Migration for welfare (WELLMIG) Nurses within three regimes of immigration and integration into the Norwegian welfare state

The precarious situation of Polish nurses in Norway

Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Izabella Main write about Polish nurses in Norway and how they experience periods of precarity.

From a hospital hallway


The notion of precarity has gained considerable prominence in migration studies. The dominant trend in contemporary migration scholarship focuses on precarity of the most vulnerable – low-wage, poorly trained migrants – whose precarity is often associated with ‘illegality’ and ‘deportability.’ As health professionals and citizens of the European Union, Polish nurses in Norway are neither low skilled nor without appropriate authorization. Yet, they too experience periods of precarity.

The most precarious is the situation of newly arrived nurses who have secured their jobs with the help of recruitment agencies. Don’t get us wrong, many of the nurses we interviewed spoke highly of the assistance they received from various recruiters. Some thought that without the assistance of recruitment agencies they would have never been able to get a job in Norway. At the same time, recruiters are not always able to place Polish nurses in a full-time employment, be it in a hospital, a clinic, or a nursing home. Rather, recruiters line up a series of assignments. Sometimes the assignments are several weeks or months long, but often they are of a much shorter duration. As a result, there is a lot of “stand-by” time between assignments. Most nurses go to Poland to stay with family if the “stand-by” time is longer than a couple of days. Those who are provided with housing, often have to vacate the room or apartment as they await a new placement.

New work assignments often mean frequent moves between localities. We have met nurses who worked in several far-flung cities and towns during the first year or two in Norway. The nurses who have partners and/or children, especially children of school age, leave them behind in Poland to ensure continuity of education. It would be impossible to expect partners and children to move around Norway every few weeks or months to accommodate the changing employment of the nurses.

Most Polish nurses start working in nursing homes where they care for basic needs of their patients – provide assistance with bathing, getting dressed, and feeding – without ever utilizing their sophisticated nursing skills. Among our interviewees were nurses with advanced specializations in pediatric or oncological nursing, but as one of the nurses put it: “I hardly ever do any nursing work (praca pielęgniarska), most of the time I care for people’s basic needs (praca pielęgnacyjna).” Some worried that they would forget “how to be a real nurse.”

These precarious situations seem to be offset by the wages Polish nurses command in Norway. By comparison with Polish wages, the earnings seem exorbitant in the eyes of the nurses (and their families in Poland). Many nurses spoke about the ability to earn even more if one is willing to work overtime or work at night.  Indeed, several nurses we interviewed worked every possible shift they could to save as much money as they could and go back to Poland to buy an apartment or build a house.

Interviews with more established nurses indicate that they managed to improve their professional position in Norway by negotiating new contracts, foregoing recruitment agencies and signing contracts directly with hospitals or other healthcare facilities, acquiring tacit knowledge, and developing networks of support. But this is a topic for another blog.

Elzbieta M. Gozdziak and Izabella Main

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Experiences of a Polish nurse in Norway

Elzbieta Gozdziak has read Beata Babiarczyk's account of her four-year sojourn as a nurse in Norway.

Book coverEvery research project requires intensive field research as well as extensive reading. In addition to peer-reviewed literature, we are also reading popular accounts of migrant nurses’ experiences in Norway. After all, in this ethnographic study we are trying to uncover the insiders’ points of view.

Beata Babiarczyk worked in Bergen for four years in the early 2000s. Between 2000 and 2002, she published short dispatches from the field in a nursing and midwifery periodical. In 2007, these letters were published in a small volume titled Norwegian Memoir (Pamiętnik Norweski).

In the memoir, Beata narrates her professional migration journey. We learn about hear tearful departure from Poland and a dramatic arrival in Bergen—three plane rides, horrific turbulence, and a lost luggage—as well as the mundane details of working in a Norwegian hospital on a post-operative ward.

Beata shares her awe of Norwegian nursing equipment, her surprise at the truly collaborative partnership between doctors and nurses, the mutual respect doctors and nurses accord each other, and the comradery among all hospital staff.

These positives, however, could not keep Beata in Norway forever. She made a decision to return to Poland. She cites her love of her native land as the main reason for her return. But while she now lives mostly in Poland, she returns to Norway to work there during summers. Beata is cognizant of her privilege of being able to continue to work in Bergen from time to time. She realizes this privilege every time she listens to her nursing friends in Poland who barely make ends meet on their meager salaries.

Beata’s account of her four-year sojourn in Norway is not a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, but it is a delightful little book that seems to be appreciated by her fellow nurses (and our research team). We plan to interview Beata this fall to see how she is doing in her teaching job training student nurses. Stay tuned!

By Elzbieta Gozdziak

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Polish father with baby girl. Photo: colourbox.com

Polish lives in Norway

Polish nationals make up the largest community of immigrants in Norway. What do we know about their lives here?

We hereby invite you to our seminar, Polish lives in Norway, with a focus on: work life, family and child upbringing in a migration context.

Place: Litteraturhuset, Wergelandsveien 29, Oslo
Date and time:
Wednesday 14 June 2017, 09:00 – 15.00

Over the past 25 years, the level of migration to Norway has increased dramatically; at the beginning of 1992, immigrants made up 4.2 percent of the population. Today the figure is four times as high – 16.8 percent. According to Statistics Norway, immigrants from Poland are by far the largest immigrant group – with 97,200 persons.

Considering the large number of Polish people living in Norway today, little is known of their lives apart from work. Studies have focused primarily on their work life and their position in the Norwegian workforce, but research has also been conducted into other sides of their daily lives that is not known to the general public. This seminar will present new research findings on different aspects of the lives of Polish immigrants in Norway.

The seminar is hosted by Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA) on commission by the Norwegian Courts administration and the Polish Ministry of Justice financed through Norway Grants.

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WELLMIG brings together the perspectives that migrants not only depend on, but also make significant contributions to the welfare state.

On the one hand, nurses – male and female – with education from their countries of origin contribute directly to the institutions of a Norwegian welfare state in need of hands to take care of an aging population.

On the other hand, they also gain rights of access to benefits and welfare provisions. The combination of these two aspects brings to centre stage some of the dilemmas that arise when the welfare state encounters the globalisation of labour.

For more information contact Marie Louise Seeberg: marie.l.seeberg@nova.hioa.no

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