Chairman of Medical Association Warns of Doctor Shortage

Nurses Hospital Landsspítalinn við Hringbraut

Chairman of the Icelandic Medical Association, Steinunn Þórðardóttir, stated in a recent interview with Fréttablaðið that Iceland faces one of the lowest ratios of general practitioners to the population in Europe, raising concerns over both adequate healthcare for patients and excessive workload for doctors.

Iceland only has 60 general practitioners for every 100,000 inhabitants. Averages for Western Europe are generally around 100 per 100,000, with most other Scandinavian nations having double or more of the Icelandic ratio. According to Steinunn, this lack is especially felt in pediatrics.

Because the Icelandic medical system lacks specialized facilities, many doctors must go abroad for medical school to finish their training. Some 847 Icelandic doctors are currently employed abroad, and Steinunn blames difficult working conditions as a major reason why these doctors do not choose to work here in Iceland. In order to retain the doctors that do train in Iceland, and entice doctors working abroad to work in Iceland, the medical system must make improvements to the working conditions.

In her interview, she states that because of a shortage of specialists in other fields, doctors must often work as psychiatrists and social workers as well. The unclear nature of the work further adds to the burden of an already heightened workload.

Central to the problem is the fact that Iceland simply produces too few doctors and nurses. An average of 60 are admitted to the University of Iceland’s medical school every year, but significant amounts of Icelandic medical students also choose to study abroad. According to Steinunn, Iceland cannot rely on other countries to fill this gap, and it is critical for the University of Iceland’s medical school to expand both its capacity and specialized facilities.

The shortage of trained professionals is by no means limited to general practitioners. Iceland is also experiencing a nursing shortage, with increased strain during COVID a major reason why nurses have left the field.

Similarly, Magnús Þór Jónsson, chairman of the Icelandic Teachers’ Association, has described the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers for this coming Fall. During the pandemic, teachers often had to adapt to a changing environment with increased responsibilities and workload. Citing these deteriorating conditions, Magnús states that many teachers have left the profession, either to temporarily work in other fields or else permanently in favour of better conditions.

 

“An Invisible Group of Foreigners Who Clean Up After Us”

cleaning equipment

Cleaning staff in Iceland face too much strain and their working conditions are unacceptable, according to Director of the Federation of General and Special Workers in Iceland (Starfsgreinasamband, or SGS) Flosi Eiríksson. Cleaning is increasingly outsourced by businesses, which puts cleaning workers at risk of isolation, Flosi says. SGS is preparing for collective agreement negotiations later this year, and plans to emphasise improving working conditions for cleaners.

Flosi says that the last collective agreement included a review of the working speed and environment of cleaners, but that the review was never carried out. SGS contacted the Administration of Occupational Safety and Health (Vinnueftirlitið), who discovered that cleaners face excessive strain at work. “They were expected to work much too fast, that led to musculoskeletal problems, sick leave, and so on and so forth.”

While in the past, cleaners were employed by the businesses and institutions where they worked, now they tend to be employed by large cleaning companies that are hired by businesses. Before this shift occurred, many people worked part-time as cleaners, after work or school. Now many are working as cleaners full time. The Administration of Occupational Safety and Health confirmed that cleaners’ working conditions are equivalent to walking 10 kilometres per hour, each hour they work, which Flosi called “unacceptable.”

“Invisible group of foreigners”

With cleaning services increasingly outsourced, there is a greater risk that cleaners will be isolated at their workplace. “You are specially marked, you don’t have coffee with other employees, you probably don’t get the staff Christmas present, you don’t go to the staff party, and so on,” Flosi stated. “Sometimes we don’t see those people. Here in the capital area, they’re probably 80-90% people of foreign origin. Maybe we’re, in some sense, creating a tiny invisible group of foreigners who clean up after us.” Flosi also pointed out that by outsourcing cleaning services, government institutions are no longer taking part in collective agreement negotiations for cleaning employees.

Singers Criticise Management of Iceland’s Only Opera Company

Icelandic Opera

The Professional Association of Classical Singers in Iceland (Klassís) has issued a declaration of no confidence in Icelandic Opera’s board and director Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir, RÚV reports. In a statement, Klassís criticises the opera’s management in recent years, accusing it of undermining solidarity among singers and suggesting soloists who seek their rights are denied work at the company as a result. The statement comes on the heels of a ruling by the Reykjavík District Court in the company’s favour.

Soprano Þóra Einarsdóttir sued the Icelandic Opera last year, claiming the company underpaid her and several other singers for their work in its 2019 Marriage of Figaro production. Several of the production’s soloists complained about an excessive workload and turned to the Icelandic Musicians Union (FÍH) for support. The union’s chairman Gunnar Hrafnsson says the singers’ combined wage demands were around ISK 4 million ($31,000/€26,000).

Court Acquits Opera Company

Last Friday, the Reykjavík District Court acquitted the Icelandic Opera in the case, though it also waived Þóra’s legal costs. Þóra declined to discuss the ruling in detail, but stated it raised many questions. No decision has been made on whether the ruling will be appealed.

The case centered on clarifying whether the Icelandic Opera had an obligation to pay singers according to union rates. The company argued that it did not, as the singers were hired as contract workers. FÍH claimed the Opera Company never officially terminated the permanent contracts it had with singers prior to the Marriage of Figaro production and must therefore pay them according to union rates.

Singers’ Salaries Have Fallen

Klassís asserts that singers’ salaries have fallen in real terms over the past several years and points to the Icelandic Opera’s management and policy as the cause. The group’s statement also accused the company’s board of deliberately barring eligible singers from taking a seat on the board, “for example by changing its bylaws in a closed meeting.”

The Icelandic Opera is Iceland’s only professional opera company. Iceland’s government has, however, appointed a working group to research the founding of a national opera company. In its statement, Klassís called the move a “turning point” stating that with the founding of a national opera company: “Singers hope that management practices such as those that Icelandic opera singers have had to accept on the part of the Icelandic Opera in recent years will thus be eradicated and professionalism resumed and respected.”

Owner Will Have One Month to Demolish Fire-Ravaged House

Bræðaborgarstígur fire

The owner of a Reykjavík house, now in ruins after a fatal fire, will be ordered to demolish the building’s remains within 30 days, RÚV reports. The Vesturbær Neighbourhood Residents’ Council has expressed concern that impending winter weather could knock over the compromised structure. The house owner’s lawyer has said the building cannot be demolished due to an insurance dispute.

The fire that occurred at the house last June resulted in three deaths and is considered the deadliest fire in Reykjavík’s history. A man was immediately apprehended following the fire and has since been charged with manslaughter and arson. The house was being rented for use as workers’ housing and had been investigated by media for unacceptable living conditions as far back as 2015.

Read More: Fire Sparks Conversation About Working Conditions Facing Foreigners

Owner Cites Insurance Dispute

Skúli Sveinsson, the house owner’s lawyer, told reporters it is not possible to demolish the house as there is an ongoing dispute between the owner and his insurance company on whether the house requires demolition or simply renovation. The City of Reykjavík’s Buliding Inspector Nikulás Úlfar Másson says the dispute is irrelevant to authorities. “Our duty is to ensure that buildings don’t pose a danger to their environment, can harm or even cause health problems to passersby or those living in their vicinity,” Nikulás stated. “We have been monitoring the scene, with the net that covers the house and the fence, and all of that has been exemplary so far but now of course we can expect all kinds of weather that could simply destroy the house. We don’t truly really know what condition it’s in.”

“Now it’s time for us to send a letter to the owner and ask him to demolish the house within 30 days or come up with an explanation as to what he plans to do with the ruins,” Nikulás stated.

Both the house’s owner and the man who has been charged for the fire are expected to face legal proceedings from the families of the victims. All three people who died in the fire were Polish citizens.

Cabin Crew Rejects Icelandair’s Second Contract Offer

Icelandair cabin crew

Members of the Icelandic Cabin Crew Association (FFÍ) have voted down the collective agreement signed by Icelandair and the association late last month. It’s the second contract to be rejected by the members in what FFÍ’s chairperson has called “very heavy and complicated” negotiations.

The contract was voted down by 72.65% of voters, while 26.46% approved it and 0.89% turned in blank ballots. Voter turnout was 85.3% – 786 of the 921 eligible members cast a vote.

“The FFÍ board and negotiation committee thanks its members for the solidarity and support that has prevailed within the group in the last months,” a statement on FFÍ’s website reads. “Voter turnout was very good and shows the responsibility and interest members have regarding their working conditions and working environment. The fact that the new collective agreement was voted down clearly shows that members believe the streamlining demands of the new contract went too far. The board and negotiation committee will now review the issue and will return to meet when the state mediator calls with a strong will to negotiate as before.”

Icelandair Cannot Compromise Further, CEO Says

Icelandair’s CEO Bogi Nils Bogason expressed disappointment over the vote’s results. “Unfortunately it’s a difficult position to be in because [Icelandair] can’t budge further,” Bogi told RÚV reporters. “Our goal number one, two, and three has been to complete the contract renewal with FFÍ. But if that doesn’t happen then of course we must consider other options. We are going to save our company.”

Bogi declined to comment on what other options the company was considering. He insisted that the airline’s financial restructuring, and promised government support, hinges on signing a long-term contract with FFÍ.

Fire Sparks Conversation About Working Conditions Facing Foreigners

fire Vesturgata Bræðraborgarstígur

Around 400 people gathered in front of Iceland’s parliament building yesterday to show solidarity with the victims of a Reykjavík house fire that left three dead and two in critical condition. The group marched to the burnt building, where many laid flowers in memory of the victims. The event’s attendees called for stricter regulations on housing for immigrant workers.

The fire began on Friday afternoon in a house on the corner of Vesturgata and Bræðraborgarstígur in west Reykjavík. The house was on a list of illegal residential housing published by the fire brigade in 2017. Investigative journalism programme Kveikur took up the matter of illegal residence in the house in 2017. In recent years, neighbourhood residents had spoken out about their concerns with the house’s lack fire protection and poor maintenance.

Foreign Workers Often Exploited, Says Organiser

The fire has sparked a conversation about the poor working conditions some foreign workers in Iceland face. “[The] labour market is exploited and many illegal actions are taken on that market especially towards immigrants because oftentimes many of us don’t speak Icelandic and don’t speak even English,” Kaja Balejko, a photographer and one of the event’s organisers, told RÚV. “The Polish society here is lucky because there are plenty of us but there are a lot of nationalities here who are not as big and they have nobody to reach for help.”

Kaja says providing support to immigrant workers doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It could involve simple measures such as providing every foreigner who applies for a kennitala (Icelandic ID number) a PDF listing support organisations in their native language, “not only government ones and not only unions but also charity organisations who can support them in the moments that they don’t know to who they can reach for help.”

Union Leader Criticises Justice Ministry’s Priorities

The registered owner of the house is local contractor HD Verk, whose owners have not yet been available for comment. The building has previously been rented by the temporary work agencies Seigla and Menn í Vinnu.

CEO of Efling Union Viðar Þorsteinnson says the organisation is increasingly coming to the aid of workers who depend on their employers for housing. Such workers are drawn into situations “that I trust myself to say are more related to human trafficking than a normal employment relationship,” Viðar told RÚV. He pointed out that media outlets Stundin and Kveikur had both covered the state of the house and conditions facing foreign workers in Iceland, so the lack of action on the issues could not be attributed to ignorance.

Viðar criticised the police and judicial system’s priorities when it came to foreign workers. “We’ve had a ticking time bomb here for years regarding people’s conditions […] The emphasis is instead on operating this notorious arrest vehicle, which is the police and Justice Minitry’s newest contribution to criminal activities on the labour market, and arrest workers and at the same time employers who are responsible for this activity, who are the perpetrators of criminal activity on the Icelandic labour market – they walk free.”