First guilty verdict in worker housing case

10.06.2021 - 10:32
Mynd með færslu
 Mynd: RÚV
The owner of an employment agency was yesterday handed down a five-year suspended prison sentence for endangering the lives of his employees, who were not Icelandic citizens, by housing them in dangerous conditions in an industrial building. It is the first court ruling of its kind, and sends a clear message, according to the capital fire chief.

The case arose early in 2018 when police investigated a theft at Smiðshöfði in Reykjavík and found between 20 and 30 foreign workmen living in the industrial building. MDF had been used to build them so-called ‘sleeping boxes’. There was no fire safety equipment, or fire escapes. The court verdict says the company owner’s crime was serious and that he endangered the lives of many through his neglect. 

The prosecutor in the case is satisfied with the outcome, as it is the first conviction for a crime of this sort in Iceland. “It of course has meaning. The court came to the conclusion that in this case, the custodian of the property, who made himself a landlord, is criminally liable for having changed the building in this manner and for the deficient fire precautions. And of course, it is hopefully a ruling that will set precedent,” deputy district prosecutor Kolbrún Benediktsdóttir says. 

Fire was not a question of if but when 

Pictures taken at the scene by the fire brigade show how much flammable material was in the building and it was the assessment of the experts who testified in court that it was only a question of time as to when something ignited it. It was the fire brigade’s decision, therefore, to bring charges. “There really was no other option. The situation was such that we needed to put it to the law to find out exactly where we stood,” says capital region fire chief Jón Viðar Matthíasson. 

Jón Viðar describes the ruling as cause for celebration. It sends a very clear message that could serve as a deterrent. “If it doesn’t, that would be very bad. It is a very clear message that it is the owner’s responsibility to make sure fire preventions are in order.” 

The court ruling is significant because it relates to fire prevention in general, and not only in industrial buildings. It relates to everyone who rents property to third parties. “We are this autumn going to compile data on unlicenced residences which will give us a clearer picture of the situation. And then we have this ruling in our arsenal and can wield it.” 

Defence lawyers says owners let off 

Björn Líndal, the lawyer defending the owner of the employment agency, says it is not yet clear whether the verdict will be appealed. The defendant lives overseas and was not present to hear the verdict at Reykjavík District Court. Björn says it was a surprise that the three owners of the building were called as witnesses for the prosecution. “My client is being made responsible as leaseholder while the owners are let off. As a result, the case is not formed correctly, in my opinion.” 

A case against the owners of the building was dropped and Kolbrún says this was because investigators noted that the agency owner, who rented the property, made changes to it without a permit that only he was responsible for. “It was done without the will or knowledge of the owners. Though of course, not all cases are equal. This case was orientated and charged in this manner but the circumstances could be different in other cases.” 

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Alexander Elliott
Project manager