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Commuting: Iceland's challenge and opportunity

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir

Commuting is increasingly popular among Icelandic doctors, nurses and craftsmen. They are mainly commuting to Norway, but also to Sweden. Wage levels are important, but commuting from a small country like Iceland also means a chance to develop professionally.

Icelandic nurses commute between Iceland and Scandinavia, mostly to Norway. Elsa B. Friðfinnsdóttir, who heads the Icelandic Nurses’ Association, says a survey shows seven percent of 2,800 union members have worked abroad in the past year:

“They have mainly been travelling for shorter periods of time to work abroad. More than 80 percent of the commuters went to Norway.”

Commuting is popular

Wages remain an important factor when nurses decide to travel abroad to work. Friðfinnsdóttir has access only to a limited amount of research but she of course meets many nurses on a regular basis. According to Friðfinnsdóttir the nurses tell her they make large amounts of money in short amounts of time because of the weak Icelandic currency. She has noticed that commuting is very popular among those working in operating theatres, in intensive care and A&E in Iceland. 

“Many consider going to Norway a form of further education,” she says.

“They feel it is professionally rewarding and nice to change working environments and to try something new,” says Friðfinnsdóttir. 

Nurses say the work load is smaller in Norway than in Iceland. 

“It’s almost like going on holiday,” says Friðfinnsdóttir. 

Friðfinnsdóttir points out that the work load in Icelandic hospitals is enormous. If one nurse is off sick the others must work harder to perform his or her tasks. There is no legal overtime because of cuts in hospital budgets.

According to reports Friðfinnsdóttir has received from commuting nurses, Norwegian hospitals enjoy a higher level of staffing. This means fewer patients for each nurse in Norway compared to Iceland.  

Commuting popular with doctors too

Nurses work a 40 hour week in Iceland. Many work 50 to 80 percent in permanent jobs which they usually want to keep. They are allowed to compress their working hours to take longer periods of time off in order to commute. They also use holidays for work commuting. 

“That means they can work from ten days to three weeks in Norway before returning to their job in Iceland,” says Friðfinnsdóttir.

This form of commuting is popular among Icelandic doctors too. Þorbjörn Jónsson is the president of the Icelandic Medical Association. Jónsson says the numbers show Icelandic doctors are moving abroad. The number of union members has dropped by 11 percent in the past two years. But these numbers do not take the commuting into account.

“Commuting has increased dramatically among doctors in the wake of the economic crisis in Iceland. It has become popular to commute,” says Jónsson.

Many doctors work part time in Iceland and part time in Scandinavia. Sometimes a group of Icelandic doctors will share one or two practices in Scandinavia. They take turns to staff it. It is also popular to take locums abroad, especially in Sweden.

Bought Ophelia

Guðmundur Karl Snæbjörnsson is a general practitioner. He runs the job site Hvítir Sloppar which helps doctors, nurses and midwives find work - mainly in Sweden. The company has three offices in Sweden and one in Reykjavik.

Hvítir Sloppar cooperates with Skandinavisk Hälsovård (Scandinavian Healthcare), Svensk Närsjukvård (Swedish Local Healthcare) and MediCare. Snæbjörnsson’s partner has also recently bought the Swedish company Ophelia which oversees the majority of the commuting market for nurses and midwives. 

Snæbjörnsson himself spent his last study years in Sweden and has good contacts at hospitals and health centres, not least in the south of Sweden. He has found several hundreds of jobs for Icelandic health workers in recent years. 

Demand is large. Sweden and Norway need health workers and Icelandic doctors have often spent the final years of studying in Scandinavia, which means they speak fluent Swedish or Norwegian. 

“But we can also find work for Swedish or Norwegian doctors in Iceland,” says Snæbjörnsson.

Swedish doctors to Iceland

Snæbjörnsson has big plans to increase workplace cooperation in the Nordic region. Icelandic radiologists with language skills should be able to investigate and analyse x-rays taken elsewhere in Scandinavia and send their results to hospitals in Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

There are talks of cooperation between several hospitals in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

“This way we find working tasks for doctors,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter whether a radiologist is in Iceland or Sweden. All that doctors need to do their job is knowledge, experience and language skills.”

Þóra Ágústsdóttir is Eures’ advisor at Vinnumálastofnun, the Icelandic Directorate of Labour. She says Vinnumálastofnun cannot keep track of work commuting from Iceland. But Ágústsdóttir does regularly meet Icelanders who have permanent jobs and who are also interested in commuting to other Nordic countries. 

“We don’t have any figures but many ask us what possibilities exist. Our clients often attend courses run by Föreningen Norden (the Nordic Society) aimed at preparing Icelandic families for the move to Norway,” says Ágústsdóttir.

It is often craftsmen of all skills who are interested in work in the Nordic region. Ágústsdóttir says it is common for the worker to go first to Norway while the family stays behind in Iceland until they have decided on their future. Many of the commuters are carpenters and electricians.

The currency makes it pay

Finnbjörn A. Hermannsson heads Samiðn - the Federation of Skilled Construction and Industrial Employees in Iceland. He says five percent of carpenters among their members have moved abroad to work, but that even more commute between countries.

“Craftsmen generally travel abroad to work for set periods of time. In our experience they will sooner or later be forced to choose whether they stay abroad or in Iceland,” says Hermannsson.

Kristján Þórður Snæbjarnarson is president of Iceland’s main trade union representing electricians. Despite unemployment figures of two percent among Icelandic electricians, eight percent of the union’s 5,000 members commute to other Nordic countries. They work for two weeks abroad and stay for one week in Iceland.

“Electricians are sought after in the Nordic region,” says Snæbjarnarson.

“The Icelandic currency is weak and wages are good. So it pays for them to commute,” he adds.

“I have also heard of electricians who want to escape from the situation in Iceland. They are tired of the negative debate here at home.” 

Island’s Minister for Social Affairs Guðbjartur Hannesson does not consider this mobility to be a threat to Iceland. Iceland shares the same problems as the other Nordic countries. Swedish health professionals move to Norway, the same thing has happened in Denmark. Iceland’s health professionals are moving away. 

Many Icelandic doctors have specialised in Sweden. The Minister for Social Affairs Hannesson reckons they will be happy to move back to Iceland if they if they are offered good conditions. He points out that it can sometimes be difficult for health professionals to maintain their skills because of Iceland’s small population. 

“Doctor commuters are both a challenge and an opportunity for Iceland,” he says. 

“It is invaluable to Icelandic society that they are able to maintain their skills base and to increase their experience through working in other Nordic countries,” he continues.




European labour market mobility has increased in recent years. From June 2006 until the economic crash in the autumn of 2008 some 18,000 people migrated to Iceland to work. The majority were men. 

9,000 jobs were created in Iceland during 2006.

The number of Icelanders in Iceland dropped after the crash, especially during 2009 when they moved abroad to find word - mainly to Norway. Icelanders have begun returning in the same tempo as they did during the past two decades. 

Between 2006 and 2007 there were 10,826 more immigrants than people emigrating from Iceland. Now more have left Iceland than immigrated. Despite this, the annual number of immigrants has been higher in 2009, 2010 and 2011 than it was in the years before the economic boom between 2005 and 2006.

Emigration is proportionally smaller among immigrants with foreign heritage than among Icelanders.

Source: The Ministry of Welfare report on migration 1961-2011.


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