Migrant exploitation protested in Iceland following death of 3 Poles in fire

On Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Iceland’s capital city, to protest underpayment, lack of overtime and breaks, deplorable housing conditions and physical abuse of migrant workers. The protest followed the death of three Poles in Thursday’s fire in one of Reykjavik’s tenement buildings.

To demonstrate their opposition to the poor conditions in which migrant workers come to work in Iceland, some 300-strong group of disgruntled workers, including Poles, unionists, locals, parliamentarians marched through the streets of Reykjavik on Sunday. The Icelandic capital’s mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson also joined the protest.

Icelandic MP and head of the Pirate Party Smári McCarthy called “mismanagement and greed” the causes of the Bræðaborgarstígur fire.

The protesters set out from the seat of the Icelandic parliament, ending their march at the disaster site, where they laid flowers in commemoration of the three victims.

‘Death by negligence’

One of the organisers of the demonstration, Polish-born migrant rights activist Joanna Ginter, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) that the building's poor condition had been known to Reykjavik authorities and trade unions for years but nothing had been done about it. She added that the fire could hardly be viewed as an accident, and its victims had in fact suffered "death by negligence".

According to the one of the largest and most-read Icelandic news monitors Mbl.is website, the Icelandic Efling trade union has been raising concerns about the poor technical condition of the building since last year.

For its part, the Icelandic Pirate Party wrote in its statement that “the appalling conditions in Bræðraborgarstígur are disgraceful proof of a failure to protect those that need our support the most. These are people in a new society, who are often away from family and still to make friends in a new country. Without support and outreach, this group is at a greater risk to abusive practices, negligence and exclusion. We must do more to secure everyone enjoys the rights we as a society have agreed to uphold. We must not tolerate exclusion or systematic mistreatment of those who choose to live in Iceland.”

The death of the three men was confirmed on Saturday by the Polish ambassador to Iceland. Two other Polish nationals suffered injuries in the blaze, both have been hospitalised.

The fire broke out on Thursday afternoon. According to Icelandic media the house was inhabited by 73 people, all employed by a temporary employment agency. The Icelandic daily Frettabladid reported that most of the inhabitants were foreigners, including 28 Poles, 28 Latvians, 12 Lithuanians, three Romanians, one Spaniard and an Icelandic national. Ten people were in the building when the fire broke out. Icelandic police have launched an investigation into the cause of the blaze.

The Polish Embassy has offered assistance to the injured and to the families of the three victims.

Poles – the largest national minority in Iceland

“Foreign citizens are about 23 percent of the labour force in Iceland. Their participation in the labor market has played a huge role in Iceland’s economic growth,” mbl.is reported.

Citing Statistics Iceland, GrapeVine.is news website reported in May 2019 that “of the 192,232 people in Iceland currently in the labour market in the first quarter of 2019, 36,844 from the ages of 16 to 74 were immigrants… comprising 19.2 percent of all working people.”

According to Polish researcher Anna Maria Wojtyńska PhD at the University of Iceland cited by Iceland News, as many as 20,146 Poles were temporarily residing or permanently settled in Iceland by August 2019. Moreover, by the time Poles were the largest national minority in Iceland.

Whether Iceland continues to be an attractive destination for seasonal and permanent migrant workers seems to be contingent on how the local employers improve employment and accommodation conditions. It is also up to how Icelanders are to manage uncomfortable events such as the Bræðaborgarstígur fire and, first and foremost, learn to prevent such disasters from ever taking place.