“If people are happy in their workplace they do not organize strikes”

Agnieszka Ewa Ziólkowska assumed the post of vice chairman of Efling during the union’s annual general meeting on April 29th. For the past four years she has served as a union representative at her workplace, Almenningsvagnar Kynnisferðir, and has gained a lot of experience with union activities through that job. She came to this country twelve years ago and is therefore intimately familiar with the reality of being a foreigner in the Icelandic labor market – a position many members of Efling find themselves in as half of them are of foreign origin. On August 1st she will start to work at the union´s office. Eflingarblaðið arranged to meet with her to get to know this strong woman who has spent much of her free time aiding workers and has now assumed an administrative post at one of the largest unions of the country. “I was born in Poland on the fifth of March in 1984 and finished secondary school in 2004 but could not continue my studies because of family reasons. I took several jobs, worked in a restaurant and an office for a few years.” Agnieszka says that she began working at an early age. “My mother and father owned a store when I was a child and I helped them in the store since I was very young, as well as taking care of my brother who is seven years younger than I am.” But why did she decide to move to Iceland?“My father came to Iceland in 2007 and I visited him there a year later. When I saw the landscape and got to know the people I immediately came to adore this country and decided to move here.” Agnieszka got a job with the cleaning company ISS, where she worked for a few years. “I worked as a temp so I drove between places.” She says that this was the first time she noticed the unfairness of the wage system here. “There were people doing various kinds of cleaning jobs, cleaning in hospitals where the protocol is completely different from libraries, for example, but still everyone gets paid the same, despite not sharing the same work or responsibilities.” In 2011 ISS cut Agnieszka’s working hours and expected her to accept a new and worse employment contract. She did not accept it, however. “I quit and used the time for Icelandic courses, among other things, and then got my commercial driver’s license.” She says that at first the idea of studying for the commercial driver’s license had been thrown out as a joke but that it had become a reality as she enjoys driving. She subsequently got a job at Almenningsvagnar, Kynnisferðir, where she has worked for the past six years as a bus driver and been a union representative for four of them.Today she lives in Vogar at Vatnsleysuströnd with her husband and two young sons and is quite content. “I am very comfortable here, it is a good place to raise children, with a good backyard. But, of course, we have a home loan like so many others.” Being on the front lines of the struggle for correcting the wages of co-workers has been an effort but Agnieszka says that she has enjoyed the unwavering support of her family.No overtime because of union representative work“When I first became aware of various kind of problems which arose at work and realized that there were money at stake for my co-workers I asked them whether they would be willing to select a union representative for the workplace. I brought the form and they all wrote my name,” says Agnieszka, when asked how it came about that she became a union representative. She says that during those four years as union representative she saw various kinds of problems. One of the things which she says can prove difficult for union representatives is to explain if the co-workers that they are incorrect. Sometimes it occurs because people do not have access to a collective agreement in their own language or because something gets lost in translation between them and their bosses. “I sometimes found it difficult as well to get accurate information from Efling. When I tried to get some things confirmed I was sometimes offered various inconsistent explanations.” She says that the company did not make the process easy either. “I did not, for instance, have the same option of overtime as other people and when I went to the office to ask whether I weren’t in fact being penalized for helping people I got overtime for one or two days but then nothing.” She adds that she was often given the worst buses, for instance those whose air conditioning was busted. “The company was often unwilling to work with me and it wasn’t until Efling lent its assistance that I was given some answers.”It is obvious that Agnieszka is persistent in the face of adversity but when she is asked why she had stayed a union representative for so long, despite the difficulties, she says: “I felt a responsibility towards the people who chose me. Many have gone on to other jobs since then, of course, but many of those who were there when I started are still there. I feel that it is my responsibility to conclude the matters which I began working on. I have often been advised to change jobs but I felt I couldn´t until now.”Significant changesAgnieszka says that the workplace Almenningsvagnar Kynnisferðir has changed significantly during the years when she has worked there. “When I started there were four of us from Poland, it was as small department of only twenty people.” She says that this was before the company got a contract for more routes. “Now the drivers number about 115-120, about 85% of them foreigners, most from Poland,” she says.We ask Agnieszka whether people have seen it as problematic that their union representative was not Icelandic and not fluent in Icelandic. “Problems have never arisen because of the language. When I became a union representative there were only twenty drivers, both from Poland and Iceland. I was able to speak with them in English, Icelandic and Polish.With regards to the rights of foreigners in the Icelandic labor market, it’s interesting to find out whether Agnieszka sees it as important that a foreign union member serves in the leadership of Efling?“I don´t doubt that it is important. My work for the union can lead to changes and enable foreigners to become part of Icelandic society. Polish people, for instance, are somewhat isolated. They work a lot and don’t have much free time. Half of the members of Efling are of foreign origin and it’s important for the leadership of the union to reflect that ratio.”Other challenges for foreign employeesAre there different challenges for people of foreign origin than for Icelanders in the Icelandic labor market?“Many low-wage jobs are done by foreigners, one sees them in such jobs but not as much in higher posts. I don’t think that’s fair, seeing as often these are highly educated people whose education is underappreciated because of the language barrier.” She cites an example from her own workplace where many bus drivers are of foreign origin. The working environment is very different from driving coaches on the country’s highways, there is much more stress and the coffee breaks are very short. The passengers are not tourists who wish to enjoy the beautiful landscape but tired people going to and from work. The drivers are always under pressure to stay on schedule. The strain and responsibility on the shoulders of the drivers do not, however, result in higher wages. Work from 8am to 5pm is worth 317.000 kr. before tax after five years on the job. These are the same wages as people are paid for work for which no education is required and less responsibility is shouldered. This is unjust.”Obviously, Agnieszka should be asked what she thinks of the recently signed collective agreement.“This is a difficult question. I approve of the lífskjarasamningurquality of life agreement but I am not happy with the wage table. It is unfair for drivers to be paid such low wages for handling so much responsibility. In other workplaces a person can step out for a few minutes or respond to a call from their child’s pre-school but bus drivers need to be on the move all day long and maintain the schedule.”We need to be awareWe must, of course, ask the vice chairman what her views are regarding learning Icelandic.“If people mean to settle down in Iceland they are a lot more determined to learn Icelandic, because they like it here and because learning the language makes it easier for them to become part of society.” However, she says that there are many who do not mean to stay for long time and may even be saving up to buy a house in their homeland but end up staying longer than expected. That people may not mean to settle down here permanently and therefore have no plans to learn the language. “Many foreigners are happy in their workplace because they don’t know that they are being cheated. Unfortunately, I often witness the dissemination of incorrect or misleading information and therefore it is important to make this information available in English and Polish as well.”Therefore, she says, it is important for Efling to have meetings in more languages than Icelandic and have interpreters on the meetings conducted in Icelandic. A good example of how unaware we tend to be of the importance of disseminating information to all relevant parties is a meeting which was held in her workplace. “At Kynnisferðir a meeting was held to announce mass layoffs of coach drivers. Despite the majority of the employees being foreign, there were no interpreters and everything was explained in Icelandic. That’s ridiculous, of course.”The strike actions of the spring presented difficult tasks for Agnieszka. She organized, along with her co-workers, actions in their workplace. “It was a lot of work and I and my co-workers spent a lot of our free time on organizing the actions, which just goes to show how dissatisfied we are with our working conditions and wages. If people are happy in their workplace they do not organize strikes.”Too much difference between wagesWhat is your vision for the future of Efling?“I want to see a lot more information in English and Polish for foreigners and translations of collective agreements into English. More effort has been put into the translation of information than before, after the arrival of the new leadership, and the collective agreements will be translated into English. All services to foreign union members have, in fact, improved with the advent of the new board. I also want to see a lot more of practical courses for foreign union members, for instance informing them about the tax system of Iceland, which is confusing to many people, as well as the pension system, because I know that foreigners do not have this information when they come to the country.” She says that when she arrived here twelve years ago, simple matters such as the insurance arrangements for the cars were confusing to her. “It is imperative that we get basic information to the foreign union members. They comprise half of the union and we need to consider the people who weren’t born in Iceland and are unfamiliar with the rules.” She says that, strange though it may sound to some people to offer such courses, sometimes it’s impossible to find the correct information. Half of the union’s courses would therefore need to be suited to the needs of foreign union members in accordance with their number within the union.We conclude by asking Agnieszka which are the largest challenges faced by Efling?“The greatest struggle is against companies who repeatedly cheat people. We should be able to fine those companies if they are found to have committed infractions. Why should companies get away with stealing from people? If I don’t pay my bills on time I’m forced to pay an additional fee. The same should apply to companies which make mistakes or cheat people. Also, the difference in wages is far too great. When we look at, for instance, high ranking individuals within the banking sector or in politics, their wages are very high compared to the wages of a person earning a minimum wage. Although Efling does not negotiate the collective agreements for high wage earners, we can still voice our opinion and call for change. There is simply much too great a difference in wages here in Iceland. There is practically no middle-class but only a lower class and a higher class, ”Agnieszka asserts.