When questioned about the things going on in the production halls of the Serbian factories owned by foreign companies, Serbian politicians arrogantly reply by singing praises to the economic “triumphs” arising out of fat state subsidies. However, the experiences of workers employed at factories such as Geox in Vranje reveal to us the real price of that economic success. Irregular contracts, mobbing, psychiatric treatment, constant interventions of emergency medical aid crews were but a part of the harsh reality testified to by the workers of Geox.
The Italian company Geox has its branches in 114 countries, its products are sold in around 10,000 retail outlets, and the company owns around 1,200 shops that only sell Geox shoes. The company realises 70 per cent of its turnover outside Italy, and in 2014 its earnings amounted to 824.2 million euros. The company employs 30,000 workers, staff and outside collaborators. Geox has manufacturing plants in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil, Macedonia and – Serbia.
This is the way the media usually present the biographies of big companies when announcing their economy-saving investments – “in a neutral manner in terms of value judgement”, and numerically.
Geox has been “working” in Serbia since 2013, but the official opening ceremony was held only on 31st January this year. For this corporate celebrity to select our country for its investment destination, the Government of Serbia had to reach deep into its budget bag – 11.25 million euros, that is to say, 9,000 euros for each new post created. The Government also gave Vranje 100 million dinars for land development in the Free Zone, which was a prerequisite for the construction work on the factory building to start. However, faced with the imposing forest of corporate numerology, we often fail to observe the “human resources” toiling away, hidden in the bowels of factory production halls, creating surplus value for the owners of their work and time ‒ a surplus without which this impressive business empire would not exist.
At Geox, they have no names ‒ they are mere numbers. Appendages to the machine. Tools that are forbidden to speak. Several former and current employees of Geox, after a lot of deliberation, fearful of losing their jobs and afraid for the safety of their families in “a small town where everyone knows everything”, agreed to share their experiences with the reporters of Machine.
Blackmail potential and retroactive employment contracts
For the sum of 150 euros you have become the owner of that person… walking in through the factory gate, he/she is no longer a person, just a number, they don’t call you by your name.
Gabrijela Krstić, former Geox employee
Until a few months ago, when the situation improved, except for the first several hundred workers, experienced at shoemaking, who were “brought” to Geox during the first round of employment and employed on a full-time basis, all the other employees were hired on the basis of part-time contracts lasting from one month to five months. However, Geox employees that we have talked to, claim that they often worked for months without a contract, that they were offered to sign a contract only several months later – retroactively.
I first signed a contract for a month, then another one for two months, and then yet another one for five months… however, they only gave me the latter in May and said, sign this one for five months, but that five-month period was to expire in a month, says Marija622.1
Stefan748 has worked at Geox for eleven months, of which only eight were covered by a contract. The last five-month contract that he was offered to sign was set to expire in three days.
When I started working, I signed a one-month contract, which was followed by a two-month contract, everything was regular. However, my next contract was running late ‒ practically, as of the beginning of 2016, I worked without a contract. For a while, I kept silent and waited, then I asked the management what was happening, and was told that the contract was being prepared and that they were making every effort that I should get it as soon as possible. On the last working day before the summer vacation, in August, one of the firm’s lawyers called me and told me that they had “found” my contract. Then they gave me a five-month contract to sign, which I was supposed to sign retroactively. That contract covered the period from 15th March until 15th August, and it was 12th August then.
I thought about what I should do, and my line of reasoning was, if I signed, there was a chance of getting that contract extended, if not, I would probably get my marching orders right away, says Stefan.
This kind of attitude predominates in Vranje, in view of the very high unemployment rate and even lower salaries paid by other firms in the Pčinja District, which are not privileged to be subsidised by the state.
The case of Gabrijela Krstić, which has received media publicity on account of the fact that this Geox employee was fired for publicly opposing the company management in the course of a protest, which several hundred employees participated in – is particularly illustrative from a legal point of view.
Namely, the protest took place on 5th September, and Gabrijela was fired the next day. Yet, the decision to fire her was dated 31st August, when Gabrijela’s contract officially ran out. The question that is quite justified here is how a person who was not legally employed could go on strike and then be fired on account of that strike.
I then said to them that they were violating their contractual obligations, for the employer is legally obligated to inform the employees seven days in advance, as a minimum, of any changes in the working hours schedule, which had never happened in the ten months while I worked there, to which one of the female bosses replied: “Go elsewhere to have your complexes treated.” That was it for me, I was fired the next day, Gabrijela explained for Machine.
Workers are expendable goods – when one “breaks down”, another one replaces him/her
In view of the fact that the labour pool in Vranje is overflowing with people who can hardly wait to get any kind of job, the workers’ rights and their health condition are not very high on the list of priority items of the Geox management. Just how alarming the situation in the company is, is testified to by the Head of the Medical Emergency Service in Vranje Slađan Stanisavljević, to whom we have talked.
How frequent are the calls that the Medical Emergency Service gets from Geox?
They have been rather frequent ever since that factory was opened. Sometimes even several times a day. For a while, the number of calls was somewhat reduced, and then increased again. I have been to Niš on business today, so I don’t have the data for today, but there were several calls from Geox yesterday.
What is the most frequent reason medical assistance is sought?
Most often it is due to nausea and collapse. Even though each patient is basically a different story.
Apart from Geox, there are other companies operating in Vranje, Alfa Plam, not to mention Simko and Jumko, although these other firms are operating at reduced capacity. Do you get equally frequent calls from these other factories?
That’s a good question. No, just from Geox, which is symptomatic, we don’t get as many calls from the other factories.
Acting in accordance with the Law on Availability of Information of Public Interest, the Machine reporters requested the official protocols detailing the interventions of the Emergency Medical Service acting on calls received from Geox, but we received no reply.
Even though Geox holds a record in terms of the number of Emergency Medical Service
interventions, Geox employees claim that this is nowhere near the entire picture, in view of the fact that in a great many cases the factory management does not allow calling the Emergency Medical Service without their prior approval.
The manageress has forbidden calling the Emergency Medical Service if someone does not feel well, if a person loses consciousness, or for any other reason. She has to be called first to look at the worker in question, to see what condition he/she is in, to assess whether he/she is still capable of working, says Gabrijela.
Geox employees also claim that they were rarely given protective work equipment unless they expressly requested it and were persistent at it, as a result of which a number of them sustained injuries at work. Working in the sawing department, Marija got burns on her palms because she was not wearing protective gloves.
They wouldn’t give us protective equipment, I asked for it, seeing that I would get burns, it’s 200 degrees. It lasted for two days, on the third day I felt a burning sensation in my palms, 2 or 3 times I told the forewoman that I had a swelling on my palm, but no one reacted. Only on the third day, when burns appeared, accompanied with lymph, they got afraid and thought I might apply to the manageress, Marija explains.
Another problem faced by Geox workers is exercising their right to health care insurance. It was only after months of persistent requests that Gabrijela, Marija and Jelena633 managed to get their health care coupons, required for validating their health care booklets.
I was asked by a member of the management staff: well, are you ill, I said I wasn’t, do I have to be ill in order to get my health care booklet… He says: I see you’re OK, what do you need a health care booklet for, Gabrijela explains.
Through mobbing to a psychiatric diagnosis
Even though Geox employees complain of mobbing and violations of their work rights often enough, the cases of Marija and Jelena are particularly drastic, bearing in mind that they ended up undergoing psychiatric treatment after suffering the abusive and offensive behaviour of their superiors for months.
Marija, who, after suffering burns on her hands, was transferred to the so-called preparation sector, particularly singles out the conduct of her former boss, the Italian Tiziana Cecconi, which the media have already reported on.
Tiziana made sheer hell… she cut shoes here, threw shoes at us when they were not done well, kicked us, climbed onto the table in the middle of the mess hall when we were having breakfast to lecture us, Marija recalls.
The Italian woman left Geox on account of mobbing. Workers testify that she called them “Serbian Gypsies” who were “free to go to Bunuševac” (a cemetery in Vranje) the moment Geox left Serbia.
However, even after Tiziana had left, the situation did not get any better for Marija. She was regularly given several tasks to perform simultaneously and received threats and suffered abuse from the human resources manageress. In her words, “Whoever complained became a target”, and domestic superiors could be even worse than foreigners.
Only then did maltreatment start, I had to go down on my knees… someone spilled some glue, my boss comes up to me and says: your colleague is going out to do something, and you’ll have to wipe this… the floor must shine. But when I was finished and came back to my post, she tells me: Why, there’s no way you can fulfil your norm; and the hour that I spent on my knees scrubbing the floor doesn’t count, says Marija.
The period of working for Geox brought Marija to the verge of a nervous breakdown; acting on the advice of her physician, she turned to a psychologist for help, and also lodged a complaint to an organisation that deals with monitoring and preventing mobbing.
I suffered psychic torture and abuse, my blood pressure was 190/100. Now I regularly see a psychologist in order to go back to being normal, that was truly unbearable, I kept silent about it, but I could no longer do it, I couldn’t stand that pressure, my health suffered more during that year that I worked for Geox than in my entire lifetime, she explains.
Geox still has not replied to the enquiry of the organisation that deals with preventing mobbing, and Marija still works for Geox, fearful of how the situation will develop.
The case of Jelena, an experienced leather processing technician, who worked for seven years at the legendary Koštana factory, is of particular interest.
Jelena started working for Geox in the middle of September last year – “through a connection”. However, during the course of her first month of work there, the connection “was severed”, for Jelena did not wish to participate in the purchasing of jewellery for the forewoman who had employed her.
Then the mobbing started, on a daily basis – abuse and maltreatment that made her take a sick leave only two months after starting to work for the firm and seek the help of a psychiatrist.
As I did not participate in purchasing jewellery, I was maltreated and humiliated every day, called foul names, I can’t even pronounce those vulgarities. When I complained of being treated in such a way, they sent me to the storage room to work there in extreme cold, and they didn’t let me wear gloves and a warm jacket, for according to the rules you have to wear a thin coat. I ended up in the psychiatric ward, I take medicines, I have nightmares, I am traumatised and am afraid of what awaits me in some new job. This is something that cannot be forgotten, it is imprinted on the brain, Jelena recalls, speaking in a trembling voice, adding that her case was by no means isolated.
Unfortunately, there are many stories like these. People suffer because of poverty and so they work, each woman there takes tranquilisers, each woman cries when she gets home from work, Jelena explains, her voice tinged with fear.
Faber fabro lupus est (A worker is a wolf to another worker)?
The imperative of transnational companies in the global capitalist economy is to reduce workers to atomised individuals aware of the fact that, in practice, mutual solidarity brings them more harm than good. In the work place, they are not colleagues to one another but competition. If you do not like your working conditions, you are free to tender your resignation notice, there are others willing to work under such conditions ‒ someone is always hungrier and/or cheaper than you.
You go to work as if you were to face a firing squad there. No one laughs. They have all sunk. There is no joy, no communication, not even with those closest to you on the assembly line. Constant stress. People there look like zombies, Stefan describes the atmosphere at Geox.
What keeps people in the production halls is only the horrifying awareness of being under surveillance, so that they have to work lest they get “bumped off”. Every day they are in a position to watch some of them leave and others arrive – as if on a conveyor belt.
On the other hand, there is the conveyor belt carrying goods that have to be delivered on a daily basis – until that norm is fulfilled, there is no going home.
The workers do not collapse so much due to overwork but on account of stress. The clock keeps ticking above your head, the pressure is enormous, there’s such and such a norm to be fulfilled, and when it is fulfilled, then they say: “A-ha, you can do it, but you don’t want to”, so the norm gets increased, the clock keeps ticking, there’s constant nagging and pressure, extreme nervousness among people, and that is how quarrels occur among the workers themselves, Marija points out.
According to the investigation conducted by Machine, the actual salaries at Geox are between 200 and 300 euros, but the figures are difficult to check, for the workers are forbidden to exchange information concerning their salaries.
In the words of the female workers that we talked to, the employees often get different salaries for doing the same work, which the management justifies through various formal considerations.
When, in March, I received 200 euros, everybody else took 250. I went to protest against this, to ask what the problem was. The boss showed me her computer, where it said I hadn’t checked in on any of the Saturdays. I said that it was impossible I hadn’t checked in at all, whereupon she told me to bring a certificate from the foreman stating that I had worked on those Saturdays. When I did bring her the certificate, she asked me: What’s this letter? I said: That’s what you asked for, but she just brushed me off, saying that she was the boss and that she decides the amount of someone’s salary, Jelena described her situation.
At Geox, a factory discipline is imposed, and it is most efficiently achieved through strict measurability. In the words of one female worker, recently they started giving workers marks for the quality of their work, timely arrival at work and conduct.
As regards breaks, at Geox there is just one break for a minimum of eight hours of work, and the workers take a break in shifts for the purpose of achieving maximum productivity and avoiding communication among themselves. Apart from that one break, you go to the toilet only if your superior allows you or, as Stefan says, if you manage to “do the trick”.
In order to make it possible to go to the toilet, you must be as fast as Usain Bolt, or practically “outpace the conveyor belt”. Within the firm it was called “doing the trick”, that is, working fast enough so as not to fall behind schedule while you rush to the toilet, which was practically impossible where I worked. Failing that, if there was no one to substitute for you, you couldn’t go; if the belt “runs away” from you, there is chaos. The bosses shout at you, Stefan says.
Lest there should be any misunderstanding, the Geox management has also left written messages for the employees.
The break between groups shall be 5 instead of 10 minutes. Any employees staying in the mess hall for more that the allotted half an hour shall be punished, says one of the messages of the Geox management.
Each employee who is found outside his/her work place during working hours, that is, before working hours run out, and everyone who makes for or is found next to the check-out machine before the expiry of working hours shall be punished by having one hour of work deducted.
The reduction of (free) space and (free) time, the ban on talking and the use of numbers instead of personal names are classical instruments of the dehumanisation of workers. You sleep much more peacefully when you maltreat numbers, and not living people of flesh and blood.
They don’t know the workers’ names and surnames, they pull them by their coats. I witnessed when they hit the children who had come to the factory for some practical training on the head with moulds, that was a horrendous act of maltreatment. You can’t go to the toilet, you can’t raise your head, you mustn’t talk. The only thing they lacked was a whip, is how Jelena describes the methodology of work organisation at Geox.
The Machine reporters have sent questions to the Mayor of Vranje, asking him to comment on the situation at Geox, but even though we have been promised answers, none arrived before this text went into print.
Geox as a paradigm of economic “development”
The business operations of the Italian shoe factory Geox in Vranje may be viewed as a paradigm of the concept of economic flourishing of countries undergoing transition, which boils down to attracting direct foreign investments through: subsidies, operating in “free zones”, where state laws are often suspended, and reliance on cheap labour.
Subsidised multinational companies at the capitalist (semi-)periphery usually invest in technologically simple production operations that require repetitive and exhausting work of employees, using easily transportable machines that are not difficult to transfer to other states. Also, they invest in locations that have a tradition of that kind of production, for in that way they can count on cheap and well trained labour. As we can see, Geox did everything by the textbook of global capitalist economy. The Government of Serbia ‒ as the ‘authorised’ agency for bribing foreign investors and renting out its own citizens ‒ did so as well.
And what about the workers? Well, as Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić supercynically said on a Sunday afternoon during the opening ceremony at Geox, in front of a line of workers with dark expressions on their faces – “When they walk through the streets of foreign metropolises, they’ll see products of their own hands in the shop windows.” We can only hope that walking thus, like shadows, they will at the same time “make the gentry feel afraid” again.
Translation from Serbian: Novica Petrović
* Apart from Saša Dragojlo, Bojana Tamindžija and Marko Miletić also participated in this investigation conducted by Machine.
This article has been published in Serbian, November 2016.