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Why Greenland Is Tapping Foreign Labor to Fill Fish-Processing Jobs

The arrival of Chinese workers at a factory in Maniitsoq goes to show how balancing wage work with subsistence practices is a challenge across the Arctic, writes Mia Bennett at Cryopolitics.

Written by Mia Bennett Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Maniitsoq 08
Greenland’s community of Maniitsoq is seen from a nearby hilltop.Mads Pihl, Visit Greenland, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Much of the Arctic has been rightly freaking out about Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. The top story in Iceland’s main newspaper, Morgunbladid, declares, “Trump’s decision is a ‘big threat to Iceland.’” Canada’s Globe and Mail sees Trump’s move as “raising challenges for Canada.” Russia’s main newspapers, in contrast, don’t seem terribly concerned.

While the Arctic countries are wringing their hands over the climate bomb released in the Rose Garden today, nobody has said much about the first seven Chinese employees who arrived to work in a fish-processing plant in the town of Maniitsoq, Greenland last week.

The new arrivals from Asia will work for Royal Greenland, which is completely owned by the Greenlandic government. The company traces its roots back to 1774, when Denmark formally established trade with the world’s largest island. Today, Royal Greenland’s main business is in fishing cold-water prawns, halibut, snow crab, cod and lumpfish off the country’s west coast. Workers in the factory in Maniitsoq turn cod into frozen blocks by chopping off the heads, while others process crab and prawns.

For the past 15 years, many of these exports have been going to China, where demand for seafood continues to increase. Now, China is sending back workers to help process the very fish that might end up on people’s plates in Beijing. An employee in Royal Greenland’s sales department in China helped find the workers who were interested in relocating to Greenland. Royal Greenland representatives greeted the new workers at the airport today in Maniitsoq and gave them tours of the factory and the town. With about 2,700 residents, the town is Greenland’s sixth largest.

The Chinese employees will work under equal conditions as their Greenlandic counterparts. Royal Greenland even helped rent apartments for them, which the newspaper Sermitsiaq reports they are “satisfied” by. They’ve also started learning a little Greenlandic. Ten additional employees from China will arrive later this month.

Royal Greenland’s website claims, “The fishing, processing and seafood trades in Greenland form the basis for sustainable local communities in the country.” But Maniitsoq’s population is hardly sustainable, even with a booming fish-processing plant. In fact, the number of residents has been declining steadily for decades, having shrunk by 15 percent since 1990.

The lack of a substantial labor force is one reason why Royal Greenland has had to look all the way to China for workers. At the same time, Greenland has an unemployment rate that tends to hover around 10 percent. One commenter on Sermitsiaq’s story on the topic hailing from Denmark asked, “I can’t understand why one has to get workers all the way from China when the unemployment rate is so high in the country.” Another commenter responded, “It’s because people magically get sick after payday,” referencing the supposed unreliability of some Greenlandic workers.

An additional problem that Royal Greenland and fish factories up and down the country’s coast have is ensuring that enough workers show up during the spring and summer, when the days are long. Royal Greenland’s plant manager in Maniitsoq touched upon this issue to Sermitsiaq last June. For people who still engage in subsistence hunting and fishing, summer is a critical season. In many cases, people work until they have enough money to buy a new engine for their boat, ammunition for hunting or fuel for a whaling trip. Once this financial goal is achieved, working at a factory can be frankly boring and not as worthwhile as going out and bringing home “country food” – tasty and nutritious fish, seals, whales, birds, geese, berries, eggs and the like – that can feed your family for a good long time. According to a 2007 study by the University of Alaska, in Greenland, 71 percent of people surveyed had picked berries in the last 12 months, 69 percent had fished, and 43 percent had hunted sea mammals. I heard employers bring up this issue during my own fieldwork in northern Canada, too, demonstrating how balancing wage work with subsistence practices is a challenge across the Arctic for both employers and employees.

Last October, Royal Greenland’s CEO Soren Olsen Damgaard remarked: “We have many stable and good employees at the factories who make a big effort for the company, but we need even more employees. To solve the challenges of labor shortages, we have for many years used labor from the coast partly with success, but unfortunately, the lack of manpower hasn’t been fully resolved – but has grown year after year. As the problem of labor shortage in our land-based factories is a recurring problem, we are forced to recruit foreign labor.”

As the Greenlandic government looks to stimulate economic development via resource extraction, one has to wonder who will work in the mines, smelters and hydropower plants, should they ever be constructed. For a while now, American aluminum producer Alcoa has hoped to build a smelter in Greenland to capitalize on the country’s vast hydropower potential. About a decade ago, the Greenlandic government recommended that it be built in Maniitsoq to stimulate regional economic development, but not much has happened since. North American Nickel also has a plan to explore for nickel-copper sulphides, but again, it’s unclear whether it will ever materialize.

What is certain is that the construction and resource extraction industries are heavily dependent on workers turning up every day. Unless Greenland plans to import thousands of workers from overseas (which has been suggested from time to time), more needs to be done to allow wage work and subsistence practices to coexist. For companies, this sometimes means accepting that a project just won’t get done according to as strict a timeline as it might in a more deeply capitalist society.

In places with mixed economies, governments and employers should be more accommodating so that not just capitalism thrives, but also traditional activities. One way to start might be that in addition to recruiting workers from China, employers should perhaps also support more flexible work schedules for their local employees. Chopping and preparing frozen cod blocks for global export can wait when there’s fresh cod in the waters outside to be fished for local consumption.

(P.S. If anyone can read Greenlandic, I’d love to know what the commenters are saying in response to Sermitsiaq’s story.)

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

This article originally appeared at Mia Bennett’s Cryopolitics blog.

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