Iceland’s Culture Sector Accounts for Nearly 8% of Workers

Húrra concert Reykjavík

In 2019, 15,500 people between the ages of 16-74 worked in cultural employment, according to data just released by Statistics Iceland. That number accounted for 7.7% of total employment, the same proportion as in 2018. (The tourism industry employed 24,981 in the same year, for comparison.) Within those who worked in culture, just over one third was employed in cultural industries while two thirds were in “cultural occupations in other industries,” according to Statistics Iceland.

Women Outnumber Men

Women accounted for 59.4% of cultural employees in 2019, compared to 45.1% in other employment. The ratio of women in cultural employment has been substantially higher than in other employment for the past five years. Nearly one quarter of cultural workers (24.4%) reported being self-employed, compared to 10.6% in other employment.

Highest Proportion in Performing Arts

Proportionally fewer immigrants were employed in cultural industries than in other industries in 2019, or 9.1% to 19.6%. Within the cultural industries, most people were employed in creative arts and entertainment activities (category 90) in 2019 or 15.2%. Libraries, archives, museums and other cultural activities came second (category 91) with 14.5%.

COVID-19 Relief Lacking for Creatives, Self-Employed

The Icelandic government’s economic response to COVID-19 has been criticised for failing to provide relief for self-employed workers and those in the performing arts. Gathering ban restrictions have necessitated the cancellation of numerous events and concerts, meaning that self-employed artists can’t depend on live shows for income. Unemployment for these artists has, predictably, been high and due to the nature of their work there are few, if any, state resources they can turn to for relief.

“Self-employed musicians in the Icelandic music industry work in variable and seasonal markets, pay taxes and other fees, but by the very nature of their work, fall outside of the mutual insurance safety net when crises like this occur,” a statement from the Association of Self-Employed Musicians (FSST) stated. “As such, self-employed musicians have not been able to take advantage of the government’s temporary resources or any of the economic relief measures that have been introduced.”

Moment of (Radio) Silence for Self-Employed Musicians

The country’s biggest radio stations took a collective moment of silence during the morning commute on Friday to raise awareness about the contributions that self-employed musicians make to Icelandic society, Vísir reports.

Self-employed musicians have been hit hard by the COVID-19 epidemic. Gathering ban restrictions have necessitated the cancellation of numerous events and concerts, meaning that self-employed artists can’t depend on live shows for income. Unemployment for these artists has, predictably, been high and there are few, if any, state resources they can turn to for relief.

Radio stations Bylgjan, FM957, X977, Rás 1, Rás 2, K100, and Suðurland FM paused their regularly scheduled programming at 8:45am on Friday in a demonstration coordinated by the Association of Self-Employed Musicians (FSST). FSST was founded in August primarily to address the challenges currently faced by self-employed musicians; its inaugural board includes chairman Helgi Björnsson, Selma Björnsdóttir, Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð (DRN), Guðmundur Óskar Guðmundsson, and Bubbi Morthens. Páll Óskar Hjálmtýsson and Sigríður Thorlacius serve as alternate board members.

The association welcomed the broad participation in the moment of silence, issuing a statement that said self-employed Icelandic musicians “will continue to stand with their nation, lighten its mood, and do their part.”

“Musicians who make their living from live performances have suffered terrible financial losses and the future is uncertain where events and other gatherings are concerned,” continued the FSST statement. “Self-employed musicians in the Icelandic music industry work in variable and seasonal markets, pay taxes and other fees, but by the very nature of their work, fall outside of the mutual insurance safety net when crises like this occur. As such, self-employed musicians have not been able to take advantage of the government’s temporary resources or any of the economic relief measures that have been introduced.”

The association is calling for relief measures to mitigate the economic losses suffered by its members. “FSST members do not work in a vacuum,” it noted, pointing out that these artists have symbiotic relationships with “music venues and cultural houses, both public and private, equipment rentals, stagehands, lighting and sound technicians, hairdressers and makeup artists, photographers, designers, advertisers, and countless others. Self-employed musicians are an important link in the value chain in many areas of society. The profession is in a grievous situation, our members are fighting the banks and can’t wait any longer.”

Without immediate aid, says the FSST, the Icelandic music industry could be facing “serious and maybe irreversible consequences,” running the risk that a significant number of its musicians will leave the profession and that it will be harder to convince new artists to enter the industry in the future.

Icelandic Music Industry Calls For More COVID-19 Support

Iceland Airwaves 2018

Icelandic musicians and organisations within the local music industry are calling for more support of working musicians, many of whom have lost all their income due to COVID-19 regulations and are not eligible for unemployment benefits due to the independent nature of their work. Supporting technicians, booking agents, and others who work in the industry is also crucial in helping the industry survive the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Singer Sigríður Thorlacius told RÚV musicians have not been able to work due to gathering and social distancing regulations, which have made it near impossible to hold live performances for most of this year. While such regulations remain in place, she says, it’s important for workers in the music industry to be able to access financial support. “We are not demanding to hold concerts while the situation is what it is, because we are all in the middle of it,” Sigríður stated. “What we have maybe been pointing out is that many [of us] have for example not received unemployment benefits, that’s one thing. That it can be arranged so that we can apply for benefits.”

Freelance musicians’ ineligibility for unemployment benefits is one issue covered in a recent report exploring the effects of COVID-19 on Iceland’s music industry. The report also calls for the Icelandic government to review and adapt artists’ salaries and other grants to better support artists during the pandemic.

“One of the things we have emphasised a lot is for some sort of compensation fund to be established and for that we have been looking to Denmark,” explains María Rut Reynisdóttir, one of the report’s editors. Denmark’s has set up a specific fund to compensate musicians who have lost 30% or more of their income due to the pandemic. María added that many musicians work part-time jobs alongside their freelance work in music, and fall outside of many of the government’s response measures.

Unemployment Relief Needed for Tour Guides, Self-Employed

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.”

See Also: Icelandic Government Presents Economic Response Package to COVID-19 Crisis

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.”