I moved to Iceland in the summer of 2007. The country was at that time the 7th richest country in the world, unemployment was almost zero and scores of migrant workers were hired to fill up jobs that most Icelanders declined for something better paying. Consequently, the source of livelihood for the migrant population became concentrated in the healthcare, construction and fishing industries.
Life was good in pre-bankruptcy Iceland. The country even came close to ranking the country with the happiest people. However, in coffee shop conversations among foreigners in downtown Reykjavík, we would often wonder where all this prosperity came from. So, when news of three major Icelandic banks folding burst into public consciousness, it was not a real surprise.
The bankruptcy hit Icelanders hard by way of mortgage payments multiplied as much as five times the usual. Stories of homelessness, repossessions and job layoffs became commonplace. As it was generally what the rest of the world was undergoing at the time, there was still a general feeling of hope that like all bad times, this too would pass.
The crisis hit migrant workers particularly hard. The first job layoffs were directed at foreign employees mainly because contracts are usually only for up to one year, resident and job permits also needed to be renewed periodically and Icelandic language proficiency a sore point in employer-employee relations.
As a foreign worker in Iceland without a house or a car, I thought that the crisis would only marginally affect me. That was until I tried sending money to Asia.
Understandably, banks became increasingly vigilant about money going out of the country. Everyone was required to sign an agreement stating the purpose of money transferred out. A cap was also placed on how much money could be sent out. This made it difficult for foreign workers supporting family members in other countries. On my part, it went to crisis levels since at that time I had been supporting an ill mother going through cancer chemotherapy.
As an added bonus, in the early days of the crisis, dollar values of Icelandic salaries dropped to half of pre-crisis levels. Let me put it more clearly: if a migrant worker had a monthly salary of USD 4000 pre-crisis, that person only collected USD 2000 in the months after the crisis. This is true until today.
The exchange rate between the Icelandic krónur and the American dollar in 2007 was ISK 68.376 to USD 1. This week, the day after news of the the Icesave verdict, which went in Iceland’s favor, the exchange rate was ISK 128.761 to USD 1. I remember an Icelandic doctor who attended a conference overseas, grumbling about buying an airport hotdog that cost ten times more than before the crash because of the poor exchange rate.
This also meant that with rising import costs, the price of basic commodities soared. To migrants, this meant contending with higher costs of living within the country AND parting with a greater percentage of their income if they wanted families to continue surviving overseas.
Many of my friends moved to smaller apartments or even opted to rent a room instead of an apartment because they would rather scrimp on themselves than scrimp on the money they sent back to their motherlands.
However, since many homeowners lost their homes, the rental market experienced an upsurge and rent also rose to twice the pre-crisis levels. A two bedroom flat in downtown Reykjavik that went for ISK 90,000 (USD 710, EUR 522) pre-crisis may now go for ISK 180,000.
You might say that unlike Icelanders, migrant workers have the choice of leaving and seeking employment elsewhere. However, it is not such an easy choice. Many already have families here, and well, moving overseas became an impossibly expensive process.
It is also no secret that many migrants often leave their countries because of limited job opportunities and underemployment so going back ‘home’ was something that no one wanted to do. So, we cast our lot with the Icelanders and hoped for the best.
This week, we would like to think that a new chapter has been turned in the Icelandic economic saga. Still, my migrant friends are opting for cautious optimism.
It would be a fairytale ending if (as a consequence of this bit of good news) investor and trade confidence in Iceland began to be strong again. We can only hope that the Icelandic business leaders learn from this lesson but most of all we hope that the Icelandic krónur becomes stronger.
THAT for us is what matters most.
Marvi Ablaza Gil – firstname.lastname@example.org
Marvi Ablaza Gil moved to Iceland in 2008. She works as a nurse at the Acute Psychiatry Unit of the Landspítali National University Hospital in Reykjavík. Back in the Philippines, Marvi worked as a feature writer (lifestyle and travel), editor for a broadsheet and operations director of a travel and tourism publication.