Iceland to Relax Work Permit Regulations for Foreigners

Iceland’s government will make sweeping changes to its work permit system for foreigners from outside the European Economic Area. The changes are intended to attract foreign workers from outside the EEA, including entrepreneurs, and retain students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland. The proposed changes were presented by three government ministers in a press conference yesterday.

Current system inefficient and restrictive, government says

“There is a need for a new approach for people from outside the EEA who want to move to Iceland, live, and work here,” a government press release on the initiative states. “Iceland is well behind the leading countries in international comparisons when it comes to attracting immigrants and making it possible for them to become full participants in society. The current arrangement is complicated and built on inefficient processes, decision-making within it is random as it is based on an unclear evaluation of the labour market and the restrictions for the granting of work permits are too narrow.”

In order to streamline and improve the current system, a working group proposed loosening regulations on residence and work permits, simplifying and digitising the application process for residency permits, combining residence and work permit applications, and ensuring predictability with projections of labour needs.

Permits attached to the individual, not their employer

Under the current system, foreign specialists from outside the EEA need to have a contract with an Icelandic employer in order to receive a work permit. If they lose their job, they also lose their permit to work in Iceland. The proposed system would still require non-EEA specialists to have a work contract in order to be granted a permit, but they would not lose their work permit if they stopped working for that initial employer.

Students granted three-year work permits

Students from outside the EEA who have completed studies in Iceland would also be granted a work permit for up to three years after leaving their studies. “We are educating foreign university students in our universities for our tax money, but we only allow them to be here for six months to settle in, find work, and have the possibility of some sort of work permit,” stated Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, Minister of Universities, Industry, and Innovation. “We are changing this and I am especially pleased that we will extend that time to three years.” Áslaug added that this three-year permit would also be granted to entrepreneurs starting their own businesses.

In addition to increasing the opportunities for students and specialists from outside the EEA to work in Iceland, the new regulations would provide opportunities for artists and people in other fields as well. Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that the changes should help reduce social dumping and that additional analysis of the labour market will help identify where there are labour shortages.

Iceland needs foreign workers

Recent analyses have shown that Iceland will need 15,000 workers in the coming years to maintain economic stability and quality of life. Only 3,000 local residents are expected to age into the labour market during that period, meaning that the country will need some 12,000 workers from abroad to fill vacancies. Foreign workers have been a driver of economic growth and prosperity in Iceland in recent decades. Integrating and ensuring the rights of immigrant workers does pose challenges, however, including providing accessible Icelandic language education.

Multicultural Festival Celebrated as Part of ‘Friendship Week’ in Vopnafjörður

The East Iceland village of Vopnafjörður will celebrate its second annual Multicultural Festival on Saturday, with international food, dance exhibitions, games, international cartoons for children, and more. Austurfrétt reports that just under 10% of the fishing village’s population is of foreign extraction, with full-time residents hailing from 20 different countries around the world.

As of September, 670 people called Vopnafjörður home. Sixty of these residents are originally from another country. Poles make up the largest subset of foreign residents, followed by Bulgarians. The village is also home to people from Sweden and Pakistan, among other nations.

Flags representing all the nationalities living in Vopnafjörður at the village’s 2020 Multicultural Festival. Photo: Vopnafjörður, FB.

“People have always come here from abroad,” says Þórhildur Sigurðardóttir, who oversees multicultural and diversity initiatives for the larger municipality. Þórhildur explained that the village has a history of attracting foreign workers, but it’s only recently that the makeup of the fulltime population has been so diverse.

“There are people with Faroese roots, and then Danish women came to work here. I think one of them is still left. Otherwise, there weren’t many [other nationalities] here even six years ago. For a long time, it was just one woman from Poland. But that’s changed completely.”

Vopnafjörður held its first Multicultural Festival in 2020, at which time, there were people from 22 countries living in the village. The following year, a Children’s Cultural Festival was held instead, but still with a multicultural focus. During that festival, kids were taught how to count to five in 13 languages and flags were raised for each of the nationalities living there.

This year, the Multicultural Festival is just one part of a week-long ‘Friendship Week,’ sponsored by a local youth club and programmed entirely by teenagers. Friendship Week runs from Friday, October 7 to Sunday, October 16 and will include a variety of events, including a parade, a potluck-style cake buffet, a movie night, a ‘goodwill marathon,’ in which residents are encouraged to do good deeds for one another (such as raking leaves, folding laundry, dog walking, etc), an intergenerational game night, and more.

Iceland Needs to Import Cooks, Servers, and Tour Guides, Says Industry Expert

Dill restaurant Michelin star

Iceland needs to import chefs, wait staff, tour guides and other specialized workers to support the tourism industry during the current boom, says Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, Managing Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF). Mbl.is reports.

“We need cooks, we need waiters, we need all kinds of specially trained staff, specialized tour guides, etc,” remarked Jóhannes Þór in an interview on the news program Dagmál on Friday. “If we just look at cooks and waiters, there are a couple different dimensions to the problem.”

At the base level, he continued, there just aren’t enough people in Iceland going into training programs for these professions, which means that there is currently a shortage of qualified professionals on the local job market. Jóhannes Þór said the government should be putting more effort into drawing students into these programs and advertising the future opportunities that would be available to people who completed these courses of study.

“But that won’t be enough,” he said, particularly in the present moment. In order to meet its present needs, Iceland needs “to import a group of cooks and trained waiters” right now. But while Jóhannes Þór wasn’t willing to name a specific number of trained service professionals he thought Iceland should be seeking to bring in from abroad, he would concede that “clearly several dozen” are needed at least.

Staffing Shortages May Counteract Tourism Growth

tourists on perlan

A new forecast by Isavia projects that 5.7 million passengers will pass through Keflavík Airport in 2022. According to the Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, the tourism industry must hire between seven and nine thousand foreign workers to meet demand.

A shortage of waiters and chefs

On Wednesday, Isavia – a company that handles the operation and development of all airports in Iceland – released its 2022 passenger forecast. The forecast, the first since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, projects that the total number of passengers passing through Keflavík Airport will be 5.7 million.

Following the report’s publication, RÚV interviewed the Director of the Association of Companies in Hotel and Accommodation Services (FHG), Kristófer Óliversson, who stated that staffing shortages in the sector would mean that hotels and guesthouses would be unable to meet demand in some areas of the country. “There are always regions that are difficult and have been difficult, but we’ve seen improvement year on year. Continued development means a greater likelihood of available rooms.”

According to Kristófer, a shortage of waiters and chefs is common among associated companies, given that many have abandoned their jobs during the pandemic. Although a few have returned, new hires account for ca. 70-80% of staff today. Kristófer also observed that the tourism industry would need time to recover after the pandemic. Despite improving forecasts, the sector had been hit hardest by the pandemic.

A shortage of seven to nine thousand employees

Addressing the near future of the tourism sector, Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, Director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, told RÚV that improving prospects were certainly good; nevertheless, conditions could arise wherein fewer travelers could secure desired services, with staffing shortages playing a significant role.

“In general, I’d say that a great many who worked in tourism before the pandemic have now left the industry: ca. 9 thousand people were gone at the end of 2021 when compared to 2019, half of them Icelandic and the other half of foreign extraction,” Jóhannes Þór observed.

Aside from a staff shortage in the restaurant sector, there are not enough guides to meet demand. As noted by RÚV, data from Statistics Iceland indicates that there were over 33 thousand employees in the tourism industry before the pandemic. This number plummeted with the onset of COVID-19, and unemployment rose. According to Jóhannes Þór, these workers have not returned to these jobs, especially Icelanders, which means more foreign employees would need to be hired with the concomitant training costs.

“If we take a broad view, I would say that to meet demand, this year and the next, we’re short between seven to nine thousand foreign workers, and that’s about two thousand more than before the pandemic.”

As noted by RÚV, the high season may also see a shortage of rental cars. Data from the Icelandic Transport Authority indicates that there are fewer rental cars in the country today when compared to before the pandemic. As dealerships have not imported enough cars, some rental companies, like Bílaleiga Akureyrar, e.g., have begun importing cars themselves to meet demand.

Efling Members Request Meeting With Union’s Leaders

Efling chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir.

Nearly 500 Efling Union members signed a letter requesting the union hold a general meeting this Friday, Vísir reports. The letter was delivered to Efling’s board yesterday. The union’s chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir has received harsh criticism for laying off all of the union’s 40-odd staff members last week.

Sólveig Anna responded to the letter in an email to the union’s members, where she stated that the board would decide on a time and place for the meeting and asks members to stay tuned. The union’s deputy chair Agnieszka Ewa Ziólkowska told Vísir she doubts Sólveig Anna will grant the request and harshly criticised her recent actions.

In the email, Sólveig Anna also wrote that few of Efling’s employees showed up to work yesterday and asked members for their understanding if services were delayed. In the letter of dismissal sent to Efling staff, they were asked to work through their period of notice, but media has reported that few staff members have been coming to work since they were laid off.

Read More: Unprecedented Mass Layoffs at Efling Union

One third of Efling’s members are Polish. One former employee of the union, Vala Árnadóttir, criticised the fact Sólveig’s email was sent out only in Icelandic and English, as the union has sent out all notices in Icelandic, English, and Polish over the past four years.

Sólveig Anna has stated that the dismissals were necessary to ensure equality and transparency in employee wages. The decision has been harshly criticised by other leaders within the labour movement as well as by Efling staff themselves and the broader community. Sólveig Anna resigned as chair of Efling last October, in the wake of allegations of bullying within the Efling office. She was re-elected as chair last February.

A Golden Opportunity: New Program Teaches Vocational Skills to Young People

A new program called Tækifærið (‘the opportunity’) aims to teach young people vocational skills that will allow them to secure steady employment, Vísir reports. In 2022, Tækifærið will offer two, 13-week courses, which will teach practical skills such as how to rip out and replace flooring, paint furniture, and fix electrical wiring, as well as help participants hone their mental, physical, and social skills along the way and connect them with future employers.

The first class has six participants and is being held in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland. It received funding from the Development Fund for Employment and Education, the Mental Health Support Fund, and Landsbankinn, and is free of charge for participants.

‘Each participant must want to change their life for the better’

Tækifærið is the brainchild of Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, a social worker and former member of the Reykjavík City Council. It is founded on one of the United Nations’ three universal values: Leave No One Behind.

“Tækifærið’s organizers have faith in people—all people,” explains the program website. “We’re ready to work with those who are the furthest from the labour market; these individuals possess countless strengths. Tækifærið is built around the strengths of participants and those who work with them. We’re well aware of our weaknesses but are trying our best not to let them dictate our lives anymore.”

The program promises to empower participants, but that empowerment must be self-motivated: “The basic premise of empowerment is that people take responsibility of their own lives…Each participant must want to change their life for the better.”

Half of unemployed individuals are foreign nationals

While the program is targeted at young people in general, Tækifærið will undoubtedly be helpful for young foreign nationals living in Iceland. Unemployment in Iceland is currently 5.2%, or roughly 10,000 people. Just under half of that group, or 43%, are foreign nationals.

Vísir interviewed Alfredo Correia, from Portugal, who is one of the six participants in Tækifærið’s spring 2022 class. “I came to Iceland to grow up, because in my country it’s very hard to live,” he said. Alfredo has no formal education and decided to move abroad to seek better opportunities.

Björk is optimistic that the first class will be successful in finding work after completing the program. “Come May, I’ll be ready to take offers from the business community,” she said, “and I know there will be plenty of them.”

Efling Union Appoints First Chair of Foreign Origin

Strike efling hotel workers union

Efling Union, whose chair resigned earlier this month following allegations of workplace bullying, has now voted in its first chair of foreign origin. The new chairperson is Agnieszka Ewa Ziółkowska, previously vice-chair of the union. More than half of Efling’s members are of foreign origin, and Agnieszka told Kjarninn she is pleased that foreigners now have a representative from their ranks heading the union.

Read More: Efling Union Leaders Resign

Efling is Iceland’s second-largest labour union, with around 27,000 members working in public service, healthcare, and other industries. Efling’s chairperson since 2018, Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir, resigned from the position earlier this month following allegations of bullying from Efling employees. Since her appointment was announced, Angieszka has been the target of criticism on social media for her Icelandic language skills. Agnieszka understands Icelandic though she does not speak it, and says her Icelandic language ability will not be an issue in her position.

“First of all, most foreigners in Iceland work in low-wage jobs – and work among other foreigners who also do not speak Icelandic,” Agnieszka stated. “Secondly, I understand Icelandic and I believe that it is very important to make Icelandic society aware that foreigners are part of this society. We must have the right to participate in society – no matter how long we stay here. Even though we do not speak perfect Icelandic, we deserve to be participants here.”

Fighting for rights of low-wage workers

The new chair says her priorities will be the same as those of the former chair: fighting for the rights of low-wage workers. Agnieszka stated she would focus on resolving issues in the Efling office and making sure the union continues to provide necessary services to its members. “I have been a member of Efling for most of the time I have lived in Iceland. I know how important it is for members to get the services they deserve,” Agnieszka stated. “I see the chairmanship as a unifying symbol for members. Efling must be able to stand by them when they need it because low-wage earners are unable to hire a lawyer to fight for their rights. And believe me, employers sometimes go too far. That’s why it’s so important to keep the union going – that’s our goal.”

Agnieszka’s appointment is short-term: Efling Union will hold elections for a new board and chairperson before the end of March.

Efling Union Leaders Resign After No-Confidence Letter From Employees

Anna Sólveig Jónsdóttir Efling Union

Efling Union Chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir has resigned after the union’s staff sent letters of no-confidence to her, the union, and Icelandic media on Friday, Vísir reports. The Union’s CEO Viðar Þorsteinsson has told Kjarninn he will follow in her footsteps and hand in his resignation letter today. Sólveig Anna has denied accusations of bullying within Efling’s office.

Efling is Iceland’s second-largest labour union, with around 27,000 members working in public service, healthcare, and other industries. Sólveig Anna became Efling’s chair in 2018 and led wage negotiations and strikes among City of Reykjavík employees and hotel workers calling for better wages and working conditions for low earners.

In a Facebook post announcing her resignation, Sólveig Anna writes that Efling staff representatives signed passed a resolution on June 9 that accused her of serious offences, including keeping a so-called “execution list.” Sólveig Anna denied the accusations in her post and says she referred the matter to other Efling executives, who followed up on the issue. According to Sólveig Anna, she then received a written statement that the case was closed.

The case was picked up by media when another board member requested access to the contents of the letter but was denied by Efling’s board. After media contacted Sólveig Anna last Thursday requesting comment on the matter, she issued an ultimatum to the Efling board: either a written statement would be issued that withdrew the accusations on her account or she would resign. Following a meeting, employees “unequivocally confirmed” the contents of the original letter and sent Sólveig Anna and Efling’s management a statement of no-confidence as well as sending out a statement to media. The statements assert that serious problems persist within the Efling office that need to be addressed.

Unemployment Among Immigrants Dropped by One Third

Reykjavík restaurant workers

Unemployment among foreign citizens in Iceland has decreased by one-third over the past two months, RÚV reports. Around 3,300 from the demographic have left the unemployment register so far this year. Foreign residents of Iceland have had higher rates of unemployment than Icelandic nationals throughout the pandemic and have been overrepresented on the unemployment register in recent years.

Unemployment among foreign nationals rose rapidly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. At the beginning of 2021, almost 9,000 immigrants were out of work and the number had more than doubled over the past 12 months. In June, however, that number had dropped to 5,700, according to figures from the Directorate of Labour.

Gundega Jaunlinina, chairperson of the Youth Association in the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ), says it is often more difficult for unemployed foreigners to find work than for Icelanders. “Because people may not be as active in their job search and don’t know exactly where they should look and employers are unfortunately less likely to hire foreign workers,” she stated.

While Iceland’s tourism industry has been bouncing back in recent months and hundreds have been hired at workplaces like Keflavík Airport, hotels, and tour companies, Gundega says some foreign workers have also found work abroad, either in their country of origin or somewhere else.

Landmark Ruling in Foreign Workers’ Housing Case

sleeping pods foreign workers smíðshöfði case

A temp work agency owner was charged yesterday with five months suspended imprisonment for endangering the lives of foreign workers, RÚV reports. The owner was housing the workers in an industrial building where they slept in plywood rooms hardly bigger than the beds they contained. The ruling is the first of its kind in Iceland, ruling that the temp agency owner was responsible for ensuring fire safety on the premises despite not owning the property.

No Fire Protection or Escape Routes

The case arose in 2018 when the police investigated a robbery in Smiðshöfði street, located in an industrial district in Reykjavík, and discovered that 20-30 foreign workers were living there. Plywood “sleeping pods” had been constructed for the workers inside industrial housing. There was no fire protection and no escape routes and the risk of fire was high. The ruling defined the agency owner’s offence as serious, stating that his negligence had endangered the lives of many.

The District Attorney expressed satisfaction with the watershed ruling. “It is meaningful. The court came to the conclusion that in this case, the manager of the property who is then the renter is criminally liable for modifying the premises in this way and that there is a lack of fire protection. Here we have a ruling that is likely to set a precedent,” stated Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir, Deputy District Prosecutor.

Fire Department to Map Unregistered Housing

According to a court report presented by experts in the case, it was not a question of if – rather when – a fire would start in the building. Fire Chief Jón Víðar Matthíasson stated it was the Fire Department that decided to file a lawsuit in the case. “We simply had no other choice,” Jón stated. “The situation was such that we had to try the law and find out where we stand.”

Jón celebrated the ruling and stated his hope it would set a precedent in future cases. “We are going to start mapping unregistered housing this autumn and then we’ll get a clearer picture of the situation. And then we’ll have this ruling to support us and can use it.”

Defendant’s Counsel Criticises Lack of Owner Responsibility

The defendant’s counsel Björn Líndal did not comment on whether the ruling would be appealed. He criticised, however, the building owners were brought forth as witnesses by the prosecution. “My client is the only one made responsible as the renter but the owners are let go,” Björn stated. According to the District Prosecutor, the case against the building’s owners was dropped as the renter (the owner of the temp agency) had conducted unauthorised modifications to the premises without the owners’ knowledge or approval.