Like a Puffin in Winter: Escape to the Faroe Islands

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In my return to the blogosphere in 2018, I am breaking from my traditional posts. This time, I wanted to share more personal story (mainly photos), from my time in a remote archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, far from the Pacific. Tourists to the Faroe Islands are rare in winter, as many places are closed until spring or even summer. But, with time on our hands and travel plans taking us to Europe from Sydney, I decided this would be our moment to experience the unspoiled beauty and history of the Faroe Islands.

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Map of the Faroe Islands; credit: Mysid

Some Background

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation with autonomous powers and responsibilities within the Kingdom of Denmark. With a population of almost 50,000 people, and about halfway between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands have been touted as “Europe’s best kept secret.” It has always been a tourist destination for bird lovers; for our adventure, we wanted to hike, explore Viking history, and enjoy fresh seafood. Compared to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, Viking sites are not as prolific or promoted. And more so than tourism, the fisheries sector is critical to the nation’s economy and way of life.

Since the late 19th century, fishing has been the primary source of income for the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands has strict regulations on its fish farming industry, with the goal of creating the most sustainable production in the world. Overall, fish and fish products represent between 90 and 95 percent of total export value. We ate cod dried and fried, salmon smoked, and miscellaneous fish pâté. We were unable to find and try other local delicacies, including fermented sheep, puffin, and whale.

Day 1 – Vágar, Streymoy & Eysturoy

Travel options into the Faroe Islands are relatively limited; particularly during winter, flights typically arrive and depart when there is the most daylight, between 12-2pm. We flew from Copenhagen; in winter, there are also flights from Iceland and Scotland. For those adventure-seekers with a lot of time, there is a ferry that takes more than a day of travel from Denmark or Iceland. Shopping at the duty free store at the airport is essential, because stores can be few and far between. I recommend stocking up on Föroya Bjór beers, which are brewed locally.

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For our first tourist site, we went to perhaps the most famous photo opportunity – Gásadalur – to view the Mulafossur Waterfall and the island of Mykines from afar. Gásadalur has only a handful of houses and a small parking lot for tourists making the walk. Mykines is an uninhabited island reachable by ferry. It is known for being an important puffin colony, but not during the winter.

Originally we tried to pack a lot of adventure into day 1, but winter daylight hours got in the way.

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From Gásadalur, we drove across increasingly dark, icy roads to the next island of Eysturoy to visit the Vestmanna Saga Museum. The museum was supposed to be closed for winter, but we arranged with the owner, Gunnar, to have it opened just for us. Arriving late and with no working phone, it was lucky that we found a friendly local originally from Australia who happened to know Gunnar and gave him a call. The Saga Museum was a gruesome experience, not for the faint-hearted or small children. Wax figurines detail important and gruesome historical events in the history of the Faroe Islands, including the country’s conversion to Christianity.

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Vestmanna Saga Museum

Next we drove to our accommodation in Leirvik. Without navigation or access to Google maps, we asked for directions at the local petrol/grocery store to our street. While the attendant couldn’t help us, one of the fellow shoppers was kind enough to drive us to the house. Our VisitHomes accommodation came with a 15% coupon for the Bowling Alley – which was the only restaurant open in winter! They served up huge portions of local fried cod and chips. 

Day 2 – Eysturoy

To maximise our daylight, we left Leirvik before the sun came up at 9am. We attempted to drive to Slættaratindur to climb the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands (882 m). From the top there is apparently a fantastic view of all the Faroes, and locals traditionally do this hike every year (in warmer months). Unfortunately, at a key turnoff, the road was iced over, with a sign warning the road isn’t cleared during the winter. Without chains for our tires, we didn’t risk driving up the mountain.

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Next we drove north to the east coast town of Gjogv, which dates to the late 1500s or earlier. Its name translates to “gorge” because there is a 200m gorge that runs through it. There was an old church (like in every town) dated from 1929, and a factory producing prefabricated concrete materials. It looked like the sheep ran the town, with almost no one else outside except for a couple of factory workers. We trekked up the side of a mountain, to enjoy the view, and to the beach. The one cafe in town said it was closed until June, but they did have a public water closet open.

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A Note about Driving

To drive in the Faroe Islands, you need to be attentive to the elements: the wind, hail, roads weaving left and right, sheep crossings, giving way in tight, dark tunnels, and distractions from the amazing views. Particularly around Funningsfjørður, where there are mountains in all directions. We used Unicar to rent a Citroen Cactus; for two people and a few days, it was perfect. Tire chains might have been helpful, but they also could have gotten us into unnecessary trouble.

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We picked our next location based on the extremely helpful Visit Faroe Islands guides. We hiked for several hours, starting from the grassy land in Hellurnar up to snowy terrain and the top where we could see over to Fuglafjørður. The grassy portion was dominated by sheep (and their droppings). It was challenging at times, as we faced hail, icy rock scrambles, and snow. We encountered only one other couple hiking in the opposite direction, which made it slightly easier to find the path via footsteps in the snow. From the top of the first section, we could see salmon fish farms, common in many towns.

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Salmon Farming in the Faroe Islands

The seas surrounding the Faroe Islands are perfect for wild Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) from northern Europe, with steady cool temperatures, clean water, accessible fjords, and strong currents. The production is in average around 50,000 tons of farmed fish in round weight. In almost every suitable bay you can find farming like in the picture above.The Faroese aquaculture industry accounts for more than half of the country’s total export value, and produces the most salmon relative to the population with 1.5 tonnes per capita. There are 3 main companies producing salmon in the Faroe Islands – Bakkafrost, Marine Harvest, and Hiddenfjord. We enjoyed the local smoked salmon.

 

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Before nightfall, we drove to the southern end of Eysturoy to Runavik to see Lake Toftavatn. We didn’t have enough daylight or energy to go for a walk around the lake, so snapped a quick photo.

Day 3 – Viðoy, Borðoy, Kunoy, Eysturoy, & Streymoy

For our final full day, we started by driving to the northernmost settlement in the Faroe Islands, Vidareidi on the island of Viðoy and watched the sunrise.

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According to Visit Faroe Islands, “In the 16th century Viðareiði was home to a fabled priest’s wife, Beinta. This woman is a primary inspiration for the main character in Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s novel, Barbara. Because of the vicarage’s historical placement in Viðareiði, the village has been a cultural centre for the north-eastern part of the Northern Isles through centuries.”

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Perhaps my favourite juncture was the crossing between Norðdepil on and Hvannasund on Viðoy.

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Traveling south from Viðoy, we went to Klaksvík on the island of Borðoy for a hearty sheep stew at Fríða’s. Klaksvík is the second largest town, which has Viking-era remains at Úti í Grøv.

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From there, we drove back to Leirvik to see the four buildings of ruins of Toftanes, which date to the early 10th century. The largest building was a 72-foot longhouse shared by animals and humans, once covered by a roof of turf and birch bark. There was also a smaller house, 43 feet by 13 feet, with a single wall of stone, and two smaller buildings. Many of the thousands of artifacts found at Toftanes are displayed at the Historical Museum; some items include: bowls, glass and amber beads, juniper ropes and rare bronze items, including a brooch and a pin.

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Just before sunset, we made it into Tórshavn for our final night. Historic sites included the area known as the Tinganes, the site of the oldest parliament in the world (dated 825) and Skansin, a fortress dated from around 1508.  

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The downtown is very walkable, with many boutique shops.

Music in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands has one record label, Tutl, founded in 1977 and a thriving music scene (I’m told) mainly in the summer. The G! Music Festival is one of the most popular. At the Tutl record store in Tórshavn, the attendant helped us with recommendations and played some local records over the store speakers. We already knew about the folk metal band Tyr, so were looking for something different. We came across a music video by the band Hamferð, and were excited to find their music in store. You can read more about music in the Faroe Islands here.

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Tutl Store in Tórshavn

We were planning to try Barbara’s Fish House for dinner, but it was closed for winter; so, we opted for smorgasbords.

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Day 4 – Streymoy & Vágar

For our last activity, we drove out of Tórshavn, south west to Kirkjubøur, one of the Faroe Islands’ most important historic places and the southernmost town on Streymoy. Ruins from the unfinished Magnus Cathedral date from about 1300, and it is the largest medieval building in the Faroe Islands. Saint Olav’s Church is the oldest still used church of the Faroes dating from 12th century. Finally, Kirkjubøargarður, is the oldest still inhabited wooden house in the world from the 11th century.

One of my photos of our stop in Kirkjubøur was featured on the cover of the Bush Telegraph, our local community magazine.

People of the Faroe Islands

While they are not present in my holiday photos, we met very friendly, courteous people across the Faroe Islands. The first person we met in the country happened to be a woman from Australia, and the next person was a Faroese man who had lived in Sydney and brought back an Australian wife. That was a little striking given that almost 90 percent of the population are native Faroese, descendants from the Norse (Scandinavian and Gaelic) that settled the islands in the 9th century AD. Danes compose the largest non-native population at 7%, with less than 3% of the total made up by nationalities of more than 80 countries [Philippines (0.34%) Icelanders (0.33%), Thai (0.23%) Norwegians (0.19%), and so on]. The small number of new immigrants is a point of curiosity as SBS in Australia and the BBC have reported “women wanted in the Faroes.” Many Faroese women left during a recession in the 1990s and youth often leave for university in Denmark; the reports tell of women who immigrated for love and life on the archipelago. The population reached a milestone of 50,000 people in 2017.

Departing the Faroe Islands, we were reminded of the importance of the fishing industry, and salmon in particular. We watched as cases and cases of fresh salmon were loaded onto the SAS Airways flight. There was so much salmon that our flight was delayed!

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To close, a legend about the water elf, Nykin, that lived in Lake Toftavatn. The story goes, it rose up from the waters in the form of a young man or a horse that lured young women and children. Those that touched the Nykin were caught and dragged into the water. Experiencing the Faroese landscape and changing, misty weather, you can get drawn in and wonder what lies before you. Trolls, spirits, or just another sheep?

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Labor Activism and Democracy in China

Han Dongfeng: collective bargaining a “Win-win-win solution”

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Factory-level collective bargaining can serve as a pathway toward democracy in China, according to prominent Chinese labor rights activist Han Dongfeng. On Monday April 1, George Mason University hosted Mr. Han Dongfeng for a discussion about labor movements starting from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 to the contemporary situation in China. Since economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s liberalized trade and focused on obtaining foreign investment, workers have increasingly relied on industrial action to advocate for higher pay and better working conditions, disrupting production. Because strike organizers have generally been imprisoned or blacklisted and the labor system lacks organization due to a government monopoly on unions, workers have hesitated to take what Han calls “personal responsibility” to lead movements locally or regionally. In free market capitalism as well as China’s state capitalism, the relationship between workers, employers and the state has much room for improvement; instituting widespread collective bargaining is a “win-win-win” solution for China according to Han. The process of democracy has begun in China, and the labor movement provides a model lesson for how democracy can be institutionalized in workers’ lives.

Worker identity as essential to collective action

A leader of industrial labor movements, Han spoke with emotion and conviction about historical and current labor tensions and the slow progress toward democracy in China. As a railway worker, Han founded the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation (China’s first independent, non-state trade union) during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Because of his role in the protests, Han was arrested and held for nearly two years without trial. In 1993 after leaving China for medical attention, he was not allowed to return. Han moved to Hong Kong, and in 1994 founded the China Labor Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that protects and promotes the rights of workers in China.

Chinese workers are proud to keep their identity as working class. Their ability to successfully act collectively, however, has been hampered by the stripping of protective measures in the 1980s and strong state control over economic and political spheres. The removal of protections has led to a chaotic system of sporadic industrial action. Workers in China do not legally have the right to strike – that right was removed from the Constitution in 1982. What Han calls “wild cat” strikes continue to occur when workers demand higher wages or better working conditions from their employers, but have no option other than stopping work.

Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China.  Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 While workers become more willing to strike as a group, they still often lack representation through independent unions. Workers’ right to collective bargaining should be legislated to enable unions to adequately represent workers in negotiations with employers. According to the International Labour Organization, “Collective bargaining allows both sides to negotiate a fair employment relationship and prevents costly labour disputes…Countries with highly coordinated collective bargaining tend to have less inequality in wages, lower and less persistent unemployment, and fewer and shorter strikes than countries where collective bargaining is less established.” Organizations such as the China Labour Bulletin and nonprofit organizations take up cases and help improve conditions and individual factories, but competition for workers in central versus coastal areas (city versus rural), improved work-life balance and consistent and rising wages could benefit from adequate public policy measures by the central government. To effect change, workers must continue their fight to force the CPC to make these reforms.

Furthermore, workers can still face retaliation from their employers if they participate in or discuss strikes in the media. The China Labour Bulletin provides an example: “five workers who had taken part in a strike at Guangdong International Paper on 19 February said they were fired simply because they had given interviews to the media. They were neither the organizers of the strike nor even active participants in it.” It is then up to the workers to keep their elected representatives accountable. Earlier this year workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen petitioned for a recall and reelection of their union chairman after he failed to protect their interests with management in two disputes over contracts. As workers and representatives gain more confidence in negotiations with employers they continue to face difficulties that require legislative protections.

Finding a path forward for reforms

Compared to 5 or 6 years ago, the government leadership in China has moved in a new direction regarding labor activism. Protestors and strike organizers now rarely go to prison for industrial action. According to Han, labor is one of the “least sensitive issues” for the Communist Party of China, even less so than environmental issues; by backing away from restrictions on labor rights and media freedoms, the CPC is strengthening civil society and allowing for more voices to be heard. These developments are encouraging for improved labor rights and standards.

In contrast to Han, the new generation of workers does not remember the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and so are living without fear, particularly without the “fear of government.” Instead of fighting for freedom of assembly and political rights of the previous generation, new workers – who some say “lost their spirit” – seek improved economic status and the ability to purchase the goods that they produce.

Han says with collective bargaining, he “can see some light at the end of the tunnel.” In Guangdong province, which includes major manufacturing and exporting cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the local government is starting to support collective bargaining initiatives. Official unions in China are another form of control, so enabling independent unions and programs to flourish in Guangdong will, Han believes, make the case for widespread collective bargaining within the next 2 to 3 years.

Democracy as a process

As the market economy develops in China, workers will continue to demand more economic, political and social opportunities. Han believes that there should be more emphasis on labor rights at the start of democratic movements. By enabling workers to elect their own union representatives to negotiate on their behalf, they will be given a taste of the election process, creating a positive political habit.

Others, in contrast, believe that organized workers will be the biggest force against the market economy by demanding more economic protections; but China can follow its own democratic path without instituting a classical market economy that mirrors the US. Local politics in China remains a product of local representatives’ personal interests; therefore workers must pursue their own interests to gain progress.

When people ask Han “when will China be a democracy?” He answers, “What is the reference for a democracy?” In the United States and Europe, democracy is “still processing” as states battle with election fraud and strained political rights. China is at the early stages of developing a democracy; rather than answer the question of when China will reach democracy, Han prefers to answer when China will begin the democratic process, which he believes is starting now. “We cannot afford to advance our dream in one step. It is a long process and may not be achieved to the level that we want in our lifetime.” In comparison the Tiananmen Square protests and other large movements in other countries, the labor movement requires grassroots efforts that obtain small victories to build momentum. Historically these individual efforts have had more success and are proving more effective than a fast-sweeping movement.

International implications of Chinese labor movement

In their efforts, the China Labor Bulletin focuses primarily on internationally-owned factories to help create a model for future reforms. Some internationally-owned factories may already have higher standards than Chinese-owned factories, but they are also more profitable and garner more media coverage; the increasing media spotlight on particular factories such as Foxconn that serve international companies, combined with support for industrial action can help to improve domestic standards for working conditions.  

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

While labor movements in the United States and Europe are on the decline thanks to government reforms with pressure from business, the labor movement in China is on the rise and has significant international implications. As the world’s factory, “China made the race to the bottom possible,” but “that chain is about to break” according to Han. When asked about the future prospects for labor movements in the United States given right-to-work laws, Han agreed that workers in the US and Europe were in trouble. However, Han displayed optimism that the US will have a chance to restore its domestic production process; once an ever-increasing number of China’s 500 million workers raise their own working conditions and pay through labor activism, the price of goods will rise and, internationally, production will become more competitive. Chinese consumers will be hungry for American-produced goods and a more equal balance will be restored. Financial analysts agree that this “tipping point” will bring jobs back to American shores or other destinations closer to consumers.

 “Everything is ready”

In the clash between workers, employers and the economy, Han believes that “everything is ready.” The current economic and political system cannot sustain itself; as international consumer demand has dropped, China needs internal growth from wider working and middle classes to boost consumer spending. Han is positive about the prospects for economic and political reform in China, seeing the new party leadership as “sincere in dealing with these issues.” Han and China Labor Bulletin are placed to help collective bargaining turn many of the 500 million Chinese working class producers into consumers. By continuing to highlight workers rights in China through high profile cases using international companies (like recent engagements with Wal-Mart and Apple) improved working conditions and pay increases can be fought for with collective bargaining and perhaps in the future freedom of association and other democratic practices.

Collective bargaining is the sharp edge in a push toward increasing democratic practices in China. If Chinese labor activists can stake out a legal space for collective bargaining then this will establish democratic practices in Chinese workplaces and provide a safe space for workers to assert their allegiances and interests. Further, workers, employers and the Chinese government stand to gain from the stability that comes from having satisfied workers who have reasonable means for negotiations. The pursuit of improved material conditions for laborers and their families is a necessary motivation toward democracy. Employers will benefit from more stable labor relations, and “Economically [collective bargaining] is the gold mine for the government;” higher wages and benefits come from employers, but the government will get the credit for improving labor standards. While increased labor costs will likely raise the price of goods in the West, the global community and workers around the world could benefit from a more democratic and egalitarian China.

Review of Pacific Plan Essential for an Effective Pacific Islands Forum

Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August.  Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji.  As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year.  Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole. 

A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism.  Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.

One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability.  The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states.  In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example, http://www.workreadyvanuatu.com).    

However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor.  Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries.  Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work.  While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.   

Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states).  For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation.  Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.

Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention.  Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs.  The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union. 

With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets.  The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies.  One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights).  Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.

Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific.  As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region.  An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.