The Norwegian government has allocated NOK 7 million to a ‘time-limited grant scheme for life maintenance for foreign workers in Longyearbyen who are subject to temporary layoffs as a consequence of the virus outbreak and who are not entitled to unemployment benefits or other benefits to sustain them.”
According to a draft for a new corona crisis package, this grant scheme appears to not be prolonged past 20 June.
The scheme applied to Longyearbyen inhabitants from non-EU/EEA countries who are not included in regular benefit schemes.
In the new draft proposal, the government now suggests that the grant can be used for “a time-limited grant scheme for travels home for foreign workers in Longyearbyen”.
Bjørn Johansen, Chair of the local labor union LO Troms and Finnmark reacts strongly to the proposal for returning home workers from non-EU/EEA countries currently living in Svalbard. He argues that tourism is a key part of Svalbard society and points to the importance of foreign workers for tourism on the island.
“We feel very strongly about a critical workforce, represented by these workers, being sent off the island when they are so vital in restoring tourism again”, he says to High North News.
“Several of the third-country workers have represented permanent settlement in Svalbard and many have been there for decades. So we react very strongly to the plans now presented by the government.”
How will this have consequences for the tourist industry in Svalbard?
“What we have in mind is the competence many of the foreign workers posess, for instance professional cleaners. Many of them are trained in infection control. This is a key group to keep in the re-opening of tourism in Svalbard, which is what keeps Svalbard running. If they are not there, it will be harder for the tourist industry to keep the wheels running. Hotels will come to a halt if they are not cleaned.”
“We fear the consequences of this. What we also fear, is that the big tourist industry actors representing the serious part of the tourist industry up there will go bankrupt and be taken over by others. Then we will lose overview over who and what work force we have in Svalbard.”
This is a key group to keep in the re-opening of tourism in Svalbard
Do you think that those who have to leave Svalbard will return at a later stage?
“No, that is exactly what we fear. If they are put on a plane and sent to their respective home countries, we believe it will be much harder for them to return. Our opint is that when the companies need this work force, it should be available.”
Ronny Brunvoll, Managing Director of Visit Svalbard, points out that foreign workers are important for the tourist industry in Svalbard as well as for the industry in general.
“The tourist industry depends on services in cleaning, waitressing, shops and hotel. For tourism in Svalbard as well as in general, workers from countries in and outside the EU/EEA are a key group of workers who contribute to keeping things afloat. Replacing them with Norwegian staff will not be very easy”, he says to High North News.
Unions and employers in the same boat
Bjørn Johansen of LO, Norway’s biggest labor union, argues that it is important to find solutions that allow foreign workers to remain and to take up their work again when tourism is now slowly getting back on its feet.
Both the labor union (LO) and the National Confederation of Business (NHO) have worked to find a solution to this.
“This has been on the agenda high up in both the LO and the NHO systems in order to find a solution that makes sense. The parties of the work market are in the same boat. We respect the current regulations while trying to find a solution that also makes sense in the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in at present”, Johansen says.
“In the shorter run, we are trying to save the situation. In the longer run, we work on different tracks regarding the situation for third-country workers in Svalbard.
Målfrid Baik, Regional Director of NHO Arctic, says to High North News that the organization in its meeting with the Department of Justice focused on the challenges facing their Svalbard member companies, in particular with regard to their potentially losing qualified workers.
“We have focused on the significance of this for our companies and tried to enter into a dialogue about various potential solutions that can be agreed upon, without having managed to do so. We take note of the authorities’ view on this matter and of course take it seriously.”
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.