Fire Sparks Conversation About Working Conditions Facing Foreigners Skip to content
fire Vesturgata Bræðraborgarstígur
Photo: A screenshot from RÚV.

Fire Sparks Conversation About Working Conditions Facing Foreigners

Around 400 people gathered in front of Iceland’s parliament building yesterday to show solidarity with the victims of a Reykjavík house fire that left three dead and two in critical condition. The group marched to the burnt building, where many laid flowers in memory of the victims. The event’s attendees called for stricter regulations on housing for immigrant workers.

The fire began on Friday afternoon in a house on the corner of Vesturgata and Bræðraborgarstígur in west Reykjavík. The house was on a list of illegal residential housing published by the fire brigade in 2017. Investigative journalism programme Kveikur took up the matter of illegal residence in the house in 2017. In recent years, neighbourhood residents had spoken out about their concerns with the house’s lack fire protection and poor maintenance.

Foreign Workers Often Exploited, Says Organiser

The fire has sparked a conversation about the poor working conditions some foreign workers in Iceland face. “[The] labour market is exploited and many illegal actions are taken on that market especially towards immigrants because oftentimes many of us don’t speak Icelandic and don’t speak even English,” Kaja Balejko, a photographer and one of the event’s organisers, told RÚV. “The Polish society here is lucky because there are plenty of us but there are a lot of nationalities here who are not as big and they have nobody to reach for help.”

Kaja says providing support to immigrant workers doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated. It could involve simple measures such as providing every foreigner who applies for a kennitala (Icelandic ID number) a PDF listing support organisations in their native language, “not only government ones and not only unions but also charity organisations who can support them in the moments that they don’t know to who they can reach for help.”

Union Leader Criticises Justice Ministry’s Priorities

The registered owner of the house is local contractor HD Verk, whose owners have not yet been available for comment. The building has previously been rented by the temporary work agencies Seigla and Menn í Vinnu.

CEO of Efling Union Viðar Þorsteinnson says the organisation is increasingly coming to the aid of workers who depend on their employers for housing. Such workers are drawn into situations “that I trust myself to say are more related to human trafficking than a normal employment relationship,” Viðar told RÚV. He pointed out that media outlets Stundin and Kveikur had both covered the state of the house and conditions facing foreign workers in Iceland, so the lack of action on the issues could not be attributed to ignorance.

Viðar criticised the police and judicial system’s priorities when it came to foreign workers. “We’ve had a ticking time bomb here for years regarding people’s conditions […] The emphasis is instead on operating this notorious arrest vehicle, which is the police and Justice Minitry’s newest contribution to criminal activities on the labour market, and arrest workers and at the same time employers who are responsible for this activity, who are the perpetrators of criminal activity on the Icelandic labour market – they walk free.”

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