10 May 2010

Social life origins and a piece of contemporary history of Norway

Norway had undoubtedly one of the best welfare systems in the world, making sure that people who are sick and unable to work, or who are unemployed for whatever reason are not left out in the cold, but are given support so that they are able to live with dignity. Norwegian values are rooted as in Sweden in egalitarian ideals. At the beginning of the 20th century, they began enacting fairly radical welfare laws, culminating in the post-war years sweeping reforms that turned Norway into the progressive welfare state it is today. The welfare state is still the ideal for most Norwegian, not least because it seems to be doing quite well.

Well, sounds interesting? Let’s come back to the beginning of the process of building welfare. Norway declared its independence in 1905 when the union with Sweden was dissolved. The period from 1905 to 1914 was characterized by rapid economic expansion in Norway. The development of the merchant fleet, which begun in previous century, continued, and at the outbreak of World War I Norway’s merchant navy was the fourth largest in the world. From about beginning of the 20th century Norway’s immense resources of waterpower provided a base for great industrial expansion. By 1906 three-fourth of all developed waterpower in Norway was owned by foreign concerns. Norwegian Labour Party (DNA) pressed for legislation to protect the natural resources of the country. By reforms in 1907 and 1913 the vote was extended to women. Once consequence of industrialization and the introduction of universal suffrage was the growing influence of the DNA. A number of social reforms were enacted: a factory act, which included  protection for women and children, accident insurance for seafaring men, health insurance, a 10-hour working (in 1915) and a 48 workweek (in 1919). A 40-hour workweek was introduced in 1977.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Norway, like Sweden and Denmark, issued a declaration of neutrality, but it was badly hurt by the war at sea by about half of Norwegian merchant shipping being lost. After the war the main aim during the 1920s was to guide the currency (the krone) back to its former value. Norway received only an insignificant share in improved world market conditions, and by 1927 the unemployment figures were as high as one-fifth of the workforce. The Great Depression in the early 1930s increased unemployment still further, and by 1933 at least one-third of the workforce, including many civil servants, was unemployed. Despite economic difficulties, the high rate of unemployment, and the many labour conflicts, the interwar years were a period of vigorous expansion, and the country’s industrial production was increased by 75% during the years 1913-38. With the second outbreak of hostilities in 1929, Norway again declared itself neutral. On April 9, 1940,German troops invaded the country and quickly occupied Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik, despite being supported by Polish soldiers. Vidkun Quisling, a traitor and leader of the small Norwegian National Socialist party, proclaimed a “national government”, which aroused such strong resistance of Norwegians.

After World War II the liberation of Norway was followed by trials of collaborators, 25 Norwegians, including Quisling were sentenced to death and executed, and some 19 000 received prison sentenced. By a strict policy that gave priority to the reconstruction of productive capacity in preference to consumer goods, Norway quickly succeeded in repairing the ravages left by the war. By 1949 the merchant fleet had attained its pre-war size, and the figures for both industrial production and housing were greater than in the 1930s. Until the 1980s Norway had full or nearly full employment and swift rising standard of living.

Since the 1970s a central issue in Norway has been the exploitation of the rich natural gas and petroleum deposits in the Norwegian part of the North Sea. As the Norwegian petroleum industry grew in importance, the country became increasingly affected by fluctuations in the world petroleum market, but in the late 20th and early 21st centuries oil revenues played the dominant role in fueling a prosperous Norwegian economy and providing Norwegians with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes. The government, prudently preparing for a time when petroleum profits might not be so lucrative, began reinvesting those profits in the Government Pension Fund that I have already described in recent post. The Norwegians rejected membership of the Europan Economic Community in 1972, and of the European Union in1994,despite being urged by their governments to vote “yes”. Norway’ annual oil revenue amounts to around $40bn and more than half of its exports come from this sector. To counter inflation, there is cross-party agreement to restrict spending of oil revenue. Even as much of the rest of the world struggled in the wake of the international financial crisis that began in 2008, Norway continued to prosper, though the international holdings of the Government Pension Fund weakened. In recent decades, Norway has forged a stronger role for itself in international politics. It has mediated between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and from 2000 to 2009 was the chief mediator in the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists.

The egalitarian values which are at the root of the welfare state also manifest themselves throughout Norwegian society in many ways e.g. in the field of gender equality. Because of this, and active government support of gender equality, women have been steadily climbing in standing over the past fifty years. Still, the goal of total equality remains a long way off: while forty percent of representatives on Parliament are female, only one in every ten company directors are women. But, on the other hand, gender equality changed the Norwegian male’s role as a father. Norway has a paternity leave quota, so that fathers can also take extended time off to be with their children. This has helped make the mixing of careers and family a lot easier. In Norway, it is more common for mothers of young children to be employed than in many Western European countries. With the large amount of young mothers in the workplace, it becomes necessary to deal with the issues of maternity leave. The government has therefore created a system meant to care for the families as they care for a new baby. Parents are allowed to choice of either taking 43 weeks off between themselves with full wage compensation, or 53 weeks off with 80% compensation. If they wish, the mother may take up to 12 weeks of their parental leave prior to the birth, so they can prepare for the baby or give themselves rest. 9 weeks of leave must be used by the mother, and 5 weeks by the father. The remaining weeks can be divided between the parents as they wish. In addition, in the case that a child must stay home sick from school when they reach school age, the state grants each parent 10 days of leave per year to spend taking care of the child. 

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