March 13 should have been a normal day for Albert Ibriqi. Like every other workday, he should have woken up just after 6 a.m. to get ready and travel from Komoran to Prishtina to get to work at 8 a.m. For the past year, the 25-year-old has been working as a waiter in a restaurant in the Bregu i Diellit neighborhood, so most of his days start like this. However, March 13 was not a normal workday.
When he entered the restaurant, Albert noticed that there were fewer customers than usual, and that hand sanitizers had been placed at the entrance and at each table. The only normal thing about that morning was the conversation about the coronavirus, which had dominated their discussions for the past week.
“The panic had already started — among staff, the bosses, the customers,” Albert recalls.
From the second week of March, press conferences from the — now outgoing — government had become common, with calls for caution and against panic. But on Friday afternoon, on March 13, Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Minister of Health Arben Vitia held a conference that was unlike any other before. They said two people in Kosovo had tested positive for COVID-19, the first cases in the country.
On that night, as a response to the spread of the virus, the government announced ten new health protection measures, one of them was the closure of cafés, bars and restaurants.
Even before the decision, Berat Rexhepi had already considered closing his café. The 36- year- old, owner of a café in Skënderaj, had spoken to owners of other cafés about the idea one day before; they decided to disinfect their cafés.
The government decision was announced, around 8 p.m. Berat told his two employees who were scheduled to work the night shift, “From tonight, we’re closing the café."
“I was thinking primarily about myself, my employees, our families, and then also the customers,” he says, surprised that the government decision did not come before the first two cases were identified. “A lot of people come and go [at our café], so we were the most at risk,” he says.
The weekly discussions that he had with his parents and relatives in Italy, who told him about the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, added to his concerns. “We didn’t want to close it because it is our source of income, but health is a priority,” he says.
The government decision was announced around 8 p.m. Berat told his two employees who were scheduled to work the night shift, “From tonight, we’re closing the café.” After that he phoned the other two employees who would have worked the day shift the next day.
That Friday, Albert was due to work until 4 p.m. but he stayed at work for a bit longer. As is often the case, the restaurant where he works was supposed to host a party that day. But as soon as the first shift ended and the afternoon shift was about to start, Albert’s employers gathered the staff and informed them that the party would most likely be cancelled.
There were very few customers that day. Due to fears about the spread of the virus, the owners convinced the musicians who were due to perform that day to cancel the event. They also told their employees that they would close the restaurant.
When this was decided, Albert went home.
The long next day
Berat has closed his café, while Albert had to go to work on Saturday as well, but not to wait tables. Together with his colleagues, he cleaned the restaurant, disposed of foods that would spoil, and disinfected the place one last time before closing.
After staying at work for a few hours, he went to Komoran, where he is currently self-isolated, in accordance with the recommendations from health institutions and government measures. However, the “forced” leave that he has been on during the past two weeks is worrying him. “In a way, I am the one who provides for the family,” he says.
Albert Iriqi, who has been working as a waiter for 11 years, provides food to the table for his family. Photo: Cristina Marí / K2.0.
Over the last few years, the young man has provided food to the table for his family of seven. He did so in March as well, after closing up shop on that Saturday, he got his monthly salary. I started working last year on June 20, so since then I’ve gotten my wage on the 20th,” he says.
He also got paid for the six days that he didn’t work. But he doesn’t know whether or not he’ll continue to receive his low wage of 350 euros, and consequently whether or not he’ll be able to bring food to the table for his family over the coming months.
“I don’t dare think about what will happen tomorrow,” says Albert.
Like Albert, many feel this insecurity — according to the Labor Force Survey, in the last quarter of last year, most workers in Kosovo held jobs in the service sector and in the markets; and most of them were men.
Workers who have no employment contracts are not protected by the law and most likely the state cannot provide compensation for them.
Besides formally registered employees, there are many others who aren’t included in official figures because they have no employment contracts. According to a research study conducted by the World Bank, in Kosovo employees who work for small businesses — who are most affected in this time of crisis — are less likely to have contracts than employees who work for big businesses. As such, these employees are “illegal” and most likely the state cannot protect them by providing compensation.
K2.0 asked the government what will happen to Albert and others like him after the decision to close the bars and restaurants where they work. Government spokesman Përparim Kryeziu said that for the month of March they must be paid by their employers.
“Keep in mind that according to Article 61 of the Labour Law, employers, especially registered employers, have a legal obligation to compensate their employees at least for the month of March,” said Kryeziu in his response.
“This is because their absence is justified according to Article 61 of the Labour Law, which states ‘With the decision of an authorized state body or authorized employers’ body, due to insecurity and protection of health in labour, an employee is entitled to a justified absence from work,’” Kryeziu said. According to him, this absence is only justified for 45 days per year, based on this article of the law.
On March 13, in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government made a decision to close cafés, pubs, bars and restaurants. Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister’s Office.
On March 27, the outgoing Minister of Finance and Transfers Besnik Bislimi presented a government emergency package to help with the economic crisis that has come as a result of the pandemic. For the next two months the government will cover the minimum wage of 170 euros and pension contributions for employees of companies that have been downsizing or “forced to keep staff at home” due to government restrictive measures.
Attempts to improve turnover
Berat says that he will pay his employees for the month of March.
Since he opened his business in 2011, he has paid his employees at the end of each month, and he will do so again this month. “This month I gave salaries in advance to two of my employees who provide for their families with their wages,” he says.
According to him, the daily turnover covers income and consequently the wages of employees in this sector. “These past two weeks alone have caused quite a lot of damage to our finances,” he says, citing the lack of income that has come as a result of closing his café.
Aware that their wages for the coming months were at risk, his employees suggested to him to look into other opportunities “to improve turnover.” They suggested working only for takeaways. “I wasn’t sure how to interpret the law [the government decision] so I didn’t take action,” Berat says, adding that he did ask some municipal officials about this.
The decision was explained in detail to him and owners of other cafés, bars and restaurants through the directives that were announced on March 23 by the Minister of Economic Development Rozeta Hajdari. In addition to closing gastronomic activities, the directives informed owners of these businesses about what they can and cannot do during the pandemic.
“Tables and chairs that are used for providing services must be demobilized and doors must be closed to visiting clients; Takeaway services are not permitted; Delivery services for products are permitted; No one besides staff can stay inside business premises,” among other things in the directives.
“We are working on plans for fiscal support in the immediate aftermath of the situation, so as to resuscitate the economy as soon as possible.”
Përparim Kryeziu, government spokesman
While Berat understands that these government decisions are necessary due to the situation caused by the pandemic, he insists that the government and municipalities must take measures to help businesses, especially small businesses. According to him, the economic crisis that has followed the pandemic will cause many difficulties and will bankrupt many businesses, although he adds that he will not close his business.
“Businesses that have [up to] 10 employees will be affected, not banks,” he says. “Loan payments will be postponed for a couple of months, but they will still get their money.”
Easing the burden
The emergency package that was announced on March 27 by the Ministry of Finance and Transfers (MFT) includes government grants for 50% of the rent paid by small and medium-sized enterprises that are unable to pay their rent due to the economic losses suffered during this time.
Kryeziu says that the government is aware of the difficulties faced by the sector that employs Albert and Berat, and adds that they also have plans for the period after the end of the pandemic: “We are working on plans for fiscal support in the immediate aftermath of the situation, to resuscitate the economy as soon as possible.”
Economic chambers in the country have requested that the government increase the financial aid package for businesses to a value of 5% of the gross domestic product. They have also said that it is necessary to create a portal for publishing “decisions and announcements related to preventive measures against COVID-19,” to ensure comprehensive distribution of information.
For Berat, the next two to three months are the most important, because according to him many people could lose their jobs and end up on the social assistance lists, or even leave the country. This is an issue that affects him personally, because all but one of his employees have worked for him since he opened the café nine years ago.
Berat Rexhepi says that for the month of March, he will pay the employees of his café in Skënderaj. Photo courtesy of Berat Rexhepi.
“I see it as a family business. Not only our employees, but our customers haven’t changed either,” he says.
Of all of the employees registered to the Labour Force Survey in the last quarter of 2019, almost 20% belonged to the category of “unstable employment” meaning that they are employed in their own business or contribute to a family business. However, according to the survey, people with unstable jobs are more likely to have no employment contracts and to work in unsuitable conditions.
In an economic crisis such as this one, their employment situation is made even more difficult.
Savings barely suffice
The temporary closure of the restaurant where Albert works has eliminated another source of his income: tips. “On average, I get 8-10 euros per day from tips,” he says, adding with a smile on his face that he also eats one free meal at his workplace.
Due to his lack of savings, the situation is even more worrying for the young man who has been working as a waiter for 11 years. “With these living costs, my savings will last for another 10 to 15 days,” he says, not taking into account his loan payments of 51 euros per month.
“I came to Kosovo from Italy and I am staying here only because of this business.”
Berat Rexhepi, café owner
Berat’s savings are similarly worrisome. Last year, he moved from Mitrovica to Skënderaj together with his wife, who works as a teacher. Together they got a loan and bought an apartment. “I spent all my savings on that,” he says.
In light of the circumstances, Berat applied to have his loan payments postponed after learning about the decision of the Central Bank to enable businesses and individuals who are faced with difficulties in this period to postpone their payments until April 30.
He says that he is thinking about getting another loan so that he doesn’t have to close the business. “I came to Kosovo from Italy and I am staying here only because of this business,” he says.
Government spokesman Kryeziu says that they are reviewing a series of measures: “There is the possibility of introducing loans — with no interest — for businesses that need additional loans.” But this is only for businesses that need to purchase raw material, therefore excluding Berat’s business.
According to Kryeziu, all possibilities are being considered by the government, but nothing is set in stone until they are translated to decisions. Meanwhile, Albert, Berat and many others like them continue to share their problems with their loved ones, waiting to receive news about new measures that might ease their burden.
“Cursed are we who work in the private sector,” said Albert with a sigh.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
The article is part of the Human Rightivism project, which is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) through its Human Rightivism Program. The author’s views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).