Readers who’ve been following our daily news output might have noticed a disturbing increase in stories about worker exploitation in Iceland. These cases range from relatively minor (like not having an employee bathroom) to some very serious offenses, such as grossly underpaying workers (if they’re even paid at all), human trafficking, and slavery. These offenses span many industries, but have been most prominent in the tourism industry and construction, which is in itself closely related to tourism.
Employers will be quick to argue that the vast majority of tourism-related businesses operate fairly and legally. This is true, but it’s also beside the point. We’re not talking about a case of a few bad actors ruining it for everybody else. Research released last month from Gallup shows that there are some 400 slaves in Iceland, comprising a higher proportion of the population than any Nordic country, and most western European countries.
Not just “a few bad apples”
To be sure, there is plenty of potential for exploitation in the tourism industry. The industry is growing far faster than authorities can keep up with, and a lot of tourism industry businesses operate in a kind of legal grey area.
In the course of investigations The Grapevine is currently doing on this subject, we’ve already discovered that worker exploitation in Iceland isn’t a matter of a few isolated cases. It is an endemic problem. Many, if not most, cases of worker abuse in tourism industry businesses were able to flourish right under our noses, hiding in plain sight and ignored by the very people who could have helped. In most cases, these workers didn’t even know their rights were being violated in the first place.
Knowledge is power
Ultimately, neither labour unions, the police, nor tourism industry management can really keep tabs of everything going on within the industry. The most powerful weapon we have against worker exploitation is information: both the continued reporting on bosses who step out of bounds, and the flow of important information on labour rights into the hands of the workers themselves.
There is no simple, easy answer to this problem, but ignoring it or pretending it’s not become rife in the industry is simply not an option.