Workers’ struggle during the pandemic

Photo: Radnička fronta / Facebook

Striking similarities were revealed among ex-Yugoslav republics during this pandemic: the burden of the crisis was placed on the workers, who, although fragmented, organized resistance all across their shared former homeland, while at the same time facing the double threat of infection and possible termination.

While the pandemic placed everyday activities on hold, the struggle for workers’ rights never ceased in (former) Yugoslavia. Yet again, Big Business demonstrated its primacy over the health and dignity of workers, coupled with the governments’ unwillingness to address the issues. Those who protested the most were the workers on the frontlines, the same ones who also had to live up to the highest expectations – medical staff and healthcare workers, on whom depends the health of the population; coal miners, who ensured uninterrupted power supply to the grid. In addition, when government assistance for sectors most affected by the pandemic (e.g. the tourism industry) proved lacking, the workers had but one option, to protest. A review of workers’ activities across former Yugoslavia shows that workers in the region, besides living in different countries and with different living standards, are indeed facing the same problems.

Temporary work contracts

Possibly the gravest threat with which workers in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina had to cope were the changes in the legal framework, which would provide employers with wide reaching rights over the employees during the state of emergency.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, changes in the Labor Law were put up for discussion under the provision of urgent procedure, all with the excuse of regulating work from home, but with the clear aim of limiting workers’ rights. The proposed limitations will include pay rate cuts (during a state of emergency), furloughs, as well as 72-hour work weeks with no overtime. The discussions are continuing, with the unions offering sharp resistance.

In neighboring Croatia, the most sensitive topic of the upcoming changes is the flexibilization of indefinite-term employment contracts, designed to allow for easier and quicker terminations. Croatia already had pre-existing instances of abuse with contractual forms, the changes threatening a deepening of those issues. The lawmakers wish to define working from home and “waiting for employment”, a status that would be used during a state of emergency – a worker in such a position would maintain uninterrupted employment during a state of emergency, while not working, and receive recompense in the amount equal to “unemployment benefits”, while the state would cover his health, social and pension insurance. Although, following sharp criticism from the European Union and the International Trade Union Confederation, the move was postponed until next year, the discussions are still continuing.

Other countries of the region will also have to harmonize their normative acts with European Union, and the debates taking place in the “neighborhood” can provide a quick sketch of the issues that the workers and labor unions will come accross in near future.

Photo: Nemanja Jovanović / Kamerades

As the majority of activities moved online, so too labor organizing adapted to new conditions. In Serbia and Croatia, May Day manifestations were followed online by hundreds of participants. The Socialdemocratic Union (now the Party of the Radical Left – PRL) in Serbia organized protests with the slogan “When Corona is Gone, the Workers will Strike” in support of frontline workers. In Croatia, workers gathered to exchange experiences on the impacts of the pandemic on their labor, but also, to agree on the twelve demands (including: preservation of jobs, the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights, as well as, the raising of the minimum wage), all organized by the Croatian Alliance of Independent Unions (SSSH). The demands were based on the SSSH and “12 measures for workers” program, and were sent to the Croatian Government as part of proposed coronavirus crisis response measures and preservation of jobs initiative. With the upcoming changes in the Labor Law, the struggle for these demands will become ever more important for the realization of workers’ rights in Croatia.

Only urgent cases get admitted

As expected, in this crisis medical workers were (and continue to be) under the greatest duress. The Sarajevo Canton medical staff strike began back in September 2019, but was stopped with the declaration of the state of emergency. It was re-started last July, due to the unsuccessful pay rate negotiations, with 3,500 workers going on strike. In a period of great duress for medical workers, the doctors decided on this step out of great desperation. Patient admittance was only done for the most urgent cases, with the hope of catching the ear and understanding of the authorities.

On the other hand, medical nurses in South Mitrovica, along with the technical and security staff at the Kosovo University Clinical Center in Priština, began a protest this October, after realizing they were not part of the Government’s short-term rescue package. Money was not the only question, as their demands included additional personal protection equipment (PPE), medical and other indispensable equipment for the duration of the pandemic. Technical staff underlined that due to exposure to medicinal waste they may be at an even greater threat of infection.

Similar demands were made by staff of retirement homes in Slovenia, who protested last April due to lack of PPE and an attempt by the authorities to transform the retirement homes into makeshift hospitals. The Slovenian Ministry of Health characterized their protest as “politically motivated”.

Photo: Marko Miletić / Mašina

Medical workers in Serbia appealed to the public through a different form of protest – a petition and an open letter to the Government. Close to three thousand the medical workers signed the “United Against COVID-19” proclamation, by which, following numerous scandals, they demanded the publication of precise number of infectious cases, hospitalizations, and deaths; they demanded government responsibility for the early opening of the lockdown, including the replacement of the national COVID-19 Crisis headquarters. The proclamation was followed by news of dismissals, threats and terminations of the signatory medical staff. The signatories were joined by lawyers, social workers and artists. Except for a symbolic “social dialogue”, there were no other positive results.

Record mining of coal, but with no pay

The electric power supply wasn’t brought into question during the pandemic thanks to the coal miners who labored to ensure enough coal supply was provided for the thermal power plants. However, all their work and dedication didn’t result in a deserved reply. The coal miners of Trepča and Novo Brdo were forced to strike due to not receiving their wages. “We didn’t get paid, we have no more food left”, protested the miners, while Trepča mining corporation tabulated record extraction of 14,700 tons of coal. The salaries were eventually paid, but not without a significant delay.

Supporting the fact that the miners’ situation is miserable, goes the stat that every fourth miner suffers from some kind of invalidity gained during a lifetime of hard work. With the load of the crisis being shifted on the backs of the miners, without respecting their basic rights, their already unfavorable position became detrimental. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the Tuzla (“Kreka”) and Zenica-Doboj Canton black coal mines, 11,500 workers at seven mines went on strike due to unpaid wages. The strike lasted several days and was successfully ended with payment of the delayed wages.

The buses remain parked

The border closings and the travel bans had immense consequences for the transportation and tourism workers. In June, Ljubljana Airport announced layoffs for a quarter of the workforce (a total of 120 employees), due to the pandemic. The news generated sharp criticism, while the airport employee union responded with a protest, asserting that the airport generated millions in revenue over the last few years. Supporting this claim is the ongoing multi-million euro construction of a new terminal. For the sake of comparison, the salaries of the 120 employees to be laid-off are about €300,000.

Serbian tourism workers organized a “10 minutes to save tourism” protest in multiple locations during August. An appeal was issued requesting government assistance, pointing out the loses and harm caused by the travel ban and the non-existent tourism season abroad. Their Macedonian colleagues, however, went a step further when they announced countrywide protests and road blocks, seeking support and protections from the government. However, although a new government has formed, the Ministry of the Economy still ignores all appeals for assistance by the tourism industry workers. Tourism agencies are close to bankruptcy, yet there’s no solution in sight.

Corona in factories

A delayed payout of wages is probably the most cited reason for labor protests in the region. Imperiled worker rights and undignified labor in the Yugoslav region seem to be more the rule, than not. The pandemic and its consequences further motivated employers to skirt the laws. That’s why workers protested at “Simon Voyage” in Berane (the company owner is a high functionary in the then ruling party, DPS), a record setter for not paying employees wages (24). The same can be said of “Gorenje” in Slovenia, with unpaid and uneven work bonuses.

Highly ranked among those not respecting the workers’ rights in Serbia is the company “Jura”. They came into focus of the public due to a coronavirus outbreak, swiftly becoming a hotspot; at the same time the company amply demonstrated their disdain for the workers and their rights. In April, due to the rising number of cases and non-compliance with protective measures, they organized a protest in front of the factory gates in the city of Leskovac. Attempting to find a solution, the authorities joined in, however, their lack of success demonstrated the weak position of the government vis-à-vis Big Business. With the arrival of the second wave, new complaints were filed against the company, and the Ministry of Labor still refused to protect the workers and their rights. A similar issue came to prominence at “Magna Seating” in Odžaci; following the death of six employees from coronavirus, the workers went on strike, demanding higher protection standards and improved hygiene conditions.

In the wider region, workers engaged in protests due to unpaid wages and contributions. In the Croatian company “Brodotrogir Hull”, the workers protested due to the large amount of debts and the unsigned collective work agreement. Unpaid earnings proved a problem in North Macedonia, as well; with protests at “Teteks Yarn”, a wool and yarn producer; at Bargali in Štip, “Eurokompozit“, and the public company Tetovo, for unpaid wages.

On the other hand, in North Macedonia, the workers at JP Čistoća i zelenilo went on a warning strike, seeking higher wages, PPE and winter equipment. Their colleagues in Pljevlja county, Montenegro, after not getting paid for a year continued in August with the interrupted strike, that began back in April.

The pandemic has proven how indispensable some workers are for unimpeded functioning of society. Those that were once invisible, now became essential. What was revealed is that when essential workers raise their voice capitalism reveals its weaknesses. However, Capital’s capacity to break and isolate workers’ uprisings remains strong, using the added excuse of pandemic emergency powers and the upcoming economic crisis. Considering the similarity of the issues faced by the workers in ex-Yugoslavia, maybe it’s time to insist on increased regional cooperation and solidarity, to preserve workers’ rights and to overcome with joint forces the interests and the might of capital.

Translation from Serbian: L.P.

This article was originally published in Serbian on Nov 3, 2020.

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