In-depth | Workers' rights

A service that’s never paid back

By - 25.07.2018

Kosovo’s waiters suffer no contracts, payment delays, unpaid overtime and poor treatment.

For years, Arben* has been unable to make plans after he finishes work, as he never knows when he will be starting again the next day. For the 27-year-old from Mitrovica, this situation has been going on for seven years now — ever since he started working as a waiter.

None of the bars in which he has worked have made weekly schedules, but instead assign shifts to their employees late at night for the following day. “You get a text message, at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., telling you at what time you need to be at work tomorrow,” he says.

Arben explains that waiters are paid to work eight hours a day, usually arranged in two shifts: from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and from 4 p.m. to midnight. But finishing at midnight is only if the waiters are lucky and their customers do not feel like extending their night longer. Rarely are they so fortunate, work often continues until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., at other times even later. In the past seven years, Arben has never been paid for the extra hours that he has worked.

However, working later unpaid does not worry Arben too much. His main concern is whether or not he will receive his salary for working eight hour days throughout the whole month. He and his colleagues often experience delays of two or more weeks to receive their monthly wages, which in a best case scenario reach up to 250 euros. The justification given by his employer is a simple one: “We don’t have money because we didn’t have customers.”

For Shkëlzen* from Peja, waiters’ working conditions have not changed much in the last 15 years. He started working as a waiter, serving coffee in a betting shop, in 2003. He was 15 and still a pupil at the Bedri Pejani high school. Today, as a 30 year old, he recalls that after the passing away of his father, the economic situation forced him and his brother to work.

Photo: Creative Commons

He continued to work there for his first two years of high school. His day was split in two, half at school, the other at work. On weekends he did not have classes at school but as a waiter he would work for seven days a week. The school was also more generous regarding his annual holiday, giving him three months rest, whereas the betting shop offered him zero days off throughout the whole year. “The only time I had off days was when I was unemployed,” he says.

After finishing high school, indignant with the conditions in which he worked, Shkëlzen decided to quit his job as a waiter and seek employment elsewhere. After a few months, he started working at a mattress production factory in Peja. On his second day in the job, he injured his left eye, losing 70 percent of his eyesight.

After undergoing surgery twice, experiencing permanent damage to his eye and feeling let down by the industrial sector, Shkëlzen, in need of a job, decided to go back to working as a waiter. He continues to work the job to this day.

According to Shkëlzen, he has been continuously exploited and has had his rights violated over the last 15 years. He feels that his only protection from exploitation was changing his place of employment whenever he was faced with injustice. In 15 years, he changed employers more than 20 times. Shkëlzen feels that he was treated just about the same in all the bars in which he has worked. “They have exhausted me,” he recalls with rancor.    

Shkëlzen has never had an employment contract, while Arben says that working without a contract is common for waiters, adding that in the seven years in which he has worked as a waiter, he has only been contracted for three months. Out of all the waiters K2.0 spoke to during this story, Arben was the only person that had received any kind of contract.

A law not in force

The Law on Labor was approved in 2010 and regulates the rights, duties and responsibilities between employers and employees. It states that every employers is obliged to provide a contract or face a fine of 7,000 euros. Employees meanwhile are only permitted to work eight hours of overtime a week and must be compensated for them.

Time off is also regulated by the law, with 4 weeks of annual leave guaranteed to employees and breaks outlined for those working 8 hour days. Violators of these provisions are subject to fines of a few thousand euros.

The body responsible for implementing this law and issuing these fines is the Labor Inspectorate (LI), an agency which functions within the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare. Its head inspector, Basri Ibrahimi, says that “the provisions of the Law on Labor are being violated, some more and some less, but in general, all of them at different levels.”  

According to Ibrahimi, this comes from a lack of human capacities, which makes it impossible for the agency to do its job. The LI have only 41 inspectors who are engaged to inspect all regions in the country, and conducted around 5,000 inspections in the first six months of this year. They noted 435 cases of employees working without contracts.

The head inspector told K2.0 that he had no data about which sectors these inspections were conducted in, or about how many of them were conducted in the leisure and tourism sector (which would cover most waiters’ employment), because the LI has no database documenting their operations. The only specific information available is on the construction sector, “because of the high level of interest from public opinion and the high rate of casualties in this sector.”

For the head inspector, construction is a priority because he believes that enforcing the Law on Safety and Health at Work, which guarantees a safe working environment, is “more important” than enforcing the Law on Labour. “If you don’t have a contract, it will be fixed sooner or later, because no-one works without pay. But if you don’t comply to security requirements, you can inflict disability and death,” Ibrahimi says, but adds that even the Law on Safety and Health at Work is subject to “a few” violations.  

"Waiters are exploited in the most ferocious way possible"

Head of the Independent Union of Kosovo's Private Sector, Jusuf Azemi.

Jusuf Azemi, Head of the Independent Union of Kosovo’s Private Sector, believes that institutions have not implemented the law and as such have failed to protect employees. He says that not even 10 percent of the Law on Labor has been implemented, and argues that this is noticeable from the lack of employment contracts and how easy it is to find people who work without them.

The head of the union says that “waiters are exploited in the most ferocious way possible.” He accuses the Labor Inspectorate of not doing its job, saying that the lack of resources may not be the only reason. “I have said many times that the forest has been guarded by fear, and not by the forester,” he says.

He insists that the inspectorate has not set an example by severely fining businesses that violate workers’ rights. Azemi believes that employers have noticed this and that they are now unbothered about which rights they violate. According to him, employers are more comfortable violating the law than abiding by it, adding that businesses that respect the law are at a disadvantage compared to businesses that don’t. He goes even further, accusing inspectors of “being happy with a lunch” in exchange for not carrying out their legally binding work.

From around 5,000 inspections, 128 fines have been issued and only six of them executed.

According to the report from the Labour Inspectorate for the period between January and June this year, from around 5,000 inspections, 128 fines have been issued and only six of them executed. Head Inspector Ibrahimi explains that the agency is not keen on fining businesses and that “usually maximal fines are not issues [in cases in which provisions of the law are violated].”  

Although the inspectorate does not have the legal competences or responsibility to address the economic development of the country, its head inspector seems concerned about it. In his words, “if a business [bar] is fined 10,000 euros, most of them would be closed, because they are walking a fine line.” For Ibrahimi, issuing fines would not benefit workers because “that money goes to the [state] budget of Kosovo and the workers do not benefit materially,” adding that that in such a situation, the workers may be left unemployed.  

However, Ibrahimi is aware that contracts are necessary as they are the “basis of working relations” and that they conduct inspections based on this. Asked whether or not the bars next to the inspectorate violate workers’ rights, Ibrahimi says that it is possible. “We go there during our lunch break,” he points out. “We have told them to come to us if they have issues.”

No forms of redress

Eliona started to work as a waitress about a year ago and has never met an inspector in her place of work. The 19 year old from Prishtina is an economics student who works at a bar close to the students’ canteen so she can cover her expenses. She has continuously worked without a contract. During this time she has not received a penny of contributions to her pension — which is a legal requirement for employers.

Unlike her, Besart from Ferizaj started receiving payments for his contributions a year ago but the nine other years in which he has worked have not been registered anywhere. Although he works in the city center, none of the institutions have forced his employers to fulfil the obligations that they have towards him.

Besart works after midnight and has never been paid for a nighttime job. According to the Law on Labor, every hour worked after 10 p.m. is considered a nighttime job and is paid extra. Besart also works 12 hour shifts for two Sundays a month, and has two Sundays off. He has never thought about filing a complaint about this because he does not trust the institutions. “I don’t deal with them, I don’t trust them,” he tells K2.0.

Despite Ferizaj dedicating one of its murals to the city’s waiters, those interviewed by K2.0 feel let down by the state. Photo: Creative Commons.

Petrit from Vushtrri feels the same. The 33-year-old has worked as a waiter for 16 years. He accuses the inspectorate and other institutions of incompetence, saying that it is very easy to detect which bars have employees without contracts.  

“They must have a minimum of four working contracts [for workers]: two for the morning shift and two for the afternoon shift,” he says, specifying that this is the case for smaller bars, because the bigger ones that host more clients have more employees.

He says that staff are informed beforehand when inspectors from different agencies were due to visit them. Petrit and his colleagues were ordered by their employers to hide when the inspectors arrived. He also mentions that inspectors were given both lunch and dinner during the inspection.

The father of two, who graduated from the law faculty, says that he would hardly be able to find another job if he were to file a complaint or an indictment, which has forced him and his colleagues to “endure the pressure.”

Another reason why he has not filed complaints is because he believes that some employers “have connections,” adding sarcastically that “employers are not guilty [of the violations they commit], because the state allows them to do so.”

Head Inspector Ibrahimi believes that complaints must be addressed, or else they are only empty words. In regard to accusations over inspectors misusing their position, K2.0 asked the head inspector whether or not the inspectorate has a mechanism for overseeing inspectors. Ibrahimi says that “I have my deputies, who go out and oversee inspectors,” adding that complaints received to the inspectorate can also help deal with the process.

A state responsibility

Bejtush Isufi is a lawyer and has been a representative for a number of clients in workers’ rights lawsuits in court. Based on his experiences, Isufi says that the court delays lawsuits in which workers’ rights have been violated.

A year ago Isufi prepared a lawsuit against the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Municipality of Prishtina, in the name of the fire brigade. The fire brigade sought clarification from the court about how the third shift should be paid, but up until now no court session has been held.

In other cases he has experienced delays of two or three years. He has a proposition for this: to establish a Labor Court, as is the practice in EU countries. The lawyer states that Kosovo used to have such a court which dealt only with labor contests, saying that we can consider this as a regression for workers’ rights.

Photo: Creative Commons.

For Artan Mustafa, a researcher and lecturer on state welfare policy, Kosovo’s institutions should be measured by how well they reduce social inequality. He believes that the state has been less concerned with ensuring workers’ rights as their taxes only contribute a small amount to its budget. “The moment that the government needs other sources to fill the budget, it will fight informality [in the economy] more,” he says.

Mustafa points to a lack of equality and democracy within the workplace creating a bleak situation for people in this position. “It is making people leave work and leave the country,” he says.

This pessimistic outlook is shared by Petrit from Vushtrri, who also speaks of leaving the country. According to Petrit, one of the social strata that will attempt to leave the country after visa liberalization are waiters, many of whom are already raising money in order to leave. He predicts that there will soon be a lack of waiters in the country.

“Pressure will no longer be tolerated,” Petrit tells K2.0. “No one will work for 200 euros any more.” He believes that the opportunity to escape will help improve conditions, at least for a bit, for waiters who continue to work in Kosovo.K

*At the request of the people interviewed, the names of the waiters have been changed, due to fears over losing their current jobs and insecurities around finding another one.

Feature image: Creative commons.

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