West of Valby: The forgotten Denmark

For the educated urban elite, the benefits of globalisation are obvious – easy travel, better job opportunities, and more ways to spend their money. But the benefits of globalisation have not been felt evenly across the country, and there is a growing sense that two nations live in Denmark, whose experiences do not align

South Funen is a scenic, pastoral part of Denmark. Idyllic villages pop up between the fields and forests, with small houses hugging the roadside. Peaceful as they may be, it is impossible to miss the ‘For Sale’ signs that are constantly on display.

The island is one of the areas hardest hit by the negative consequences of globalisation, and has the lowest number of 26 to 64 year olds in employment, according to a 2014 report by Region Syddanmark. In the 1980s it was part of Denmark’s old industrial heartland, but many of the large industrial employers in the region have since moved their operations to countries with cheaper labour, leaving behind unemployment, increased competition for jobs, and a downward pressure on wages.

A global issue
On the whole, globalisation has benefitted the world’s economies. Raising incomes in Eastern Europe, China and India, have opened up new markets to products, while also making it possible for the West to attract qualified employees from across the world.

But the rapid deindustrialisation and outsourcing of jobs from the West to the East has also tilled fertile ground for the anti-globalistion fervour that is currently sweeping the West. Earlier this year, the UK shocked the world by voting to leave the EU, while in the US Donald Trump ran a campaign based on building walls – both literal and figurative ones.

Danes are still generally positive about globalisation, however. According to a 2014 report by the non-profit research organisation Bertelsmann Foundation, Denmark ranked as the second biggest beneficiary of globalisation in the world, measured by per-capita GDP growth since 1988. Despite that, not all have shared in the benefits, and the rural areas of Denmark have been those most hurt.

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The losers
Danish industry was originally located around the large urban areas, but as concerns over pollution and population density grew it was increasingly moved to the countryside. Rural areas, such as South Funen, were therefore especially hurt when the outsourcing of industry to low wage countries began.

“We haven’t gotten over it yet,” explains Tonni Hansen, chairman for local chapter of the industrial trade union 3F. “I know of many people who have lost their jobs due to outsourcing – many people who are older than 55 and who all their lives had good, low-skilled industrial jobs, and been valuable employees. There is so much competition for the remaining jobs, so if you can’t just get up and move, you are in trouble.”

According to Hansen, some were lucky enough to find new jobs in the area. But others – especially those without any form of proper education – were left stuck in unemployment before losing their right to unemployment benefits, and ultimately becoming dependant on relatives and loved ones. But the situation remains most acute with future generations, who are at risk of growing up without jobs or prospects.

“We now have young people who have never gotten started. Who have never had a job. Already there is emerging a generation that won’t know what it means to work,” he says. “I can see the increasing social problems in the area where I live, and where a so-called ‘underclass’ is growing.”

A house divided
What Hansen experiences is a growing divide between the countryside and urban areas. This divide was made especially apparent during the last elections. Parliament’s newest party The Alternative – pro-entrepreneurial and green – flew into parliament by appealing to the creative classes in the cities, while the populist Danish People’s Party (DF) swept the less densely populated areas of the country, ultimately becoming the second biggest in the country.

Underlining this development, former DF leader Pia Kjærsgaard told Berlingske earlier this year that Denmark was at a breaking point and that there existed a “dominating, self-righteous and ignorant” elite that didn’t experience the problems felt by ordinary Danes.

“It’s funny, not long ago Copenhagen was dirt poor and people lived in apartments without access to toilets, so the rest of the country had to support them financially,” Hansen says. “But now the situation has turned on its head. Now the economy has changed to something else that benefits Copenhagen. So quite possibly we are missing a form of solidarity between the two. There are absolutely people in Copenhagen who feel that we need to stick together, but there are also others who belong to a cultural elite who think Copenhagen is the centre of the universe and don’t give a damn about the rest of the country. I can easily get annoyed by it.”

Parting ideologies
What Brexit proved to the world is that increasingly the West is split into two separate groups whose views and experiences of globalisation are markedly different. Frustration with diminishing incomes and anger towards the political establishment has driven people away from mainstream politics and towards populism. According to Hansen, this is no different inDenmark.

“You just have to look at how people vote. DF has been growing because they represent something that is anti-establishment,” he says. “DF has taken advantage of the situation and they have found a scapegoat for all the problems we are experiencing. They tell people they lost their job because of the Pole who came here and took it from them, or that the EU is at fault.”

And it is a strategy that has worked. During the last election, DF received 23 percent of the vote in South Funen, an increase of over 10 percent. Hansen is worried about the development of populism and what happens when you have a large group of people who feel forgotten and overlooked.

“You just need to see what happened to Italy and Germany in the thirties.”

The blame lies with the politicians and how the EU was structured, he says. The focus on liberalising capital and keeping inflation down, diverted focus from strengthening the social safety net.

“Had that been done, I think we’d be in a very different position. But then again damn it, people vote for what they want. But we could’ve made another Europe built around solidarity.”

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Stopping the rot
Hansen argues that more public investment is needed in order to boost non-urban areas. He praises the current government for their decision to move several thousand  public jobs away from the cities, but he argues that more innovative solutions are needed to help the region. Some examples are producing green energy from agricultural waste (biogas), or producing organic food specifically for the export market.

The problem is that developing these new industries requires funding that is not easily available. Hansen says a possible solution could be creating a state bank that focusses its investments in areas private banks overlook.

“I don’t think it would take a lot to get the area going. You just need to show people that things are happening here and that there is investment. Then the wheel will start turning on its own. We need to remember that there is plenty of potential. We have a strong tourism industry and lots of creative people,” he says. “But we are hurting from the loss of industry, and you can’t just snap your fingers and turn industrial workers into creative innovators, that is not how it works.”

One of the lucky ones
Dagny Felslund-Jensen among those who have lost a job due to globalisation. For over twenty years she worked in a factory for the company Faber, making awnings, blinds and drapes. But, in 2008, production was moved to Poland.

“The expectation was always that you worked there until you retired. When they left there was an incredible sense of having been betrayed. We had been told that if we worked harder and had fewer hours the jobs would stay,” she says.

“There were people who lost everything. Whole families worked there and were left without a single breadwinner. I know of people who even lost their houses.”

Dagny Felslund-Jensen worked for 20 years making blinds, drapes and awnings for Faber. She thinks she was lucky to find another job in her field when the company moved its production to Poland: Rasmus Degnbol

Dagny Felslund-Jensen worked for 20 years making blinds, drapes and awnings for Faber. She thinks she was lucky to find another job in her field when the company moved its production to Poland: Rasmus Degnbol

Felslund-Jensen has a thick Funen accent and a large laugh. Without any formal education and having only worked one job in her life, she thought she might never work again when she lost her job, aged 51.

“It was the first time I wished I was older so I could just retire,” she says.

“Me and schools have never been good friends. I finished a seven-year primary school education. I can read and write, sure, but I have always been someone who needs to work with their hands.”

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A negative change
She was lucky, though, and managed to find a new job within her field, in a small company in the Faaborg-Mydtfyn municipality – an area that has suffered one of the worst level of job losses in recent years.

She grew up not too far away, and says that she has seen what the negative effects globalisation and deindustrialisation can be.

“The development here has definitely been very negative,” she says. “We used to have a lot of industry and jobs, but that is mostly gone. The mood here can feel a bit resigned. But then again we from Funen are very down to earth, so usually we think about our problems in the terms of ‘everything will be alright’.”

Despite that she fears that a generation of young people might fall by the wayside.

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“I have a grown up granddaughter and both she and her boyfriend have never made it into the workforce, and I do worry about her. I also know that if my other grandchildren want to make a life for themselves then they need to leave. They need to get educated and you can’t do that here.”

Region Syddanmark predicts that a further 10,000 positions for low skilled labourers will be lost by 2021, which only increases the pressure on residents to get educated, while increasing the competition for the remaining jobs.

“If my gandchildren are going to make a life for themselves they will not be able to stay here. They will need to get educated and for that they’ll have to leave,” says Felslund-Jensen, who argues that the responsibility for the current climate rests at the feet of the political class that often seems too far removed from the more remote parts of the country.

“I don’t think they have so much forgotten about us, as much as they ignore our existence. There has been a definite arrogance towards people who are not highly educated. If you don’t work in front of a computer, you are doing something wrong. It is not seen as fancy being a plumber or an elderly care worker. But you can’t just run society on people who work behind a desk.”

Dagny Felslund-Jensen worked for 20 years making blinds, drapes and awnings for Faber. She thinks she was lucky to find another job in her field when the company moved its production to Poland: Rasmus Degnbol

Dagny Felslund-Jensen worked for 20 years making blinds, drapes and awnings for Faber. She thinks she was lucky to find another job in her field when the company moved its production to Poland: Rasmus Degnbol

Reuniting the people
Felslund-Jensen fears Denmark splitting into two disparate countries, separated by class and geography.

“DF has used that split to their benefit. They claim to have a solution and they blame our situation on foreigners. It saddens me to say that I know of a lot of people who have started to support DF. Because there definitely exists what you could call ‘arch-Copenhageners’ who have no idea how people west of Valby bakke live,” she says, referring to the hill that marks the Copenhagen’s western boundary.

She hopes that the split between the two groups and geographical areas can be overcome, and that the sense of community among people can be strengthened. But in order for that to happen, she believes the highly educated ‘arch-Copenhageners’ need to understand a crucial fact of life.

“The truth is, some of us only have these ten fingers to work with.” M

Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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