The director of Iceland’s Directorate of Labour pulled no punches when talking about Menn í vinnu, a labour rental company that was one of the subjects of a recent investigative news piece about the exploitation of foreign workers in Iceland. The president of Iceland’s labour unions has likened the practices of many of these companies to slavery, and the Minister of Social Affairs has voiced strong disapproval.
As reported, Icelandic public broadcasting’s news investigative show Kveikur drew public attention to the matter of Romanian workers employed by Menn í vinnu. In this instance, up to ten workers at a time share a single room, with each one of them paying 50,000 ISK per month for this rudimentary shelter. Furthermore, they typically work 220 hours per month, six days a week, for salaries that are far below the minimum wage. One of the workers interviewed said that after rental deductions and other charges he was paid a paltry 38,000 ISK for two weeks of work.
Since the airing of this story, numerous officials have come forward to condemn the exploitation.
Unnur Sverrisdóttir, the director of the Directorate of Labour, told RÚV that the situation is tantamount to “criminal practices”, and that the matter has been referred to the police for a second time.
“It is horrible that this should be happening,” she said. “We must band together and put an end to this. That is utterly necessary. Everyone needs to work together on this. This is a criminal practice, and nothing else.”
Drífa Snædal, the president of the Confederation of Icelandic Labour Unions (ASÍ), issued a statement on the matter, pointing out that the situation goes well beyond one single company. She likens these practices to slavery, and expressed disappointment that more action is not being taken to combat this.
Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason has reportedly met with numerous labour and management officials about the matter. He told reporters that he strongly disapproves of the exploitation directed at these workers, and part of combating this will involve legislative changes.
Worker exploitation, especially exploitation of foreign workers, is an endemic problem in Iceland. 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.
Some of the examples of exploitation that have been uncovered include underpaying workers; not giving them such basic rights as overtime and breaks; housing workers in conditions unfit for human living and physical abuse.
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.