Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Monday, 5 March 2012

Saltfish and Strikes Part 1

For over a thousand years Icelanders have known that to split a fish, clean and then hang it up in the cold wind will preserve it for months. This dried or harðfisk allowed survival through brutal winters and long sea journeys. It even cleans your teeth as you strip the hard flesh from its skin. However fish that is salted before it’s dried lasts even longer, and when soaked in water to revive it becomes delicate and delicious. So by the 18th century salting had become Iceland's most important method of fish preservation and until WW2 salted fish was over 60% of the export value of all its fish products.[1]

Salt cod drying Aberdeen c1910
When I last worked salt cod it was to remove the worms infesting the flesh of the ‘wings’ of the fish. Seals were usually blamed for the worms though the cod were more likely to have infected the seals.
I stood in a heated factory removing the worms with large tweezers from the almost ready fish. In the winter of 1915-6, the women first had to clean the cod in open troughs of water on the beach.
The temperature was down to minus 15 degrees centigrade and there was a thick layer of ice on the cod washing tubs in the morning. Hreiðarsína Hreiðarsðóttir got up at four to boil fish for lunch before going to work because she wasn’t happy leaving her daughter to manage the coke oven. A farmer she knew complained that he couldn’t get young women to work as they were paid so much in the fish. Hreiðarsína scoffed at the idea that she was well paid,

‘I’ve worked many fish that are so large that.. [when ready to work - the head removed, gutted and split the length of the body to open it out in one piece] the neck rests on the ground and the tail reaches to my armpit. Each fish has to be cleaned, the back scrubbed, then [scrubbed] under each wing, turn it over and remove any salt without tearing it, pull away the membrane from the chest, take out the bony parts round the neck, remove any blood from the fillets, get into the neck and take out any blood and if its not well done we’d get it back from the inspectors’.

For this heavy, filthy work the women got two aura [0.2 kr] for each fish.[2]
They drank coffee every hour so as not to freeze which they heated on the coke ovens in the saltfish drying shed and of course had to provide for themselves.

Stacking the cod

In 1912 Women fish workers in Hafnarfjörður struck for higher wages. Briét Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, editor of Kvennablaðið, covered the story by phone from Reykjavik. There were about 100 women working in the fish and all of them had stopped work and they had joined the same newly founded union with the men, Verkmannafélagið Hafnarfjarðar. The women reported that they were striking because all kinds of  fish work - spreading, stacking etc was paid at 15 aura per hour (0.15 kr), except ‘wetfish work’ at 18 aura ph. They were unhappiest with overtime and Sunday work - for each they got just 15 aura whilst men were being paid 40-50 aura for Sunday work and even more in Reykjavik. The women wanted; 18 aura for day work 23 aura for overtime from 7 - 11pm 28 aura per hour after 11 pm. 30 aura ph for Sunday work and 40 aura ph for Sunday work after 7 pm. Briét reported that the employers didn’t want to budge, ‘although most of them had thought the demands were fair’.

Briét likens this strike to the British miners’ who went out on strike in February 1912 demanding a minimum wage against a complicated sliding scales of wages that meant that they never quiet knew what they'd get paid. The women in Hafnarfjörður won most of what they wanted, though the article doesn’t go into detail it was a great victory.

Coming soon, Part 2 - Making salt fish while the sun shines

[1] http://bit.ly/yqjuww  A Comprehensive Overview of the Icelandic Fish Industry, 5.1.3 University of Akureyri
[2] Verkakvennafélagið Framsókn 50 Ára 1914-1964 cited in Íslandsdætur pg 133

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