A disastrous rental market is the problemCollection of information on fire protection and the conditions of people living in industrial housing revealed a diverse group and varying social circumstances.
In the summer of 2020, three people tragically lost their lives in a fire at Bræðraborgarstígur in the western part of Reykjavík. The victims, Polish citizens, were all in their twenties. An investigation revealed that the house had been set on fire and a Polish man in his seventies was convicted of the act but acquitted of the prosecution's criminal claim as there was no doubt that due to mental issues the man was completely incapable of controlling his actions. In the judgment, the accused was ordered to be placed under security guard at an appropriate institution.
An investigation revealed that fire protection was very deficient in the house. It was also reported that 73 individuals had a registered domicile in the house, although it was certain that many no longer lived there. Changes had also been made to the building contrary to the approved drawings resulting in a number of small rooms being furnished. When the house was set on fire, more than 20 people lived there, all but one of foreign origin.
The fire drew attention to the living conditions of migrant workers in Iceland. The Minister of Social Affairs and Children commissioned the Housing and Construction Authority (Húsnæðis- og mannvirkjastofnun, HMS) to work on proposals for improvements in fire protection in residential buildings. To this end, HMS established a consultation forum which submitted thirteen remedial proposals. One proposal was to map the number of individuals living in industrial housing, as well as to gather information on the state of fire protection and social conditions. It was decided to start this work in the metropolitan Reykjavik area and develop a methodology that could be used all over the country.
The Reykjavik fire brigade was tasked with leading the project in close collaboration with HMS, the Icelandic Confederation of Labor (ASÍ) and the capital region municipalities. In April 2019, a working group had been formed, under the direction of HMS, to assess the extent of unregistered flats based on available information. Following the Bræðraborgarstígur fire, the group was also instructed to review the rules on registration of legal domicile and residence with regard to what was then called "unauthorized residence" and mass registrations in apartments in order to assess what lessons could be learned from this tragic event. Anna Gunnhildur Ólafsdóttir, then head of Efling's social and development department, represented the Confederation of Icelandic Labor in this consultation forum on fire protection in residential buildings.
Mapping of people living in industrial housing began in October 2021. Aleksandra Leonardsdóttir and Saga Kjartansdóttir planned and implemented the project on behalf of ASÍ. They both work in the ASÍ office, Aleksandra as a specialist in matters related to Polish-speaking workers and Saga as an interpreter and workplace inspection supervisor.
Emphasis on trust and security
This huge project required a lot of preparation, according to Aleksandra and Saga. "First we had to assess what knowledge and background was needed with regard to the representatives tasked with visiting people living in commercial real estate," Alexandra says. They came to the conclusion that diverse language skills were needed, as the ability to communicate in the language of the interviewees, was certainly one of the basic preconditions for succeeding in creating the trust so vital to this project. They also concluded that diverse representative background was desirable, given that the groups of people they would meet would certainly not be homogenous. Interpersonal skills were also obviously an important feature. "I think we succeeded in defining how this project should be approached," says Saga. In this process, Aleksandra's experience of working in the Reykjavík City Welfare Department came in handy.
Saga and Aleksandra were involved in the hiring of eight inspectors by the Reykjavik fire brigade. "It was decided to hire unemployed people for temporary jobs through the Start Work campaign then being carried out by the Directorate of Labour (VMST). It was a very diverse group with regard to education and experience. The group spoke Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic as well as English, which everyone was required to master. One of the Romanians also spoke good Icelandic," Saga says, adding that help from two ASÍ workplace inspectors also proved invaluable due to their experience visiting companies and insight gained into the life and lot of working people.
The eight inspectors received extensive training lasting a week. ASÍ was largely responsible for their training. Emphasis was placed on immigration issues, fire prevention and housing requirements, social aspects such as child protection, tenancy agreements, labor law and safety issues. ASÍ president Drífa Snædal gave a talk on human trafficking.
Participants also received training with regard to approach and conversation again making use of lessons learned in ASÍ's workplace inspections. The inspectors were informed about means and options available to immigrants and foreign workers. According to Aleksandra this part of the training proved particularly important. "The people interviewed often lacked all kinds of information so it was gratifying to be able to point out resources and options available to them.”
According to Saga, they quickly realized that use of the term "unlicensed residence" had to be dropped as it was hardly correct and carried stigma. Thus, it was decided that the project should focus on gathering information about people living in industrial housing. "In this context, it is important to point out that the emphasis was all on creating trust and making clear that the intention was not to intervene in the lives of the residents in any way."
Saga and Aleksandra believe that this approach combined with a successful advertising campaign and an internet website (homesafety.is) in six languages, explains how well the inspectors were generally received during the visits. "In general residents did not feel any fear, many were grateful to be able to discuss their issues in their mother tongue and welcomed the inspectors. Many residents sought information and explanations with regard to hiring - and lease contracts they had made," Aleksandra says.
The project covered all industrial housing in the capital area and each space belonging to that category was visited. Use was made of information from the Reykjavik fire brigade and the National Register, as well as driving and / or walking around the district in question. It turned out that most of the residents had jobs, so it was decided to establish day and evening shifts to reach as many people as possible.
Saga says that the inspectors managed to talk to about 1,000 people. That’s about half of those who live in industrial housing in the capital area. "In some aspects the situation proved better than many had feared and the number of residents a bit lower,” Aleksandra says. It should be noted, though, that the survey was carried out during the COVID epidemic. It is likely that many foreign workers had left Iceland because of the devastating impact the epidemic had on the economy. Aleksandra believes that a growing number of people will reside in industrial housing as the economy picks up.
A surprising number of Icelanders
Poles proved to be the largest national group, about a third of the total number, followed by Icelanders, Lithuanians and Romanians. It came as a surprise how many Icelandic citizens turned out to live in industrial buildings. According to Aleksandra and Saga it’s quite common for Icelanders to live next to or above workshops and other businesses they run. "The housing proved quite diverse and often these dwellings were comparable to luxurious apartments on the inside," Alexandra says. However, many Icelanders also choose industrial housing to save money. Housing used by foreign workers was generally somewhat poorer.
Aleksandra says the survey revealed just how inappropriate it is to generalize or talk in broad strokes about people living in industrial housing. "This study revealed a great deal of diversity, both in terms of housing and the situation of the residents. Many people come to Iceland for temporary work. They accept poorer housing, as the purpose is to generate as much income as possible in a short period of time. Men are in the vast majority and their working day is usually long. Thus, it is common for men, two or more, to share a room with kitchen and bathroom facilities and each pay 65 to 80 thousand ISK per month. They choose the cheapest available option and we know that for this amount of money you are not able to rent an apartment in Reykjavik. Accommodation in a container will set a worker back some 80 to 90 thousand ISK a month. With regard to housing conditions they vary enormously. Some of it is fine but the inspectors also found examples of terrible housing and poor social conditions. In general, Icelanders enjoy better housing, which can be considered normal seeing as in many cases they own the property and live there for a longer period of time."
The study revealed that it is quite rare that children are brought up in industrial housing . "The inspectors confirmed the residence of 19 children and no comment was made with regard to their living conditions," Saga says. Fire protection was generally good, however some residents complained about proprietors lacking interest in proper maintenance. According to Saga, it’s quite common for foreign workers to live in housing owned by their employer. This can create a risk of abuse. Thus, the owner can demand unreasonably high rent and the employee is too dependent on maintaining a good relationship with his or her boss both in terms of living wages and housing. "We’re concerned about such employment relationships. We know of too many such cases resulting in foreign workers suffering abuse.” Due to a disastrous rental market, housing owned by the employer is often the only available option for foreign workers coming to Iceland. More options are sorely needed.
Some apartments not fit for residential living
Aleksandra and Saga say that the project has revealed a terrible state of affairs in the capital area rental market. "There is a housing crisis causing prices to rise sharply. Rental prices are very high and generally far beyond what these workers can afford. Living in industrial housing is therefore first and foremost a manifestation of the terrible situation with regard to housing in the capital area, " Aleksandra says, adding that there are already signs of “container settlements” beginning to form. On the other hand, it’s worth keeping in mind that living in a residential container can be a better option than renting expensive, poor housing on the open market. "Some of the apartments that are rented out on the open market can hardly be classified as housing for human beings, so settling on industrial housing is sometimes a better option," she says, adding that this is yet another proof of the prevailing state of affairs.
In addition, Saga and Aleksandra point out certain difficulties in the legal framework. For example, the fire brigade can carry out an assessment of fire protection in industrial premises, but this does not apply to residential housing. Registration of a legal domicile is another problem that needs to be addressed, given that such registration is not permitted in industrial premise resulting in lack of information on the actual residence of many people.
Having completed the project in the capital area, the work moved to Suðurnes, Selfoss and Akureyri. A report on the capital project was published in April.
According to Saga and Aleksandra the project has been informative and important experience has been gained which will prove useful in the future. They refer to comments made by ASÍ president Drífa Snædal, who said in an interview that the confederation had invested a lot in this project "as we consider people having to live in industrial housing a disgrace.”