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Housing fire sparks discussion about labour rights

Housing fire sparks discussion about labour rights

Subject: Special Article

On Thursday afternoon, a devastating fire on the corner of Vesturgata and Bræðraborgarstígur, left three people dead and two more in intensive care. More than 60 firefighters were dispatched to tackle the blaze. Two people were arrested at the scene for disobeying police orders, whilst another remains in custody. It is not the first time that the building has been the subject of media attention. In 2015, a resident complained about the standard of accommodation.  It seems that residents of a temporary work agency have been residing there, although the owner of the said agency has claimed in Morgunblaðið that they have no connection to the house, which is owned by contractors. The investigation continues but has highlighted the controversial issue of insecure, often substandard housing for the poorest paid members of Icelandic society, many of whom are immigrants. 

What are the top three problems arising again and again?
Following multiple groups on Facebook and reading the comments under the articles, I arrived at a few conclusions. They might not be perfectly accurate. I am not a politician and I like to see both sides of any debate when attempting to understand a situation. What I learned from the stories of the people who were brave enough to share their perspective is:

1) contracts are not provided after the required period and employees who are fighting for their rights are being fired, 

2) housing is provided as part of salary, often below minimum acceptable standards and is used as a way of scamming people, as it is deducted from salaries without any description on payslips or on the separate contracts; it is a way to control employees and threaten them that they might lose not only their job but also their home, 

3) Unions are often providing people with different regulations or advice, and there are no strict, unified rules, clear schemes and regulations. It does cause delays in obtaining help and often makes people believe that they are all alone, creating bigger confusion and stress for the victims.

I believe that the first steps should be:

1. Providing each person who applies for a kennitala with a pdf or a link via email, where they would find all the necessary information regarding workers rights (ideally in at least the 5 languages most commonly used here by immigrants in iceland) - all should be written in short, simple sentences (all the details could be available further on request) so it would be understandable for everyone. The same pdf/link should gather all the links to organizations, who are available to help in case of violations on the labour markets, not only unions, but also all non-profit, etc.

2. Unions should be enabling freedom of choice, regardless of an employee’s specialization, position or place of residence. This would create healthy competition between them to gather members and finances to provide for themselves. At the moment, there is no outside motivation to provide members with a clear, fast and professional help.

3. All of the companies who are applying for permits for employees from non-EU countries or are profiled as employment agencies should be under strict control, with regular monitoring and check-up interviews with their employees/users. 

4. All union representatives should be under the control of a designated, independent person, paid by the government, but not under the government control, neither impact, to whom employees who did not receive help could turn and their case would be verified along with confirmation of the steps taken by the union representative to support the employee in the case.

I believe this would eliminate the situation when no action is taken because the union representative knows the person who was reported.

These are simple recommendations which could change a lot and create a more secure working situation for employees across Iceland, especially immigrants. The unprofessional attitude of institutions and lack of quick actions and clear procedures sometimes creates chaos. And it is easy to get lost in chaos.

Everyone is different. Most of us in Iceland share common values on life, culture, immigration, and the purpose of employment. We may have different perspectives on its meaning, but we should all have the same rights. As recently as 2018, it was estimated by the Global Slavery Index that 735 individuals are held in bondage in Iceland. This is a form of modern slavery whereby an employee is forced to consent to all kinds of arrangements, including sometimes sexual slavery. The recent fire in Vesturbær only reinforces the fact that labour exploitation is widespread in Iceland, with countless individuals apparently resident in the property (based on their kennitala) but living in unsuitable, poor-quality accommodation elsewhere. We do not have informations yet, what did cause the fire, but regardless the effect of Police investigation, truth about next modern-slavery case and no reactions through the years have seen the light of day.

Please, join us and show support for equal workers rights on Sunday 28th June at 12:00 in front of the Alþingi - Parliament building

Fire and Ice


Author: (Kaja Balejko)
Date: 27/06/2020


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