Residents of this country, as well as visitors to it, followed the news closely throughout May and into the early days of June, as talks of rolling work stoppages and an indefinite general strike loomed.
With a possible strike of many of the skilled and unskilled labourers that keep tourist services functioning, as well as of airline ground service crews, bus drivers and others in the works, the tourism industry in the country—which has quickly become the backbone of the economy over the past years, with roughly one million travelers passing through the island annually—was concerned, to say the least. And tourists were, as well.
As many readers can surely empathise, to have travel plans cancelled by ongoing labour negotiations when you’ve been excitedly looking forward to experiencing a country that has consistently been making the “must see” lists of noted travel publications over the past years is, to put it lightly, a bummer.
Luckily for all those traveling to Iceland and for the workers fighting for a basic living wage and fearful that a work stoppage would hinder their ability to put food on the table, a deal was brokered in the eleventh hour, and a new employment agreement is just about a done deal.
Not so fast
While many unions negotiated new contracts by the end of May and feasted on waffles, as is tradition, the Icelandic Association of Academics (BMH), were in their ninth week of strikes. As part of this action, 2,100 nurses in Iceland went on strike as of May 28, with many patients being discharged, and treatments being postponed as a result. Sufficient exceptions to the strike were made to ensure that emergency services at Iceland’s national hospital, Landspítali, would remain operational, but many aspects of the country’s healthcare system have been in a state of crisis. No outpatient services have been operational, and a long waitlist for tests and treatments has developed.
“I did not support the strike at first, because I felt that it was wrong to let sick people suffer for things which are really not their fault,” explains Anna Von Heynitz, a nurse in Landspítali’s thoracic surgery ward, with eleven years of experience in her field. “But I voted to strike because it was obvious from the atmosphere amongst the nurses that that would be the outcome, and I was hoping that the threat of a strike would be enough. None of us could possibly imagine that the strike could go on for so long.”
She continues: “Even though I don’t approve of the strike as a medium of protest in healthcare, I agree that the wages of nurses are too low. In Iceland nurses must study for four years. Many nurses also have a postgraduate degree. But the wages hardly change in response to increased education and training.”
The primary demand of nurses has been to receive wages comparable to their peers in other Nordic nations, and more in line with the wages being earned by other university-educated professionals in Iceland.
Anna works 80%, which she says is the unofficial full-time for nurses on account of the strain and demand of the job, and makes 301.231 ISK per month (at time of writing, roughly 2275 USD, 1500 GBP or 2020 EUR), from which taxes and fees are then deducted.
“Since the crisis in 2008, there have been constant budget cuts in healthcare, which means that healthcare has to be more efficient in order to work,” Anna laments. “Patients are dismissed as early as possible, nurses and other healthcare professionals have to work faster. A regular day of work is very busy. It is difficult to work all shifts.
“I feel that my personal life gets affected by the working hours and my general health is affected by it too. Nurses have a lot of responsibility, a lot more than most people assume I guess. The training is not really enough to be a good nurse, a lot of experience is needed in order to learn the job.”
In lieu of continuing ongoing negotiations, the state introduced legislation that would force nurses to cease all strike action through July 1 and stipulated that if negotiations are not successful by that time then an arbitration committee would settle a contract on the nurses behalf.
The legislation was debated in Alþingi 12 June—while both Prime Minister Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson and Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson were sitting in the stands at the UEFA football game between Iceland and the Czech Republic—and passed on June 14.
Ahead of the legislation being passed, Ólafur G. Skúlason, the director of the Icelandic Nurses’ Association, told state broadcaster RÚV that ordering nurses back to work would only “add fuel to the fire.”
Burn baby burn
In response to the back-to-work legislation, which essentially strips nurses of their constitutionally protected right to strike, healthcare workers have resigned en masse. Just one day after the legislation was passed, an entire shift of ICU nurses at Landspítali have resigned. Roughly 120 hospital staff, including 91 nurses, tendered their resignations following the legislation’s passing. Moreover, more than one third of radiologists at the University Hospital have also quit.
Says Anna, who tendered her registration on Monday: “The government’s decision to ban the strike is understandable on some level, since something had to be done to ensure the patients’ safety, but it was a very short-sighted move, since it was obvious that the nurses would not accept that their only weapon in the negotiations—their constitutionally protected right to strike—is taken away from them, without giving them anything close to what they asked for.
“Nurses felt that they were treated totally different than the doctors when they opted to strike. The doctors got what they wanted, otherwise they might have found new work in the Nordic countries and not come back to Iceland where they are really needed. Somehow this argument doesn’t seem to apply to nurses even though we can find work abroad as well.”
In fact, many nurses are seeking work abroad, with one staffing agency in Norway having received more inquiries from Icelandic nurses over the past month than in all of 2014.
“I feel offended by the way the government has dealt with our claim to be paid better for a difficult job with responsibility over sick people’s lives,” says Anna.
“I think that the only thing that could solve the problem is to give the nurses the salary they are ask for. Only then would some of the nurses come back. When the pay is bad and the job is so difficult, its unlikely that competent nurses are willing to do the work in the future.”