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Varða in Iceland: a bridge between trade unions and academics

Varða in Iceland: a bridge between trade unions and academics

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason, photo: Private

Iceland's labour market research institute Varða was set up in February 2020 by The Icelandic Confederation of Labour ASÍ and the Confederation of State and Municipal Employees BSRB. The purpose was to strengthen social and economic labour market research and bridge the gap between academics and the labour market.

The aim was for the resulting research to lead to better informed discussions during wage negotiations and to give the trade unions something to build their case on. 

Kristín Heba Gísladóttir has been Varða's Managing Director from the start. 

“In the beginning, we were not sure how this would go. There was a strong demand for such an institution but no vision for how it should work. But soon it became clear that there was a big need for statistical data on the employers’ position,” she says.

ASÍ  and BSRB jointly finance the institute’s basic expenses, which is its offices and CEO salaries. Research is funded either through funds or by selling services to the trade unions, which usually means carrying out research on working conditions from various perspectives.

Bridged a gap

Gísladóttir says that research institutions, such as the universities, have not had a proper connection with the unions. This institute has bridged that gap and it has applied for scholarships in cooperation with the universities. 

“I’m hoping this institute will be a permanent bridge between the trade unions and the academics,” says Gísladóttir.  

According to her, Varða has really made its mark with two big surveys on workers’ economic and social situation. Here, they told their subjective opinion of their own situation, for example whether they could easily make ends meet and how they feel in general.  

What made that survey special was that 16% of the participants were immigrants, which is unusually high in research in Iceland.  

“This pleased the trade unions and also brought a lot of attention from elsewhere. This will also be an important tool for the unions and will benefit them in collective agreement discussions.”

The big difference between these surveys and the statistics that for example Statistics Iceland collects is the objective value of the participants. 

Checked immigrants, too

“We did not ask about income, and we checked whether the results differed between social groups, for example immigrants,” explains Gísladóttir. 

That research showed that immigrants were worse off financially and they also had more difficulties finding proper housing. 

The results of the latest survey were published on 19 January, so now it is possible to compare from one year to another. 

“It is clear that the pandemic has had a considerable effect. When we did the first part of the research, in November and December 2020, there were tough restrictions and unemployment was high. Now, a year later, workers’ financial situation is worse especially among immigrants, even though unemployment is much lower. 

“Mental health has deteriorated and stress at work is increasing, especially for women in the public sector. This is a big worry. There is a lot of discussion about how to get companies through the pandemic, but we also have to consider how we can get the people through it. So it is important to follow the effects on the quality of life,” says Gísladóttir.

Mental health care

She says they have also looked at workers’ mental health and their access to proper mental health care, which is a big part of the quality of life. 

“We have found out that a large number of workers are not able to get health care, which is something the trade unions have been fighting for. There are also certain groups that have to rent apartments because of a tough financial situation.

"With this information, the trade unions can check if they need to do something. At least, with proper research, they are in a better position to state their claims.” 

The institute has also carried out research on young people who are not in education or work. That research showed that immigrants are more likely to be in that situation. Similar research showed that female immigrants had real problems getting recognised in the Icelandic labour market and in society, and they were even refused services.  

“So if they lose their job it’s extremely difficult for them to get another one instead. This was very sad to hear,” Gísladóttir says, but adds that similar research in other countries gives similar results. She says that an article will be published soon in a scientific magazine on the connections between people’s financial situation and mental health. 

Bright future

Gísladóttir is convinced that the institute has a bright future. 

“We are grateful that the academics are very willing to cooperate with us on their research and it is much easier to get funds when you are working with them. It will become even easier as we build up our reputation. We have not had set plans on where we have wanted to go, we have simply let it grow and that has worked out well.” 

Drífa Snædal, the President of the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions ASÍ, agrees. 

“The purpose of Varða has been to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the situation of workers. Varða has certainly done that, not only with the big annual research they’ve done but also as a platform for cooperation with the academics and other institutions. This has made us better prepared in our fight for better terms on behalf of our members.”

Kristín Heba Gísladóttir

has been the Managing Director of Iceland's labour market research institute Varða from the start.


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