Asia

Extreme commute: From New Zealand to rural Iceland

  • 17 November 2014
  • From the section Asia
Picture of the SAH Products factory in Blondous, Iceland
Image caption Shawn Parkinson and other Kiwi butchers work for two months for SAH Products in Blondous, Iceland

Every year, several dozen butchers make an epic commute - from provincial New Zealand to rural Iceland - for just two months' work. It's at the extreme end of the trend for fly-in fly-out workers.

As work commutes go, Shawn Parkinson's journey takes some beating.

Dannevirke to Auckland - six-hour drive. Auckland to Sydney - three-hour flight. Sydney to Dubai - 14 and a half hours in the air. Dubai to London - seven-hour flight. London to Reykjavik - almost three hours' flying time. Reykjavik to Blonduos, north-west Iceland - three-hour drive.

Two months later, he repeats all 22,300km (about 13,850 miles) on the return leg.

Every September, he and 30 other New Zealand butchers travel to Iceland for its lamb processing season. It's an annual trek Mr Parkinson has made for the past seven years.

"My friends say 'Iceland? What do you kill there - seals?' Nah, they've got their own breed of sheep."

'Experience of a lifetime'

For him, this far-flung short-term contract is a no-brainer.

"We'd be out of work if we stayed in New Zealand at this time of year. It's off-season. We're laid off," he tells me during his morning break at the SAH Products slaughterhouse near Blonduos.

"This is the experience of a lifetime. It's the other side of the world and you can still get a bit of work."

Flights and accommodation are paid by their Icelandic bosses - who struggle to find trained locals for just eight weeks' work - and the wages are similar to those found in New Zealand.

The chain - as a production line is called in the meat industry - runs from 07:30 in the morning until 18:00, five days a week with a few half-Saturdays.

"Of the nine fellas here [at SAH], seven have been before and two are new," says Mr Parkinson. "There are other Kiwis in Saudarkrokur, Selfoss and other places I can't pronounce."

"New Zealanders normally sound words out, say it how it's spelt, but nah - here it's totally different."

He feels a kinship with Icelanders. "They're descended from the Vikings and we are mostly Maori, so we share a warrior history and a similar attitude."

Image caption Shawn Parkinson (far right) and other Kiwis make the extreme commute every year
Image caption Icelandic sheep meat is becoming increasingly popular, say butchers

His Icelandic boss, Gunnar Halldorsson, says the expense of flying in slaughterhouse specialists is worth it.

The season is too short - and the factories too remote - for Iceland's butchers to be prepared to relocate. And to train locals from scratch takes too long.

"So it's better for us to have butchers who do this all day so we can get up to full speed quick. Also it is a quality issue to have professional butchers," he says.

The New Zealanders do the skilled butchery jobs on the chain, with labourers from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic assigned to tasks involving heavy lifting and offal.

"The Kiwis are reliable workers - never sick, always do a 100% job," says Mr Halldorsson.

"It is expensive for us to fly them over and fly them back home and they know it. They appreciate it. You can feel that they are doing their best."

Foreigners preferred

It's now the norm for Icelandic meat companies to employ seasonal foreign workers.

The online application form to work at Nordlenska asks prospective employees to rate their English language - not Icelandic - skills.

"Skilled slaughtermen are hard to find in Iceland so we get people from Britain, Poland and Slovakia. Some of them come year after year to work for us," says Nordlenska's HR manager Jona Jonsdottir.

"The unemployment rate is rather low in Iceland compared to the rest of Europe so it is sometimes difficult to get Icelandic workers for seasonal work."

Slaturfelag Suourlands, which has factories in the south and west of Iceland, employs Kiwi butchers and has done so for many years.

"They are professionals and nice people, bringing a lot of know-how and ideas to our production," says production manager Gudmundur Svavarsson.

Image caption Butcher Joseph McWilliam at work in Iceland
Image caption Mark Cavanagh (C) matches up other Kiwi butchers to Icelandic companies

Good match

The work comes via Mark Cavanagh, himself a former fly-in fly-out butcher.

He matches Kiwi workers to Icelandic jobs when he's not manning the chain at a meatworks in the South Island of New Zealand.

He organises flights, visas and acts as a go-between for the five Icelandic companies that employ New Zealanders on a seasonal basis.

"It started in 2003 with a couple of guys and grew from there. They realised they needed more trained Kiwis as it was hard to work and train people up at the same time."

"It takes four weeks to train someone - that's half the season."

He hopes the long-distance relationship between Icelandic factories and New Zealand meat workers continues.

"Iceland's a special place to me. So long as they need my help to find workers, I'll help them."

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