A temp work agency owner was charged yesterday with five months suspended imprisonment for endangering the lives of foreign workers, RÚV reports. The owner was housing the workers in an industrial building where they slept in plywood rooms hardly bigger than the beds they contained. The ruling is the first of its kind in Iceland, ruling that the temp agency owner was responsible for ensuring fire safety on the premises despite not owning the property.
No Fire Protection or Escape Routes
The case arose in 2018 when the police investigated a robbery in Smiðshöfði street, located in an industrial district in Reykjavík, and discovered that 20-30 foreign workers were living there. Plywood “sleeping pods” had been constructed for the workers inside industrial housing. There was no fire protection and no escape routes and the risk of fire was high. The ruling defined the agency owner’s offence as serious, stating that his negligence had endangered the lives of many.
The District Attorney expressed satisfaction with the watershed ruling. “It is meaningful. The court came to the conclusion that in this case, the manager of the property who is then the renter is criminally liable for modifying the premises in this way and that there is a lack of fire protection. Here we have a ruling that is likely to set a precedent,” stated Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir, Deputy District Prosecutor.
Fire Department to Map Unregistered Housing
According to a court report presented by experts in the case, it was not a question of if – rather when – a fire would start in the building. Fire Chief Jón Víðar Matthíasson stated it was the Fire Department that decided to file a lawsuit in the case. “We simply had no other choice,” Jón stated. “The situation was such that we had to try the law and find out where we stand.”
Jón celebrated the ruling and stated his hope it would set a precedent in future cases. “We are going to start mapping unregistered housing this autumn and then we’ll get a clearer picture of the situation. And then we’ll have this ruling to support us and can use it.”
Defendant’s Counsel Criticises Lack of Owner Responsibility
The defendant’s counsel Björn Líndal did not comment on whether the ruling would be appealed. He criticised, however, the building owners were brought forth as witnesses by the prosecution. “My client is the only one made responsible as the renter but the owners are let go,” Björn stated. According to the District Prosecutor, the case against the building’s owners was dropped as the renter (the owner of the temp agency) had conducted unauthorised modifications to the premises without the owners’ knowledge or approval.