In a recent report by RÚV, Bergur Þorkelsson, chairperson of the Icelandic Seamen’s Association, states that the rights of seamen are regularly violated.
By law, seamen are allowed up to two months’ of wages if they fall ill or injured during their employment period. However, according to Bergur, “traditional” expectations in the fishing industry mean that it is often difficult for seamen to actually take the leave they are entitled to.
This was recently illustrated by the case of a seaman who lost his job after taking a sick leave, which he was legally entitled to, for mental health reasons.
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According to Bergur, the culture of the fishing industry in Iceland means that seamen are often stigmatized for taking their sick leave. In an industry that has traditionally been very dangerous, this is especially problematic, as seamen feeling able to take off when they are unwell is important for both the safety of the individual and crew. “This is a problem,” Bergur stated to RÚV. “Seamen are all on their own, and need to be tough guys who don’t bother anyone about anything. We get cases like this often. I haven’t seen anything about mental illness until this case, but it’s common for seamen to avoid applying for benefits for fear of losing their jobs.”
The violation of the legal rights of seamen is further complicated by the nature of their employment contracts. Because work in the fishing industry is seasonal, a seaman may not be directly let go because of illness. Instead, he may simply not be re-hired for the next season. This grey area allows fishing companies the ability to deny that they may be discriminating against seamen who are simply making use of their legal rights.
Many aspects of the Icelandic fishing industry are still very traditional. This is a problem, states Bergur, because in many cases, work contracts can be informal and verbal. Fishing companies may verbally promise fishermen to be re-hired, but when they spend some time ashore, they show up to work after several weeks and find they’ve been let go. In these cases, because the seaman are not even aware of their termination, they have not had the opportunity to look for employment elsewhere, which can severely undermine their job security.