Longform | Trade unions

A long road ahead for Kosovo’s unions

By - 31.01.2023

The challenges facing Kosovo’s trade unions, old and new.

Broader union organizing began in Kosovo in spring. On April 8, 2022, hundreds of public sector workers, under the organization of the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo (BSPK), went out to protest. They demanded salary increases and support in dealing with the economic crisis in the country.

After the protest, the unions sent a series of requests and letters to the government for a meeting. The head of the government, Albin Kurti, did not answer. As a result, trade unionists started bringing up the possibility of a general strike as a tool the unions could employ.

On August 25, BSPK announced that public administration and education workers would go on strike. Striking education workers received particular attention because the strikers boycotted teaching for an entire month as part of their demands for pay increases.

Trade unions are not unknown in Kosovo. However, this time, their clashes with the government and the calls for change in the trade unions have been read as an attempt from the government to hinder trade union freedom.

Due to the unions’ determination to ignore the government’s demands, teachers did not return to schools for nearly five weeks, causing widespread social debate. In this debate, the motives of the trade unions in relation to the workers and the government were questioned. Some critics also said that today’s unions are stuck in the past and have not been sufficiently reformed to respond to current needs and demands.

Despite having been created in the 1990s, unions in Kosovo have not yet managed to consolidate themselves to become an effective protector of workers’ rights and partner in the labor system. Along with successive challenges over the years, trade unions are now under pressure to make radical reforms.

The creation of trade unions

Trade union freedom is a prerequisite for the preservation of democracy, as trade unions have historically carried and continue to carry an essential role in the protection of workers’ rights.

Trade union organization in Kosovo has its roots before the 1990s. During Yugoslavia, Kosovar unions were part of the Confederation of Yugoslav Trade Unions, which covered all state employees of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. But at that time the unions did not have complete freedom or autonomy because they could not act without the approval of the communist party.

At the beginning of the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was showing signs of disintegration, a system of ethnic segregation had descended on the people of Kosovo. This culminated in the mass dismissal of Albanian workers who refused to submit to and recognize the Serbian state apparatus. About 150,000 Albanians were fired from state jobs.

The organization of independent trade unions in Kosovo started in June 1990. Under the slogan “without national freedom there is no trade union freedom,” the organization was separate from state institutions. The first congress was held in Gjakova, where the Independent Trade Union was founded.

About 600 delegates participated in the congress and from there its leadership structures were established. Hajrullah Gorani, now deceased, was elected the first chairman. A year later, this trade union was named the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo (BSPK).

At its beginning, BSPK had 127,800 members organized in 18 independent unions or federations pertaining to various sectors. As a whole, it served as a common platform for unions to fight for workers’ rights and represent their interests.

Participants of the congress where the Independent Trade Union of Kosovo was founded. Photo: Archive of BSPK.

The BSPK also supported workers that were fired, helping them find new jobs and providing financial assistance to the families of fired workers and those with economic difficulties.

Rrahman Jasharaj is the current head of SBAShK, which today has approximately 26,000 members. Jasharaj said that this union was created due to the needs of the time, as an attempt to respond to the attacks of Slobodan Milošević's regime against education in Albanian.

While BSPK was fighting for workers’ rights, a fight which became a national movement, another union was being formed in Kosovo, the Union of Education, Science and Culture (SBAShK). University professor Agim Hyseni was elected as their first chairman.

In late 1989 and early 1990, the Serbian government began to intervene in the education sector. First began the imposition of Serbian curriculums and then came the suspension of wages for those in this sector. The situation escalated and the Serbian police closed schools altogether in the early 1990s.

Albanian language education was banned in schools and universities. In order to continue teaching, Albanian teachers organized a parallel system of education in private homes. This system, originally devised by primary school teachers, continued until March 1999. During this period, several primary school facilities, mainly in Prishtina, were reopened.

Rrahman Jasharaj is the current head of SBAShK, which today has approximately 26,000 members. Jasharaj said that this union was created due to the needs of the time, as an attempt to respond to the attacks of Slobodan Milošević’s regime against education in Albanian.

The activities of the union have expanded. They joined other organizations where they helped each other with activities such as collecting aid for dismissed teachers.

The union has cooperated closely especially with the League of Albanian Teachers (LASh), which could act more freely because it was not a union and therefore was not targeted by the regime. They organized gatherings and protests mainly in educational facilities and in the centers of the cities and demanded rights and freedoms for Albanian teachers and the protection of Albanian education.

The League of Albanian Teachers. Photo: Archive of BSPK.

Jasharaj said that the greatest moments of this union’s history was in 1993, when various international delegations visited Kosovo to see the state of the education system.

“Foreigners saw that primary education was held in school buildings, but secondary education was held in home schools. Seeing this resistance of ours, they took it to the UNESCO Assembly, the then-president of SBAShK gave a speech telling the delegates of all the countries about the extremely difficult situation at that time in Albanian education. I am speaking about the year 1993,” said Jasharaj.

This union, according to Jasharaj, was accepted as an equal member of the World Education International in 1996. But, at that time, even SBAShK did not really serve as a union. It was more of a humanitarian organization because, as Jasharaj said, “that’s how the time dictated.”

After the war, many businesses faced difficulties surviving and there was no consolidated legal basis for workers’ rights. The difficult socio-economic landscape at that time also found the unions unstructured, which meant they did not have the power to push forward their demands.

After the war, SBAShK began to consolidate their union role by protesting against the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), expressing dissatisfaction with the disregard that UNMIK was showing to the issue of teachers’ working conditions.

The post-1999 political system had created an entirely new system of industrial relations. International organizations linked progress to the privatization of public enterprises. When these reforms were made, thousands of people were left without work. As the beginnings of a neoliberal economic system were laid, social protections for workers, and consequently trade unions, started to fade away.

“UNMIK did not want to hear that there could be trade unions in post-war Kosovo,” said Jasharaj.

SBAShK’s protest against the UNMIK administration. Photo: Archive of BSPK.

In 2002, SBAShK organized a protest with the initial demand of a salary increase for education workers, who at that time were paid about 100 marks per month, equivalent to 50 euros today.

“Our salaries were more like social assistance, we organized a protest […] with the maximum participation of education workers under the request ‘we want a salary equivalent to the daily salary of UNMIK officials,’ because their salaries and wages were extremely high,” said the head of SBAShK.

Three years later, the union began internal reorganization and work on a charter that would define the union’s structure and leadership.

Over the years, with the consolidation of a legal basis through the Labor Law (adopted in 2003), the Law on Trade Union Organization (adopted in 2002) and the Collective Agreement (adopted in 2014), unions in the public sector were strengthened, but not those in the private sector.

The need for reform

Trade union organization in the public and private sectors are very different in Kosovo.

Within the BSPK confederation there are 235 trade union associations and 30 trade union federations. To be part of BSPK as a union, according to the statute of the confederation, the union must have over 1,000 members. These unions represent over 300,000 workers. 85,000 workers are from the public sector, while the rest, about 215,000 workers, are from the private sector and are represented by only one trade union.

Atdhe Hykolli, the chairman of BSPK said that, since October 2021, although the participation of the workforce in the private sector is several times greater, in terms of trade union organization, the public sector dominates. Hykolli said that his primary goal is to resolve the general collective agreement, which expired at the end of 2017.

This agreement is between the union of employers’ organizations, the union of employees’ organizations and state institutions. The model of this agreement coincides with the three-party system found in many countries, where three main parties from labor relations participate: organizations of employers, of employees and the state as a mediator. This agreement regulates the establishment of employment relationships, schedules, holidays, wages, compensation and the termination of contracts.

According to Hykolli, unions in the public sector are sufficiently consolidated through the education union, which has the largest membership in Kosovo.

Despite this consolidation, Rrahman Jasharaj described the long journey of SBAShK as challenging. According to him, the frequent changes of governments have also contributed to the challenges facing the union. It has made it impossible to cooperate since each government rejected the progress previously achieved, so everything has to start again from scratch. 

The first strike, of the many that SBAShK has organized, was in 2004, when the country was governed by the LDK-AAK coalition during the international administration. In this one-month strike, Jasharaj remembers that they demanded “more dignified wages even at that time and there was an increase of only seven marks.”

While the public sector, with all its difficulties, has managed to create a history of union organizing, organizing efforts in the private sector have been unremarkable.

According to him, wages have remained low and other trade union methods such as protests and negotiations were ignored by the authorities, therefore the strikes have continued as a necessity. Since independence in 2008, teachers have seen a steady increase in salaries regardless of qualification or position. But teachers have consistently been vocal in their demands for higher salaries. The salaries of upper secondary level teachers increased from 240 euros in 2010 to 430 euros in 2016. In 2018, salaries increased by 18 euros, which was the last increase in teachers’ salaries.

While the public sector, with all its difficulties, has managed to create a history of union organizing, organizing efforts in the private sector have been unremarkable. In fact, workers in the private sector continuously face violations of rights and difficult working conditions such as low wages, lack of job security and a general disregard of the obligations that employers have towards them according to the Labor Law.

Likewise, the average salary in the private sector continues to be lower than that in the public sector. While the average net salary for the public sector is 542 euros, in the private sector it does not exceed 376 euros. This difference in salary and the greater compliance with the Labor Law has made the public sector more attractive to job seekers, especially those with a university education.

So, although the need for the protection of workers’ rights is significantly greater in the private sector, unions in this sector have often been weak or unorganized.

Brikena Hoxha, executive director of the Kosovar Initiative for Stability (IKS), a think-tank focused on research and empirical analysis on socio-economic development in Kosovo, sees the dynamics between the trade union organization of the private and public sectors in a similar way.

“Compared to the public sector, the private sector is non-existent in trade union representation. And the possibility of violating their rights in public is incomparably smaller than in private,” said Hoxha. According to her, the “slavery of workers” occurs in the private sector, unlike the public sector, which is also under the protection of the Independent Oversight Board of the Civil Service — a body that ensures compliance with the rules and principles governing the civil service. 

Only one trade union from the private sector operates within BSPK — the Independent Trade Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo, which covers about 60,000 businesses. Public-private partnership unions are also members of BSPK, such as the unions of Trepça, the airport, Feronikeli and others.

Jusuf Azemi, head of the Independent Trade Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo, at a protest in 2014. Photo: Archive of BSPK.

The head of the Independent Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo, Jusuf Azemi, said that private sector unions everywhere are weaker than public ones and that the latter have more legal support since their employer is the state.

“For example, the education union has one employer, the Ministry of Education, while we have 60,000 businesses in Kosovo, which means we have 60,000 employers,” said Azemi.

In the election program, the current government promised more dignified conditions for private sector workers and a fivefold increase in the number of labor inspectors, who are responsible for supervising compliance with the Labor Law. However, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. There are only 38 inspectors for the entire country.

Azemi also mentioned construction, where the situation is severe. “I was in Fushë Kosova no more than a month ago and it is terrifying to see workers in those conditions. Seeing workers in the high-rise buildings that are being constructed is terrifying and we have even had cases of death where they have fallen into elevator shafts. This year [2022] we have had around 17 deaths,” said Azemi.

"There has been a lack of union solidarity in cases where workers' rights have been drastically violated, where safety at work, the protection of health and life at work has not been ensured, in this sector there is almost no organization at all,"

Osman Osmani, union activist.

As a result, unions are criticized for failing to protect workers’ rights sufficiently and being slow to ensure better conditions for workers.

In this regard, Osman Osmani, a trade union activist in Switzerland who is committed to trade union cooperation between Kosovo and Switzerland, thinks that “trade union battles” should take place in Kosovo, as the situation is miserable.

“There has been a lack of union solidarity in cases where workers’ rights have been drastically violated, where safety at work, protection of health and life at work has not been ensured, in this sector there is almost no organization at all,” said Osmani, who is also the former union secretary for migration at the UNIA union in Switzerland, a union of 200,000 members, where half are members from outside Switzerland and 15,000 are Albanian.

For Osmani, the unions in Kosovo have failed to undergo systemic changes and as a result, have not adapted to the new political and economic models that he calls the neoliberal model.

Osmani thinks that the trade unions have not undergone changes since the time of Yugoslavia. In the system of that time, the only employer was the state or the public sector, which also included social enterprises. For this reason, there was union organization only in this sector, but unions were part of the system and union officials were perceived as “state officials.” Therefore, according to Osmani, even in Kosovo, trade union organization continues to be more present in the public sector than in the private sector. 

‘A unionist desert’

The battles between unions and the government deepened after Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. The legal framework for union organization began to be consolidated and a clearer legal address was created for unions to articulate their demands.

This is how social dialogue between the government and the trade unions began, with the unions mainly negotiating for higher wages, better working conditions and a reduction in economic inequality. 

Demands from trade unions have often resulted in clashes with Kosovo’s authorities, which have often been accompanied by derogatory language towards trade unions, who have been labeled as instruments of political groups. The relationship of trade unions with different political parties or powers is tangled, so much so that there have been cases when trade unions have been said to be influenced by and connected to political parties, in particular the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), especially during the time when PDK was in government.

The party Vetëvendosje (VV), in its ideological stance and in practice when it was the opposition, supported trade union organizations, including in education. Yet, during last year’s strikes, VV, now at the head of the government, directed critical and sometimes derogatory language towards unions, labeling them as “tools of the previous power.” 

One of the annual clashes between the unions and the government continues to be the discussion about the minimum wage, which according to Jusuf Azemi from the Independent Union of the Private Sector, should be calculated with the minimum living expenses for a four-member family.

In April 2022, the government approved a draft law, which includes an increase to the minimum wage from 130-170 euros (differentiated based on age) to 264 euros gross (250 euros net). The decision has not yet entered into force. Azemi said that the union he leads will not agree to sign any agreement where the minimum is below 500 euros net.

Minimum wage

The minimum wage is a government policy determining "the minimum amount of payment (remuneration) that the employer must pay the employee for the work performed during the given period of time."

Minimum wages protect workers from low wages. The increase in minimum wage would help younger workers, those who are marginalized or with lower qualifications.

However, an opponent of this increase in Kosovo has been the International Monetary Fund, which is worried about the budgetary implications of a minimum wage increase, due to the fact that some pension scheme rates, such as veterans' pensions, are tied to the minimum wage.

“In this mandate, there is no change that [Prime Minister Kurti] tried to do unilaterally. He has not dared to send it to the Assembly,” said Azemi.

The debate about the minimum wage and its importance has been repeatedly emphasized and promises of increases have been made repeatedly by governments, but the proposals of the Economic and Social Council (ESC) for this increase have never been accepted.

The ESC is a consultative body of the government that consists of representatives of workers, employers and state institutions who review the economic situation every year and propose an increase in the minimum wage. The chairman of the ESC is elected by rotation every year. It was non-functional for a year until it was restarted with Hykolli’s mandate.

Jasharaj from SBAShK considers the clashes with the government as healthy in principle because, according to him, it helps amplify the unionist voice. 

Brikena Hoxha from the IKS organization said that the private sector is non-existent in trade union representation. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Even for Hoxha from IKS, the often clashing relationship between trade unions and the government has influenced the shaping and recognition of the role of trade unions. Beyond criticizing the way unions organize, she also gives credit to the education union.

“They deserve credit for changing the perception of the union in the public, if people know what a union is, one of the reasons [for this] is SBAShK,” said Hoxha.

According to Brikena Hoxha from IKS, the often clashing relationship between trade unions and the government has influenced the shaping and recognition of the role of trade unions.

But, at the same time, Hoxha thinks that trade unions are mostly misunderstood as there is not enough recognition of their role. According to her, the unions themselves are to blame for this.

“In the 1990s, it was a different role because of the situation in Kosovo, so even because of the role they had at that time, it is a little misunderstood. [Unions] have also remained with the same mindset and do not fulfill their own role properly, but also there is no general knowledge as it should be,” said Hoxha. 

She also noted that unions are registered as non-governmental organizations, which, according to her, is a mistake, since if they were registered as part of the labor system, as in the Nordic countries, they would have an active role in the negotiation of labor agreements and in the protection of workers’ rights.

Therefore, Hoxha considers trade union reform necessary. She says that a more equal gender representation is also needed in the unions since the vast majority of unions are headed by men.

According to data from the organization she leads, since its foundation, the BSPK has always had male leaders at the top. Out of a total of 59 delegates, this confederation has only 18 women. Also, of the four coordinators who lead the regional offices of the BSPK, only one is a woman.

Trade union activist Osmani thinks that workers in Kosovo are unorganized in each sector, calling it  “a desert for unions,” while Osmani categorizes public sector unions as officials, because, according to him, they categorize themselves that way.

Florina Duli, human rights activist and coordinator for Kosovo in the Terre des Hommes organization, shares a similar opinion with Osmani. According to her, union organization in Kosovo carries a lot from the past, when union officials were seen as functionaries of the state.

"Genuine trade unions must represent the worker in any dispute with the employer, including their legal representation," said Florina Duli.

“Unions in Kosovo are linked to their role in the former Yugoslavia as well as their role in the 1990s when they were active actors of the resistance. At that time, this ‘state’ was the only employer, and consequently union organizing took place in this sector. Unions were somehow part of the system,” said Duli.

According to Duli, trade unions should be reformed, so that the responsibility of the trade unions towards their membership increases, workers’ right to voluntary association in the trade union is not violated and consequently serves as many workers as possible.

“Genuine trade unions must represent the worker in any dispute with the employer, including their legal representation,” said Duli.

Although according to the definition, trade unions are independent organizations that are created as a voluntary association of employees and that aim to protect their legal rights and economic, social and professional interests, they have not always been seen that way. Unions have also been the target of criticism for the roles and responsibilities that aren’t theirs to begin with. An example of this is the constant criticism of SBAShK for the poor results in the PISA tests and for the quality of education in general, although this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and local directorates in the municipalities.

Blaming the education union for the poor quality in education has often produced the public impression that the union is also responsible for improving the state of education. For Rrahman Jasharaj, the fact that quality in education is “popularized only when there are strikes” is worrying.

Until recently, trade unions have received attention mainly and almost exclusively during strikes, but recent clashes in particular have stimulated discussions that may be useful for trade union freedom, trade union organization and its future reform.


Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.