From Iceland — So What's This Unfair Treatment Of Young Employees I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Unfair Treatment Of Young Employees I Keep Hearing About?

Published August 15, 2014

So What’s This Unfair Treatment Of Young Employees I Keep Hearing About?
Photo by
Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir

In Iceland, labour unions and employers’ organizations negotiate to establish parameters for pay and other benefits. Earlier this month, a 22-year-old new hire of Lebowski Bar made the not unreasonable demand of being paid according to the general wage contract. Apparently, her employer, instead of paying different rates for weekdays, weekends and nights—as is required by law—paid out a single hourly wage for all times of day and night.

This isn’t ‘Nam. This is a paycheck. There are rules.

Yes, the bar is named after ‘The Big Lebowski,’ but there is no need to make this article a collection of quotes from the film. According to the former employee, bar management demanded that she pause her work participation immediately. After she pointed out that there is no such thing as pausing your work participation, she was fired.

So Lebowski Bar treats objects like women?

Phrasing your film quote as a question doesn’t make it any less annoying. This unfair dismissal turned into a PR disaster for Lebowski Bar when the mother of the employee wrote an understandably outraged letter to a newspaper detailing what happened. The bar quickly paid their former employee the wages they owed her and vowed to start paying others according to the general wage contract. But they stopped short of promising to pay back the money owed to others they might have underpaid.

Ve vant ze money, Lebowski! What did you think of my German accent?

It was terrible, and please stop quoting the film. The labour union Efling, which has many waitstaff among its members, received around two hundred complaints about underpayment in the first half of this year; most of these had to do with bars, restaurants and cafés. And it was revealed that, among others, Geysir Bistro and the Subway chain of sandwich shops had been systematically underpaying their staff in much the same way as Lebowski Bar.

For what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know?

Quoting ‘Fargo’ is not any less annoying. And your Minnesotan accent is wildly off the mark. When the Lebowski Bar case hit the news it raised the wider issue of poor treatment of young workers by some employers. Hitt húsið, a city-run organization for peer education and youth culture, has started a summer program where young people go and teach teenage workers their rights. In an interview with state radio RÚV, the two youths who go out to educate told about some of the bad practices they had encountered. Most common was underpaying for nighttime and weekend work. Also common were unpaid trial days. Another depressing issue, thankfully rarer, was gender discrimination, with reports that male applicants were not given a chance in bakeries and ice cream shops, and of women being asked to go home if they had too much or too little make-up, or pants that were too wide.

Oh damn, that’s just straight-up depressing.

Sadly, the ill treatment of young workers has a long history in Iceland. In small fishing villages during the 20th century, children were expected to leave school to help with the unloading of trawlers. Starting in the late 1930s and continuing through the ‘80s, most city children were sent to stay summer-long on farms. The idea was that they would learn good work habits, but in effect they were there as free labour for the farmers, replacing the agricultural workers who relocated to Reykjavík and fishing villages in search of higher wages. Many children were injured, or worse, and many adult Icelanders still suffer the effects of this practice to this day.

But didn’t children love going to farms? Playing with animals, running around fields and, uh, whatever it is that kids do on farms. I only know the world through movies.

Many did indeed love their experiences, but they were never given a fair wage for the amount of work they did. Young people generally do not know the full extent of their legal rights and some employers take advantage of that.

This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

Well, at least you managed to stop quoting ‘The Big Lebowski’ for a few seconds. Unfortunately, there is no way to monitor whether employers are paying their staff according to the rules. Sometimes a simple complaint is enough to make the employer pay up, but the labour union Efling says that half of the cases go to court, and sometimes the underpaid workers never get their money. Maybe this issue would get fixed if underpaid workers would show up at their employers’ houses unannounced and pee on their rugs. Damn it, now you have me referencing that film too.


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Enough. Stop. Now.

Enough. Stop. Now.


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