The tragic attacks at a NAV (Arbeids- og velferdsforvaltningen, Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) in Bergen, on Monday, highlights the increasingly unsafe workplace that many employees face every day.
That this was not even the first attack in a NAV office nor even the first stabbing of a NAV employee is utterly disturbing. Aside from physical violence, employees face daily harassment and threats. Why has an institution whose remit it is to provide and protect, from cradle to grave, become so maligned and controversial? What can be done to ensure a better working environment for those whose job it is to provide social security for society?
Monday meeting madness
A meeting between NAV employees and clients took place at the NAV office, in Bergen city center, last Monday morning. However, the meeting took a tragic and violent turn when a man managed to stab two ladies, one in her 50s and one in her 30s. This was despite the fact that there was a security guard employed at that office but it is not clear whether the guard was present in the meeting room when the incident took place.
Despite being rushed to Haukeland University Hospital, the lady in her 50s, a NAV employee, tragically died from the injuries she sustained. The other victim has less serious injuries but was taken to hospital as well. The suspect, a Norwegian citizen in his 30s, has been arrested and now has been charged with murder.
The tragic case of Anni Rachmawati Godager
What is so sad about Monday’s tragedy is that this is not the first time a NAV employee has been stabbed or killed by a client. In 2013, Anni Rachmawati Godager was fatally stabbed by a disgruntled client, in her office, at the NAV Grorud office on the east side of Oslo. The murderer (who it emerged had a previous criminal record) was later sentenced to compulsory mental health care.
He had apparently become psychotic when he killed his former caseworker and due to a long history of mental illness was unable to stand trial and committed to psychiatric care. Yet that was little comfort to Anni’s widower, Are Godager.
Calls were made then (8 years ago!) by unions representing NAV employees, the media, and politicians for action to provide a safer and more secure working environment. The then Minister for Labour Anniken Huitfeldt requested an evaluation of NAV’s security routines but as the attack on Monday showed it appears little has changed in almost a decade causing tragic consequences.
Emergency services outside the NAV office in the center of Bergen on September 20, 2021. Photo: Marit Hommedal / NTB
Increasing forms on violence and insecurity
The latest attack on Monday shows how violence and insecurity are becoming an increasingly everyday presence for many NAV employees. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in both physical and verbal violence against employees. There was a 22% increase in violence and threats made for the year 2019 whilst, for the year to date, NAV has received some 1.042 threats made against its employees.
NAV was established by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Act of 2006 and administers many programs ranging from unemployment to parental benefits. It has over 19,000 staff and accounts for approximately a third of the state’s annual budget. The agency often deals with people in dire or desperate economic, financial or social situations and thus can already be a stressful workplace. Throw in a lingering sense of insecurity, and verbal and physical threats, and violence and it is little wonder why anyone would want to work there.
The agency has dramatically expanded its operations, last year, as many Norwegians had firsthand dealings with NAV due to the economic effects of lockdown – with many being laid off from their jobs or becoming unemployed, even for a short amount of time. The economic impact of COVID-19 saw a huge organization become overstretched and many employees overworked to cope with the huge surge in demand for services.
NAV has been increasingly beset by scandals
This tragic attack is only the latest scandal to dog NAV. Late last year, details emerged that NAV had been engulfed in illegal and, frankly, immoral activities for close to a decade – though some legal experts argue longer. It had systematically and illegally restricted the export of social security benefits to other countries in the European Economic Area (EEA). This led directly to 86 wrongful convictions but it is thought that over 16,000 clients were affected. The estimated overall cost, to the taxpayer, of hefty legal actions, payouts, and compensation totaled NOK 110 – 115 million.
The scandal led to a government apology and only a cabinet reshuffle. The daily papers, and websites, were awash with the details of those who were wrongfully convicted, served jail time, or forced to repay hundreds of thousands of kroner. Though both the two major parties are responsible for this scandal – as both served in governments during the time period – the major details emerged late last year and were awash all throughout the start of this year.
As this year has been an election year, extra special media scrutiny occurred and broadcasted the shenanigans of NAV daily. This has helped an institution already precariously positioned due to overwork and understaffing, develop a bad reputation in the general public’s minds. With details of illegal activities being printed daily, this may explain (but certainly not excuse) some of the increased aggression towards the institution.
Tributes outside the NAV office in Bergen. Photo: Torstein Bøe / NTB
Is money being spent well?
NAV accounts for approximately a third of the government revenue annually. It deals with a huge number of clients in Norwegian society: from parents to pensioners, from the unemployed to newly arrived immigrants. Yet it only has a skeletal staff which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increased demand of services from those recently unemployed, laid off, or in dire financial or social circumstances, is now further overworked and understaffed. If one NAV employee was killed 8 years ago, how is it possible, given the size of the budget, that another one was allowed to be tragically slain?
NAV often deals with people in grim social, financial, or economic circumstances. Many clients are refugees fleeing from war-torn societies, have serious mental health issues, or have abused drugs or alcohol for years. Many aren’t. However, surely an institution that accounts for a 33 øre out of every 1 krone spent by the government would not only have adequate security measures but also spend time properly vetting clients.
After the 2013 attack, did NAV work with the medical profession to enable better solutions for those clients with serious or violent mental health issues? Has more been done, amongst immigrant communities, to help rather than hinder their experiences dealing with NAV? As NAV deals with such a broad cross-section of society, surely more staff are needed? Perhaps ones with experience in dealing with immigrant communities or with relevant work experience from the psychological or psychiatric fields?
Review NAV’s practices now
When the latest government negotiations are settled, and the makeup of the government is finalized, NAV must be on top of the “to do” list. With so much vitriol, hatred, aggression, and violence aimed, every day, at humble civil servants who just want to help fellow members of Norwegian society the time to act is now.
Surely there must be a review of NAV dealings over the past 18 months – to look at both good practices and bad in order for constant improvement. The tragic attack on Monday should be the catalyst for change within the government and NAV.
Action must be taken as soon as possible so NAV employees can go to work without fear or the threat of violence, or death, permeating their workday.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.
About the author:
Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.
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