If an employee takes 5,000 kr. from the company cash register, their employer can go to the police and press charges for theft. Even if the employee returns this money the next day so that the company doesn’t suffer any lasting damage, the crime has already been committed in the eyes of the law. But if an employer doesn’t pay their employee all the wages they’ve earned—whether kr50,000 or kr500,000 is missing, or even their entire salary—the police will simply tell the employee to speak to their union.
This is Iceland‘s legal framework and it maintains an unequal status quo: One group has the authorities on their side and the other depends upon their union and their lawyers. Even if the employee goes to their union with a legitimate claim, the employer isn’t required to pay a fine for stealing their wages; they only pay exactly the amount that was missing, even though this sum may have put the employee in financial trouble, making them late on loan or rental payments.
If you’re an immigrant working in Iceland, you are very likely to already know this, perhaps even from bitter personal experience. Because there are no penalties, no fines or consequences, for employers who behave this way. They are, in fact, incentivised for doing so as it lowers their cost and gives them a competitive advantage. This is what I want to change, and why I’m running for the board of VR.
Yearly wage theft by employers has reached billions of krónur
Although I was born and raised in Iceland, my multiracial heritage means I am often mistaken for a foreigner. While it only offers me a glimpse into the full immigrant experience, it has made me aware of the discrimination that new Icelanders face, and so as an adult I’ve used my voice and platform to empower foreign voices and fight for their rights wherever I can. As a journalist who wrote for The Reykjavík Grapevine and Stundin, I fought to uncover and publicize foreign worker exploitation. Over a decade ago, I began to write about immigrants’ vulnerability to mistreatment—but the union leadership at the time held onto the belief that nationality was incidental. To them, it played no part in worker exploitation.
“I’m also very sad that an Icelander [gets] an article if this happens, but [there is] nothing about places where the boss is cheating and make[s] foreigners work without any [payslips] or fair salary.” This could have very easily been written today, but this statement was made in 2014 by a foreigner who observed the press attention that Iceland-born individuals receive when exploited; the Icelander in the article had been fired for asking to be paid minimum wage.
Over years that followed this article, I wrote extensively about this breadth and depth of this corruption, and eventually the unions began to coming to terms with the reality that nationality played a central role in wage discrimination. A 2019 report from The Icelandic Confederation of Labour (ASÍ) highlighted that four labour unions had put forward 768 claims for wages owed totalling 450 million krónur. While only 19 percent of the working force was at the time of foreign origin, more than half of those claims were made for workers of foreign origin and their claims were, on average, 80.000 kr. higher than those of native Icelanders.
These claims, the report suggested, were only the tip of the iceberg: The real wage theft could annually be billions of krónur. In VR’s newest yearly report, is equally revealing: Even though only 11% of the union are of foreign origin, 40% of all claims were made on their behalf. This ratio has only increased in recent years, a worrying trend that I will confront.
Advocating for union members amid unjust layoffs
To further my work in immigrant advocacy, I joined Efling as a labour rights consultant in 2021. There, I worked tirelessly to council union members their rights and to assist them with work-related issues; I made wage claims on their behalf. In total, I facilitated the payment of millions of krónur in unpaid wages over a nine-month period—and sent lawyers claims worth even more millions to file for in court. When the entire office was summarily dismissed in a politically motivated purge, I remained the union representative for VR members at Efling and advocated on their behalf to prevent Efling from cheating them out of owed wages, holiday payments, and sick pay entitlements.
That’s the fighting spirit I bring to the board of VR, which is why I’m running. If elected, I will work in implementing a blacklist of employers who do not fulfil their legal or ethical obligations towards their staff.
A blacklist to ensure equal pay for all, regardless of origin
Most employers, in my experience at Efling, responded favourably when I reached out to them; fixed problems when faced with them, and paid outstanding wages, which were often left unpaid by oversight. In general, a formal wage claim was unnecessary. But for those who believed there were no real consequences for paying as little as they could, for stealing from foreign workers, the legal framework worked to their benefit.
These exploitative employers are the reason I call for a blacklist. Now, taking such a drastic measure would require close co-operation with VR’s staff and lawyers to ensure that only the deserving find their spot on the list. It would be a living document under constant revision, but those who do not respond to requests made by the union for payslips, time sheets or contracts, or who refuse to pay wage claims would all end up on the blacklist.
Many within and outside the labour movement have tried to penalise wage theft using fines. While I will join them in this fair demand, I cannot promise to succeed where others have failed. A blacklist is a much-needed first step while legislative action is still a “what-if”.
For the victims of wage theft, getting public recognition of the injustice is vital. For the general public, knowing which companies mistreat staff allows them to take a stand, to decide who they truly want to do business with.
Have your say
The election for the chair and board of VR is ongoing and finishes on Wednesday, March 15 at noon. This morning, only 18.7 percent of union members had voted. I encourage you to look into the candidates and their policies, and to vote for your board members. As long as you are a member of a union, you are entitled to vote for your union leaders.
If elected to the board, I will make myself available to union members and voice their concerns. I will fight on your behalf. I have also engaged with a number of capable translators who are committed to expanding and improving VR’s English and Polish websites to ensure equal access for all, regardless of language.
The author is a mixed-race Icelandic-Brit (or British Icelander, if you prefer). He formerly covered immigrant rights for Stundin and the Reykjavik Grapevine, before joining Efling to practice what he preached. He lives in Hlíðar with his partner and two precocious cats. He is running for the board of VR.