Last update Nov 30. 2020

Foto: Joakim S. Enger

The sheltered workshops in Norway stem from a social reform in 1991, called Ansvarsreformen. This literally means Responsibility Reform, named so because the aim of the reform was to make it possible for people with (mainly) mental disabilities to be agents in their own lives. This includes giving them the opportunity to be in employment.

Accordingly, sheltered workplaces were created to secure people with disabilities a workplace. The government aimed to facilitate such workplaces all over the country, so that also people living in scarcely populated regions can find employment where they live.

There are some 300 sheltered workshops in Norway, 200 of which are members of the umbrella organisation ASVL. ASVL originally stands for “Arbeidssamvirkenes Landsforening” – Association of Work Co-operatives, today it stands for “Arbeidsgiverforening for Vekst-og attføringsbedrifter” – Employers’ Association for Growth and Rehabilitation Companies. So the term workshop has also undergone a change in Norway, and the term “sheltered workshop” is no longer used.

The workshops in Norway serve people with mental, psychological and physical disabilities. Although users with mental disabilities are most common, the share of users with psychological disabilities has risen over the years. Most of the workshops are owned by municipalities. The workshops are subject to federal regulations, and the quality of the services provided is maintained by frequent external audits. Workshops in Norway are smaller than in Germany. The average number of places per workshop among the members of ASVL is 31.

Employees

In Norway, workshop users have status as employees. In order to be employed in a workshop, it is a strict requirement that the person in question has been granted a disability pension. If the disability pension has been granted before the person turns 26 (as will be the case for most people with mental disabilities), and the person lives alone, he or she will receive nearly 300.000 NOK per year in pension, before taxes. (The average salary among employees in Norway is 560.000 NOK)

He or she also receives a small remuneration from the workshop. This amounts to about 30 NOK per hour in average, equivalent to about 3 EURO. Workshop users are allowed to earn up to 100.000 NOK per year in addition to the disability pension. Higher incomes will lead to a reduction in the pension.

Economy – A local responsibility?

In Norway, each municipality is responsible to provide a wide range of services to their inhabitants. Schools, kindergartens and nursing homes are among the most important tasks, and the municipalities have a large extent of freedom to make the economic prioritization.

Foto: Joakim S. Enger

As of today, employment policy, including sheltered workshops, is not among the municipal tasks, but is the responsibility of the Norwegian state.
The funding of sheltered workplaces is a separate item in the federal budget, making the level of employment among people with disabilities an annual negotiation among the politicians of Stortinget (the Norwegian Parliament). This special status can give organizations that try to increase the employment rate (like ASVL) political leverage. Although our efforts are rewarded from time to time, the overall picture is one of insufficient funding.

At several occasions in the history of sheltered workshops, politicians have expressed their desire to make the workshops a local responsibility, too, thereby revoking them the special status on the federal budget. ASVL and user organizations have fiercely opposed this idea, arguing that people with disabilities need and deserve this political attention. ASVL also believes sheltered workplaces will receive less funding if the municipalities are made responsible. Not because local politicians don’t acknowledge the need for the services of sheltered workshops, but because local budgets are tight, and because jobs for people with disabilities would have to compete with an array of other good local causes.

In Norway, 8 out of 10 people with mental disabilities aged 18-25 are unemployed. In later years, politicians across party lines have acknowledged the problem, and funding for the services of sheltered workshops has increased.

The funding of each job also has a local component. The municipality in which the job is created, is obliged to contribute. This comes in addition to the central funding. The local funding has to amount to at least 25 per cent of the sum provided by the Parliament.

Not so sheltered after all- further development of sheltered workshops

As in many countries (for example Germany), the idea of sheltered workplaces for people with disabilities have been criticised in Norway. Opponents argue that people with disabilities are in fact denied the possibility of working in general labour market companies when they are offered a job in a sheltered environment.

Many politicians seem to agree. As a result, a specific variety of employment for people with disabilities have emerged over the years as an alternative to the services of sheltered workshops.

In this model, an a general labour market company employs the person in question, and receives funding from the government. The solution is cheaper than sheltered workplaces. Sadly, there are quite a few examples of employees with disabilites in ordinary business quitting their jobs after a time. Many don’t cope with the efficiency required, and feel lonely among other employees. The local social service (NAV) is responsible for securing that employee and employer are comfortable with the arrangement, but as NAV is overrun by huge tasks, it has shown unable to fulfill its obligations.

ASVL has suggested that specialists working as supervisors in sheltered workshops be given the task of following up the new jobs emerging in ordinary business. Thus, the services of sheltered workshops would take place where they are needed. Politicians acknowledge the need for change, and ASVL believes that a better system will come in place within a few years.

Sheltered workplaces are not as sheltered as they used to be. ASVLs members work continuously to enhance the quality of the service, and to provide external workplaces for their employees. As a result, employees can combine work arenas if they need a new challenge. More and more employees in sheltered workshops have the option to rotate or change jobs within the workshop itself, or work either parttime or fulltime at an ordinary business.

Summary

To summarize: The Norwegian system of sheltered workshops has proven to be quite stable over the past 30 years. Far too many people with disabilities are still unemployed. Politicians are trying to find solutions that can create more job opportunities for them. Providing jobs within companies of the general labour market has been a key strategy in later years, but there are few resources dedicated to securing that people with mental disabilities find it attractive enough over time. Sheltered workplaces are also changing to the better, providing secure and varied job options in years to come.