This spring, something revolutionary might happen in the realm of Icelandic trade unions. After 18 years of running Efling, one of the largest unions in Iceland, Sigurður Bessason stepped down from his position as chairman and eight out of fifteen board members are now standing for election.
Upon learning of the chairman’s resignation, it only took a couple of days for a grassroots initiative led by Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir to emerge with a fully-formed list of eight people including herself. Her goal is to get on the union’s board and become the new chairman.
What could become an unprecedented case is that three out of eight people from Sólveig’s list are immigrants, which means that if the group wins the election, it will be the first time in Efling’s history to have non-Icelandic members on the board (Correction: The interviewees reached out to us to point out that there was, in fact, a Polish immigrant on Efling’s board a few years ago). Considering the fact that around 45-50% out of 28,000 of workers registered in Efling are foreigners, it truly sounds like a long overdue change.
Skilled and educated low-wage immigrant workers
I meet Anna Marjankowska, Jamie McQuilkin and Magdalena Kwiatkowska, the three aforementioned immigrants, in a dreamy old-Reykjavík-style building, which is currently hosting Andrými—a radical social centre and a meeting point for local activists. Anna and Magda are both from Poland, while Jamie was born in the United States but has spent most of his life in Scotland. Even though they come from different backgrounds, they share similar values and a willingness to work hard in order to change the situation of the working-class in Iceland.
Critical of the precarious and unstable situation young people have to face upon entering the job market in Poland, Anna decided to move to Iceland a year and a half ago after a couple of years spent studying Cultural Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Currently, she is working at a cleaning company during the day and takes extra shifts at a restaurant in the evenings. “Apart from work, I’m attending Icelandic classes 3 times a week and I’m involved in local initiatives, like Andrými,” Anna adds. “I also try to find some time to write articles for a magazine back in Poland.”
After her mother moved here for work in the ‘90s, Magda became a frequent visitor and finally decided to move to Reykjavík herself in 1999. She went on to study Icelandic and English at Háskóli Íslands and now holds a master’s degree in Icelandic translation. She left Iceland in 2011 to set up a fashion business in Warsaw, but last year decided to come back to Reykjavík. “I’m not sure if this was a good decision, as I see how much things have changed in the last ten years,” Magda points out. “I’m working at a restaurant now because it’s impossible for me to find a job which would fit in with my previous experience and I’m paying twice as much for a double room flat than I used to pay back then.”
“I guess I came to Iceland because it seems that life is free here. I lived in a couple of places before and since I have the privilege to choose where to live, I think that I want to stay here for a longer period, seeing that I really appreciate local culture and values,” Jamie explains. “At the moment, I’m working at a company where I measure landfill gas and do research on pollution and waste in the context of reducing it.”
The language issue
One of the first subjects we touch upon in our conversation is the language barrier and how difficult it can be for foreigners to keep track of what is happening in local politics. “Icelanders rarely understand the extent to which language can exclude people from social life,” Jamie says. “There is an expectation that everyone coming here should learn Icelandic and of course that is correct, but even for those who are learning the language, the more detailed parts of Icelandic life are often very difficult to understand. We need a little help and solidarity, in this case, especially coming from the workers’ unions.” Anna adds that the union should concentrate on providing good translations in English, Polish and other languages, so people who are not fluent in Icelandic can have a better understanding of what’s going on around them, and learn about their rights, which could result in a better integration into the workplace and society.
“Right now 45-50% of Efling members are immigrants,” Jamie explains. “It goes without saying that since half of the union’s membership is female and half is male, the makeup of the board should be 50-50. Why can’t such good practice be mirrored in the case of immigrants, though? If we constitute half of the membership, it seems logical to have our representation on the board.”
“We are both active workers and immigrants, so our perspective is unique. We know that we will have to learn a lot about bureaucracy in case we get on the board and we are up for this challenge,” Anna says. “My mother works at the National Labour Inspectorate back in Poland, so I have always been very conscious of the labour law. When I came to Iceland, I was very happy to hear that the unions are so solid here, but with time and experience, I started to notice that it’s not necessarily the case and that there is a lot of stuff happening in the workplace that could be interpreted as illegal, but the unions aren’t doing anything about it.” One of the examples she cites is the ‘fixed salary’ system, where people are always earning the same amount per hour, no matter if it’s daytime, evenings or weekends and they are not being paid extra for overtime hours.
“You would never have to ask for a contract before, it was assumed that everything was being done properly,” Jamie emphasizes. “Nowadays, you have to put some effort in order to get those things and even Icelanders complain that the situation is becoming worse for them too.” He adds that young people are the most vulnerable on the market because they lack the knowledge but young Icelanders are in a different situation than immigrants—they are not afraid to ask questions and they don’t have to worry about being looked down upon.
“To be able to present our list in the elections, we had to collect members’ signatures first, so we went around downtown to different restaurants, cafés and other places where Efling members could work,” Magda tells us. “We asked people to sign our list and a lot of them were surprised because in most cases it was their first interaction with someone ‘from Efling’ who would talk to them about their rights.”
Apart from Sólveig Anna and the foreign trio, there are four other Icelandic workers on the list: Aðalgeir Björnsson, Daníel Örn Arnarsson, Guðmundur Baldursson and Kolbrún Valvesdóttir. In their manifesto, Sólveig Anna presents an outline on how Efling, the so-called “low-skilled” workers’ union, could become a leader in the battle for a radical change in the working conditions in Iceland. They call for economic justice, investments in affordable housing, democratisation and transparency of the pension funds as well as a general strengthening of democracy; not only in the union itself but in the Icelandic society at large. Could it be the beginning of a revolution? This spring, we will find out.
Efling elections will be held March 5 and 6, but you can visit their main office at Guðrúnartún 1 during working hours to vote ahead of time. For more information on how and where to vote, you can check out Efling’s site.