The fight to fit into the country and squeeze into the labour market
When Shanice Rogers moved from Jamaica to Iceland in 2001, she got hooked on studying law. She’s now 29 years old with a fresh bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Iceland. But after a string of employment rejections in ministry offices and law firms—44 “Nos” to be exact—she thinks the country’s legal system may be failing her.
“I was rejected from every last job. It became a routine thing—that every day, word would come in that I didn’t get it. I was ranked fifteenth in my law school class, but I can’t get a job,” says Shanice, whose name has been changed due to her fears of backlash from employers. “I have never been the subject of direct discrimination based on my race, but I know indirectly that I have. At graduation, it was said that 90% of my peers had gotten jobs or offers.”
Shanice has no hard evidence, no smoking gun revealing concrete prejudice, but she’s done her homework. And she may have a point. No comprehensive law against employment discrimination based on race or ethnicity exists in Iceland, making legal convention murky for judges and foreigners.
While the Constitution of Iceland guarantees that all shall be treated equally under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity, the European Council called for stronger measures this year to prevent employment discrimination. Iceland’s Minister of Welfare Guðbjartur Hannesson says the country is following suit, with The Ministry drafting its first employment non-discrimination bill this summer following pressure from the international organisation.
“Historically it can be stated that immigration to Iceland is a fairly new phenomenon. In the last ten years, the amount of residents in Iceland with a foreign background has almost doubled and therefore matters regarding immigration are receiving more attention,” Guðbjartur says. “The Minister of Welfare has put forward a bill on immigrant issues for Parliament and it will hopefully be passed next autumn. This will be the first bill aimed solely at immigrants.”
IMMIGRANT SONG, ON LOOP
Shanice usually applies for jobs online, scouring for openings at offices that may have a positive history of hiring foreign workers, like the Ministry of Welfare. Navigating web pages isn’t a problem for her because she speaks Icelandic fluently, or as fluently as a non-native Icelander can speak. Once she gets her master’s degree, she wants to be a corporate lawyer or a public defence attorney to work on asylum cases. But for now, she just wants to support her two sons, whom she has raised with her Icelandic ex-husband.
“When I apply, I do have credentials, but if you’re not looking at them, you won’t see them. You see a picture of a black girl named Shanice Rogers. If it’s not Jóhannsdóttir, it’s onto the next application,” she says.
And with foreign unemployment about 15%—an increase from the last couple years and almost back up to a level from the height of the 2008 economic collapse—this population of workers is one of Iceland’s most vulnerable. In a country that spent centuries closed off from immigration, the foreign wave is hitting hard and fast.
Shanice says the law needs to catch up, and she’ll say it to whoever listens. In mid-June, she stood up at a forum for presidential candidates at the Community Centre in Reykjavík and told her story. “What were the candidates going to do to help foreigners get jobs and move past discrimination?” she asked President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and then-candidate Þóra Arnórsdóttir.
“The law doesn’t acknowledge that there’s been a drastic change in society where it’s no longer just born and raised Icelanders,” Shanice says. “You have other people moving here from other countries and cultures. The country is now a multicultural society. For me, I can only speak of the law, and the legal environment doesn’t acknowledge that.”
Gerður Gestsdóttir, a counsellor at the Directorate of Labour who helps unemployed immigrants find work and get their benefits, says she’s seen more and more people walk through her office since the country’s economic crash, especially since a broken construction industry wiped out jobs for tens of thousands of Polish immigrants.
But she says while some who come through her door complain of discrimination, many still land a job, some even in important roles with big companies. Still, she admits many don’t even have a shot in some businesses. “You see companies, now that they have a choice, prefer people who speak perfect Icelandic. Even a foreigner who spoke Icelandic would not meet their standards,” she says.
MAKING HER OWN BREAK
Adey Baldursdóttir, who is also not being identified by her real name for fear of backlash from employers, has had a tough time finding work since moving here from Ghana in 2003. She often walks into businesses to look for work and tells them what she can do and asks whether they have something for her. “Of course, sometimes they think it’s funny. Some of them look at me like, ‘You black African, you want to be a manager?’ They don’t say it but their actions say it all. Then I just walk out with my pride,” she says.
Adey finally found a job, but it’s not the job she thinks she’s qualified for. She cleans the clubhouse at a football stadium near Reykjavík. On a Sunday in mid-July, her corner office is quiet. There are no jerseys to wash or coffee pots to refill. She just has her class work—a stepping-stone to the MBA she’s trying to achieve.
After earning her teaching certificate from the University of Reykjavík, Adey says she’s been shut out of schools across the capital area because of her race. Adey’s father motivated her to become a teacher while she was growing up in Ghana. She’d visit a nearby village with children, tossing them cookies and candy if they would sing and dance for her. She moved to Reykjavík in 2003 after earning a teaching degree in Ghana and marrying an Icelandic man. They have three small children.
Before she was pregnant with her first child, Adey worked in a fish factory, which she called a rite of passage for Icelandic immigrants. She enjoyed the work, trimming the fish and freezing them. But her next job—a teaching assistantship at a school in Hafnarfjörður—was even better.
“Once in a while I’d go into the classroom and teach something in English. It was very interesting. There was one time when I taught the whole school African dance—the students, the teachers. It was so much fun,” she says.
She adds, “The school’s headmistress encouraged me to go to school and get the Icelandic teaching certificate, that I shouldn’t just be a teaching assistant because I was a teacher in Ghana. I took her advice and went back to school but unfortunately right after I graduated and got my teaching certificate, the crisis hit.”
Since then, Adey hasn’t been able to break into a school in Reykjavík, getting by on her husband’s income, unemployment benefits and grants. She is also held back by her inability to speak fluent Icelandic, or write it well. She got through school by listening to Icelandic lectures and writing essays in English, a plan her professors blessed. Hers is a tale many experts say is common for Icelandic immigrants, who stare up at an employment ceiling that they can’t crack because they can’t speak Icelandic fluently.
Adey says she’s not discouraged, but that evidence of discrimination is clear. When she talked to an assistant principal at a nearby school, he seemed eager to hire her despite her foreign accent. But when she went in for an interview, his tone and the principal’s response was less enthusiastic when they saw she was black.
“The next day they told me, ‘Sorry we already hired somebody.’ It hurt, but you just cry a little bit and get up. I don’t let people’s attitudes get to me,” Adey says. “I just hide in the bathroom and cry so my kids don’t see me. But you have to get past it because you’re the foreigner here. Even if they give you a passport, you’re still a foreigner. You’re the outcast here.”
A NEW PROBLEM TO SOLVE
Barbara John says stronger laws against discrimination could help some Icelandic immigrants. Barbara, a warm but direct woman, is the German member of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, or ECRI, the human rights monitoring arm of the European Commission. On a rain-soaked Saturday morning in early July, she sips on coffee at the St. Gaudy Café in Berlin and discusses the 2011 trip to Iceland she made with ECRI.
During her visit to fish factories, she met with Polish immigrants, the majority foreign nationality in Iceland, to gauge their quality of life. She pitched monitoring plans to government workers and ministry officials, and tracked down little evidence of outright discrimination. But some prejudice may lie under the surface, she says.
“When there is an option for someone who is Icelandic and speaks the language and there is someone who is an immigrant and also speaks it, well, what will happen? You tend to hire people who are similar. ‘I know Icelandic people, so they are similar to me, so I will hire them,’” Barbara says. “This kind of discrimination is everywhere.”
Barabara’s visit culminated in an ECRI report published in February. More monitors and stronger laws against employment discrimination are needed in Iceland, the report says, and government officials need to collect more information on individuals’ race and nationality to keep their hand on the pulse of the immigrant population.
The country also needs to improve on helping immigrants get over the most significant barrier that hurts their employment chances: learning Icelandic. “Since Iceland became open very recently to immigration, they are not very sophisticated in teaching their mother tongue, of course,” Barbara says. “They said they are improving in this. They admitted that this is a root of their weakness.”
“Of course, if one can put it this way, [Icelanders] are like a tribe. Normally, being a tribe means excluding the others. What we found was that this was not the case in Iceland,” Barbara adds. “On the contrary, because they know this very well from their history and traditions, and the small place they live together, they know they cannot stay closed. They have to open up.”
CHARTING A COURSE FOR IMMIGRANTS
But life may get easier for immigrants soon, as new legislation works its way through Parliament and as the country continues its economic ascent in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. In addition to the non-discrimination bill worked up by the Ministry of Welfare, immigrants vying for jobs could see sweeping changes in a new law that would grant them work permits automatically when they receive residence permits. A committee in the Ministry of the Interior is hammering out the new bill.
Government officials and advocacy workers are also trying to make small but meaningful improvements for immigrants trying to learn Icelandic—the main barrier to gaining employment. The Directorate of Labour, a government office, covers the costs of Icelandic courses for immigrants, but only pays for the first two levels of classes. Gerður says her office also lost funding after the crash, adding that she wishes they could offer more personalised counselling for immigrants.
At beginners’ Icelandic class at the Intercultural Centre (Alþjóðasetur) in late July, ten foreigners—whose former homes ranged from the United States to the Czech Republic—jot down notes about pronunciations and struggle through conversations in Icelandic about daily tasks. Guðbjörg Linda Hartmannsdóttir, a young blonde woman wearing jean shorts standing the front of the class, writes “Hvað er klukkan?” on the white board and draws a clock. She’s teaching her class how to discuss time in Icelandic.
More immigrants are visiting her classes this year, she says, and more are unemployed. “There’s been full classes this summer, which is different because classes are usually more popular during the winter months,” she says.
One of Iceland’s most notable immigrants, the first foreign-born MP in the country, Amal Tamimi, is trying to secure more funding for immigrants to take those courses. “We need more financial support to do our projects. There was a lot of cutting of funding for the Icelandic courses,” Amal says.
The organisation Amal directs, the Equality Centre (Jafnréttishús), advocates for immigrants, but she says even that advocacy must tread a thin line in Iceland. “I don’t like to complain all the time that because I am an immigrant I did not get this or that, but we do have to get our rights as immigrants too. Nothing comes easy,” she says.