measures, and in September 2007 conferences will be arranged in different parts of the country. An implication of the many reorganisations that have taken place (and that will continue to take place) in the public sector, is that it is important to focus on the company level parties, and their understanding of the importance of good cooperative relations in order to improve both the public services as well as achieving good working places/working conditions. In other words: the parties stress the importance of a good social dialogue at workplace level in order to achieve both improved services as well as better working places/working conditions.

5. Social partner views

Please ask the social partners in your country for their general views on the type, nature and quality of the social dialogue in your country in terms of its influence on working conditions. This could include, for example, their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the social dialogue, as it is organised in your country, as a tool for improving working conditions. Please report who you have contacted and in what form. The level of organisation (confederation, federation) that is relevant may differ between countries, although it is most likely that the organisation to be contacted will be a peak organisation.

We have contacted all the main confederations/employer organisations in Norway by email (4 trade union confederations and 5 employer organisations). Answers were given partly by mail, partly by telephone, in addition to one meeting.

The general feedback is that the social partners stress the importance of the strong Norwegian tradition for institutionalised social dialogue, (with special emphasise on social .dialogue at the company level) d the fact that this dialogue also includes co-operative measures at the company level. The tradition for tripartite or bipartite cooperation on issues such as sickness absence, competence development or company/branch development means that it is easier to reach consensus when new initiatives/measures are to be implemented. The importance of a good social dialogue at company level is also stressed (and the need to involve employees as well). This is what separates successful projects from those that are not so successful (for instance relevant for the HF projects, see paragraph 4). Close dialogue over years on issues that are not controversial (building up trust), also makes it easier to reach agreement on other issues (pay bargaining etc). The parties also regard such programs as the Joint Action Programme and the Research Programmes mentioned above, not only as a practical way of organising development projects, but a national strategy for policy development.

A number of employee organisations stress the importance of involving more organisations than LO/NHO in the tripartite social dialogue (for instance the IW-activities but also others) (NO9908145F).

Kristine Nergaard, Fafo and Steinar Aasnæss, STAMI

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