27. Since the crisis in 2008 the unemployment rate in Iceland rose considerably and is still quite high compared to what it used to be before the crisis. In May 2011 the unemployment rate was 7.7%, in February 2012 it was 7.3% and the group of people living with long-term unemployment increases every month. Today 33% of the group have been unemployed for a year or more and 52% have been unemployed for more than six months.8 Despite this development a comprehensive policy for employment in Iceland has not been formed, although several measures have been implemented, such as for young unemployed people, immigrants etc. At the beginning of the economic crisis the Government introduced an Action Plan for Welfare. Some measures proposed by the plan addressed employment issues directly. This action plan does however not fully consist with the Committees’ guidelines on how to devise such an action plan. It does not seem to have been made in cooperation with parties from the labour market or other interest groups and measurable goals in employment matters are lacking.
28. In February 2011 the Government presented a document called Iceland “2020 – governmental policy statement for the economy and community”. The Iceland 2020 policy statement is a vision for the future, developed through dialogue and collaboration between hundreds of Icelanders throughout the country and in consultation with regional associations, local authorities, trade unions and economic interest groups. This document consists of measurable goals and plans to strengthen education, culture, innovation and development, environment and social infrastructure. This document is very promising and it will be interesting to follow its implementation.9
29. Unemployment rate amongst young people has been very high since the economic crisis and in the 3rd quarter of 2011 the unemployment rate amongst people aged 18-24 was 9,5%.10 The Government has implemented special Labour Market measures directed at young people such as “Nám er vinnandi vegur” (“School is work”), where 1000 young job seekers could register in schools (both upper secondary schools and Universities) and keep their unemployment benefits until the end of 2011. In 2012 they can either apply for a student loan from LÍN (the Icelandic Student Loan fund), only available to some, others will get support through other measures being prepared by the Ministry of Welfare and will be funded by the unemployment fund.11
30. In General comment no. 5 Paras. 20-24 the Committee emphasises that States should not only offer “sheltered” workplaces for persons with disabilities but support the integration of these persons into the regular labour market. In a report of a working group for the Welfare Watch on people without employment, the Government was encouraged to look into possible changes to the social benefits system so that beneficiaries can use their work capabilities without losing their right to benefits.12 The minister for Welfare has established a working group to address future employment possibilities for disabled people. The group is supposed to review and define what is considered to be employment-related rehabilitation for specific groups according to Act no. 55/2006 on Labour Market Measures. The group is supposed to give its report before the end of 2011, but as yet, the report has not been issued.
31. Complaints have been made by the middle aged/elderly about encountering difficulties in obtaining employment past the age of 55-60. This issue did not seem to be a major problem in Iceland probably due to the very low unemployment rate in the country before the recession. This has changed somewhat and is likely to change even more in months to come. It is also of concern that unemployed people over 50 years of age will have a hard time re-entering the labour market. The old age pension has not kept up with the cost of living and due to the recession, many pension funds have had to lower monthly payments to pensioners by up to 20% and the amount that pensioners can earn by working without it affecting their pension has recently been lowered, both resulting in diminished living standards for the elderly.
32. The unemployment rate for foreigners has been very high in Iceland for the past years and in February 2012 the rate was 18.8% of all registered in the unemployment register (2.186 out of 11.621). According to information from the Directorate of Labour in November only 686 of these 2021 took part in some sort of special Labour Market measures.13 It is important to direct these measures at a wider group of people especially foreigners since they are less likely to have a strong support network of family and/or friends. The Directorate of Labour has tried to reach this group by having information translated into different languages but perhaps additional measures would give better results.
33. Regarding the Act on Foreign National’s Right to Work no. 97/2002 ICEHR points out that foreigners who only possess temporary work permits do not have the right to unemployment benefits according to article 13. d. of the Act on Unemployment Benefits no. 54/2006. Some of these workers have worked here for two or three years and paid taxes and other fees to the Government. ICEHR considers them to be discriminated against by denying them unemployment benefits if their work agreement with the employer is terminated. ICEHR welcomes the amendment made to the Act in August 2008 (Act 78/2008) for the work permit to be issued in the name of the foreign worker and not in the name of the employer. The work permits are though always only valid for employment with a specific employer (the Government report Para. 81).
34. ICEHR urges the Icelandic Government, in light of the current situation, to review its employment policy with a view to better implement measures that offer all groups of society the possibility of work and work related projects.
35. ICEHR would like to address a special issue in light of Article 2, Para 2 in conjunction with Art 6 of the Covenant, which stipulates the right to work for everyone. In Iceland, the fisheries management system has been debated a lot. The debate has especially been on the Act on fisheries and how the Act came about in the 1980’s. The Act established the following fisheries management system; owners of ships engaged in fishing of demersal species during the period of 1 November 1980 to 31 October 1983 would be eligible for fishing licences. The ships were entitled to fishing quotas based on their catch performance during the reference period. The main rule was that fishing permits were to be restricted to vessels, which had received permits the previous fishing year. Accordingly, the decommissioning of a vessel already in the fleet was a prerequisite for the granting of a fishing permit to a new vessel. With the implementation of the Fisheries Management Act No. 38/1990 (hereafter referred to as the Act), with subsequent amendments, the catch quota system was established on a permanent basis. It was based on the allocation of catch quotas to individual vessels on the basis of their catch performance, generally referred to as “the quota system”. In practice, notwithstanding section 1 of the Act, (providing that the fishing banks around Iceland are a common property of the Icelandic nation and that allocation of catch entitlements does not endow individual parties with a right of ownership of such entitlements,) fishing quotas are treated as the personal property of those to whom they were distributed free of charge during the aforementioned reference period. Other persons must therefore purchase or lease a right to fish from the beneficiaries of the arrangement, or from others who have, in turn, purchased such a right from them.
36. A complaint on the “quota system“ was submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee (no. 1306/2004). The Committee concluded that the practice of allowing “quota“ owners to lease and sell their quotas as if their personal property, disclosed a violation of article 26 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and that the state party was under an obligation to provide the authors of the case with effective remedy, including adequate compensation and review of its fisheries management system. Many have claimed that since the “quota” system was established it has had an impact on the freedom of work in relation to the right to choose your work freely and therefore can count as a an interference, if not violation of Article 2, Para 2 in conjunction with Article 6 of the Covenant. At minimum, such “interference” must be justified under Article.
37. Despite the ruling of the UN Human Rights Committee little has changed in these matters and, as yet, no compensation has been paid. However, very recently a bill on a new Act on fisheries has been presented to the Parliament. As yet, there has not been much debate on the new bill but there has been criticism on the Government not having had extensive consultation with all interest groups when drafting the new legal bill, for consensus to be reached on these issues.
38. Article 7a stipulates that the remuneration for work should be fair and sufficient to guarantee a decent living for all workers and their families. Although the majority of workers in Iceland are party to some sort of a collective agreement, as a result of the economic crisis in Iceland when the local currency fell and with ever increasing inflation the purchasing power of wages has fallen. The decrease was 9% in 2009 and an extra 3% in 2010. For the last 12 months it has increased by about 3,7% which is a very positive development.14 After the crisis the Government also decreased or froze wages of government officials and workers. It was only just in the last months of 2011 that they withdrew the wage freeze and government employees got some increase in their wages through new collective agreements. This development had more effect on women as they represent about 65% of all government workers.15 Although it is understandable that the Government had to make some cut-backs and enforce restraining measures they always have to consider the gender equality aspect and not make cut-backs only where women are more affected than men. There has been a tendency to cut-back in spheres where many women work, like in nursing and kindergartens, while effort is made to build up work in spheres consisting mainly of male workers, like in the construction industry. See more discussion about the gender pay gap regarding Article 3 above.
39. In comment 23 of the concluding observations of the Committee, occupational health and safety is mentioned and the state party is urged to enhance its efforts to reduce the frequency of occupational accidents both on land and at sea. The Government report gives a good and comprehensive overview of the situation as it is. Some progress has been made and the Administration of Occupational Safety and Health (AOSH) has done great work on awareness raising but as always there is room for improvement. ICEHR is concerned that in times of recession and cut-backs, the workload and stress relating factors have increased due to massive layoffs both in the public and private sector. Increased workload and stress can be hazardous for workers and sometimes lead to increase in occupational accidents and other health problems.
40. ICEHR encourages the Icelandic Government to consider occupational safety and health when making cut-backs and to consider carefully the effects of added workload and stress related factors on workers. It is also necessary to allocate more resources to the AOSH to strengthen their work and ensure actual and effective monitoring.