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Foreign workers in Iceland — living on the fringe of society

| Text: Áslaug Skúladóttir

One out of four men living in Eastern Iceland is a foreign citizen. The majority of the foreigners come from Poland, work in large-scale industry and live isolated from the Icelandic population.

"In general, there appears to be an underlying tendency to view foreign workers as an economic resource rather than as full members of Icelandic society who are entitled to the corresponding rights" says Gudrun D. Gudmundsdottir, director of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre.

In January 2006 the population of Iceland reached 300,000, doubling from 1953. Last year 340,000 foreigners visited the country. Anna Karlsdottir assistant professor in tourism studies at the University of Iceland, says that a large number of them are foreign workers or people related to them. "Many of those workers are working only temporarily in the country".

According to Statistics Iceland the number of foreigners with a legal residence in Iceland reached 4,6 % of the whole population, or 13.778 people, by the end of 2005. For the past decade this percentage has almost tripled, in 1996 it was 1,8 %. It may be noted that these statistics do not count all the workers who come to work in Iceland for a short term only.

The Directorate of Labour says that the majority of foreign workers are employed in large-scale industry, approximately 40 % of all work permits were granted to companies in that field. The majority work in eastern Iceland, in Karahnjukar and Reydarfjordur. 

Out of a population of 14.000 in this part of the country, about 2000 are  foreign men and a little over 400 are foreign women.

Although a significant number of the population in Eastern Iceland are foreign born, Einar Skulason, managing director of the Intercultural Centre,  says their impact on society is limited.

The people are living and working in remote, isolated places, outside the Icelandic villages. They seldom leave the workplace, children go to school at the plant and the contact with the Icelandic population is minimal.

Icelanders polled in the area say they find the impact of foreign workers is less than they had anticipated.

"Foreigners come to Iceland to work", Einar says. "Most come from Poland, where unemployment is high. Many leave children and spouses behind and plan to return." Unemployment amongst foreigners is less than 2 %. They are prominent in many fields where command of Icelandic is not necessary In the food industry 15-20 % of the workers are foreigners, 10-I5 % in fish processing, and 10-I5 % in menial jobs such as cleaning. In general, foreigners work long hours and do not participate actively in Icelandic society.

Temporary work agencies (TWA) are a recent phenomenon in the Icelandic labour market. These are companies that hire out workers for a fee. 

In the wake of several cases of abuse, a law on TWAs was passed in 2005, taking effect one month ago. From that day all operating TWAs had to be registered. Their exact number is unknown but to date 12 TWAs have registered, Halldor Gronvold, the assistant managing director of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASI), says ASI has good reasons to believe that not all operating TWAs have registered and have thus broken the law.

Einar says that although generally things are working quite well, much remains to be done, “For instance, the rights of foreign workers vary from one pension fund to another. These need to be coordinated."

Gudrun D. Gudmundsdottir says that the rights of foreigners in the workplace and daily life need to be addressed in a comprehensive manner

"It is problematic that no single actor is responsible for informing workers of their rights and duties before or after their arrival in lceland. This is generally in the hands of the employer". A study carried out by the Multicultural Center showed that 62 % of the participants had signed an employment contract without understanding it, in whole or in part. "Furthermore, temporary work permits are issued to the employer; not the employee. This creates an unequal relationship where the worker is unreasonably dependent on the employer."



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