Next to Nothing: Female Immigrants and the Labour Market in Norway

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy by Elisabeth Ugreninov and Lena Magnusson Turner. Click here to access the article.

Female immigrants’ substantial disadvantages in the labour market are well documented. Poor host-country human capital, such as host-country language, formal skills and work-relevant experience, have been put forward as possible explanations for poor labour market inclusion. 

In September 2003, Norway implemented an Introduction Programme that aimed to increase labour market inclusion amongst newly arrived immigrants. The introduction programme was, and is still, often highlighted as an example of a well-developed qualification measure for newly arrived immigrants. Refugees are obliged to participate, while it was voluntary for family members reunited with refugees the first years after the reform was implemented. To increase participation and facilitation during the programme-period all participants were entitled to financial support paid as a taxable salary. The annual benefit in 2003 was €6,333. 

We evaluated the effect of the Norwegian introduction programme on female immigrants’ employment and earnings prospects 4–6 and 7–9 years after immigration. The study population consisted of 9,780 women who immigrated from African and Asian countries to Norway 18 months before or 18 months after the reform date. To measure the causal effect, we compared the employment and earning gaps between refugees and family-reunited immigrants before and after the introduction of the introduction programme with a similar control group not covered by the reform.

Small effect on employment and no effect on earnings

Although the introduction of the reform gave participants basic skills in Norwegian and insights into Norwegian society (courses lasting up to 600 hours) and prepared them for participation in professional life, the implementation of the Norwegian introduction programme had only modest effect on employment and no effect on earnings. The puzzle is, why do such programmes fail to integrate female immigrants?

One reliable explanation is that the courses offered were not adapted to the individuals’ needs and thus failed to give a sufficient increase in female immigrants’ host-country human capital. Additionally, poor adaption of the NIP, combined with poor human capital skills upon arrival, may have lead to the majority of the participants using the programme period to achieve primary education.  

Another explanation is that acquisition of host-country language only has a modest effect and should be understood in a broader context that shape immigrants’ labour market opportunities. For example, the structure of the Norwegian labour market, characterised by high wages at the bottom end of the earnings distribution and very few jobs that do not require formal education, may be an obstacle for immigrants’ labour market attachment. Ethnic discrimination is also well documented in the Norwegian labour market, which means that even if immigrants possess human capital qualities equivalent to those of natives, immigrants’ skills may be evaluated and rewarded differently by employers. 

Trapped in poor jobs?

Poor opportunities to increase formal skills should affect both employment and earning prospects; consequently, we argue that this is probably due to a displacement effect rather than an increased host-country human capital effect. This is because immigrants, both covered and not covered by the reform, applied for jobs in the same labour market, thus the immigrants covered by the reform may have been positively selected for on-the-job training and support from the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration, which in turn affects employment opportunities. On the other hand, although treated immigrants may be more employable, they may be integrated into jobs with low quality and poor earnings prospects.

Based on our findings, we suggest that future integration policy should ensure fewer contradictions, focusing on both improving host-country human capital and the desire for early labour market attachment will make adequate labour market integration difficult. 


About the authors

Elisabeth Ugreninov is a Senior Researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University.

Lena Magnusson Turner is Professor at Oslo Metropolitan University.

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