The rights of spring

People with learning difficulties who work in Norway have few of the benefits that the rest of the workforce enjoys, says Gunn Strand Hutchinson. A point that they make on the streets every 1 May.   

For more than 100 years, 1 May has been a commemoration and a reminder of the struggle for the rights of workers. Though the frontier changes, the struggle is never-ending. There is a fundamental conflict between work and capital that can be resolved only in constantly renegotiated compromise.

The promise of the labour movement is the power of collective action to effect a compromise that ensures fair and satisfactory benefits to workers.

Although there is clearly a challenge to maintain that advantage in the face of the attacks that have been mounted against organised labour and to regain the ground that many have lost, there is an equal challenge to focus the struggle on people who are still denied the rights the majority take for granted.

For the past three years, people with learning difficulties have marched under their own banners in the May demonstration in Bod¿, the main town of Nordland county in northern Norway. Why? Because they are denied their rights as workers. The banners read: “Our work must be valued” and “No to an indecent wage!”.

Most people who are classified as people with learning difficulties are guaranteed an income by receipt of a disability allowance. The allowance is neither miserly nor bountiful. It is enough to support a life, but a restricted one. This is not, however, the point. The point is that many people with learning difficulties work. They are paid between 30p and £2 an hour. They have no rights to sickness benefit or unemployment benefit. They are not organised and do not have the protection a union affords. They cannot negotiate a wage agreement.

Their work is not credited as work. What they do as work and understand as work is treated as a pastime. The pay is tokenistic. People with learning difficulties should be entitled to and be able to negotiate rewards commensurate with the work they do. They have a need and a right for their work to be valued and credited, even if they cannot compete within the realm of economic efficiency.

Participation in the May demonstration has several purposes. Visually, it makes the point. For the past two years the march has been televised and demonstrators interviewed. Participation is a confirmation that people with learning difficulties can organise, can participate and can formulate and communicate their demands.

As workers they adopt the methods and the rhetoric of the movement that grew to promote and defend the interests of workers. They learn about the labour movement.

Participation also means that the labour movement accepts as workers people with learning difficulties who work. Negotiations are in progress to find a place for people with learning difficulties in the union organisation. Work has begun on agreements on employment conditions and wages between the prospective union and a principal employer.

Progress is gradual but purposeful. People with learning difficulties marched in Bod¿ again last week.

Gunn Strand Hutchinson is associate professor, department of social sciences, Bodo Regional University.

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