Anna Marjankowska has a lot of irons in the fire. She’s doing extensive work at Andrými, a volunteer-run community activist centre, applying for her PhD, and working part time. But she also happens to be one of the board members of Efling, one of Iceland’s largest labour unions. As it is reserved for “unskilled” labour, this union also counts a lot of immigrants among its members—a fact that was not reflected in the previous leadership, who would often leave collective bargaining agreements untranslated, despite the fact that everyone has a right to know what their labour rights are, even if they don’t understand Icelandic.
Anna came to Iceland two years ago, after finishing her studies and seeing the situation in Poland getting “very serious” with the election of a new right wing government. She has no intentions of returning to Poland, but sees plenty of room for improvement in Iceland—especially when it comes to labour rights.
“The economical difference [between Iceland and Poland] is huge,” she says. “I was earning like €500 per month in Poland, even with higher education, and this was considered a good salary for the sector. By comparison, even working a basic job in Iceland, you make something like six times more, and everything is just three times more expensive.”
She had difficulties finding a job, despite being an EU citizen, but soon found work in a guesthouse. There, she noticed strange practices almost immediately, often requiring one person to do work that would be better suited for two or more people. Anna believes this was intentional. “Polish people are hardworking and reliable, tolerant for hardworking conditions. Icelandic employers know this, that’s why we are more likely to be exploited.”
These cultural differences, she says, can contribute to worker exploitation.
“The first thing you have to learn as a worker from Central and Eastern Europe coming here is to slow down,” she says. “Because no one will pay you for working more than 100%. These people need to realise that they should only do what they have to do in the given time. Nothing more.”
Many Polish co-workers expressed delight and surprise at such things as getting an hour-long lunch break, or any kind of break at all. To this, she would tell her co-worjers, “Hey, this is a rule. You can be happy about it, but take it as a rule; not a privilege.”
Anna’s class consciousness is one part nature, one part nurture. Her mother is a lawyer of labour law in Poland, but Anna also took her own initiative. “I researched the modern labour market, and was just so fed up with what I saw,” she says. “The brightest people of my generation cannot make any plans because of their low income.”
The most common abuses are in restaurants and guesthouses. Employers there may force workers to resign, so employers can avoid the laws regarding terminating an employee’s contract. There is also a lack of transparency in terms of who gets paid what. Often workers are asked to work for longer than scheduled. Temporary workers are especially vulnerable, as “employers know that they are coming and going”.
“There is no law that forbids us to talk about our pay,” she reminds people. “IIf you, as a manager, are afraid of transparency in the workplace, something is wrong and you are hiding something. It’s fair when my coworker earns more because of her better education in the field, experience, or longer period that she’s working for the company, but it’s not okay if it depends on private relations or nationality.”
All this, combined with her Andrými work, led to the decision to run for Efling’s board.
Improving the union
Anna’s work at Efling has been both challenging and fulfilling.
“It’s been a good experience,” she says. “I see that my knowledge and experience is useful in my activities as a member of the board of Efling. I can compare Icelandic cases to Polish law, I have inside knowledge of the practices and work conditions in basic jobs in Iceland, and I have a large network of foreign workers here. This is crucial in the process of mobilising union members, waking up solidarity and negotiating new general agreements.”
This work includes getting the current collective bargaining agreement translated into English, and getting the upcoming one translated into English and Polish. This, though, is no small task.
“This is pretty complicated. Icelandic labour law is sometimes unclear,” she says. “It speaks in very general terms. This makes them difficult to translate, and impossible to understand in translation. Icelanders don’t even understand Icelandic labour law.”
These aren’t the only challenges she faces, either. Not only the case with counselling, but also in visiting workplaces; to ensure that there is an interpreter present, so things are not taken the wrong way.
“We have language differences, we have cultural differences, and everyone working in the union should know about them,” she emphasises. This includes cultural attitudes about labour unions, where they might have bad connotations in a person’s home country. And of course, unscrupulous employers don’t make things any easier.
“Employers have a lot of tools to overwork people and misinform them,” she says. “They tell their foreign workers ‘this is just how things are here’, even when it’s completely wrong. This is not just a matter of a story here and there; it’s widespread.”
Despite this, like all activists, Anna remains optimistic.
“This is a small, isolated country with its own currency,” she says. “We could do anything here, if we want to. Iceland is not Scandinavia, it’s not Europe, it’s not America. We can do our own thing, so let’s do it better. Let’s make a shorter work week. Let’s give people enough money so they can rent proper accommodation. Why can’t we do this? We have to try something different and be a example for other economies and labour markets.”
Anna would like to encourage people to look for advice in unions offices, where your conversations will always be confidential. She advises that you write down your work hours, and if there is any problematic or stressful situation at your work place, your worker’s diary is our legal documentation. “You are not doing it only for yourself, but for all the people that will be hired after you,” she says. “We can change standards in Icelandic business, but only through solidarity practices.”