Dräxlmaier, a German company which has been a long-time recipient of subsidies and the largest employer in the city of Zrenjanin in Serbia, implements poor working conditions and uses unclear criteria for calculating wages. In addition, this year the company illegally fired new mothers and suspended workers, causing the Labour inspectorate to initiate misdemeanour proceedings against Dräxlmaier, as Mašina’s investigation shows.
At approximately 10 am in the morning of October 9th, payroll reports for the previous month arrived at employees’ e-mails. At noon, around break, noises of discontent filled the halls of the factory. When the workers opened the e-mails, it turned out that the working hours were not calculated well, as on many occasions before, and that their earnings were far less than expected.
The revolted first-shift workers decide to suspend work. Machines stopped for another hour during the second shift, and the strike continued among night shift employees.
This is how, according to the workers’ testimonies, a spontaneous strike began at the German company Dräxlmaier in Zrenjanin three weeks ago. After the strike 32 of the workers got suspended for “breach of work discipline” and “unannounced work stoppage”, and their monthly salary was reduced to around 10 thousand Serbian dinars (85€).
According to the employees’ claims, this spontaneous strike over low wages and poor working conditions was supported by around 80 percent of workers at the factory (which employs a total of 5886 people), and was realized without union support. This begs the question what criteria was used to select the 32 “usual suspects” who were removed from work?
After several workers reported the event, the Labour inspectorate began to wonder the same. It found that the suspension of employees was against the Labour law, so that Dräxlmaier’s management was forced to annul as many as 28 suspension decisions, as the Ministry of Labour confirmed for Mašina.
Other suspension decisions are under scrutiny and a misdemeanour case will be instituted against the German employer.
The Labor Inspector will file a petition for a misdemeanour proceeding against the employer based on the irregularities identified during the inspection carried out on October 17th, 2019, as the Ministry of Labour stated for Mašina.
The fired new mother returned to work after filing a report to the Inspectorate
The German company Dräxlmaier, which has been operating in Zrenjanin since 2007, and receives subsidies from the budget, has been notorious for many years as an employer with poor working conditions, which is why workers often leave the company on their own. Workers often filed lawsuits against Drexlmaier over unpaid shift pay and illegal dismissals.
Just ten days before the strike, Dräxlmaier fired a worker who was on maternity leave. However, the dismissal decision was reversed after the Labour inspectorate became involved.
The Labour inspectorate conducted a surprise inspection of the employer DAD DRÄXLMAIER AUTOMOTIVE DOO ZRENJANIN on October 1st this year, based on a report filed by an employed new mother on September 30th, 2019, via the free information line 0800 300 307. The labour inspector ordered the employer to annul the decision to terminate the employment contract and to register the employee for compulsory social insurance. The employer immediately acted on the order of the labour inspector, the Ministry of Labour stated for Mašina.
Representatives of the multinational company that produces automobile parts did not respond to our reporters’ questions about the working conditions in the factory, or to the questions regarding the criteria for the temporary removal of the workers from their jobs which took place after the recent spontaneous strike.
However, two of the remaining four workers, who are still suspended, agreed to talk for Mašina about their working conditions, reasons behind the strike, as well as the trade unions present in the factory.
Don’t ask for suspensions … or salaries
Robert Koska is a 40 years old single father who has worked in Dräxlmaier for nine years. He is one of four workers who remained under suspension after the intervention of the Labour inspectorate. Asked how he deserved the privilege of entering the shortlist of strikers, Koska answered that they were never told what criteria were followed when the management suspended the workers, but that he thought they had chosen the ones who they thought to be the most rebellious and wanted to get rid of in the long run.
I was additionally revolted by the fact that the management publicly told us not to ask them how they chose who to suspend. Several thousand people protested, and in the end only thirty were blamed, although the work stoppage was not agreed beforehand, but spread spontaneously from shift to shift after we have seen once again seen that our salaries had not been well calculated, especially in the case of old workers, Robert stated for Mašina.
D.D., whose suspension is still in force, agrees with him. He says that, in addition to hard shift work which implies challenging norms and often requires working on Saturday, the biggest problem with the company is that one never knows what their salary will be, which triggered the protests in the first place.
The problem is that you can’t be sure what your salary is. Sometimes you only work one Saturday overtime and you get 45 grand (383 €) and sometimes you work on four Saturdays and you get less. Now, when this protest erupted, the workers from the old production lines rebelled first. They worked on four Saturdays, and they got 38,000 (323€) each. They started it all, and all the other lines supported it because they knew it happens often. Also, executives themselves have publicly pointed out that they clearly have a problem with accurate pay calculations, says D.D., who has been working in the factory for two and a half years.
When asked why he in particular got suspended, although he worked the third shift that day, he pointed out that he was not “one of those who kept their mouths shut” and that he had recently criticized the working conditions in the factory on the Sloga trade union’s Facebook page. Sloga was recently organized in Dräxlmaier.
All assembly lines stopped, it wasn’t a matter of pick and choose. Everyone else from my line who had been suspended have been reinstated in the meantime, only I haven’t. Business executives read the comments on Facebook and claim that we caused great damage to the company and its reputation, so now we are threatened with dismissal, says 37-year-old D.D.
Notedly, he was only suspended on October 15th, six days after the strike, despite being on sick leave from October 12th to the 19th .
My colleagues were suspended on October 10th, the day after the strike, while I was suspended five days later while on sick leave, which practically means that they subsequently chose the people they wanted to get rid of, says our interviewee.
Abnormal norms, regular working Saturdays and shift work
In addition to inadequate salaries for the work being done and their inaccurate calculation, the biggest problem for Dräxlmaier workers is the hard work and long hours of shift work. In order to satisfy clients, working Saturdays have become a norm, and working shifts that change every week have a negative impact on the health of workers in the long run. That’s why at least 50 people leave Dräxlmaier every month.
For the work we do, the salary of about 40 thousand dinars (340 €) is small. The norm is steadily increasing on each assembly line as time goes on. The production target, say from 45-48 cables, is stated in written form in front of every line, but the supervisors regularly increase it and say that we, for example, must produce 60 cables. And we get no bonus for better performance. It is a regular occurrence on all lines, so that people often faint from exhaustion. Even when there is no work for a brief moment, they don’t allow you to sit down, points out Koska, whose job is to wrap the wires with strap and to install brackets that attach to the car body.
The shift work in Dräxlmaier is organized as follows: the first shift starts at 6 am, the second at 2 pm, and the third at 10 pm. The shifts go into reverse – the second, the first, the third – and when working weekends are added to it, the workers are so tired and sleepless that they have become the most common “customers” of the Zrenjanin Ambulance.
The worst is when you work on a Saturday, because when you work third shift on a Saturday you get out on Sunday morning at 6 am, and then on Monday you are already at work at 2 pm. In practice, you have less than a day for rest. It happens that the third shift doesn’t start on Monday night at 10 pm, but on Sunday evening at 10 pm, and then you actually get to work seven days a week. There’s one other option, if you work second shift from 2 pm to 10 pm and have to return to the first shift the next day… So, if a worker comes from a remote village, he gets home around midnight, sleeps a little and already at 4 am must wake up to catch the bus. There are plenty of people who live as far as 40 km from work and they travel up to an hour and a half to the factory, explains D.D.
He adds that such a pace inevitably leads to one of the following two scenarios:
Simply, at this company, after a certain time, you either quit or you are ill on a regular basis, because when you are chronically tired, you get sick with everything that comes along.
It’s no longer a privilege to work at Dräxlmaier
Last May a few entrepreneurs in Zrenjanin complained that the “high wages” in Dräxlmaier are driving the potential workers away from them. They also objected the fact that the state grants privileges to the German company and other foreign employers in form of job subsidies.
Dräxlmaier plants are located in the Free Zone, which offers an exemption from VAT and other rules. The German company also received subsidies from 2007 to 2012 – both from the AP of Vojvodina and from the Republic of Serbia. The Ministry of Economy refrained from disclosing the sum of money that was transferred to this company during its 12 years in Serbia, but according to media reports, Dräxlmaier received EUR 5,000 per worker for the first 806 employees, which is just over four million euros in total through the Direct Investment Incentive Program.
According to the Ministry of Labour’s data, there are currently 5886 employees in Dräxlmaier – 3620 working on long-term agreements, and 2266 employed on temporary agreements.
However, the situation in Zrenjanin has changed a lot since last year, when the entrepreneurs complained, and working in Dräxlmaier is no longer that much of a privilege, as smaller employers have raised wages and many people moved from Zrenjanin.
That may have been true at the time, since the entrepreneurs in Zrenjanin were paying literally 20,000 (170 €) a month and everyone was hoping to get a job at Dräxlmaier. Now, since the private companies have increased salaries, people have started to leave Dräxlmaier. For example, a person working as a merchant gets 35 thousand (298 €) a month and doesn’t work a third shift, doesn’t work on the weekends, and here you work three shifts and a weekend and you end up with 38 thousand (323 €), says D.D.
Immediately after the strike, Michael Wagner, managing director of Dräxlmaier Group Serbia, announced that there will be certain wage increases, but that “the top priority is to secure the future of the Zrenjanin site in the long run.” He said that “the company needs to operate in a very complex and competitive market in the automotive industry and therefore must remain competitive.”
Asked whether Wagner’s statement can be read as a threat that the company might leave Serbia, Robert Koska answered that this will not happen, given that Dräxlmaier has more and more trouble finding workers because of the hard working conditions.
It has been a while since they have been able to attract workers easily. A bus that drives employees circulates 30 km from Zrenjanin. It often happens that certain financial bonuses are offered if you manage to bring a new worker to the factory, he said.
(Lack of) union support
There are three unions active in Dräxlmaier. The Industrial Union, which is representative with over 2,000 members, the Independent Trade Union and, more recently, the Sloga Trade Union.
When asked about the unions and how is possible that so many workers themselves had to rebel, without their support, both suspended workers claimed that not much could be expected from the trade unions, especially the Industrial.
The Industrial Union cannot be trusted. We used to contact them, and they did almost nothing, and now they have literally sided with management. The only one trying anything is the Sloga union, that has only recently entered the factory. It isn’t representative, and management is looking to get that union as far away as possible, says D.D.
However, they believe that the recent spontaneous strike, which they consider to be the most radical in the history of the Dräxlmaier plant in Zrenjanin, has succeeded in moving things from a standstill.
With these suspensions, they tried to intimidate the workers, which they partially succeeded. But I think the situation has changed in that they are now aware of what can happen, and an increase in wages and improvement of working conditions has been announced, Koska ends optimistically.
It remains to be seen whether their suspensions, like the others, will be lifted, but they both announce that they are ready to go to court to fight for their rights.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Nov 5, 2019.