Dismissed textile workers were exposed to management’s pressure

Foto: Yevgenia Belorusets / Clean Clothes Campaign

The workers from Turkish factory Kaizen who were dismissed last Saturday had signed mutual termination agreements under management’s pressure and threats of legal prosecution.

I was told by HR that I can be legally prosecuted and can get a three to five-years prison sentence unless I sign mutual termination agreement of my labour contract. I was told that I had broken the law. I agreed to sign it because I got scared. Seven of us were dismissed on that day – claims one of the dismissed workers from the factory.

Mario Reljanović, a professor of labour law, notices that this kind of ‘mutual termination agreement’ is unlawful and that damaged workers can reach out to court that is obliged to get them their jobs back.

There is a quite common legal understanding that these kinds of mutual agreements are unlawful because they are not voluntary, i.e. one side is pressured by the other to sign the agreement.

Reljanović also claims that the threats to the workers do not have legal grounds, since the Law on protecting trade secrets clearly states what can and what cannot be considered a trade secret.

The industry in question is not one with technologically sensitive production processes. The disputed photographs do not show any part of the working process in the factory. To the contrary, they present cessation of work, so they cannot be treated as a trade secret. Moreover, the Law explicitly forbids declaring something unlawful a trade secret including the fact that, for example, an employer hadn’t settled their obligations to the workers at the outset of a strike.

Andrea Radojković, Kristina Filipović, Srđan Cicmil and Tamara Stanojević, four of seven dismissed workers decided to give their anonymity up and openly talk to media after having met with the mayor of Smederevo and having received mayor’s promise that the company will put them back to work. This hadn’t taken place by the time this text was published.

Furthermore, the workers pointed to very poor working conditions in the factory, namely too high production targets, sweltering heats in the summer, unbearable colds in the winter, poor sanitation, and even harassments.

Number of commodities that have to be produced in a day is huge and the workers in Kaizen work their tails off to reach it: meeting quantity and quality requirements at the same time. We nevertheless managed to fulfil the standards because we worked overtime, sometimes ten, twelve or even thirteen hours a day. The targets are impossible to meet – we are expected to produce 1300 garments in eight hours, sometimes even more depending on models, and we need to spend ten hours or however many we need in order to meet the target before we can go home – our interviewees explain.

They would sometimes come half an hour before the end of our shift and tell us that we need to work until 5pm. Many times we worked on Saturdays as well and we always seemed to owe them some more hours. They also made those who work the second shift come to the first next day if they thought that production would otherwise lag behind. And many of us who do not leave near the factory were left with no more than five hours to sleep, or even less than that, while the same production targets were waiting for us the next day.

Political and economic elites cannot count on whitewashing this time because the Kaizen case is still a hot topic even in the National Assembly. According to TV station N1, two members of the Assembly confronted minister of labour, Zoran Đorđević, and prime minister, Ana Brnabić, with the question of the labouring conditions in Kaizen factory. Sloga Union’s chair, Željko Veselinović, told Mašina that minister Đorđević has two weeks to officially respond to the issue raised by the members of the Assembly.

In addition, some autonomous social movements supported the workers. Pokret Tvrđava (eng. Fortress Movement) from Smederevo complained to the European Committee for Social Rights in Strasbourg: ‘Since national institutions are reluctant to tackle the issue, we hope that international ones will stand in defense of the workers from Kaizen factory’, they wrote on their Facebook profile.

Strike in Kaizen, Smederevo; Photo: podunavlje.info

Unacceptable labouring conditions – ‘women faint due to lack of fresh air’

Working in the factory is unbearable, according to the workers that we talked to. They assert that the labouring conditions on the production site are horrendous, including extremely high temperatures in the summer and extremely low in the winter, poor sanitation, lack of fresh air and so on.

Don’t even get me started on the labouring conditions, there are 300 of us at the production site with only one toilet with two cubicles. There is no ventilation in the toilet, which is located just the opposite of where the sewers are so they are constantly exposed to that horrible smell. They used to have the site cleaned with vacuum cleaners, but now it is brooms that are used for that purpose. The brooms raise clouds of dust in the already poorly ventilated space and some women faint due to lack of fresh air.

So many times did we complain and ask them to provide us with a suitable room for breaks or just an awning so that we don’t get soaked in the rain. And an advice we got for motivating the workers was, I quote: well, give them some sweets – adds another colleague of theirs who wished to remain anonymous.

The same worker states that there were many cases of harassment of the workers in the factory and managers’ inappropriate behaviour.

One of the dismissed workers adds: ‘A Turkish citizen used to come and yell straight at us in Turkish because he neither spoke Serbian nor English. And since we couldn’t understand what he was saying he would get even more frustrated. Sometimes, if he really wished to tell us something, he would use Google Translate.’

Our interviewees also claim that what happened on Friday was not the first strike in the company and that there were two more. They also reminded us that they contacted labour inspectors in the past, but no one has ever paid a visit to the factory.

Željko Veselinović, chair of Sloga Union, added that the Union is now acquiring documents from the workers to support their claims about having sent the complaints to which the inspectors have not responded in any way.

Labouring conditions in textile industry in Serbia are really poor, as demonstrated by international organisation Clean Clothes Campaign that carried out a research on this topic last year.

Clean Clothes Campaign representatives from Serbia, Stefan Aleksić and Bojana Tamindžija consider that Kaizen factory management dismissed the workers on strike to demonstrate what would happen to anyone who dared pressure them to obey the law. They also think that brands that use this factory’s services have their own share of responsibility in this matter, Zara and Stradivarius among others.

Kaizen workers called a work stoppage last Friday due to unpaid wages for overtime work in the past three months. The company paid their debts to the workers after the strike, but seven of them were dismissed.

Translation from Serbian: Ivana Anđelković

This article was originally published in Serbian on May 16, 2018.

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