Managing Director Kristín Heba Gísladóttir (left) with staff member and labor market specialist Maya Staub. Photo/Lárus Karl
The Varða Labor Market Research Institute was founded by the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) and the Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB). Varða (Waypoint in English) carries out surveys centered on the well-being and living conditions of Icelandic workers and operates closely with trade unions which make use of the research in various ways. Speaking to Vinnan Managing Director Kristín Heba Gísladóttir explains the principles of Varða and the institute’s future goals.
REPORTS published by Varða on the living conditions of Icelandic workers have attracted deserved attention and initiated considerable debate. Since the first survey was published in February 2021, this small institute has been growing in stature and has now reached the point of being able to carry out more varied and profound research which will be useful to workers and the labor movement in their continuing struggle.
Speaking to Vinnan, Kristín Heba Gísladóttir, Managing Director of Varða, says interesting projects lie ahead and there is reason to be optimistic about the institute’s future. Varða was founded in May 2020 following an agreement signed in autumn 2019 by then ASÍ President Drífa Snædal and BSRB Chairman Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir. Kristín Heba is Varða’s first Managing Director, and she emphasizes that Drífa and Sonja Ýr, whom she calls "Varða’s mommies", together with the board, had a clear vision from the outset for the institute; the founders' meticulous preparation has played a crucial part in the success already achieved.
Workers' living conditions
Varða has published three major reports on the living conditions of Icelandic workers. Kristín Heba says the research contains important numerical data about the living conditions of workers within BSRB and ASÍ. The novelty of these surveys is that they are intended for all workers within these large national associations formed by a variety of unions and social groups. On average some 10,000 responses have been received. It’s quite unusual for surveys in this country to be based on such a large number of responses. And interest is growing as seen by the fact that 14,240 people took part in Varða's latest survey.
The surveys focus on critical issues that leaders and staff in the labor movement are faced with in their daily work. They are the people in closest contact with union members and generally have a good sense of the situation. "It is then Varða's task to bring this reality to light and verify it," says Kristín Heba and explains that in this way an important connection regarding priorities is formed between Varða and the ASÍ/BSRB member unions it serves. Another important point is that by utilizing Varða the trade union movement develops in line with society. In today’s political and media environment data is required when discussing topics like people's livelihood and well-being.
Now Varða’s research has shed light on the difficulties and challenges certain groups of workers face in Iceland. It is evident that many wage earners are forced to steer clear of some medical care because of the expense and the surveys have also shed a light on the difficult financial situation of tenants, women, single parents and immigrants. "We have managed to get a clear picture with regard to different social groups. With these data in hand, the trade union movement can formulate its priorities and substantiate its analyses and discourse. At the same time, the government receives important information, but it is obviously up to the politicians whether and how they react to the facts presented," says Kristín Heba.
She also draws attention to the fact that annual surveys provide more and better context for research of this nature. Each survey measures the "point position", i.e. the situation as the participants each time describe it. Questions can then be easily added or changed in consultation with the trade unions. From this large survey, individual unions within ASÍ and BSRB can obtain information about the living conditions of their members. This service has been well received by the unions. In this way, individual trade unions can also obtain information about their members’ well-being in comparison to other unions, which can be useful in formulating policies and priorities.
Kristín Heba also mentions that the institute conducts specialized research for member associations within ASÍ and BSRB and gives an example of a recent survey of working conditions of police officers that Varða conducted for their national association. "These are particularly interesting projects for us. We are working with data concerning the reality of a group that we know next to nothing about. There are many surprises and often the results of such studies are striking and impressive."
A voice in the labor market
The Managing Director emphasizes the uniqueness of Varða's research with regard to low-wage workers and immigrants in the Icelandic labor market. "Foreign workers in Iceland have showed great interest in our surveys, as is evident by the fact that over a fifth of the responses are given by immigrants. We think this is extremely important, because experience here and elsewhere shows that it is difficult to bring the reality of these people to light. Surveys in this country are almost all sample surveys where the participants are selected at random from the national register. We decided to conduct population studies so that all members within BSRB and ASÍ, approximately 140,000 people, can participate. Social groups such as immigrants now have a voice in the labor market," says Kristín Heba.
She mainly explains the good participation of immigrants by referring to the unique position of the unions in Icelandic society. "The trade unions play a crucial role with regard to communicating with immigrants. Many of the unions have put a lot of work into reaching out to these people and want to provide services to all their members. Varða is enjoying the fruits of this fine work," says Kristín Heba, adding that immigrants are also interested in having a voice in society and being able to make known their social conditions, which have proven to be quite different from the rest of the Icelandic population.
The criticism has been raised that Varða's research shows an excessively dark picture when it comes to the living conditions of those who take home the lowest wages. It has also been argued that participation is not sufficient in order to be able to draw broad conclusions. Kristín Heba objects to this conclusion and states that the goal has always been to reach as many people as possible. Experience shows that sample surveys reach some social groups better than others. Ten thousand answers is perhaps not a high percentage when looking at the total number of workers within ASÍ and BSRB, but on the other hand, the number of answers received is rare in Icelandic research.
The guardians of Varða are proud of how well they have managed to reach groups that generally do not receive due attention. High immigrant and foreign workers participation reveals information about situation and daily reality of people that until now have been hidden and neglected. "It seems that this reality comes as a surprise to many and they have a hard time accepting the situation many immigrants find themselves in. Those who maintain that our findings produce an excessively dark picture are simply out of touch with the lives of struggling low-income workers in Iceland," says Kristín Heba.
Work-family life balance
Varða relies on research grants for the institute’s projects. Director Kristín says that funding has not been a major issue in the three years Varða has been active. She mentions that Varða recently received a grant from the newly established Science Foundation of Reykjavík Energy (Orkuveita Reykjavíkur) to study work-family life balance. The study will be based on a survey carried out in three phases in order to delve deeply into the research project. The aim is to gather data that can shed light on extremely important aspects in people’s lives, children included, in Iceland. "I think this can be an extremely important survey for the labor movement and for both local and state," says Kristín Heba.
She also mentions a study that is on Varða’s drawing board and is related to the surveys already mentioned on the general well-being of workers. "We plan to base this project on a long-term study where the same participants answer questions once a year about their income and general living conditions," says Kristín Heba, adding that this method can produce an extremely valuable database.
Speaking to the people
From the very beginning Varða has placed great emphasis on sharing the information produced in its various projects. According to Kristín Heba, Varða’s founders emphasized sharing and publication in the founding charter. She says she can't complain; the unions have shown interest in the work carried out by Varða and the same applies to Icelandic media. "Our projects have attracted interest because of how close they are to the everyday lives of Icelandic workers. We are touched by the numbers because we know the stories behind them. When the material speaks to the everyday lives of people, it gets attention," she adds.
"Varda is owned by workers, and all our efforts are centered on bringing benefits to them. Our annual surveys and the long-term study will provide us with a very good database on the living conditions of working people in Iceland and how they develop and change. Our goal is always to draw a realistic picture of the people's situation and bring it to the public domain. Information is a powerful tool in the fight for a better future," says Kristín Heba Gísladóttir.