2023 in Review: Community

Kvennafrídagurinn - kvenna verkfall Arnarhóll Women's strike

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the political, economic, and social interest stories that most affected Icelandic communities this year.


Wage battle

This year started out tense for the labour movement, with Efling Union and the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) in a wage negotiation deadlock. One-third of all labour contracts in Iceland had expired in the fall of 2022, and while most trade unions were able to reach compromises with SA in the form of shorter-term contracts, Efling Union, the country’s second-largest, held out.

In February, Efling workers voted to strike, leading to the temporary closure of several hotels and shortages of fuel at the pumps. At the height of strike actions in late February, some 2,000 Efling members were on strike. SA responded by proposing a lockout against Efling workers, which was approved in a members’ vote on February 22. Such a lockout would affect all members of Efling, around 21,000 in total, neither allowing them to show up to work, receive a wage, or accrue benefits and leave.

On March 1, the lockout was later postponed after temporarily-appointed state mediator Ástráður Haraldsson submitted a mediating proposal to SA and Efling. Efling members then voted in favour of the proposals, bringing months of tension to an end. The approved agreement is only valid until January 2024, however, and negotiations for the next one have not gotten off to a good start.

Read more about the Efling and SA collective agreement negotiations.


Police powers

Iceland is regularly ranked as one of the most peaceful places in the world. However, in May 2023, residents of the capital were greeted by rather unusual sights. Police officers armed with submachine guns prowled the streets, helicopters hovered overhead, and surveillance cameras kept their silent watch over downtown. These security measures were due to the Council of Europe Summit in Reykjavík, but not all of them were destined to pack up and leave alongside the private jets of world leaders. It was reported that Icelandic police would keep the additional weapons imported for the summit.

Unfortunately, 2022 proved to be a particularly violent year for Iceland, with a high-profile knife attack in a downtown Reykjavík club, a thwarted domestic terrorism plot, and four homicides (higher than the annual average of two, but not as many as in 2000, when Iceland reported a record six murders). In the wake of this violent year, Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson declared a “war on organised crime,” the keystone of which is a sweeping package of reforms that includes provisions for increased police funding, pre-emptive search warrants, and better-armed police. For Iceland, a nation where police officers still do not carry firearms on their person, the changes are novel.

They have also not been introduced without pushback. The Icelandic Bar Association submitted many comments on the Justice Minister’s bill that would increase Icelandic police’s powers to monitor people whoa re not suspected of crimes. Later that same month, the Parliamentary Ombudsman published a legal opinion stating that Jón Gunnarsson was guilty of a lack of consultation with the cabinet when he signed an amendment to regulations, authorising Icelandic police to carry electroshock weapons. This issue in particular triggered a failed vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Read more about police powers in Iceland.


Regulations on asylum seekers

In the spring of 2023, after several failed attempts and harsh criticism from human rights groups, Iceland’s Parliament passed new legislation that tightens restrictions on asylum seekers. The most significant change is that people whose asylum applications have received a final rejection are now stripped of essential services unless they consent to deportation. As a result, dozens of asylum seekers unable to leave the country for reasons personal or political are being stripped of housing and services, leaving many of them on the streets.

When the legislation took effect, municipal and state authorities could not agree on who was responsible for providing for the group’s basic needs. Now it appears that municipalities will provide basic services to the group, but the state will ultimately foot the bill, in a system more costly to taxpayers than the one it has replaced. Iceland’s Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has proposed erecting detention centres for asylum seekers and stated she will introduce a bill to that effect in early 2024.

Icelandic authorities have been criticised for the deportation of many asylum seekers this year as well, and how such deportations have been handled. The country deported 180 Venezuelans back to their home country in November, where they received a cold welcome. A disabled asylum seeker left Iceland with his family this month after a ruling that his family members would be deported.

Read more about the eviction of asylum seekers from state-subsidised housing in Iceland.


Bjarni Benediktsson resigns

On October 10, 2023, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson called a snap press conference. The call came on the heels of an opinion authored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that concluded that the Minister of Finance’s role in the ongoing privatisation of Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 banking collapse – had not conformed to state guidelines.

The official opinion of the Ombudsman stated: “In light of the fact that a company owned by the Finance Minister’s father was among the buyers in the sale of the state’s 22.5% share of the Íslandsbanki bank, sold in March 2022, the Minister was unfit to approve of a proposal made by Icelandic State Financial Investments (ISFI) to go ahead with the sale.”

At the press conference, Bjarni announced his decision to step down as Minister of Finance, despite his “own views, reasons, and understanding” of the Ombudsman’s opinion. Only six ministers have ever resigned from office following criticism or protest since the Republic of Iceland was established in 1944. However, the historic act was somewhat tempered when it was later announced that Bjarni would “switch seats” with Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir to become Minister for Foreign Affairs while Þórdís took the position of Finance Minister. Þórdís has announced that she will move forward with selling the remainder of Íslandsbanki.

Read more about Bjarni Benediktsson.


Persistent inflation

As elsewhere in the world, 2023 has been marked by persistent inflation and a significant increase in the cost of living in Iceland. In an attempt to curb inflation, the Central Bank of Iceland continued raising interest rates throughout the first three quarters, to a height of 9.25% for the key interest rate. In October and November, however, it decided to keep that rate unchanged, citing economic uncertainty.

In June, Iceland’s government introduced measures to counter inflation, involving a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. The measures have yet to show a significant impact, as inflation remains high. In November, it had measured 8% over the past 12 months and risen by 0.1% in the previous month.

Food prices have risen amid inflation, with the price of perishable good rising 12.2% year over year, significantly above inflation. When the króna appreciated mid-year, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs sought clarification from major grocery chains on why prices had not fallen. Iceland ranks third globally when terms of food prices, trailing only Norway and Switzerland.

The rising interest rates have significantly impacted the housing market and put many families in a tight spot.


Women’s strike draws huge crowds

On October 24, 2023, women and non-binary people in Iceland held a strike in support of gender equality that drew historic crowds. Inspired by the original 1975 “Women’s Day Off,” the aim of the protest was twofold: to call for the eradication of gender-based violence and rectifying the undervaluation of female-dominated professions.

Public gatherings were held across the country, and in Reykjavík the turnout exceeded expectations. Chief Superintendent of Reykjavík Metropolitan Police Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson estimated that between 70,000-100,000 people attended the event on Arnarhóll hill in the city centre.

While Women’s Strikes have been held in Iceland from time to time over the last several decades, this event was only the second full-day strike of its kind, the first one being the original historic protest in 1975. This year, even Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir walked off the job and attended the protest. The news about the Women’s Strike in Iceland spread fast around the globe, with international media outlets reporting on the event, including the New York Times, BBC, and the Guardian.

Read more about the 2023 Women’s Strike.

In Focus: The 2023 Women’s Strike

women's strike 2023

On October 24, 2023, thousands of people swarmed Arnarhóll hill in downtown Reykjavík, holding protesting signs, babies, and each other’s hands, turning the city centre into a historic spectacle. Iceland’s seventh Women’s Strike (Kvennaverkfall) had a much larger turnout than expected, with the crowd spilling out across Hverfisgata and Lækjargata streets. An estimated 70,000 to […]

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Deep North Episode 49: Women Look to the Future

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

It’s not an exaggeration to call the most recent Women’s Strike historic. With some 70-100,000 women participating, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the strike attracted international media attention and injected fresh energy into feminist activism in Iceland. We take a look at our 1986 coverage of Women’s Day Off and consider how far we’ve come, and where we have yet to go.

Women’s Strike Drew Close to a Quarter of Iceland’s Population

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

Yesterday, a protest inspired by the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike took place in downtown Reykjavík. An officer with the Capital Area Police told Vísir that there had “never been such a crowd” gathered on Arnarhóll Hill and nearby streets.

The cause is just; the weather, fantastic

Yesterday, numerous women and non-binary persons in Iceland took the day off in order to participate in a demonstration inspired by the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike. The aim of the protest was twofold: eradicating gender-based violence and rectifying the undervaluation of so-called women’s professions.

Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson, Chief Superintendent of the Capital Region Police – who has overseen many gatherings in downtown Reykjavik over the past decades – told Vísir yesterday that he had never seen such a crowd in central Reykjavík: “There has never been such a crowd around Arnarhóll Hill and in the nearby streets – not even on Culture Night,” Ásgeir Þór stated.

As noted by Vísir, it is difficult to estimate the exact size of yesterday’s crowd. The police, monitoring the proceedings at its control centre with the aid of cameras, speculated that the number of demonstrators might have reached a six-figure number.

“Probably around 70,000-100,000 people,” Ásgeir Þór told Vísir. “We expected a large turnout, but this exceeded all expectations. After all, the cause is just, and the weather was, of course, fantastic.”

Tens of Thousands Participate in Women’s Strike

women's strike iceland 2023

The Women’s Strike taking place today across Iceland is seeing widespread participation. Exact numbers are not yet known, but forecasts indicate that tens of thousands of women and non-binary individuals are participating.

At the forefront of the strike is the gender pay gap, in addition to gender-based violence. The so-called “third shift,” in which women perform unpaid domestic labour such as childcare and household chores, has also been increasingly discussed by activists.

This marks the sixth women’s strike since Women’s Day Off in 1975, the first such labour action in Iceland.

Disruption to services

As reported yesterday, the strike has had an outsized impact on fields such as healthcare and education, where women form a majority of the workforce.

Vísir also reports that all pools in the Reykjavík area except one, Klébergslaug on the Kjalarnes peninsula, are closed today. Klébergslaug will, however, have shortened hours, open only between 4:00 and 10:00 pm.

Almost all bank branches will be closed. All branches of Landsbankinn and Arion bank will be closed, except for the location in Smáralind shopping centre.

Many municipal services will also be reduced today, either due to shortened hours or outright closures.

Air travel is not expected to be significantly affected today. Though a majority of employees in the sector are women, airline executives have stated that other employees are filling in for those participating in the strike.

Large protests in Reykjavík

One of the main events of the day is a protest organised on Arnarhóll hill, in downtown Reykjavík. Thousands were in attendance and a live stream can be viewed from RÚV here.

Highlights of the programme include talks by activists and live musical performances.

Women and non-binary persons outside Reykjavík are also taking part. RÚV reports that a group of women working in Akranes, for example, staged a “knit-in,” when their employer made clear that they wouldn’t be paid if they were to go on strike.

International media attention

The Women’s Strike has also drawn considerable attention from the international press, with outlets from the New York Times to the BBC and the Guardian covering the strike.

According to the World Economic Forum, Iceland has done the most to reduce the gender gap in the world. According to the WEF, the gap is 91.2% closed in Iceland.



Healthcare and Education Services Especially Impacted by Women’s Strike

women's day off iceland 2018

The Women’s Strike scheduled for tomorrow, October 24, is expected to have a significant impact on services offered throughout Iceland.

Women and non-binary persons all over the country will put down their paid and unpaid work for an entire day and thousands are expected to participate in the strike to show solidarity.

Companies and institutions have made plans to deal with the temporary labour shortage, but some services may be disrupted.

Healthcare and education affected

Fields in which women form the majority are expected to be especially affected, such as healthcare and education.

RÚV reports that 5,493 of the total 6,856 employees at Landspítali, the National University Hospital, are women. This represents 80% of the entire workforce.

Runólfur Pálsson, director of Landspítali, stated to RÚV that operations tomorrow will be scheduled in such a way as to allow as many as possible to participate in the strike.

“Of course, we will continue to provide all emergency services, urgent tasks, and necessary surgeries,” he stated. However, he stressed that the nature of healthcare work means that not all can be absent from work. He instead encouraged those who do not or cannot participate in the strike to take pictures of themselves at work so that others can express solidarity with them.

Schools throughout Iceland are also expected to be affected by the strike. According to the Icelandic Teachers’ Union, women make up 94% of preschool teachers, 82% of primary school teachers, and 62% of secondary school teachers.

Katrín goes on strike

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has also expressed her solidarity with the Women’s Strike, stating that she will be laying down her duties tomorrow, October 24.

She stated to Vísir: “I will be putting down my work to show solidarity with women. It is an incredible situation in the year 2023 that we still have gender pay gaps, that we haven’t achieved full equality, and that we are still dealing with gender-based violence.”

Stating that these issues have long been a priority for her government, she continued: “We are seeing the gender pay gap decrease, and we have also taken significant actions to address gender-based violence.”

Katrín also called for others to take part in the strike as well.

Publish a list

Organizers of the Women’s Strike will also be publishing a list of employers who obstruct women’s participation in the strike tomorrow.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, chairperson of BSRB, a federation of public labour unions, is one of the organizers of the Women’s Strike. She stated that they hope to ensure that as many people are able to participate as possible. To that end, they have created a document that allows workers to report workplaces discouraging participation in the strike.

Sonja stated to Vísir: “We hope to establish initial contact with these employers and encourage them to support women and women’s participation in this important fight for gender equality.” She continued:  “Many of the submissions also come with accounts of injustices within workplaces, so we thought that we might even take it a step further and publish the names of those employers who do not intend to support this struggle for equality.”

Workplaces and institutions can be reported anonymously here.

Women in Iceland first went on strike in 1975. Some 90% of Icelandic women took place in what was called Women’s Day Off and equal pay legislation was passed in parliament the following year. Other labour actions have occurred in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. Tomorrow will be the seventh Women’s Strike.

Read our archival coverage of the 1985 Women’s Day Off.

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Women, Non-Binary Persons, to Go on Full-Day Strike in October

Iceland’s BSRB federation and 31 associations are organising a strike on October 24 to address gender-based violence and the undervaluing of women-dominated professions, Mbl.is reports. Inspired by the 1975 women’s strike, the demonstration places special emphasis on non-binary individuals, aiming to challenge patriarchal subordination across all gender identities.

Can’t wait any longer

While there has been progress in the fight for women’s rights in Iceland, there is still a long way to go, Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, Chair of the BSRB Federation of Workers Unions, told Mbl.is yesterday. BSRB is among 31 associations orchestrating a widespread strike of women and non-binary individuals (i.e. kvár) on Tuesday, October 24.

According to Sonja, the organisers of the strike hope that this year’s demonstration will surpass the turnout of the seminal 1975 Icelandic women’s strike when about 90% of women in Iceland ceased work to underline the significance of women in the labour market and within society.

“The seeds for holding a women’s strike this year were sown around the 40th anniversary of the Women’s List (a feminist political party that took part in national politics between 1983 and 1999.” A conference was held where the discussion revolved around the achievements so far, as well as the work that remains,” Sonja stated in an interview with Mbl.is. Attendees of the conference agreed that there was still a long way to go in the fight for women’s rights.

“Since the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike was a joint venture of women’s and gender-diverse associations, as well as workers’ associations, the question arose whether a women’s strike should be held. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’; everyone felt the same way, everyone had experienced this stagnation, and everyone believed that progress was not happening fast enough. No one wanted to wait any longer,” Sonja stated.

Twofold demands

Sonja told Mbl.is that the main demands of this year’s women’s strike were twofold: eradicating all gender-based violence and rectifying the undervaluation of so-called women’s professions.

As noted by Mbl.is, by “women’s professions,” Sonja is referring to job sectors where women constitute a significant majority. Research has shown that the primary reason for the gender pay gap is that these sectors are paid lower wages compared to other sectors in the labour market. These professions may even be at the lowest wage levels in the labour market.

“Addressing the wage structures within these professions, correcting this undervaluation constitutes a significant stride towards obliterating the gender pay gap,” Sonja observed.

Gender-based violence

In her interview, Sonja underscored the pervasive nature of gender-based violence in Iceland, calling for measures proportional to the severity and frequency of such incidents.

“An initial focus is on comprehending the scope of gender-based violence, with data revealing that a staggering 40% of women have encountered some form of violence in their lifetime. While substantial efforts have been directed towards aiding women and trans women victimised by gender-based violence, there’s a glaring disparity in the attention towards perpetrators and devising strategies to curb such aggressions,” she remarked.

“The question remains – what steps will our society take to stem this tide, ensuring that perpetrators face stringent consequences, thereby shifting the burden of accountability from the victims to those inflicting harm?” Sonja posited.

An emphasis on gender-queer individuals

This year’s women’s strike is drawing inspiration from the historic 1975 Icelandic women’s strike, where women halted work for a full day to highlight gender injustices. “Unlike the protocol since the 2005 strike – where a specific walkout time was designated – we opted for a full-day strike to underscore our expanded agenda beyond the pay gap, prominently spotlighting violence,” Sonja explained.

A notable addition to this year’s strike is the deliberate inclusion of non-binary issues. “While an open invitation has always existed, this year marks a concerted effort to extend a warmer welcome to non-binary individuals, recognizing their shared subjugation under patriarchal norms akin to women. Despite the gender spectrum they represent, they grapple with a common gender oppressive system,” Sonja noted.

“Our aim is to rally individuals across all gender identities who endure patriarchal subordination, and that we intertwine our struggles,” she added.

No Gender Pay Gap in Árborg

pay gap iceland

For the first time in the municipality’s history, Árborg in South Iceland has reported no wage gap for the municipality’s thousand-some employees.

Fjóla Kristinsdóttir, mayor of Árborg, stated to Vísir that she was “extremely proud of this achievement.” She noted that it was particularly impressive given the large size of the municipality and their many employees, though she also stated “this is naturally what we have to do according to the law.”

On how the municipality achieved this milestone in social justice, Fjóla stated that “I’m not trying to own this accomplishment. It’s just our great staff who have been working hard on this.”

There are around 1,000 employees in Árborg municipality, with women now considerably more represented than men. Now, however, the basic wage for all is the same, something that was not always the case.

The news is significant in its timing as well, coming near the anniversary of Women’s Day Off. On October 24, 1975, women in Iceland staged a historic strike, now known as Women’s Day Off. With nearly 90% of Iceland’s women participating in the strike, they walked out of both jobs and domestic labour for the day. The following year, legislation ensuring equal pay was passed.