Immigrant labour, pros and cons

The row of houses on our street have been slowly but surely changing colour since June. That’s when the painting job began. The styre or steering committee for our local housing association had decided that this was the year to freshen up the area and paint the houses. This is all paid for out of the mandatory monthly fee that each household pays to the housing association. It’s a good system in a socialist sort of way, all houses are painted in one round in pre-agreed colours.

Think of the problems this prevents with neighbours on both ends of the odd behaviour spectrum, you know, the lazies who would never paint versus the enthusiasts who paint in colours that all the neighbours incessantly complain about in low voices. No chance of that here on this street and the mature pragmatic me thinks that’s not a bad thing really. Our house has transitioned from a nice warm Mediterranean yellow to a fine durable grey, with a bit of white trim to keep it interesting.

I would imagine that the tendering process for painting contracts like this is very competitive. I only began to wonder about it when the painters came teeming onto the street. It didn’t take long to figure out that the painters were all Polish. They gathered jovially in the mornings, laughed and talked in Polish, probably like they were at home in Poland in these short windows when they were all together. I have to admit, they are a formidable force when they get together and you’d be forgiven for pinching yourself and saying, where in the world am I exactly.

If we want to talk to these guys, it has to be either in English or Polish. I did chat to some of them now and again, some were more comfortable than others speaking English. Most, if not all of them were in Norway to work as hard as they could so that they could send money home to their families in Poland, the same as many immigrants the world over. One lovely guy working on our house had moved from Scotland a few weeks earlier to find work and had found this job through contacts. He was very pleased to have landed on his feet and the pay was decent.

The scaffolding went up, the street lamps came down and the power hosing started. These guys worked hard. They arrived in the morning at approx. 8am and there was still a crew there at 6pm or 7pm most evenings, Monday to Saturday. They never left the street during the day. There’s a closed in trailer perma-parked on the side of the street with kitchen facilities and a toilet so they have all they need to settle in and work each day.

As many Norwegians will tell you, it would be hard to staff a job like this with Norwegians, this is casual/temporary work that’s relatively low-skilled, paid on an hourly rate. Cheaper foreign labour like this makes the capitalist world go around, cheap labour means stiff competition which drives down consumer prices.  The consumer wins and everyone’s happy, in theory anyway. The interesting thing here is that there is no general minimum wage in Norway, wage levels tend to be negotiated by trade unions and are set by industry.

However, minimum wages have been introduced in certain sectors to protect workers, sectors including construction, cleaning, fish processing, agriculture, freight transport and a few more.  In these sectors, there are collective agreements designed to prevent foreign workers from being given poorer pay and working conditions than are usual here in Norway.  The Labour Inspection Authority will come down hard on any employers breaching this, with the power to stop work, impose injunctions and fines or even call in the law. So in short, the painters on our street would be paid a good rate for the job they were doing.

Then one day after about 8 painting weeks, something strange happened. The familiar faces were gone and there was a new set of painters who had taken their place. Alpha team was gone and Beta had moved in. Our house wasn’t finished yet and we were starting to tire of the garden and balcony invasion on the long warm summer evenings when we wanted to sit out and enjoy the sun. It felt like the painters never went home and Beta were not as cheerful and chatty in their work as Alpha. They were clearly under enormous pressure to meet deadlines.

I happened to meet Nice-Guy-who-moved-from-Scotland on the street one morning, he had been firmly in the Alpha team so I asked him why the first team had left so suddenly. There was a problem with wages he said, some workers hadn’t received any in two months because there was a dispute over the work done. The work had passed the quality assurance tests so they were clearly frustrated and angry about the situation, who wouldn’t be.

This had absolutely nothing to do with the steering committee, it apparently sat with the guy who won the painting contract and employed the labourers. I can’t say if he was playing hardball, or perhaps had cash flow problems: whatever it was, there were no wages. And here were these temporary workers who speak no Norwegian and poor English which means they can only really function here when with other Polish workers. It’s a vulnerable situation. Would the boss have done the same if he employed Norwegian workers? Probably not, I speculate, as he would be in court and in the media faster than you could say, ‘give me my money’.

I believe it all got sorted as the Norwegian supervisor went to lawyers on his and the workers behalf. Such messing people around here would be given very short shrift as workers’ rights are paramount.  From a migrant perspective, I think it’s a situation that workers can find themselves in anywhere if they operate only in their own language in stand-alone groups. While there is no question that they are paying taxes and contributing to the state, it’s difficult for them to receive the social and legal benefits and protections of a society that they choose to have minimal interaction with.

To withhold fairly earned pay from your workers is an idiotic, immoral thing to do anywhere but here in Norway, where reputation is everything, it’s very stupid. Once the word gets out that you treat people badly and dance with the law, there’ll be few contracts coming your way. Alpha team never did come back, I’m sure there is word-of-mouth intelligence within the temporary labouring community that would rival Interpol – who is good to work for, who you should steer clear of.  Beta team (with some Gamma adjustments) are still working hard, day in day out.

And the grey with white trim is growing on me, it’s a new lease of life before the long winter.

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