Trade unions slow to integrate ethnic minorities

Norwegian trade unions are not doing enough to include ethnic minorities among their ranks, according to a recent report by the FAFO Institute for Labour and Social Research in October 2005. In order to remedy the situation, trade unions must articulate clear central policies, raise competence levels among local representatives, and create the institutional capacity to monitor the needs of workers with an ethnic minority background.


A recent report by the research institute FAFO, published in October 2005, shows that the trade union movement is not doing enough to embrace ethnic minorities. While approximately 100,000 immigrants from non-Western countries are currently employed in the Norwegian labour market, not one of them participated in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) National Congress in 2005. If the composition of the 315 delegates were to represent the ethnic make-up of the Norwegian workforce, there should have been 14 non-western delegates in attendance. FAFA examines how five different national trade unions within LO have responded to the question of including ethnic minorities. It reveals that the Norwegian trade union movement is not fully realising its potential by failing to take into account this group, and that ethnic minorities are strongly underrepresented in the different trade union bodies .


The labour market integration of immigrant workers has been on the political, as well as the trade union, agenda for some time. The labour market participation of non-western immigrants is substantially lower that of Norwegians and immigrants from western Europe (NO0111113F). Studies show that non-western immigrant workers are more often exposed to substandard working conditions than indigenous workers (NO0504101N), and they are also likely to be paid less (NO0301103F). However, and contrary to common belief, both recent survey data and research data indicate that trade union density rates among non-western immigrants in many cases equals, and in a few cases exceeds, density rates among indigenous workers (NO0111113F). The challenge for the unions is two-fold: to promote integration in working life in general, and also to integrate non-western immigrants and encourage them to become active in the organisation. LO, the most dominant employee-confederation in Norwegian working life, states in its action plan for 2001-2005 that the trade union movement’s effort to include ethnic minorities must be intensified in terms of combating ethnic discrimination, strengthening minorities’ position in the labour market, and increasing minority organisational participation. During this period, a number of measures have been initiated to this end.

Strategies to include ethnic minorities

The report of the FAFO study, commissioned by LO, looks into existing and future strategies to include ethnic minorities in the organisational activities of the confederation and its member unions. The report deals with the central question of whether equal treatment is sufficient to achieve equal opportunities, or whether special policies should be applied to overcome barriers and meet the special needs that ethnic minorities might encounter in the labour market. The report shows that there are several obstacles to integration within the labour movement. Only two of the five national trade unions have published information translated into the major immigrant languages, while at the same time little has been done in terms of organising Norwegian language training. In terms of recruitment, with the exception of a small number of company-level trade union branches, there has been no initiation of particular strategies to recruit ethnic minorities as members. Moreover, none of the five national trade unions had any policies on achieving a representative ethnic representation breakdown of the workforce among members and representatives. This would necessitate closer monitoring of ethnicity, which according to the unions, is a fruitless exercise and might violate privacy laws. The low representation of ethnic minorities is seen by many as a 'challenge', but is not regarded as a serious 'problem'. Most informants on all levels also opposed taking affirmative action as a means of increasing minority representation in executive bodies. The strategy of recruiting immigrants that appear to be the 'most Norwegian' as union representatives seems to be a trend among all the associations.

Difficulties in implementing central policy objectives

In terms of implementing the goals of LO’s action plan for 2001-2005 regarding the inclusion of minorities, the main impression from the study is that the implementation efforts have been few and unsystematic between the different levels of the trade union movement. It seems that plans are not easily translated into concrete measures at local and association level, and are hampered by a number of barriers in the organisation. The targets articulated in central documents are in many respects not precise enough, devoid of concrete measures, responsibilities, and timeframes, making them difficult to implement at the local level. Moreover, as mentioned above, most union representatives do not believe this to be a problem. Discrimination-related problems that arise are instead often ascribed to misunderstandings, language barriers, etc. The report states that defining what constitutes discrimination in modern working life, and how to handle such cases on the local level, is an important challenge. More competence (at company level) and central guidelines regarding discrimination against ethnic minorities are necessary. In particular, trade unions, generally speaking, lack a sufficient capacity to understand the needs of different groups of employees - especially when, as is often the case with ethnic minorities, those groups lack strong spokespersons to promote their interests. The fact that a number of unionised minority workers contacted the Center Against Ethnic Discrimination (SMED) instead of their own trade unions when feeling unjustly treated in the workplace is seen to be symptomatic of the problem. The report also states that good will, or political correctness may also often be an impediment to integration, in that it makes trade union representatives fail to acknowledge concrete problems for fear of causing offence or being labelled racist.

One important obstacle is what can only be labelled as an organisational communication deficiency within the trade unions. On the one hand company level union representatives feel that they receive too little guidance from the central organisations regarding minority issues, and call for a more active stance from LO and national trade unions. At the central union level, on the other hand, it is argued that there is little local demand for such policies, and that they were cautious about putting pressure on the local unions in these matters: inclusion and minority issues were regarded as delicate, and central level is apprehensive about forcing a top-down approach on the company level trade unions.


The report acknowledges that all is not bleak in the trade unions movement and states that efforts are being made at different levels to remedy deficiencies. Four of the local trade union branches stand out as having active policies aimed at including minority employees in the organisations and at the workplace. Each of these trade union branches are led by people with a political commitment to, and personal interest in, minority issues, and much of what is being done at the local level can be ascribed to these individuals. It is also worth emphasising in this regards that one of the pioneering unions with regards to the unionisation of ethnic minorities, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers’ Union (Hotell- og Restaurantarbeiderforbundet, HRAF), did not form part of this study. HRAF have established networks for shop stewards with ethnic minority backgrounds, and established forums through which members and shop stewards receive information about union activities in their own languages. It is nevertheless clear from the report that there are structural impediments to the recruitment of members and shop stewards from ethnic minorities, which needs to be overcome before the trade union movement can claim any sort of success in this area. The report concludes that in order to address this issue there needs to be more than good will, and that the trade union movement will have to articulate clear central policies, raise the level of competence among local representatives and create the institutional capacity to monitor the needs of workers with an ethnic minority background. LO, and affiliated unions, cover large parts of the private sector and most of the service sector, and as such is probably more affected by the problems posed by ethnicity than other unions in Norway. However, one must assume that the lack of efforts to integrate ethnic minorities is most probably relevant also in relation to unions outside LO.

In the report the practices and strategies of the Norwegian trade union movement are compared to trade unions in Denmark and the UK. It concludes that the central action plan is in many ways radical, in that it allows for special policies in order to 'level the playing field' for minorities, and it also states their intentions to implement measures to neutralise differences that exist between minority and majority in the labour market, the labour organisations, and society as a whole. However, at local and association level, it is less radical in that the emphasis is on equal treatment, independent of ethnic background, as the best strategy of achieving equal opportunities. As such, according to the authors of the report, the strategies of Norwegian trade unions are closer to those of the Danish rather than the British. (Monica Lund and Håvard Lismoen, FAFO Institute for Labour and Social Research)

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