Authorities Dispute Over Asylum Seekers in Iceland

asylum seeker deportations

Asylum seekers in Iceland continue to be caught in the middle of a dispute between the Icelandic state and municipalities on who should provide services to those whose applications have been rejected. Yesterday, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Labour Market announced a temporary agreement with the Icelandic Red Cross to provide emergency assistance to the group and legal changes that shift responsibility for rejected asylum seekers to municipalities. Municipal leaders have called the Ministry’s decision “one-sided” and “disappointing.”

In Focus: Asylum Seeker Evictions

New legislation that took effect in July strips asylum seekers in Iceland of housing and services 30 days after their application has received a final rejection. The legislation was harshly criticised by human rights associations in Iceland, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. By August, some 53 asylum seekers had been stripped of services, some ending up on the street. Asylum seekers are not stripped of services if they agree to deportation, but many in this position are unable to travel, for example due to lacking a travel document or being stateless.

State and municipalities in deadlock

While the new legislation was still being reviewed in Parliament, Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson stated that asylum seekers whose services and housing were withdrawn by the state would be able to seek services from municipalities according to the Social Services Act. In such cases, the municipalities can then send a bill to the state for the cost of providing the services.

Since the legislation took effect, however, municipalities in Iceland have argued that the Social Services Act does not apply to asylum seekers and that it is the state’s responsibility to provide services to the newly homeless group. Many detractors have also pointed out that requiring municipalities to provide services would cost taxpayers more than the system previously in place, with the state still footing the bill to a large extent.

Ministry makes changes to rules on reimbursements

In addition to the agreement with the Red Cross, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has also made changes to the rules on reimbursements to municipalities for services provided to asylum seekers. The changes clarify which services are eligible for reimbursement from the state treasury. According to the government notice, municipalities can receive state reimbursement for providing “accommodation and food in accordance with what is generally customary in facilities for the homeless in Iceland.”

Municipalities protest

The Icelandic Association of Local Authorities has issued a statement criticising the Ministry’s actions. “In the opinion of the Association of Local Authorities, this unilateral action by the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour is a huge disappointment, as it is taken with the Minister’s full knowledge of the municipalities’ complete opposition to this measure,” the statement reads in part. In its last board meeting, the association reiterated its position that municipalities were neither permitted nor obliged to provide financial assistance to foreign nationals who have been stripped of state services following the rejection of their application for international protection.

Municipalities in Iceland Raise School Lunch Fees

iceland education

School lunches and after-school activities will cost parents in Iceland more this year than last, RÚV reports. The country’s eight largest municipalities are all raising the fees for these services, though mostly in line with price level increases. The CEO of national parents’ association Home and School expressed concern about the changes, which he says will leave some parents with no choice but to cancel their food subscriptions or withdraw their children from after-school programming.

Despite being encouraged to keep their fee hikes to a minimum, all of the country’s largest municipalities have raised fees for school meals, after-school activities, and afternoon snacks. The fees also vary greatly between municipalities, with the highest and lowest fees for school lunches showing a difference of 71%. As last year, parents in Seltjarnarnes pay the highest fees for elementary school services and those with children in Mosfellsbær pay the lowest fees.

Public health issue

Arnar Ævarsson, CEO of Home and School, a national parents’ association, says the price hikes will have the greatest impact on those who are less fortunate, disabled, or immigrants, and those who have the smallest social support networks. The consequence can be very serious, and Arnar points out that stress, anxiety, and guilt that parents or guardians might feel over not being able to provide their children with the same things other children receive also impact the children themselves.

Arnar says there’s a need to change the rhetoric around school meals and discuss them as a public health issue rather than a service. “In the long term, there is a risk that poor nutrition will later affect the health of individuals. Then this is a cost that comes down elsewhere in the system,” Arnar stated. School meals are also a social equaliser when all children can partake in them, he added.

Real Estate Value Rises 11.7% in Iceland

architecture vesturbær old houses

The total valuation of all real estate in Iceland has risen by 11.7% year-on-year, according to next year’s real estate valuation, just released by the Housing and Construction Authority (HMS). Inflation over the past year measured 10.2%, meaning that the real value of property has only risen slightly.

“We are looking at big population growth, such rapid population growth that it has been suggested that Icelanders haven’t multiplied so rapidly since the 18th century. At the same time, housing construction is not keeping pace with this population growth and interest rates have risen a lot,” stated Tryggvi Már Ingvarsson, manager of HMS’ real estate department, at a presentation on the 2024 valuation report yesterday.

Highest rise in East and Westfjords

Just how much real estate has risen in value varies from region to region, with the highest rises in East Iceland and the Westfjords, at 22.4% and 20.5% respectively. The lowest rise was in South Iceland, at 12.9%, while it was only slightly higher in the capital area at 13%.

The real estate valuation in Seyðisfjörður, East Iceland, rose dramatically, or over 40%, likely due to many construction projects in the town. In Reykhólasveit and Vesturbyggð (the southern Westfjords) property value also spiked between 30 and 40%. As average property prices in those areas are much lower than, for example, in the capital area, such hikes do not amount to so much in ISK.

The capital area contains 60% of the entire country’s residential property and about 75% of the value of all residential property in Iceland.

Property value key for municipal coffers

The yearly real estate valuation in Iceland is important for municipalities, as around 15% of municipal funds come from property taxes, the largest part from commercial property taxes. Low valuation can have a negative impact on municipal coffers, especially if it is below inflation, which is the case in many regions.

Mayor of Vesturbyggð Þórdís Sif Sigurðardóttir attributes the dramatic rise in property valuation there to growth in the aquaculture and tourism industries. While there is little property vacancy in the region, the municipality is working to kickstart housing construction projects.

Property taxes are calculated based on property valuation, so while a rise in valuation means homeowners’ investment is paying off, it also means an increase in property taxes. Last year, property value rose 20% year-on-year, an all-time record.

Propose Abolishing Iceland’s Housewife Holiday Funds

Three Independence Party MPs have put forth a bill to abolish women’s right to so-called “housewife holiday funds” in Iceland, Fréttablaðið reports. According to Vilhjálmur Arnason, the bill’s proposer, the funds breach equal rights law. One fund committee member argues there are still many women who depend on the funds to be able to take time off.

Regulation established to ensure housewives could take holidays

Iceland established regulations on housewife holiday funds over 60 years ago with the goal of ensuring that women who worked in the home had the ability to take holidays. As per the regulations, Iceland’s municipalities are required to pay into holiday funds that are then used to subsidise trips for housewives, which are organised by holiday committees.

Some municipalities have protested these regulations in recent years, with the municipality of Garðabær entering into a legal dispute with its holiday fund committee. In 2012, a man who wanted to join a housewife holiday fund trip to Slovenia took the holiday committee before the Equality Complaints Committee but lost his case.

Gender pay gap led women to stay home

Hildur Helga Gísladóttir, who is on the holiday committee for the municipality of Hafnarfjörður says the proposal to abolish the housewife holiday funds is premature. “These women are still alive and are using these holidays,” she stated. “These are women who had to be home half of the day as a result of government decisionmaking.”

What Hildur is referring to is that during the 20th century, Iceland’s government did not build and staff schools fast enough to meet demand, and children were only in school for half days rather than full days. Because women often earned less than men, many ended up staying home or working only part-time outside the home in order to care for children. This means they did not have the same pension and holiday rights as people who were in full-time employment outside the home. Some schools in Iceland did not offer full-day programming for children until around the turn of the century. Hildur points out that the ongoing chronic shortage of preschool spots has a similar impact on women.

Hafnarfjörður receives around 100 applications for the trips that its holiday committee organises and the women who apply are mostly born between 1930 and 1960, according to Hildur. Many of them are widows or are caretakers of spouses who are ill. “The Housewife Holiday Fund gives them the opportunity to travel cheaply. The subsidies made a difference for these women. This is maybe the only vacation they get.”

Supports some residents but not all

Vilhjálmur Arnason, the MP who proposed the bill, called it “the next logical step in the development of [Icelandic] society.” According to Vilhjálmur, many of the women who are homemakers today have the right to a paid holiday through other means. He believes the issue centres on the self-determination of municipalities, who currently do not have a choice on whether they pay into such funds or not. “They have no choice in the matter, they subsidise a part of their residents, but not all of them.”

ISK 130 Million in Grants to Strengthen Rural Settlements

Útivera Ganga Náttúra Gengið frá Aðalvík að Hesteyri og til baka

The Minister of Infrastructure has allocated a total of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) in grants to twelve projects in rural Iceland in accordance with the regional development plan. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas suffering from chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

12 projects organised by seven regional associations

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Minister of Infrastructure, has allocated grants in the amount of ISK 130 million ($910,000 / €848,000) to 12 projects organised by seven regional associations. The grants are intended to strengthen the country’s rural settlements and are allocated to specific projects in key areas in accordance with the regional development plan for the years 2022-2036. A total of 32 applications for grants, totalling over ISK 857 million ($6 million / €5.6 million), were received for the year 2023.

The aim of the grants is to connect individual plans within different regions of Iceland with the government’s regional development plan while also affording locals greater responsibility in the allocation of funds. Emphasis is placed on strengthening areas with chronic population decline, unemployment, and a lack of economic diversity.

Projects that receive funding must benefit individual regions, localities within the region, or the region as a whole. Population development, the composition of the economy, the level of employment, and average income were among the factors that were used as a basis for evaluating applications. A three-member selection committee reviewed the applications and made recommendations to the minister.

Value creation in sheep farming, Straumhvörf

The projects that received the highest funding are “value creation in sheep breeding areas,” which received the highest single grant from the Ministry of Infrastructure’s fund. The project incentivises innovation and value creation in sparsely populated areas that are heavily reliant on sheep farming. The funding – ISK 21.6 million ($151,000 / €141,000) – will go to the Federation of Municipalities in West Iceland, the Association of Local Authorities in the Westfjords (i.e. Fjórðungssamband Vestfirðinga), and the Federation of Municipalities in Northwest Iceland.

The second highest grant went to the Straumhvörf project, which is a collaboration between the Federation of Municipalities in East, Northwest, and West Iceland; Visit North and East Iceland (i.e. áfangastofa norður- og austurlands); Austurbrú; and the Marketing Office of North Iceland (i.e. Markaðsstofu Norðurlands). Straumhvörf is a project seeking to implement a design and product workshop for a new tourist circuit around East and North Iceland in connection with direct international flights to Egilsstaðir and Akureyri. The Federation of Municipalities in East Iceland will receive a grant of ISK 15.6 million ($110,000 / €102,000).

To the Vote

OUT OF THE EXACTLY

60 RESIDENTS OF SKORRADALUR, 

47 ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE.

In 1910, there were 203 municipal councils in Iceland. Now there are fewer than half that number. During the 20th century, following centuries of economic stagnation, Iceland finally industrialised. It was later than other countries in Europe, but it happened in half the time. As people streamed to urban areas, rural municipalities lost inhabitants, and towns grew. In 1911, the greater Reykjavík area had roughly 15,000 inhabitants, around 18% of the total population. Today, that number is 240,000 – and 64% of all the residents of Iceland. 

Having lost much of their tax base, many municipal councils are now in dire financial straits, struggling to find the funds to keep up the services they are required by law to provide. Minister of Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson has made it his mission to streamline municipal councils and presented a heavily-contested bill that would have required all municipalities to have a minimum number of inhabitants, forcing them to merge if they did not. This drew the ire of most regions in the country. The number he named as the minimum requirement was considered obscene, a preposterous idea to require municipalities to reach that size in the next few years. 

That number was 1,000 people. 

Municipal elections were held across Iceland this spring, and mergers once again became a topic of discussion. While increased requirements for bureaucracy, budgets, education, and services to inhabitants have forced several smaller municipalities to merge, the change is more fundamental than that: it requires a change in the way most Icelanders think about their immediate community. 

I grew up in a small town in West Iceland. When I was a kid, the town merged with some neighbouring rural localities to form the Borgarbyggð municipality of nearly 5,000 km2 of land and just under 4,000 people. What was formerly 13 different municipalities is now a single entity, with its headquarters in the largest town of Borgarnes.

Only a few kilometres away, there is a municipality of just 60 residents that has remained independent: Skorradalur. When I think about it, I don’t really know a whole lot about what’s going on there, so I do what any self-respecting journalist would do in my situation – I call my mom. 

A former member of the Borgarbyggð council, and possessing both a keen interest in genealogy and family ties to most farms in the  region, she would prove a key ally in figuring out the answer to my question – why do 60 people in a small valley cling to power over their own affairs, when municipalities ten times their size struggle to keep up with the requirements of such a project? 

My mother’s first suggestion? To call my ophthalmologist. 

Out of the exactly 60 residents of Skorradalur, 47 are eligible to vote. One of these 47 happens to be my former ophthalmologist and a friend of my parents. She tells me she’s not really involved with the local government but gives me a few names of people on the council, noting which ones like to talk and which like to talk a little too much. I also find out the name of the person chairing the Skorradalur electoral committee. I give him a call to let him know we’d like to pay a visit on election day. He stops me abruptly: “I’m helping a sheep in labour, I’m going to need you to call me back. It’s lambing season, you know!”

Permission to monitor the proceedings secured, I wake up to a bright and sunny election day. I walk over to my local polling station to cast my vote in the Reykjavík municipal elections before I leave town for the day. As soon as I drop it in the ballot box, I head out and jump in the car with Iceland Review’s photographer – we’re going west. 

Skorradalur is a deep valley centring on an even deeper lake. At around 17 kilometres, it is the longest in Iceland. Even though there are only 60 official residents of the valley, Skorradalur is saturated with summer houses, which dot the banks of the lake and stretch all the way up the mountains on either side. Uncharacteristically for Iceland, large swathes of the valley are covered in thick forest.

We park the car by the local reforestation society’s offices, the makeshift polling station. Unlike the elementary school where I cast my vote, there are no signs pointing the way. Everyone voting here knows where to go. The polling station opens at noon, but when we get there, the electoral committee is still setting up. A current member of the council is busy piling a table high with cakes, cheeses, strawberries, chocolate, and coffee. We’re here to gauge the local atmosphere and get to know the community, so I try to start a conversation. After dithering about and awkwardly asking some of my pre-prepared questions and receiving half-hearted answers, I decide it’s time to deploy my secret weapon. I walk up to the oldest person in the room, the chair of the electoral committee, who hadn’t had time for a chat the previous day due to the lambing season. 

“You know, I’m actually from around these parts. I think you might know my mother, Guðrún.” 

It’s as if I’ve flipped a switch. No longer an intrusive journalist from Reykjavík, I receive a warm smile as the chair of the electoral committee tells me that his grandfather and my great-grandfather used to be thick as thieves. 

Davíð Pétursson has lived at Grund farm his whole life, and his father before him. It turns out that no one is better equipped to give us a sense of the importance of the municipal council for the region than Davíð: he’s been involved in every election there since 1961. “But the book goes back further, it was my father who bought it,” he says as he pulls out a notebook from 1938, detailing the election proceedings and results each four-year interval since. Alongside his work as a farmer, Davíð held the now-defunct position of hreppstjóri (district commissioner) and was the chair of the local council for decades. He isn’t a member anymore, but his son, Pétur, has had a seat for a few terms now, following in his ancestors’ footsteps. 

“Have you heard about the worm?” 

“Excuse me?”

“The worm in the lake. A young woman from around here found herself in possession of a gold coin. She’d heard that if you put a worm on the gold, it would grow. She found a coffer and placed her coin under a worm. Sometime later, she opened it and found that the worm had grown with the gold. This unnerved her and she threw everything in the lake: the coffer, the worm, and the coin. But the worm kept growing and got so big it reached both ends of the lake. Its hump will sometimes reach out of the lake, but if it ever reaches so high that you can see Dragafell mountain between the worm and the lake, that’s when you know Ragnarök is pending.” Oh, that worm. 

“Did you sort things out with the committee? Is everything legal?” someone chimes in. The committee turns a little sheepish. “It’s their ‘estimate’ that it won’t be an issue,” he answers. This is the first time that someone mentions the new election legislation that took effect this year. It won’t be the last. 

“It’s in shambles, really.” 

“These politicians have no idea what they’re doing.” 

“All it takes is one person to file a complaint!” 

The new laws require that an electoral committee be made up of people with no familial or financial ties to council members. In this rural community of 60 people, that excludes pretty much everyone. They’d had the idea to switch electoral committees with the neighbouring municipality, but the law requires that members of the electoral committee have legal residence within the municipality. So they’re doing it like they always have, crossing fingers that no complications will arise. 

“And then they moved the date up!” It turns out people from Reykjavík really don’t know what they’re doing because, as I’ve heard again and again – It’s lambing season! 

Ewes don’t give birth according to a schedule, which means that in the spring, farmers and their families work around the clock assisting lambs into the world. Being on the municipal council never used to be a full-time job. That’s why, historically, elections never took place until late May or June. For the five council members of Skorradalur, that means that the increased demands of modern-day local government come at the expense of time at their other job, time with the sheep, or time off.

 

Voting in Skorradalur is a little different from Reykjavík. Not only are the refreshments much better (any at all is an improvement!) but there are no parties and no lists to choose from. Since no party has expressed particular interest in governing the municipality, every single person eligible to vote is also automatically standing for election. Out of the region’s 60 inhabitants, 47 people are Icelandic citizens of sound mind and body and over the age of 18. In theory, any one of them popular enough has a chance of being voted into office and thus being required, by law, to serve on the municipal council for the next four years. The only people allowed to bow out are senior citizens and people who have already fulfilled their duty to Skorradalur. 

A voter wanders in and finds a cup of black coffee and a seat to wait his turn. I lean over to ask him if the thought of waking up tomorrow with a seat on the municipal council is an enticing or a frightening thought. He lets out a cynical grunt. “I don’t think I’m at risk.” I ask if people campaign for a seat on the council or if it’s the reverse: are people pleading to be let off the hook? “I haven’t been going out of my way to be mean to my neighbours if that’s what you’re asking,” he says. “But you sort of know who’s up for the job.” I hesitate a little before mentioning the m-word, but bravely forge ahead.

“Any talk of a merger?”

This gets him going. 

“If I wake up tomorrow as municipal council director, that’s the first thing I’m going to do. It’s insane that they haven’t done it already, years ago. Utter nonsense to keep such a small entity running. We have no leverage in any sort of negotiations, no one bothers to talk to such a small municipality.”

I was surprised to get such an unfiltered response. I hadn’t even told him who my mother was. 

He drains his paper cup of coffee and gets up. It’s his turn to vote. 

I think I’m getting the hang of how conversations work here. Call it what you will: rediscovering my roots or getting in touch with my ancestral line of taciturn farmers, I walk up to a determined-looking woman. “Do you come from around these parts?” I ask. She responds fiercely: “Born and raised, I’ve lived in Hálsar all my life.” Jackpot. If anyone can explain the mystery of Skorradalur’s struggle to stay independent, a life-long valley resident must have the key. I get straight to the point. “Do you think there should be a merger?”

“Of course, they should have done it years ago. We should have started the negotiations right after the last elections.” She and another local explain to me that when the other municipalities in the region merged, Skorradalur stayed out and that, in their opinion, that was a mistake. There’s also a slight chance money played a part. Municipalities gain funds from their citizen’s taxes but also through real estate fees. While the 60 people in Skorradalur don’t raise any large sums through taxes, the 800 summer residences in the area keep the books squarely in the green. So, what’s stopping the merger? The other local doesn’t want to get too deep into the subject. “Let’s not talk about that here.” By the time it’s her turn to vote, I’ve added her to my mental list of names of people who send their regards to my mother.

“THESE POLITICIANS

HAVE NO IDEA WHAT

THEY’RE DOING.”

A current member of the municipal council walks in, wearing a lovely sheep-patterned wool sweater. He’s married to a member of the electoral committee, and I’d been told he was someone who could explain how things work around here. When I asked if the elections were filled with suspense, he chuckled. “Well, I’ve been on the council now for 28 years. If I lose my seat, I think I’ll be ok.”

The atmosphere around the table is convivial and relaxed. A young woman comes in to vote, and someone asks her who she is. Or rather, who her parents are: the Icelandic phrase directly translates as “Which people do you belong to?” She’s the younger daughter from Fitjar farm, currently residing in Reykjavík. As soon as the mystery is solved, the assembly relaxes and moves on to assessing exactly which characteristics in her demeanour add the most to her resemblance to her mother. She is enthusiastically encouraged to have some cake. 

In this calm, cosy atmosphere, I get overambitious. I decide to push my luck, so as I’m washing the last bit of cake and cream down with the now-lukewarm coffee, I nonchalantly say to the council member sitting on my left: “So, there are no official merger negotiations on the table?”

The temperature in the room drops several degrees. The amicable buzz of conversation halts. No one looks directly at me, but I can sense every ear in the house tune in. After a slightly-too-prolonged silence, the council member takes it upon himself to chide me. “This is not really the place for that topic.” I can sense their second-hand embarrassment on my behalf: I’ve broken the social code, and I don’t even know it. It’s the council member’s turn to vote, and he seems eager to get away from this blundering journalist. For the fifth time today, I wonder about how long it takes these people to vote. I get that this might be a weightier decision than voting for a party in Reykjavík, but it can’t be that hard. We leave the polling station to pay a few visits.


Our first stop is the incumbent municipal council director’s house. A relatively recent transplant to the valley, he’s in the process of renovating a house he bought on auction following the banking collapse. Colourful paintings cover most surfaces in his home – Árni Hjörleifsson might have spent his career in municipal matters, but his passion is art, not politics. Several of the paintings depict Skessuhorn, the triangular mountain above his home – Skorradalur’s answer to the Matterhorn. 

So why is he here? Turns out Árni used to be married to a local woman and the doyen of the electoral committee, Davíð (of Grund farm), had wrangled him into taking a seat on the council for his know-how in politics. His personal politics weren’t an issue, even though he identifies as a social democrat and Skorradalur, in his words, is “a conservative lair” (íhaldsbæli). “But they found use for this damned social democrat from Hafnarfjörður.” He chuckles. 

“In the last elections, I was the oldest person voted into municipal office.” Árni tells me about the cooperation with neighbouring “giant” Borgarbyggð, which at the moment isn’t going so great. “There’s new people there, and in my opinion, they’re trying to force a merger.” Skorradalur was a part of a joint force of small municipalities protesting the plans for mergers under duress. “We got out of the legislation, but there remained an incentive to merge.” In his eyes, forced mergers don’t make sense: they should only be entered into if both parties see an advantage.

So there’s nothing on the table? “There was a poll eight years ago to see if people wanted a merger. It was killed. Do you want some coffee?” I’ve had enough coffee today to start a small car so I politely decline. “But of course, it’s a question of when, not if, at this point. The talk turns to road construction on the north side of the lake and the renovation of the pool reception. We soon find ourselves back on the more comfortable topic of the incompetence of people from Reykjavík. The electoral committee should technically all be disqualified, and elections in the middle of lambing season! 

“And then it’s the question of the ballot.” The ballot? “We tried to get it changed, you know, so people wouldn’t have to write in the names by hand, but we had to do it like everyone else. But I had the idea for the stencil, so that’s one solution, I guess.” As he explains further, everything starts to make a little more sense. The reason everyone is taking so long to vote is that in order to make sure their handwriting isn’t recognisable, the voting booth has a stencil with block letters. It’s a secret ballot, but in a valley of 60 people, are there really any secrets?  

SO MUCH FOR

THAT WORM.”

At our next stop, we’re told to go straight to the barn. It’s lambing season, you know. Once there, we meet the council member from earlier. He’s shed his woollen jumper and is currently practising sheep midwifery of the highest order. A couple of minutes later, a ewe is tiredly baa-ing at a tiny lamb. Only one though: its twin didn’t make it. “I’d noticed she was having difficulty before I went to vote. If there’s bleeding at that point, it’s highly likely that you’ll run into trouble.”

I ask him if he’s excited to see if he’s still on the municipal council when he wakes up tomorrow, or dreading it. “I’ll do my duty, of course, but we need to get this merger going. This just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” He reveals that one reason for Skorradalur’s continuing independence is the fear that moving power away from the people will mean less attention to what needs to be done locally. “That’s why we’re renovating the pool reception; we thought we’d be merging by now and wanted to get it done before it was just a small task on a long list in a larger municipality.” I bring up rumours that Skorradalur doesn’t want a merger to protect their coffers, heavy with real estate fees from summerhouse owners. “No, that’s silly. We get by, but there’s no gold stash here.” So much for that worm.

 

We head to Grund, the ancestral home of the Skorradalur patriarch. Davíð is still preoccupied at the polling station, much like he has been for the past 60 years, but we’re there to talk to his son Pétur. As we drive up to the farm, he’s on his way out to the barn: lambing season. 

“So he told you the story? About Grund?” I hadn’t gotten that far in my chat with his father, although I’d gotten some humorous anecdotes about my great grandfather. “Our family’s been here since the 1670s. They bought the farm from Bishop Brynjólfur.” He’s the man on the 5,000-króna bill. But even here at the grand seat of power in Skorradalur, they see the writing on the wall.  An independent Skorradalur isn’t possible in the long term. As for the merger, it isn’t as simple as it looks. And perhaps Borgarbyggð, despite its proximity, isn’t the only option. “We should get the talks started immediately, so we can do this right. ” So why haven’t they yet? “Well, your mother should be able to tell you all about that. She was on the municipal council when the last merger talks fell through, and she wasn’t too happy about it if I recall. It was all going pretty well, until one meeting when a Borgarbyggð official went off on the smaller municipalities. He basically called us parasites.” There are other reasons too, of course. There’s the fact that the municipality of Akranes is actually the largest landholder in Skorradalur. There’s the question of making sure that Skorradalur’s needs are met within a larger municipality and the fact that through some mathematical gymnastics and the intricacies of municipal law in Iceland, a merger with Borgargbyggð could mean that the merged municipality might actually have less funds overall.

I feel as if I’m getting closer to the heart of the matter: it’s about identity and dignity. Living in a small community means that you’re constantly reaffirming who you are and where you come from. You rely on the people around you. You don’t want to relinquish control of your affairs to a party that doesn’t see your importance. 

Maintaining a municipality of 60 people doesn’t make any sense. Skorradalur’s residents all know that: especially those of them who have to run it in between shifts at the side of pregnant ewes. But it’s a matter of pride at this point. Nobody wants to let their people down. 

I call my mother on the way back to Reykjavík. After reciting a long list of regards and messages, she commends me on my choice of interviewees. “There’s some good people in Skorradalur.” I watch the election coverage that night. It takes a long time to get the first numbers from Reykjavík, but I keep an eye out for the results of the Skorradalur election. Jón gets reelected, so does Pétur. Then there are some new faces, the woman from Hálsar’s daughter-in-law. A farmer we met that day, and a woman from Akranes who just started a sheep farm with her husband.

East Iceland Votes in New “Home Councils” Next Week

East Iceland residents go to the polls next week to vote in the first government of a newly-merged municipality. Residents of Borgarfjarðarhreppur, Fljótsdalshérað, Seyðisfjörður, and Djúpavogshreppur voted last October to merge their municipalities under a single government. Each of the four localities will also elect a so-called “home council,” representing a brand-new form of local government in Iceland.

The new municipality, which is yet to be named, will be the largest in Iceland, at over 11,000 square kilometres (4,250 square miles) and will contain around 5,000 residents. Five parties are running for election to the new government: Austurlistinn, the Progressive Party, the Centre Party, the Independence Party, and the Left-Green Movement. In addition to the municipal council, each of the four localities will also have a three-person home council, which will serve as a link between the municipal government and the locality’s residents. The concept is built on experimental provisions on governance in 2011 legislation concerning local government. This will be the first time the provision is applied.

Read More: Municipal Mergers in Iceland

When they show up to the polls, East Iceland residents will not only be voting on council members but also nominating residents to their own home council. Everyone who holds the right to vote is eligible to sit on a home council, and to nominate someone, voters simply write down their name and address on the ballot. This means that interested parties do not necessarily need to campaign publicly to win a seat on their home council. Those who would like to do so, however, are able to register online.

Two out of three members of each home council will be drawn from the locality, while the third member will be a sitting municipal councillor. Home councils will hold a significant amount of authority within each locality. They will oversee detailed land-use plans, the granting of licenses, nature conservation, and cultural events in their area.

Teachers’ Work Not Confined to the Classroom, Union Says

Primary school teachers are seeking increased flexibility as part of their new wage contract, RÚV reports. Wage negotiations are underway, but teachers have been without a contract for over a year and are growing impatient.

Bargaining committees for primary school teachers and the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities are now meeting on a regular basis with the goal of signing a new contract by October 1. The teachers’ collective bargaining agreement ended in July of last year, at which point they agreed to an extension of the negotiation period. Þorgerður Laufey Diðriksdóttir, chair of the Association of Primary School Teachers, says that teachers are demanding a pay raise in accordance with the Living Wage Agreement. She also says that it’s time for municipalities to recognize that the work of a teacher is not confined to the classroom.

“It’s become apparent during COVID that we’re doing a job that can be both onsite and remote. It’s not just preparation that might take place offsite, but as we’ve clearly seen, teaching may also be done remotely.”

Þorgerður says that for years, the teachers’ contract has been based on the idea that they should be doing most of their work while at school. “This hasn’t led to better education—on the contrary, it’s caused grief and discomfort for a lot of people, having experienced this inflexibility.”

As such, Þorgerður says that an increased flexibility, that is to say, a broader understanding of what teachers do—and where they do it—is a requirement as they continue with negotiations.

Efling Union and Municipalities Reach Agreement, Ending Strike

Fellaskóli school

A workers’ strike in Iceland that began on March 9, was suspended on March 24, and restarted on May 5, is now finally over. Efling Union and the municipalities of Kópavogur, Seltjarnarnes, Mosfellsbær, Ölfus, and Hveragerði have signed a collective contract that raises the lowest salaries of union members working for the municipalities. The strike affected preschools and primary schools in the municipalities, many of which were required to close when cleaning staff walked off the job.

According to a notice from Efling, the new contract increases base monthly salaries by ISK 90,000 ($613/€566) over the duration of the contract period and shortens the work week. The new contract also raises the lowest salaries “with a special additional payment modelled on Efling’s contract with Reykjavík City.”

Efling workers employed by the six municipalities returned to work today, though the contract remains subject to a vote by members.

Strike postponed due to COVID-19

The workers’ strike in the five municipalities began on March 9, after negotiations between Efling and the municipalities proved unsuccessful. The union’s negotiation committee had postponed strike action during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, but announced that the strike would be voted on again after Easter. Efling members voted to resume the strike on May 5. Efling’s main demand was an agreement with benefits comparable to those that had recently been won for the union’s members working for the City of Reykjavík.

“Once again Efling members […] have proven that just and determined struggle of low wage workers through their union is not only our right but also something that achieves results,” stated Efling chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir.

Sorpa to Restructure Operations Following Damning Report

Sorpa - waste management

The waste management company responsible for Reykjavík capital area’s garbage is set to undergo comprehensive restructuring. Sorpa also intends to ask the six municipalities that jointly own the company to guarantee it an ISK 600 million ($4.7m/€4.3m) loan. An internal audit published in December indicates Sorpa is facing significant financial challenges.

The City of Reykjavík recently conducted an internal audit on Sorpa’s planned construction of a biogas plant, which was published last December. The audit found that Sorpa underestimated the cost of the project by ISK 1.4 billion ($10.9m/€10m). The company ’s Board of Directors dismissed Sorpa’s CEO Björn H. Halldórsson last month following another City of Reykjavík report that heavily criticised his work. Other financial issues within the company also came to light, suggesting a grim state of affairs. Mosfellsbær’s mayor stated just last week that “if nothing is done about [Sorpa’s situation], then the company is insolvent at the beginning of March.”

Sorpa’s board of directors met with elected representatives from all six municipalities yesterday to review the company’s difficult financial position and propose a plan of action. According to a press release published after the meeting, the company plans to complete a comprehensive review of its operations by June and undergo restructuring with the help of an ISK 600 million loan. A special task force will be appointed to carry out a detailed audit of the company’s finances, administration, and project management.