Swedish Migrant Workers and Norwegian Oil Wealth Have Reversed the Centuries-Old Scandinavian Power Dynamic

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 11 2012 4:38 PM

Nordic Sibling Rivalry

How Norwegian oil wealth and Swedish migrant work have reversed the centuries-old Scandinavian power dynamic.

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During the past 10 years, Norway has taken in more foreign labor than any other European country. While Norway accepts plenty of laborers from Eastern Europe, Swedes are easier to employ because of the similarities in language and culture. The near-interchangeability of Swedish and Norwegian makes Swedes an attractive option for jobs at cafes and bars. I’m told that many Norwegian employers actually prefer to hire Swedes to Norwegians, claiming Swedes have a stronger work ethic and commitment to customer service. Further, because of an arrangement between the Nordic countries, Swedes don’t need a work permit or visa to live in Norway.

The Svolvaer festival in Lofoten. The rain hats seem to be a trademark of the place.
The Svolvaer festival in Lofoten. The rain hats seem to be a trademark of the place.

Photo by David Michael.

If there are incentives for Norwegians to hire Swedes, the incentives are even greater for the Swedes. Norway has higher wages, shorter work weeks, and Swedes are granted a tax break for their first two years in the country. The Norwegian krone is also worth more than the Swedish krona. The practical result of Norwegian oil wealth is that Swedes can make almost double in Norway what they would in Sweden. It’s no surprise that they move to Norway for a few months, or even a few years, live cheaply, and return to Sweden like Vikings returning from a season of pillaging. Indeed, it’s been estimated that 90 percent of migrant Swedes return to their homeland within five years. What is somewhat astonishing, though, is the extent to which Sweden has now become the source of menial labor for its erstwhile little brother.

In Lofoten, where I worked for several months as a migrant after a Swedish friend told me I would “become rich like a troll” if I moved there, the service industry is connected intrinsically with tourism. My Swedish friends and I worked as cleaners, hotel reception clerks, baristas, and cooks. Elsewhere in Norway, Swedes find summer work filling in for vacationing Norwegians. A Swedish medical student I know worked as a sort of certified nursing assistant at a hospital ward for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. The work could be difficult, but he was paid upward of $52 an hour—much more than he could imagine earning in his native country doing similar work.

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During my days as a service worker in Lofoten, I cleaned suites at a Norwegian luxury hotel, a rather garish place whose shag carpet rugs, glass-walled bathrooms, and semi-nude portraits of a former employee gave the rooms a vaguely porn-set feel. My Swedish colleagues and I descended upon the rooms, dusting, wiping, changing sheets, and folding fresh towels like origami. When it came time to do the bathrooms and we were told to fold the loose end of the toilet paper into a triangle—apparently nothing says luxury like having someone attend to the aesthetics of your wiping experience—I had to remind myself I was making $25 an hour. During the evenings, I worked at a sister hotel, where I waited on busloads of tourists from Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, serving them whale stew and fish that had been imported from China. After 9 p.m., I made $27 an hour. On Sundays, it was almost $29 an hour.

Despite the obviously tilted economic balance of power, my Swedish housemates constantly complained about the inefficiency of Norwegian society and how backward the culture was. I found most Norwegians to be delightful people who were laid-back, even bubbly, in comparison with the reserved, hyper-controlled Swedes. “You just like them because they’re almost Americans,” the Swedes snapped back. Indeed, there’s some truth to this. From their loud sense of humor to their lust for giant customized SUVS, living among Norwegians sometimes felt like being stateside. The Swedes, meanwhile, still viewed their Scandinavian cousins with a sense of cultural superiority. 

From an American perspective, the similarities between the two nations ultimately outweigh the differences. At an end-of-the-summer employee party in Lofoten, I looked at the drunken Swedes and Norwegians, arms around each other, raising their glasses to each country and singing each other’s drinking songs and they had become indistinguishable, blurring into one Nordic mass of blond hair and lovers of socialized health care. That apparent brotherhood will likely always be tinged with at least some element of conflict, a fact I was reminded of later that night. As I stared out at the sea, I heard a retching off to my right. A Swedish co-worker was puking. One of the Norwegians came out and, noticing what was happening, started serenading him with an early ‘90s Norwegian pop hit. The lyrics: “I’m not sick, I’m just Swedish.”

A longer version of this essay appeared in The Billfold.

David J. Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer, a web-based review of cultural criticism. He has written for the New Republic and Books & Culture, among others.