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Iceland Mag

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Young Hungarian woman came to Iceland to earn a little money, found herself victim of wage theft

By Staff

  • Zsofia Sidlovits A 20 year old Hungarian woman is now staying with friends in Reykjavík, waiting to get back home after spending nearly a year working long hours for little pay at a farm in South Iceland. She hopes her story will serve as a warning to others and encouragement to labour unions to bring a stop to abuses of foreign workers in Iceland. Photo/Pjetur

Zsofia Sidlovits, a twenty year old Hungarian girl, is one of the many foreign workers who come to Iceland every year to earn money while in search of adventure. She worked nearly a whole year at a farm in South Iceland, tending the cows and taking care of housework, but even if she liked life in the country, and will miss the animals, she is also leaving with very mixed emotions.

Read more: Labour shortage looming in the tourism and construction industries in Iceland 

The reason is she was the victim of flagrant wage theft by her employers. Now she wants to warn others about what happened to her and the labour unions to step in and bring an end to the practices she experienced: “It’s unacceptable that farms are being run in Iceland using slave labour. Foreign workers should not be treated as third class citizens.”

Looking for work abroad but found herself the victim of wage theft
In an interview with reporter Kristjana Guðbrandsdóttir at the local newspaper Fréttablaðið Zsofia describes the working conditions at the farm where she worked. She had found the job through a Facebook group “Farm- and Au pair jobs in Iceland”, which helps people find farm and au pair work in Iceland. “Since there are few job opportunities for young people in Hungary many look for work abroad.”

She arrived in June 2015 and immediately set to work. The farm, which is not identified by name in the interview, was quite large. It had a flock of sheep, cows and horses, and a large number of hired hands. Zsofia’s first task was to work in the home, assisting the farmer’s wife who had recently had twins. In addition there were three other children at the farm.

10-12 hour workdays but no contract, little pay
Zsofia took care of cooking and cleaning and helping with the children. She said that the house had filthy, and that as a consequence it took a long time cleaning it that first time. She says she also volunteered to cook, because the housewife had no interest in preparing food.

After working for three months she asked about receiving a written contract, but was repeatedly rebuffed by the farmer and his wife, who claimed they were too busy. “Week after week, they claimed they were too busy, and they constantly added new tasks I had to complete.”

Zsofia was soon also tending to the cows, putting in 10-12 hour workdays. She woke up at seven in the morning to milk the cows, and worked non-stop until late at night, when she could go to sleep after cooking dinner and milking the cows. The only time she had time for herself was when she sat down to eat.

Stiffed 1000 USD every month
The work was hard, she tells Fréttablaðið, but even if she realized things were not as they should have been, she did not realize the treatment she was receiving was a flagrant violation of Icelandic labour laws. She should have been paid at least minimum wages. Fréttablaðið calculates that Zsofia should have received 258,402 ISK (2080 USD/1850 EUR) monthly, minus a maximum of 70,000 ISK (560 USD/500 EUR) for lodging. Based on this calculation she was being underpaid to the tune of at least 130,000 ISK (1050 USD/930 EUR) every month.

Despite having been the victim of flagrant wage theft she tells Fréttablaðið that she wasn’t mistreated in other ways, that she enjoyed staying at the farm and that she misses the animals. She tells Fréttablaðið that rather than sue her former employers or report them to the police she simply wants to tell her story, both to warn others and encourage labour unions to step in and stop this kind of treatment. Icelandic farms should not be run with “slave labour”, as she puts it.

The worst offenders: Tourism, farms, cleaning and construction
A representative with the labour union Báran told Fréttablaðið that companies in the tourism industry, cleaning companies and farms were noticeably more likely to violate the rights of foreign workers than businesses in other industries. Workers lack of formal contracts, fixed working hours and paystubs or formal pay checks then made it extremely difficult to investigate such cases and protect the workers’ rights.

The labour unions help workers determine how much back-pay they are owed, “and we give the employer time to correct what they frequently describe as a “misunderstanding”.” In cases where the employer is unwilling to pay back pay they owe, the unions employ lawyers who specialize in such cases. “On the one hand we are dealing with simple cases where employers simply don’t know the law, but on the other hand we also have cases where employers are wilfully and systematically violating the rights of their employees.”

Read more: Long term unemployment at record lows as shortage of construction workers threatens

The CEO of Ístak, one of the largest construction companies in Iceland is similarly worried that contractors are using underpaid foreign workers as subcontractors. These foreign workers come through foreign employment agencies, don’t appear on the payroll of the actual contractor and are frequently not paid according to Icelandic labour laws. In an interview with the local newspaper Morgunblaðið he argues such practices have allowed companies to capture large projects by bidding well below cost estimates, but they were both unethical and in many cases illegal.

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