In the past three years, the town of Egilsstaðir has witnessed an unprecedented upswing following the building of the Kárahnjúkar dam, and the Fjarðarál aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður. Due to its central location, smack in the middle of Eastern Iceland, the town has always been a service centre for the neighbouring towns. It is home to the district’s secondary school, the regional airport, the district court as well as many official institutions and large companies that serve the whole region from Egilsstaðir. Now it has become a service centre for the development of heavy industry.
The results of this upswing were evident when I drove through the town on a sunny morning in February. Although I lived in Egilsstaðir for more than half my life, this was only my second visit back in over five years, and I could hardly recognise it as the same town in which I grew up. Everywhere I looked, I saw new developments. What once used to be a quagmire is now a new residential area. What once was thought to be way out of town is now well within its limits.
Egilsstaðir has traditionally always been a town where people stay for a short period of time. Every year an unusually high number of people moves out of the town, while new people move in. One reason for this development is likely the local job market. The town’s bloodline is the service industry, which does not create many high-wage job opportunities. People tend to treat it as a temporary stopover on their way to somewhere else. As a result of this, Egilsstaðir suffers from a lack of identity. The close-knit community feeling that is usually associated with small towns in the countryside is all but non-existent.
“Work, work, work for the next four years”
Egilsstaðir, and the neighbouring area, is home to roughly 3,500 people. It has grown fast in the last few years. According to statistics from the National Registry, the population in Eastern Iceland grew by over ten percent in 2005 alone, with the biggest increase coming in Egilsstaðir and the neighbouring areas. The grand-scale building projects that are underway have created an atmosphere of gold rush, where people flock to Eastern Iceland to get theirs, while it lasts.
Contractors, builders and other industrial workers are especially in demand. I ran into an old acquaintance, a house builder, and he told me that he is “ridiculously” busy with work. “It is work, work, work, at least for the next four years,” he said. I asked if he was at all worried about what happens after that, once the big projects are over, and balance is restored. “I have no time for worries, my friend, all I do is work,” he answered.
Another local told me he usually gets a phone call every other day, offering him work. “If you speak Icelandic, and you are willing to work, you can ask for almost anything you want in salary.” But, he added, you better have a place to stay.
Population statistics reveal a curious truth. While the population in Eastern Iceland has grown, the number of Icelanders living there has actually decreased. Today, nearly 25 percent of all men, and over six percent of all women in the region are foreign.
The underlying truth is that despite all the work, despite whatever future prospects a large aluminium company like Alcoa may offer in terms of work, people are still leaving Eastern Iceland. The increase in population over the last few years has been created exclusively by a temporary influx of foreign migrant workers, brought to Iceland to finish a temporary project.
There is nothing that suggests this will change once the projects are complete. Heavy industry is hardly likely to entice young people, who have left the region to pursue education, to return to Eastern Iceland. A local construction engineer told me that despite all the available work now and in the foreseeable future, finding engineers to come and work in Egilsstaðir is nearly impossible. “We are overloaded with work as it is. But we can’t get any good men to come here,” he said.
No Women in the Hot Tubs, Let’s Talk Hockey
An even more curious population statistic is the ratio between the genders. In 2005, the increase among males in Eastern Iceland was over 18 percent, while the female population increased by less than three percent. Nowhere in Iceland is the gender ratio as one-sided. In 2005, there were 1,358 men for every 1,000 women. “We really need women here. We have been reduced to sharing them,” a younger local says jokingly, although his words carry a hint of frustration.
Egilsstaðir is the urban planner’s nightmare. It is spread out over a vast area, creating long distances between service areas and residential areas, making it almost impossible for people to buy a carton of milk without the aid of a car. In part, this is an old problem, created years ago. The residents are victims of the town’s past. The centre, or more accurately, the commercial district, is located on the edge of town, by the side of the national highway. The residential areas and the schools are located on the other end, and continue to grow in the opposite direction, away from the service area.
The presence of the migrant workers is very evident in Egilsstaðir. The town has become a multicultural society. This is perhaps nowhere as apparent as in the local swimming pool, where instructions are mounted on the walls in several European languages, plus Chinese. In the hot tub, I found one Canadian and two Slovakians discussing their national teams’ prospects in ice hockey at the Winter Olympics. Portuguese, Chinese and Polish colleagues joined in. This is a cross section of the current population.
Meanwhile the PR people of Alcoa, the parent company of Fjarðarál, are trying to create public awareness and a good image for the company among the locals. A regional TV-guide publication featured a centrefold ad, describing the production process from the aluminium made in Reyðarfjörður to a finished product, in this case a Ferrari sports car in made in Italy. Strangely, there is no mention of aluminium’s other uses, namely in munitions and weapons production.