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Poles in Iceland break the 20,000 barrier

28.08.2019 - 16:27
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 Mynd: Háskóli Íslands -
There are now more than 20,000 Polish citizens living in Iceland—the biggest minority nationality in the country by far. Most of them arrive planning to stay in Iceland temporarily and new doctoral research by Anna Maria Wojtynska (pictured) suggests that the Icelandic workplace is increasingly segregated by nationality, with Poles often hired to the lowest paid jobs.

At 20,146 people, Iceland’s Polish population has grown by five percent, or about a thousand, since December. Despite this, Icelanders know less about them than one might expect—given that there are more Polish people than there are people who live in Akureyri. There is not even, for example, a Polish restaurant in Reykjavík—though there are Polish shops and at least one café that serves Polish lunches. 

Anna Maria Wojtynska knows more about Poles in Iceland than most people. Not only is she one herself, but she also defended her anthropology doctoral thesis on the subject at the University of Iceland last week, in which she researched the experiences of Polish people in Iceland. 

Her research reveals, among many things, that most Poles arriving in Iceland do not intend to stay permanently, that they regularly travel back and forth, and that they diligently maintain strong ties to their homeland. On the other hand, there are strong and longstanding ties between the two countries and Poles quickly became the largest minority in Iceland when the borders were opened to people from the old Eastern Bloc. Poles were more familiar to Iceland than nationals of the other new EU countries and there has generally been strong demand in Iceland for conscientious hard workers. 

“I think companies searched for Poles in Poland to work here. There is also more communication between the countries, and there are people here who say there is good work and good wages here and help other people to come here to Iceland,” Anna says. 

The main reason for the influx of Polish people is that there has been plenty of work available and the wages are higher than in Poland. “They can come here, work for a short time and save money to buy a house in Poland, or part way to it.” 

Anna adds that not everybody came for such practical reasons: “There are also many who come because of the image they have of Iceland—that it is far away, not like big cities in other countries, close to nature—they want to live in a country like that. Then there are others who leave Poland for political reasons; they are not happy with what is happening in Poland,” she says. 

Those people come to Iceland looking for equality and less class distinction than in Poland. Anna’s research suggests that Polish people are often seen as cheap temporary labour and that this attitude can be a stain on Polish people’s status in the workplace and in society as a whole. The tendency is to hire Poles in low-paying jobs and for the workplace to be increasingly segregated by nationality. 

Employers have great power over the position and status of Poles in Iceland. Anna points out that some end up working for companies that abuse foreign workers and even steal their wages. Most Poles are happy in Iceland, however, but the higher their level of education, the more likely they are to get to know Icelanders, Anna has found. It also makes a significant difference whether or not they can speak Icelandic. 

A majority of Poles come to Iceland as migrant workers, Anna says, and they generally have little contact with Icelanders. “Not even in workplaces where Icelanders do the specialist jobs and the Poles do the general jobs.” 

There are several reasons why the lowest-paid Poles have the least contact with wider Icelandic society; one of which is that they often work 10-12 hours a day and are only interested in saving money and returning to Poland. 

Is it because Poles feel Icelanders are prejudiced against them and do not want to get to know them? “That is what some people say,” Anna answers. 

Anna adds that most of her respondents describe their interactions with Icelanders positively, but that it sometimes takes just one uncomfortable incident of discrimination or racist abuse for people to change their outlook and start to feel discriminated against. That is why relations tend to be best in smaller communities, she says. 

Her respondents in small villages around Iceland always spoke about how open and helpful the Icelanders are, while Poles in the city were less positive. 

Anna believes there are great opportunities in increasing cooperation and communication between the Polish and non-Polish parts of Icelandic society. The country is big and sparsely populated and there is demand for good workers, wherever they come from. 

Personally, she says she has laid roots in Iceland. She is married to an Icelandic man and has two children who practice football at KR. It is strange that there is no Polish restaurant in the country, given that it is not only Poles who love good pierogi, she muses.  

Anna says it is possibly a sign that Poles in Iceland are still shy to show off their culture. Indeed, there are plenty of Polish restaurateurs in Iceland, but they usually serve Icelandic or international cuisine. 

Maybe that will change soon. 

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