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   Vol. 67/No. 37           October 27, 2003  
Workers demand union rights for all
at Iceland dam construction project
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REYKJAVÍK, Iceland—On October 10 the bosses at the Impregilo construction company agreed that all workers on the Kárahnjúkar Power Station project, whether native- or foreign-born, will be paid according to the company’s contract with the Icelandic unions.

The decision, reached in talks with representatives of the Icelandic Confederation of Labor (ASÍ), was a victory for the 600-700 workers on the huge project. They are fighting to increase wages across the board, ensure adequate facilities for all, and to end the company’s discriminatory practices of paying the immigrant workers substantially less.

Impregilo won the contract to build a dam and hydroelectric power station at Kárahnjúkar. The project will dam two major glacial rivers and create two water-storage reservoirs.

The power station will be run by the publicly owned National Power Company. It is designed to provide electrical power to an aluminum smelter in Reydarfjördur, on the east coast, to be run by the U.S. company Alcoa.

After being chosen, Impregilo contracted out parts of the job. Workers on the site have come from many countries, including Portugal, Rumania, Turkey, and Iceland. Some are working on the dam construction, while others are building the facilities for the workers. There are also cleaners, cooks, bus drivers, and others. Most of the bosses, foremen, and specialized dynamite personnel come from Italy.

Thorbjörn Gudmundsson, the executive officer of the Federation of Skilled Construction and Industrial Workers (Samidn), told the daily newspaper DV, “It’s not patriotism that draws people way up into the mountains, but the hope of good wages.… The wages offered there [at Kárahnjúkar] are lower than those paid at Vatnsfell [dam construction] two years ago.”  
Workers discuss wages, conditions
On August 12 the Icelandic-born workers employed by Impregilo met to discuss wages and conditions in the camps. Native-born workers had been told would work shifts and receive 30 percent more than for day work. But very few were actually on shifts and therefore got substantially lower wages than they expected. Icelandic-born workers stay on the project site for 28 days, working six days a week up to 12 hours. They then get seven days off.

According to Samidn’s newspaper, the conditions did not meet the Icelandic labor contract provisions for dam projects, which are more extensive and detailed than regular contracts.

At Kárahnjúkar two or three workers sleep in rooms made for one. According to the union paper, 200 workers use a dining hall that seats 47, without a place to take off overalls or to clean up. Sewage is not disposed of adequately and the sleeping barracks are not suited for cold and snow.

One issue that has drawn increasing attention is the low wages and abusive treatment of workers from other countries, most of whom are hired through job agencies abroad. Gudmundsson told the union paper that these workers are paid as little as 300 Icelandic kronur an hour (US$3.85), and no one knows how much of their wages goes directly to the hiring agencies.

The pay scale for Icelandic-born dam construction ranges from 613 and 701 kronur an hour (between $7.86 and $8.99)—less than at previous dam projects.

On September 8 the unions called an on-site meeting attended by 150 workers, mostly Portuguese and Icelandic. The Portuguese workers said they wanted to be represented by the Icelandic unions and receive the same wages as their Icelandic co-workers. The unions demanded that Impregilo abide by the law and pay all workers according to Icelandic contracts.

In response to this pressure, the contractors published so-called labor contracts. On September 14 the Romanian- Turkish company Edersiter, contracted by Impregilo to build the employee camps in the Kárahnjúkar area, demanded that workers sign a contract stating that they earned around 265,000 kronur ($3,397) a month.

Ten workers refused to sign because their wages were far below that amount. One, a Romanian worker, was immediately fired. He says the bosses threatened him when he didn’t sign and warned him not to contact anyone from the Icelandic unions. The trade unions are now sponsoring him in Reykjavík, hoping to use his case to pressure the company.

Some of the Romanian workers signed the fake documents. The original contract includes a clause saying that if they don’t meet the requirements demanded of them, or if they cause “clashes,” they will have to cover the expenses of their own trip home as well as the cost of bringing in a replacement worker. This clause does not appear in the October 10 agreement.

Government ministers and the Confederation of Icelandic Employers (SA) backed the Italian contractor. Gudmundsson pointed out in the September 15 issue of Frettabladid, “When the company [Impregilo] starts disputing minimum wage, SA joins them in that fight and the issue becomes more far-reaching…. We are not going to negotiate with this Italian company about an understanding of minimum wage that will affect all other contracts in this country.”

On October 9, more than 100 workers from Portugal sat down in their work sheds and refused to begin working until they were given waterproof shoes and woolen socks. The bosses supplied some of the workers with the clothing and promised that more would come.

The next day, 50 stayed out, explaining that not all had received the promised footwear. The company fired four of them, saying they had been the ringleaders of the sit-down, and called in police from the nearby town of Egilsstadir. Later that day it rehired the four workers.

The labor contract negotiated nationally by ASÍ is coming up in February.

Ólöf Andra Proppé is a member of the trade union Efling. Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir, a member of the trade union Hlíf, and Einar Már Thorgeirsson, a bulldozer operator at Kárahnjúkar and member of the trade union Vökull, contributed to this article.  
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