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 14 November 2016

Iceland's fishing strike casts a wide net

We are often told that workers have less power and their jobs are more precarious because of globalisation. Employers, whether banks, car factories or call centres frequently insist that if a government doesn't give them tax breaks and the workers won't work for the least they are offering, then they will simply move their business and infrastructure to another, cheaper part of the world. But the current fishing strike in Iceland of around 3,500 workers shows that globalisation can mean that workers have more power, not less.

The fish landing dock and market in Grimsby on the east coast of Britain is open 24 hours a day, all the year round and some 75 percent of the fish auctioned there is caught by Icelandic boats. So as the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper reports, if Iceland's fishing strike continues it will quickly starve the market of the fish it must have to make money. There will be fish arriving tomorrow that have already been caught, but on Monday 21 November there will be a serious shortage if the strike continues.

Grimsby's refurbished fish market

The Grimsby Telegraph says that representatives from the North East are already planning to go to Reykjavik if the dispute isn't settled quickly.  It quotes the Chief executive of market operator Grimsby Fish Dock Enterprises, Martyn Boyers, 
"This will resolve itself, it is not permanent, but it is a bad thing. Because of the way the system works we have fish on its way. It won't affect this week but it will the week after. The biggest issue is we don't know how long it will be. Will it be a day and they'll be back fishing tomorrow? Could it be a week?, A month?
"It will not be permanent, but the way business works now there won't be a really good period to cover the bad."
Boyers also points out that Norway, Ireland and Scotland won't be able to fill this gap. And the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association will be trying to lean on the Icelandic ambassador to put pressure on the Icelandic government to get the employers and the unions to end the strike.

Various Icelandic companies operate in Grimsby including Icelandic Group which owns Coldwater, and Saucy Fish Co., and the shipping companies Eimskip and Samskip. Icelandic Group also owns Seachill which is based in Grimsby and claims that the situation has been developing for a long time so it has made contingency plans and the dispute will have no affect on them. It will be interesting to see where its fish is going to come from if the strike continues for any length of time.

Grimsby fish market

Fresh and frozen fish is enormously valuable and each fisher makes large amounts of profit for the owners. But you wouldn't know it from listening to the owners who whine that fishers and trawler workers are extremely well paid and have nothing to complain about.

The president of seafood producers Samherji, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson has written an article here in which he explains that many Icelandic fishers earn £100,000s a year and are better off than their Norwegian counterparts. He has less to say about how hard they have to work to earn the money, how long they are away from their families and how tough the conditions can be. He has nothing to say about the long boring trips when little fish is caught, which will happen more often as fish stocks suffer from environmental degradation and the effects of global warming.

It is also worth knowing that Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson was Chair of Glitnir investment bank when it went belly-up in 2008. And an article published in Iceland last month says that Þorsteinn Már and his and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir have been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji. Journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson points out that this amounts to nearly 6.5 percent of last year's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik, almost 65 percent of the revenue of Iceland's National Radio or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.

We can be certain of two things here - that whatever the fishing workers want the employers can certainly afford and that they won't stop squealing about it until they are forced to pay up.

Áfram sjómenn!

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