More workers found living in fire traps

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Norwegian authorities have uncovered more examples of foreign workers having to live in seriously substandard housing branded as “fire traps.” Around 60 workers from Poland were found housed in the loft of an unfinished barn on the farm where they were employed in Lier, just months after seven other workers from Poland died in a fire in nearby Drammen.

Two weeks ago, two more workers from Poland were killed when they didn’t manage to flee a fire in an old wooden house in Bergen that they were sharing with nearly 40 others. Labour officials and state regulators are now sounding alarms over the severe exploitation facing foreign workers in Norway.

The incident on the farm in Lier wasn’t initially reported when it was uncovered last summer. The barn where the workers were housed had no fire escapes, no fire extinguishers, a substandard electrical system and deficient smoke alarms. The unfinished loft contained rooms with bunk beds meant for two to four persons, but as many as eight workers were sharing just one room.

Even more disturbingly, newspaper Aftenposten reported Monday that the farmer who both owned the barn and employed the Polish workers was only ordered to arrange better accommodation for the workers. He wasn’t fined nor was he hit with any criminal charges.

Sverre Haugen of the Oslo Fire Department told Aftenposten there’s no doubt that local employers place foreign workers in accommodation that’s inferior and far less safe than that offered to Norwegian workers. In some cases, the foreign workers are partly responsible for crowded conditions, because they allow colleagues or friends from home to move in as well. The owner of the building, however, remains responsible under Norwegian law.

In another case uncovered last summer, six workers from Poland were housed in a tent in the garden of a home in Oslo’s Tåsen district, with no showers and only one portable toilet. The homeowner was also ordered to provide better accommodation.

Authorities say they depend on tips from the public to uncover such worker exploitation. The workers themselves seldom complain about their living conditions, fearing they’ll lose their jobs.

In Drammen, though, Per Døviken of the Fire Department said more employers are calling and asking how they can make worker accommodation safer. “At least it’s a start,” Døviken said.