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Greenland needs new jobs and foreign labour

Greenland needs new jobs and foreign labour

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Nikolaj Bock/

There is an urgent need to create new jobs in Greenland’s mining and tourism industries. At the same time more foreign labour is needed, say the social partners.

Cutters and trawlers in Northern Greenland are catching fish and prawns in such numbers that the Greenlandic economy is close to overheating. The fisheries fairytale has triggered a veritable construction boom in the capital Nuuk, where cranes and new builds shoot into the sky everywhere, while house prices do the same. It has become difficult to live in the capital unless you earn a lot of money. Meanwhile, Greenland’s fish processing plants, construction sites and service companies struggle to find labour. 

Greenland construction workers

Construction workers in Nuuk, Greenland. Photo: Marie Preisler

The situation has caused serious concern both in Greenland’s trade union movement and businesses, as well as in the offices of Erik Jensen, Greenland’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Labour. 

“Greenland faces economic overheating, and we must prioritise wisely to prevent economic collapse. One of the things we must do is to find ways of importing more labour from non-European countries in order to solve the acute challenge of labour shortages in many sectors,” the minister says.

Many sectors are struggling to fill positions, including the construction, service and fisheries industries. Fish processing plants in Northern Greenland have started importing labour from as far away as China and the Philippines in order to clean, pack and freeze the large amounts of fish that are being landed. 

“Many sectors are severely hit, so it is important that we think outside of the box in order to increase the import of foreign labour, especially from countries outside of Europe,” says Erik Jensen.

The fisheries sector lacks people

Greenlandic legislation allows for jobs to be filled by foreign labour if there is not enough qualified native workers available. Greenland’s health sector has so far routinely employed doctors and nurses from other Nordic countries for shorter or longer periods of time. But there are cheaper solutions, the minister says.

“Importing labour from Denmark and the rest of Europe will not solve the problem alone, and it is too expensive for us to for instance use Danish temporary workers on the scale we have been doing so far,” says Erik Jensen.

Jess G. Berthelsen

Jess G. Berthelsen, President of SIK. Photo Marie Preisler 

The political recognition of the need to increase the import of labour from low-cost countries is being welcomed by Jess G. Berthelsen, who has been the President for Greenland’s largest trade union SIK for 29 years. Most of the members are unskilled workers, but the union also represents some skilled workers. 

“Fish is by far Greenland’s most important export, and all of us [who don’t work in fishing] have jobs that are supported by the vast income generated by Greenland’s fisheries industry. That is why we cannot ignore the fisheries industry’s acute labour shortages. That problem must and shall be solved.”

He does not fear that Chinese labour, for instance, will take jobs from Greenlanders. 

“The Chinese are human beings like everyone else and they are welcome in Greenland. We just have to secure the correct framework.”

A need for apprenticeships

To solve the labour shortages, effort must be made on several fronts, thinks Jess G. Berthelsen. Recruiting from abroad is only part of the solution. It is also necessary to make it more attractive for Greenlanders to work in fish processing plants. Fish processing workers are routinely sent home when there is no fish, making their income very unpredictable. 

Jess G. Berthelsen also believes that Greenland will have to make some structural changes in order to stop rural depopulation, a problem which has existed for 40-50 years now. Greenland’s largest cities are growing, while the population in villages and smaller cities is falling. Some 60 % of Greenland’s population today live in the five largest cities Nuuk, Sisimiut, Ilulissat, Aasiaat and Qaqortoq. The SIK President is very worried about this trend. 

“With no people in the northern cities there is no-one to make use of the fantastic fishing resources we now have access to in Northern Greenland. At the same time many skilled and unskilled workers cannot afford to live in Nuuk because of the housing bubble.” 

He suggests turning 3-4 cities in Greenland into dynamos, where money will be invested to secure jobs and apprenticeships for young people who would like to take a vocational education. Many of Greenland’s cities used to have shipyards, but now only one is active. It is in Nuuk, which means young people from smaller cities have to go there to get an apprenticeship, and the city suffers from a severe lack of student accommodation. 

Greenland ship yard

This shipyard in Nuuk is the only one still operating in Greenland. Photo: Marie Preisler

“The fact that it is so hard for young people to get a vocational education is a huge obstacle for the kind of development Greenland needs. It forces many young people to stay at home instead of getting an education. We must and will solve this,” says Jess G. Berthelsen.

The trade union leader does see major employment opportunities if mining operations get going before the fisheries fairytale ends – and it will end, he predicts.

“Fishing has always been rising and falling in waves, and in a few years it will fall again. Before that happens we will have to have created new jobs, and one of my great dreams is to get the mining of raw materials up and running. Mining can create a lot of jobs, not only for Chinese mining companies but for Greenlanders too, if we manage to attract capital for the necessary investments and to provide the young generation with the necessary skills.”

Mining can create jobs

The Minister of Mineral Resources and Labour Erik Jensen also sees great opportunities in the mining and export of a range of sought-after raw materials which are plentiful in Greenland. This will benefit the Greenlandic economy and create major new job opportunities for Greenlanders in the future, he believes.

Erik Jensen

Erik Jensen, Minister of Mineral Resources and Labour, holds a rock containing one of the rare minerals that can be found in Greenland. Photo: Marie Preisler

"Mining has a lot of potential which we can exploit better than we have been doing since we took charge of all raw material explorations from Denmark in 2010. We have begun setting up the exploration framework, and the first mining jobs for Greenlanders have already been created. In the longer run there will be many more, if we do this the right way.”

Opening a mine is a high-risk investment which Greenland cannot afford to do alone. Foreign companies are needed, and some highly skilled jobs will have to be staffed by foreigners, the minister predicts. But he is convinced mining will also create many jobs for Greenlanders.

Photo: Hudson Resources

The latest mine to open is the White Mountain (Qaqortorsuaq) in West Greenland. Photo: Hudson Resouces.

The Greenland Business Association, GE, the employers’ organisation for small and large private companies, also believes that raw material exploration can provide jobs and income for Greenland – as long as Greenland secures agreements that make foreign companies pay reasonable taxes and royalties to Greenland, says Lars Krogsgaard-Jensen, legal consultant at GE.

Better education for all

But it will take time before many people can find work in the mining industry. In the shorter term the most important thing for Greenlandic businesses is to solve the current major labour shortages, says Lars Krogsgaard-Jensen.

“Right now our members really need both skilled and unskilled labour, especially in the fisheries industry and in the cities of Nuuk and Ilulisaat, where the construction, cleaning, hotel and restaurant sectors all lack workers.

On top of that, the construction of three new airports in Greenland in the coming years will further exacerbate the labour shortages. The airports are being built to increase Greenland’s job opportunities in the long term, but in the shorter term it will only turn up the heat on Greenland’s economy and increase the labour shortage, while the actual construction will mainly be carried out by foreign labour, thinks Greenland’s Economic Council.

That is one of the reasons why GE wants easier access to foreign labour from for instance the Philippines and other countries in Asia, from where people have already been recruited. GE believes it is necessary to speed up the work permit process.

At the same time it is important to make sure more young Greenlanders get an education, so that as many jobs as possible can be filled with Greenlandic labour, points out Lars Krogsgaard-Jensen.

“Right now there is a general understanding for why our members hire Chinese workers to work in a fish processing plant in Northern Greenland where there is a labour shortage, but this can become controversial in a future economic downturn. Our businesses must be given a much better chance of hiring Greenlandic workers, and for that you need better education.”

He can well understand why some young Greenlanders are tempted to get jobs in the fisheries industry, because there is good money to be made in the short term. But future generations need an academic or vocational education to secure jobs, he says. 

Start in primary school

One of the sectors young Greenlanders could aim for when studying is tourism, believe both GE, SIK and the Minister of Mineral Resources and Labour Erik Jensen. They all expect to see tourism grow, partly because climate change leads to a longer and warmer tourist season, and more tourists will want to visit the Greenland ice sheet before it melts.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

It will take time, however, to create the educational lift needed if jobs in tourism and mining are to be filled by Greenlandic labour in future, believes Linn Rastad Bjørst, associate professor and Ph.D. in Arctic studies at the Aalborg University, and head of the Centre for Innovation and Research in Culture and Living in the Arctic.

"Young, unskilled Greenlanders drift towards the fisheries sector because that is Greenland’s lifeline. They dream less about becoming nature guides or working in a mine, partly because you need language and technical skills for the kinds of jobs found in those sectors," says Linn Rastad Bjørst.

So there is some way to go before Greenlandic labour can fill the majority of the jobs in mining and tourism that are expected to be created, and the education needed should start as early as in primary school, believes Danmarks Nationalbank. In its 2018 analysis The Greenland Economy it wrote: 

“The foundation for boosting the qualifications of the labour force must be laid in the schools. Greenland already spends many resources on its schools, so it is a question of ensuring a good return on the resources spent rather than increasing spending.”

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Greenland’s labour market

Many lack an education. Many Greenlandic youths do not take further secondary education. One reason is that it could mean moving to another city. More than half of 25 to 64 year-olds (54 %) only have the obligatory 10 year basic education.

A large public sector. Around 40 % of all jobs are found in the public sector. More than 60 % of women in the labour market are employed in the public sector. The jobs of choice among the men are found in fisheries, hunting, agriculture, public administration and the service sector. Most city dwellers are employees, while a large number of people in rural areas are self-employed and hunters.

Few and large sectors. Greenland’s business sector is dominated by large, publicly owned companies and many smaller sole trader companies. Growth is by far largest in the fisheries sector and associated industries and trade. Wholesale and retail, transport and construction are also growth sectors. The growth in tourism is considerably smaller, but is steadily increasing, while the exploration of raw materials is so far not creating growth.

More foreigners. Greenland has some 56,000 inhabitants, including citizens from other Nordic countries. Population numbers have been falling for many years. Foreign nationals from outside of the Nordic region make up 2 % of the population, and their numbers are growing. Most come from the Philippines, Thailand and China. 

Few and low-educated unemployed. Unemployment has fallen dramatically over the past five years. In 2014 it was higher than 10 %, but it had fallen to 5 % by 2018. The labour shortage is being dealt with by attracting foreign workers, including unskilled ones. Unemployment is highest among Greenlanders with only a basic education. 84 % of the unemployed only have 10 years of basic education.  A relatively high proportion of unemployed Greenlanders also face other challenges beyond unemployment. Half of all job seekers are not considered fit to work.

Support from Denmark. Each year, Greenland receives more than €400 million worth of economic support from Denmark to finance its public sector, which Greenland cannot afford to do on its own. 

Nordic model. The Greenlandic labour market runs according to the Nordic model with negotiations between employers’ and employee organisations plus legislation covering areas like work environments and holidays. People without Nordic citizenship must secure permission to stay and to work.

Source: Greenland in Figures 2019, Statistics Greenland and the analysis ”The Greenlandic Economy” from Danmarks Nationalbank, 2018

Hunting in Greenland

Hunting provides an important supplement to the household economy. To hunt, you need a recreational or professional hunting license. Only a few professional hunters can live off hunting alone, and will often supplement their income with dinghy fishing in summer and ice fishing in winter.

Seal still plays an important role. The seal skin is usually traded, while the meat is consumed or used for dog fodder in districts where sled dogs are used. There are a number of whale species: Beluga whale, narwhale, killer whale, harbour porpoise, pilot whale, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, minke whale, bowhead whale, humpback whale, fin whale and walrus. Whaling is regulated by quotas, and the meat and skin is consumed in Greenland only. Reindeer and musk ox are the most important land species.

Source: Greenland in Figures 2019, Statistics Greenland


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