The COVID-19 pandemic has created economic hardships for workers throughout Iceland, but current relief measures are not going far enough for individuals outside of the traditional wage system, particularly those who are self-employed or contract workers, RÚV reports. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson says that new measures are being considered to support these workers.
“We aren’t asking such parties to enrol in the unemployment register,” Bjarni remarked, explaining that it is often more complicated for freelancers and contract workers to seek out financial assistance. Bjarni said that self- and contract employment in Iceland is quite important and varied, however, “and we want to support [these people] during this time.”
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Tourist guides are among those who have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis; according to Pétur Gauti Valgeirsson, chair of the Icelandic Tourist Guide Association, nearly all of the tour guides in Iceland are currently unemployed but most fall between the cracks of the government’s current unemployment relief measures. Nearly 1,000 people pay union dues to the Guide Association and an even larger number of people work full-time in this profession.
“It’s a grave situation for many people,” said Pétur Gauti, explaining that tour guides generally have temporary contracts with tour companies, rather than ongoing employment. But they pay taxes like wage workers, he says, and so have had the expectation that they would benefit from unemployment measures just like everyone else during this time. Because guide contracts are short term, however, tour companies are not obligated to provide them with termination notices, nor are they entitled to reduced employment or unemployment benefits.
Guides don’t fit into the system
Guides often do short-term stints for multiple tour companies at a time, says Pétur Gauti, and unemployment is based on wages and hours worked during the previous six months. This leaves guides in a very bad position right now, he says, because there is generally little work in this sector during the Christmas season. January was previously a big month for tour guides because Iceland received many Chinese tourists during that month. That was not the case this January, however, and February and March were likewise very quiet. All told, this means that many guides are only entitled to ISK 10-20,000 ($70-140/€64-128) per month in unemployment benefits. Pétur Gauti asserted that it would be better to base unemployment benefits on guides’ hours and wages from the previous year.
Pétur Gauti says that tour guides’ precarious financial position has been brought to the attention of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, the Directorate of Labour, and the government, but does not know how or if the situation will be rectified. There’s only so much that can be done within the current legal framework.
“The system is difficult and unwieldy, and we don’t fit in it,” Pétur Gauti concluded. “If this is supposed to be a safety net, it hasn’t been woven tight enough to catch tour guides.”