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Iceland invites the ILO to the land of volcanos and glaciers
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Iceland invites the ILO to the land of volcanos and glaciers

| Text and photo: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir

On the 4th and 5th of April, Iceland will be hosting the final out of four Nordic conferences ahead of the ILO’s centenary celebrations. The Future of Work conferences represent a very important forum not only for Iceland, but for the entire Nordic region, says Iceland’s Minister for Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason.

Major changes to the labour market and gender equality will be two important themes during the last Future of Work conference, organised by the Icelandic Ministry of Social Affairs and Children in Reykjavik in early April.

The ministry is optimistic about the conference. 2oo participants have already signed up, and the ministry is hoping the total number will be close to 300. The Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour will convene the day before the conference. ILO’s Director-General Guy Ryder will participate in both the ministers' meeting and the conference.

“We will look at how the Nordic countries have organised their working lives and labour markets. The Nordic region can become a model for other countries,” says Ásmundur Einar Daðason.

Major changes afoot

The Future of Work conferences have been held over the past four years, and always in the country which has held the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The first was held in Helsinki four years ago, where global changes to the labour market was on the agenda. Three years ago in Oslo, the sharing economy was the theme, and the third conference in Stockholm last year looked at the technological development and necessary changes to education and training.    

Conference number four in Reykjavik will sum up what has been discussed during the previous conferences. But since it is also the ILO’s centenary, there will be a special presentation based on the ILO’s Global Commission’s report on the future of work.   Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has been one of the commission’s two commissioners. 

The ILO has asked the Nordic countries for ideas and proposals on how to improve working conditions and gender equality, and also how to maintain skills to avoid jobs being taken over by robots and artificial intelligence. The Nordic region has focused on the protection of workers’ rights and a tripartite cooperation in the labour market. This will be discussed and expanded on. Working environments are important, believes Ásmundur Einar. He also believes gender equality in the labour market should be a high priority.

We are not fleeing from the future

Iceland recently presented an equal pay standard, which is about to be introduced to all public and private companies with more than 250 employees. The Nordics have also been at the forefront when it comes to parental leave and other labour market reforms. Gender equality, parental leave and the labour market have all been linked. It is important to make sure everyone can be part of the labour market.  

“I believe these three areas allow the Nordic region to inspire other countries,” says Ásmundur Einar Daðason.

He says that the future of work is being discussed across the Nordic region right now. Iceland is no exception. The population is growing fast and the way people look at the labour market is changing. Climate change also plays a very big part. The minister is looking forward to learning more about the report on the Nordic model produced by a large number of researchers, coordinated by the Norwegian research foundation Fafo.

Iceland is very hopeful it can build on the results from the conference. The Nordic region has always had a well-developed labour market. If the Nordics are to maintain their leadership position as Nordic welfare states, the countries must continue to develop their labour markets. This will also be a topic for debate during the conference, along with how the Nordic region can take bigger and powerful steps into the future.

“When you look at how fast things are moving, the Nordic region can only keep its leadership position by continuing their labour market cooperation. We are not fleeing the future,” says Ásmundur Einar.

Everything is linked

Young people, sustainable tourism and the seas are all priorities during Iceland’s 2019 Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The Nordic region prioritises gender equality and digitalisation, linking everything to the UN’s sustainable development goals.  

Ásmundur Einar points out that everything is linked. He believes young people’s futures are part of the UN’s priorities. Iceland focuses on the seas, because the resources there and the environment are important for Iceland and the whole of the Nordic region. Every time Iceland has held the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, the country has tried to take into account their neighbours Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

“Climate change could have enormous consequences for the Nordic region, and this is also linked to sustainable development. Living conditions change, fish stocks disappear, new fish species arrive. This is part of sustainable development and climate change’s effects on the seas, even though these areas do not fall directly under this government ministry,” he points out.

Equal pay standard in German

Iceland recently passed an equal pay standard law. At the start of 2019, 66 public and private companies began introducing the standard. This number will rise to 200 by the end of the year. In the coming years, public and private companies with fewer employees will introduce the standard too, until all companies with at least 25 employees will adhere to it. The equal pay standard and Icelandic laws and regulations have already been translated into German. Germany, Austria and New Zealand have already shown an interest in introducing the standard.

“You always see unexpected results when you introduce something groundbreaking like the equal pay standard. I believe other countries will be giving this serious consideration, once Iceland has  fully introduced the standard,” says Ásmundur Einar.

Flexibility and perseverance

Iceland has put the financial crisis behind it, but it is only a few years ago that the country went through hard times. Ásmundur Einar believes Icelanders’ flexibility and perseverance helped the country manage to bounce back as fast as it did. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a small society, he thinks.

“We Icelanders react and adapt quickly when faced with changes in our local environment. Our fisheries industry has been used to working hard when catches are good. The same goes for the rest of the labour market. Tourism has experienced enormous growth. It is now Iceland’s biggest export,” he says.

“But you mustn’t have too much flexibility. We also need stability. That is the key to the future. Families who lost their homes and jobs have been through tough times. Not everyone have managed to catch up again.”

Iceland is now looking at setting up a national fund modelled on the Norwegian oil fund. It would be a buffer for the next time Iceland runs into economic difficulties. The idea is to have access to extra funds during times of crisis. The money would be taken from state revenues from for instance the energy company Landsvirkjun, the country’s main energy provider.

The land of volcanos and glaciers

“We want a fund which can be used during hard times, because we live in the land of volcanos and glaciers. Nobody knows when the next rough patch will be, so it is important to mend the roof while the sun is shining. Icelandic families do the same. They have lowered their shoulders. That is important and positive,” he says.

The Welfare Watch was set up in 2009 in order to protect children from the financial crisis. Other countries have shown an interest in this, but as far as the Minister for Social Affairs and Children knows, no other country has taken the idea any further. The Welfare Watch recently presented a report showing there are still children in Iceland who live below the poverty line, and that their living standards have not improved in line with that of other people in Icelandic society. 

Icelanders are quick

"Icelanders react and adapt quickly when faced with changes in our local environment," says Minister for Social Affairs and Children Ásmundur Einar Daðason (above)

Facts
  • Iceland will host a special gender equality conference in September, as part of its Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. 
  • In November, the Ministry For Social Affairs and Children, together with the Directorate of Labour Vinnumálastofnun and the Administration of Occupational Safety and Health in Iceland Vinnueftirlitið, organised a conference on the rapid growth of foreign labour in Iceland, especially within the tourism sector. A changing labour market means there is a need for improved oversight and information to make sure everyone get the same good working environments and salary levels. 
  • In March this year, Iceland will also organise an event ahead of the High-Level Political Forum in New York this summer. The event will host a debate on the UN’s goal to secure everyone the right to a good job.
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