Saga Kjartansdóttir (center) with workinspection colleagues Alise Lavrova and Þórarinn S. Thorlacius. Photos/Lárus Karl
Every year, the unions within the Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) make claims for unpaid wages amounting to hundreds of millions of ISK. These cases often revolve around organised wage theft by employers and other serious rights violations. Saga Kjartansdóttir, ASÍ's workplace inspection project manager, stresses the importance of safeguarding the interests of workers and the fight against criminal activity.
WAGE theft and other criminal activities in the labor market are not on the decline, far from it, and the need for strong supervision and penalties for violations has probably never been greater. Growth in manpower-intensive sectors such as tourism and construction, as well as the changing composition of the workforce, have both created challenges for the unions within ASÍ, which are working hard to improve and protect the conditions of workers. Workplace inspection is an important part of that endeavor, so one could say that the inspectors carry out front-line jobs.
The Workplace Certification and Labor Market Inspection Act 2010 authorises union inspectors to make unannounced visits to workplaces. The labour movement's focus has been on using the inspection regime to promote a healthier labor market where workers live in security and are properly paid for their work.
A fourth of the labour market
Last year, union inspectors spoke to more than 2,500 people in almost 700 visits across the country. The rapid societal changes that have followed the increase in the number of foreign nationals, who soon will amount to 25% of the labour force, are clearly reflected in the work of the inspectors. Almost half of the staff that inspectors meet during their visits are foreign nationals. Language skills are therefore obviously very important. The inspectors speak various languages, and in recent years there has been an emphasis on increasing language skills in the inspectorate. The inspectors try to speak to foreign workers in a language they understand, sometimes with the help of interpreters and even Google Translate.
Inspectors visit workplaces in tourism, construction and the restaurant industry. They talk to the staff, inform them that they represent the unions and have come to talk about the union's services, wages and benefits and answer questions that the workers may have. They inform employers and employees about their rights and obligations and, if needed, make comments as well as notifying the appropriate government agency if necessary.
The workplace inspectors thus protect the interests of the workers and focus on earning their trust in the workplaces visited. "We are here for you, on behalf of your union." They take the time to answer questions that staff may have regarding wages and other conditions, but they also answer to the best of their ability questions about rights in the rental market, about Icelandic lessons and much more.
Yes, inspection is needed.
But why do the trade unions carry out this regular monitoring of the labour market? A closer look reveals that much is at stake.
Violations in the labour market are always harmful to the individuals who experience them, but they also harm society. Wage theft is a social problem, and cheating in one industry depresses the wage level in that industry. No chain is stronger than the weakest link, and if we don't take care of the weakest link, the chain risks breaking. Social dumping also distorts competition because companies that pay the right wages are forced to compete with those that don’t.
According to Labour Confederation reports, the unions make wage demands for hundreds of millions of ISK every year. It should be noted that only the theft becomes a wage claim. There is every reason to believe that the real amount is in the billions, as there are various reasons why people do not claim their rights. According to reports, wage theft is mainly directed against those who do not know their rights and are less equipped to claim them. Wage theft affects young people and immigrants the most. Therefore, it can be said that wages are most often stolen from those who least can afford suffering such a loss: low-income people with small funds and/or little to no social network in Iceland.
The employer-employee mismatch
The workplace visits come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it turns out that employees have not been paid their December bonus or are incorrectly paid overtime. Inspectors sometimes comment on electronic monitoring, as it is forbidden to point cameras at employees for the sole purpose of monitoring their work performance. In other cases, scaffolding is incorrectly set up and working conditions are downright life-threatening.
Then there are the cases where employees show signs of fear towards their superiors, have never seen a payslip and don't know what their salary is.
When workers decide whether to claim their rights, they must always take into account the risk of losing their job and income. The risk becomes even greater when the employee lives in housing provided by the employer, which is becoming increasingly common, and when the individual in question relies on the employer providing residence and a work permit.
Brutality in the labour market
Inspection officers are often met with courtesy by employers. They do, however, often experience hostility. Staff sometimes do not dare to speak to an inspector for fear of an on-site supervisor. Such an atmosphere usually indicates that something is seriously wrong with the staff's situation. Inspectors have been forced to call the police for help in gaining access to workplaces.
Organised crime is part of the Icelandic labour market and sometimes inspectors experience the brutality associated with it. Inspectors who have come into contact with criminal elements are known to have subsequently received phone calls, even late at night, either from lawyers or from the employers themselves, where the purpose is obviously to intimidate union representatives into obedience. It should be noted that inspection officers have not undergone training in self-defense, and must rely on their intuition, sense of justice and, of course, knowledge of wage issues.
Fighting human trafficking
In recent years, in line with developments in the Western world, the Icelandic government has showed interest in increasing emphasis on the fight against human trafficking. The police have implemented a special procedure in cases where human trafficking is suspected. The provisions of the General Penal Code on human trafficking have been changed in accordance with legal developments in the Nordic countries, and assistance to victims has been greatly increased.
Human trafficking and serious exploitation of workers is a fact of life in the Icelandic labor market. ASÍ and trade unions regularly send reports to the police's human trafficking team. It has proved difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice; recently the first human trafficking verdict from 2010 was overturned in the National Court and the defendant acquitted of the charge of human trafficking.
Through their visits to workplaces, inspectors are particularly well placed to spot evidence of human trafficking. Experience shows that the most serious violations in the labour market are often discovered during workplace inspections, as victims of human trafficking and other serious abuse are often not able to seek help.
Certain groups are more vulnerable than others when it comes to human trafficking. Refugees, applicants for international protection and people who speak neither English nor Icelandic are among them.
In the most serious cases uncovered by workplace inspections, it is necessary to have strong and efficient cooperation with government institutions, e.g., the police, tax authorities and the Directorate of Labour. The workplace Inspection project works closely with various parties within these institutions, but there is much room for improvement! Sufficient resources must be ensured for these institutions, and they need to be able to share information with the trade union movement.
What is needed?
The workplace inspection regime has long since proven its worth in the fight against wage theft and human trafficking.
The inspection is based on the Act on Workplace Certificates and Labor Market Control from 2010 which back in the day was intended to cover those sectors where the risk of violations was considered the greatest; construction, tourism and the restaurant industry.
The labour market is constantly developing and a revision of the agreement between ASÍ and the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) on workplace inspections is urgently needed. The agreement does not cover certain professions, most importantly fish processing, aquaculture and retail stores
The question must arise as to why the inspection regime shouldn’t cover the entire labour market. A proper society cannot tolerate organised rights violations against workers and must always strive to protect those who are disadvantaged because of their origin, lack of social network or for other reasons.