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Thousands Of Foreign Workers In Iceland Exploited, Indicating Systemic Problems

Thousands Of Foreign Workers In Iceland Exploited, Indicating Systemic Problems

Andie Fontaine
Words by
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published October 3, 2018

Thousands of foreign workers in Iceland—primarily employed in construction, hotels and restaurants—are being subjected to some of the worst examples of illegal employment practices in the country. This was examined in detail in a report from Kveikur, an investigative news show from Icelandic public broadcasting.

Some of the examples of exploitation brought to light in the report include underpaying workers; not giving them such basic rights as overtime and breaks; housing workers in conditions unfit for human living and physical abuse. At the same time, supervisory authorities and labour unions are understaffed and underfunded, while the consequences for companies that exploit workers are effectively non-existent.

There are some 37,000 foreign workers in Iceland, comprising 20% of the workforce while comprising only 13% of the total population—these workers, most of them working in trades within or related to the tourism industry, are arguably the driving force behind the “boom time” economy Iceland currently enjoys.

“None of this surprises me,” Halldór Grönvold, vice chair of the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions, told RÚV. “There we see some pretty good examples of concentrated worker exploitation, that we have seen as endemic in the Icelandic labour market. There are unfortunately more examples than this.”

In many ways, this news is not new. As Grapevine has reported repeatedly, foreign workers in Iceland are far more likely to be exploited than locals, and the problem has become especially pronounced in the tourism industry. Halldór says there are many reasons why this has been allowed to continue for as long as it has.

“There is little political interest or understanding of the issue,” he told reporters. “It has naturally spread into the entirety of the government and then to the general public, to the point where we close our eyes to this exploitation. Of course, there are honourable companies in the Icelandic labour market, fortunately, but this problem is all too common. We’re not talking about dozens, we’re not talking about hundreds, we’re talking about thousands of individuals who are simply being exploited.”

Halldór believes that a big part of the solution to this problem is to make worker exploitation punishable by law, in addition to preventing companies from simply shuttering their doors, getting a new identity number (kennitala), and then opening again. These steps will require not just concerted legislative changes, but also concerted enforcement.

The full episode of Kveikur, with English subtitles, can be watched here.

(Photo not directly related to this news story—ÍSTAK was not one of the companies covered by Kveikur.)


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