“The issue of immigration as such needs to be discussed. We need to decide how we prepare Icelandic society to welcome immigrants. In a way, the government has opened the debate by not taking the initiative in this discussion. But the way the discourse has been presented lately by the Liberal Party, it is coming from an entirely different direction.”
-Úlfar Hauksson, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Iceland
Last month, Liberal Party member and former reserve-MP Jón Magnússon, brought up the topic of immigration in Iceland in a column in the daily newspaper Blaðið, titled ‘Iceland for Icelanders?’. Despite the obvious reference to racism in the title, Magnússon has maintained that the core argument of his column is that “the system is obviously not prepared to deal with the growing influx of foreigners.”
Displaying incredible lack of respect for the rules of logic, Magnússon claimed that “if the influx of foreigners continues to grow at the current rate, Icelanders will number 400,000 (currently 300,000) by the year 2015, and immigrants will number 80,000.” Choosing to completely ignore the difference between permanent immigrants to the country and the migrant work force who are temporarily employed and make up the majority of foreign residents in the country, in order to pad the weight of his argument, Magnússon also makes the erroneous assumption that the need for such a migrant work force will continue to increase at the same rate for the next decade.
As faulty as his logic is, there is a good reason to discuss the “system’s” preparedness to deal with the recent influx of immigrants, particularly how we assist them in their assimilation to Iceland. Magnússon however is calling for a stricter immigration policy and shuns all attempts to critically discuss an important issue, revealing his true motives when he goes on to say, “If I was an out-of-work Pole, I would not think twice before moving to Iceland. Nobody should understand my words so that I have anything against Poles or other Christians from our part of the world.”
That is, although Magnússon has concerns over immigration, there are certain immigrants that are more desirable than others. He goes on to especially mention his fondness for people from Denmark, Sweden and Norway (why he simply didn’t use the term “of Aryan descent” is beyond me), while especially sorting out the more undesirable ones, “I don’t want to bring in people from the brotherhood of Muhammad who have their own laws and don’t respect minimum rights and offend women.”
Circling the Wagons
As easy as it would have been for all concerned – leaders of the Liberal Party included, to dismiss Magnússon’s diatribe as the ramblings of one disgruntled member, the party’s vice chairman, Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson appeared on the TV talk show Silfur Egils, where he voiced his support for the views expressed in Magnússon’s article. Soon enough, other leading proponents of the party, including the Chairman Guðjón Arnar Kristjánsson and the party’s MP Sigurjón Þórðarson, circled the wagons and defended Magnússon and his calls for stricter immigration policy, lending him credence as a party spokesman on the issue.
In an attempt to play damage control for the racial innuendos appearing in Magnússon’s column, the Liberal Party has focused their fight for stricter immigration policies by trying to focus the discussion on two different topics.
1) The decision the Icelandic government made in 2006 regarding the EU’s regulations of free flow of workforce between member states (and the EEA countries, such as Iceland) after the enlargement of the EU in 2004, allowing workers from more disadvantaged countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states to freely apply for work in Iceland without applying for a special work permit.
Despite being a member of the EEA, and therefore obligated to ratify EU regulation, Iceland could have postponed the decision for as long as seven years instead of two. The Liberal Party claims that a gross mistake was made on behalf of the Icelandic government by not fully extending the adaptation period until the year 2011, thus allowing a flood of foreigners to Iceland who would do one of two things, be willing to work for lower wages than Icelanders, thereby undercutting the wage market and rob Icelanders of their jobs or they would come here to claim social benefits and undercut our social welfare system.
2) The fear of a cultural clash by pointing to immigration problems in other Nordic countries.
The Liberal Party stance has particularly been directed towards the working class, while breeding ignorance, half-truths, prejudice, and the mentality of us vs. them. One example, and by no means the only one, of how their discourse has been conducted can be found in a blog post by Liberal Party MP Sigurjón Þórðarson from Nov. 5 where he said, “The unlimited influx [of foreign workers] endangers the wages of a large group of the working class, even if it does little to threaten the educated experts who often control the discourse in Iceland.”
The Liberal Party’s position was met with mixed reactions. While other parties were quick to condemn the party for their position and the general public felt insulted by their blatant use of propaganda, Icelandic media jumped at the chance to stir the controversy and misguided Icelandic nationalists soon found themselves filling out entry forms to the Party, with a recent poll showing a substantial increase in its support.
Meeting the Demand
The emergence of a semi-nationalistic anti-immigration party in Icelandic politics should perhaps not come as a surprise. As recently as last spring, former MP Ásgeir Hannes Eiríksson commissioned IMG Gallup to conduct a poll on his behalf, gauging the attitude of Icelanders towards a party with an anti-immigration / nationalistic platform. According to the poll, one-third of Icelanders said they would consider voting for such a party. For a political party on the verge of elimination, that is a lot of potential votes.
In a conversation with the Grapevine, Úlfar Hauksson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland said, “The Liberal Party is clearly moving in the direction of the Danish People’s Party (Folkepartiet). They are appealing to people’s nationalistic tendencies and the discourse is similar, warnings about how “these people will change our society.” This is a very typical reaction for a political party that is on the defensive. The party has based their campaigns on one issue in the past and it is not enough anymore. They were likely to be wiped out in the next election, so they grab this issue to attract voters when polls show that up to 30 percent of Icelandic voters would consider supporting a party with an anti-immigration platform.”
The theory that the Liberal Party is reaching for the immigration issue in order to get the disgruntled vote is given added weight by the words of Vice-Party Chairman, Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson, who went on record in this year’s April 23 edition of the newspaper daily Fréttablaðið in reply to the question of whether immigrants were causing problems in Iceland, “I don’t see any problem here. Foreigners do well here and have brought a lot of good things to Icelandic society. I see no need to create a special platform regarding foreign citizens,” Hafsteinsson said.
Former Grapevine journalist Paul F. Nikolov, who launched a political movement called the New Icelander’s Party to bring political attention to the immigrant community, before running in the parliamentary primaries for the Leftist-Green Party in the upcoming election agrees with Hauksson, saying about the Liberal Party, “They are becoming a carbon copy of the Danish People’s Party, and there is no question they are doing it to drum up support. I agree that the immigrant issue needs to be discussed, but it is not right to get people worked up based on rumours. The facts are squarely against them. Unemployment in Iceland is less than one percent. Instead of discussing the issue, they only want to talk about how the party is being flooded with new people. You cannot blame immigrants for being paid less than Icelanders any more than you can blame women for being paid less than men. It’s not like women are demanding lower wages.”
Nikolov touches on the subject of wage differences between Icelanders and immigrants. The difference has mainly been explained by two factors. Immigrants have filled jobs where Icelanders have failed to meet the demand in basic service industries and low-level healthcare for example. Immigrants, or more accurately, foreign works have also been frequent victims of infraction to their worker’s rights and legally binding contracts for minimum wages. The Liberal Party’s tactic of placing the responsibility of these infractions on the shoulder of the workers is obviously erroneous and misleading, and the party members have been curiously reluctant to discuss unemployment numbers along with the number of foreign workers in the country.
The Truth About Foreign Work Force
According to numbers from the Icelandic Labour Union and the Directorate of Employment, the employment situation in Iceland is exceptionally good. Current unemployment in Iceland is one percent, which means there is virtually no unemployment, but rather an excessive demand for work force. According to statistics from the Directorate of Employment and the Directorate of Immigration, the number of foreigners who have sought residence permits in Iceland this year totals 10,000, bringing the total foreign work force in Iceland to an expected 15,000. The Icelandic Labour Union maintains that the increase is due to heavy demand for work force stemming from the build up of heavy industry in Eastern Iceland.
In an interview with the Grapevine, Guðmundur Hilmarsson from the Icelandic Labour Union said, “The foreign work force has not been taking any employment away from Icelanders. They have been asked to come here to meet the added demand for work force in the country. I cannot understand this discussion by the Liberals. It is totally based on false presumptions and does nothing but fuel animosity against foreigners. It is completely impossible to blame foreign workers for being offered lower wages. It is against the law to offer wages under the minimum wage barrier, and if that is being done, then that is a criminal act by the employer, not the employee. People who are coming in from Poland or China have no good way of knowing their rights or what the minimum wage is, and even if they are being offered something that is beyond minimum wage in Iceland, it may still be a good wage compared to their home country.”
Úlfar Hauksson agrees, “If you look at different groups of immigrants, you will see that people come to Iceland for different reasons than to the other Nordic countries. The majority of the immigrants in the rest of Scandinavia are seeking refuge from poverty or war and in many cases they go straight to the social welfare system and do not enter the employment market until some years later and in some cases not at all. The people who are coming to Iceland are coming here to work. This is a migrant work force that has come here because the economy has been calling for it and they are likely to leave and look for work somewhere else when the economy slows down.”
In a lengthy discussion with the Grapevine, Ragnar Árnason, head of labour market division of the Confederation of Icelandic Employers said that it would be best to forget this discussion as soon as possible. He blamed the Liberal Party for blatantly over-simplifying the economic factors of the immigrant issue. “With the current level of construction in this country, we could never have met the demand for work force with domestic workforce only. So, obviously, the wage drift in Iceland would have been much greater if it was not for the foreigners and companies would have been forced to enter a bidding war for Icelandic workers. The wage drift between years has been 10-11 percent, which is much more than in the surrounding countries, that number would have been substantially higher without foreign workers. We would have been forced to ration developments to diminish the level of operation, especially with private investment. People would have had to apply for permits from authorities to build a roof over their head.”
With the inflation level in Iceland hovering above eight percent in recent months, further increase in wage drift would surely have pushed inflation marks higher. That exact development took place in the late 90’s when demand for workers far exceeded supply and as a result, inflation soared. Back then there was no tradition for bringing in foreign workers to alleviate tension in the labour market.
“Looking ahead, you might even say that the addition of foreign workers is protecting Icelandic jobs. It is obvious that if you have a workplace that needs 100 people to run as an efficient unit, and you can only supply it with 70 people, you only have two options, either you fold the operation or you move the operation to another country,” Árnason continues. In either case, that is 70 Icelandic jobs lost, instead of the 30 created for foreigners, who do, after all, pay their taxes in Iceland.
Árnason also brings up the subject of foreign temporary contractor agencies. These agencies, located in countries like Poland or Lithuania for example, were used extensively by Icelandic building contractors to supply workers on salaries far below the Icelandic minimum wage, only legally, for the workers were employed by the agency, not the building contractor, “One positive thing to come out of the change that was made March 1 is that companies are now able to hire employees directly instead of going through foreign temporary contractor agencies, which are a lot more difficult to supervise. Magnús Hafsteinsson ought to know better. The adaptation period that we were offered and decided to use from 2004-2006 did not extend to the free flow of service companies, like the temporary contractor agencies, within the EU. This is something the Liberal Party conveniently forgets to mention.”
But perhaps, all this is over-explains a rather simple issue. The Labour Union’s Guðmundur Hilmarsson thinks we might be well-served by looking closer to home. “I think when we are discussing these issues, we should keep in mind how Icelanders have in large numbers sought work in other Nordic countries, such as Sweden, every time unemployment increases and the economy has been slow here. We regard this as basic survival instinct on our behalf, but when a Pole decides to do the same then suddenly it is something completely different. They are doing this out of the same basic survival instinct as we are.”