Sino-Icelandic relations in times of intense globalization – Mutual respect and benefits for all? By Lilja Hjartardóttir

8. Jun 2009

Sino-Icelandic relations are a recent and undertheorised phenomenon compared with Sino-Nordic relations that were already established early in the 20th century. Once business relations took hold in the 1990s Icelanders moved quickly into the immense Chinese market. While trade relations have maintained their priority status in the execution of foreign policy, participation in the international human rights regime has taken a backseat. Icelandic authorities have pledged to promote and protect human rights and gender equality in their foreign policy and foreign trade policy. In spite of public support to find and develop new markets, neither private nor public enterprises are part of the policy to enforce international human rights, including workers and women’s rights, and they are not legally bound by international human rights treaties.

Iceland has been an active, albeit small, member of the international trade regime. From the early 1990s ministers of governments, members of the Reykjavik city council, business leaders and business enthusiasts all travelled to China to experience a new and promising market. As a new member of the European Economic Community in 1994, Iceland worked on deregulation and privatization of its economy with the now well known catastrophic consequences. New legislation and regulations were meant to ensure that the business environment would enhance foreign investment in Iceland (Ásgrímsson 1998, 2005).The Icelandic President, who has participated in promoting and supporting the Icelandic business community abroad, led a large delegation to China in 2005. The trip was successful in preparing for many new business contracts between the two states.  During the same period Chinese dignitaries visited Iceland. In spite of the great contrast between the two states, current relations have been grounded in mutual trust and admiration for the economic advancement reached by both countries before the economic crisis. China appreciates that Iceland was among the first West European countries that recognized China’s status as a complete market economy while neither the United States nor the European Union has done so.  Iceland was moreover the first European country to work with China on the feasibility of establishing a free trade zone.  Iceland and China are making good progress on their comprehensive bilateral free trade agreement.

Forces of globalization shape our daily lives and the functions of the international trade system benefits us even while betraying us. There is no lack of rules on behaviour and guidelines on how international companies should respect workers rights and be responsible actors in the international market. The rules are, however, voluntary and a system of implementation and enforcement has yet to be developed. Examples are the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Corporations and the Global Compact initiative by the United Nations. What is needed is an international legal framework to deal with a new reality where over 2400 bilateral free trade agreements exist and the transfer of trade and finance is almost unlimited (Ruggie 2008).

Globalized forces affect the life of women and men at global and local levels. A close look at local communities, e.g. coastal villages around Iceland, shows that their existence has been threatened by lack of job opportunities. Since the early 1990s jobs in fish processing have declined by more than 60% (Sigurmundsson 2007). The reasons are not simple but the privatization of the fish industry in the early 1980s and the relatively high price of fresh fish do matter. In addition to the fact that in spite of low salaries in fish processing the workers cannot compete with cheap labour or labour made cheap elsewhere (Enloe 1990, Pun 1999). While China is by far the greatest fishing nation and a competitor on the market, Iceland is on the list of the  world’s 15 main fishing countries. More than being the land of ice and fire, Iceland is the land of fish and fisheries.

Gender division of power, resources and labour

Women have protested the ancient divide between the powerful public sphere of active men, the political citizens, where resources are distributed and decisions made, and the powerless private sphere of excluded women. This tradition in liberal Western democracies has proven a major hindrance for women. It transferred into the dominance of international institutions in the 20th century, inter alia, the international finance and trade institutions (Pateman 1989, Tickner 2001). The gender division of power, resources and labour is clear in the Icelandic fish industry (Karlsdóttir 2006, Skaptadóttir 2000). The political decision to privatize the fish industry in Iceland was accepted in the early 1980s when men dominated national and local politics. The control of marine resources and the majority of business enterprises continue in the hands of men. In addition, they are the skippers and owners of the fishing vessels.

Do gender relations matter in international trade relations? Are ideas about feminity and masculinity traded along with goods and services? Are the same gendered forces of our global market economy at play in the small village plant in the capitalist, democratic far North and a huge factory in communist China? Is the gendered division of labour in the Icelandic freezing plants exported and perhaps reinforced, to the Icelandic owned freezing plants in China? Known as the most valuable resource for global business (Peterson and Runyan 1999) and the ideal workforce (e.g. Caraway 2007) women in production are said to be cheap, as well as ‘docile and willing to work lon
g hours in dead-end jobs’ (Caraway 2007).  These attributes have been ascribed to women in labour intensive production especially in export processing zones (EPZ) in Asia. The research done by Pun Ngai (e.g., 1999, 2004) shows how ‘despotic labour regimes’ are created by global, national and not least local factors in China to the detriment of the well-being of the young migrant working women. While labour legislation is enforced in Iceland and freedom of movement is secured, could similar forces be at play in the (then) wealthy Nordic state known for its gender equality and welfare polices?

According to a study on Icelandic women, who have worked in fish processing most of or all of their working lives (Karlsdóttir, 2006), there are some similarities. The women are hard workers and serious about their jobs. Nevertheless, they receive low salaries and little respect and the public image of their jobs is poor. Most of them have never been offered promotion and they are hard to find in management or quality control positions. Commencements are exceptional, complaints are not. The gendered division of work in the high-tech fish processing and freezing plants of Iceland is clear. It seems that women can and will do all the different[SP1]  tasks while most of the male workers will neither pack nor debone. This work requires ‘nimble fingers’ and men are not understood to have such skills. The packing and deboning task seems to be the one most related to femininity and it is one of the most repetitive and strenuous types of work. One factor explaining why women kept their dead-end jobs in the plants was that it was easy to control the number of days they worked. The way women organise their paid work ensures responsibility for their families and thus for most of the caring in the community. Should they be labelled a ‘docile workforce’?

Concluding remarks

Despite different working and life conditions between women in Iceland and China there are similarities. The gender division of labour is a factor that has to be reckoned with in order to promote and protect human rights in foreign trade policy. To what extent are the economic and trade ties between Iceland and China based on mutual respect and benefit, also for women in both countries? Women in the fish industry in small communities in Iceland seem to lack status to pursue power to influence local and national politics of the industry. Are they glued to the ‘sticky floor’ in the plants and stuck in their local communities, while their Chinese co-workers are at least temporarily mobile and even experiencing personal and financial freedom for the first time? Will ongoing trade relations and the free trade agreement between Iceland and China reinforce the gendered hierarchies in these two societies or is it possible for both trade relations and human rights to thrive?  This is a major challenge in a globalized world.


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–         (2005) Speech at the Business Forum of the Chamber of Commerce, February 2005.

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Enloe Cynthia (1990) Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. London: Pandora.

Hjartardóttir, Guðbjörg Lilja (2009) “Performance and Contribution of Iceland in the International Human Rights Regime 1946-1994.”  Forthcoming.

Karlsdóttir, Anna (2006)   “Women’s dilemma in times of changing labour conditions in the Eastern part of Iceland” (Tvístígandi konur á tímum atvinnuháttabreytinga á Austurlandi). Public lecture at the ReykjavíkurAkademía 10. October 2006.

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Pun, Ngai (2004) “Women Workers and Precarious Employment in a Shenzhen Special Economic  Zone.” China Gender and Development Vol. 12, 2  pp 29-36.

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Sigurmundsson, Arnar (2007) Skýrsla stjórnar og ræða formanns Samtaka fiskvinnslustöðva á aðalfundi 28 September.

Skaptadóttir, Unnur Dís (2000) “Women coping with change in an Icelandic fishing community: A case study”  Women’s Studies International Forum (2000) Vol. 23, 3, pp 311-321.

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