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Jusuf Azemi: Kosovo’s economy is based on the backs of oppressed workers

By - 01.05.2017

Head of Independent Trade Union of the Private Sector says that workers rights have seen no improvement in Kosovo since the 1900s.

May 1 is the day when workers mark Labour Day. The date is linked to developments on May 1, 1886, when thousands of workers protested in Chicago for an 8-hour working day, suitable working conditions and decent salaries. These protests ended in tragedy, when several workers were killed by police, many were arrested, and eight of them were sentenced to life imprisonment.

In a sign of solidarity with the sacrifices of those workers and to continue to apply pressure to advance these rights, May 1 is marked around the world as a day on which workers come together to celebrate their rights and to protest against the injustices that they constantly encounter.

In Kosovo, there is a long history of workers’ rights violations. Since the socialist system of former-Yugoslavia, the workplace has been beset by the heavy hand of political structures, followed in the 1990s by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime that saw Kosovar Albanians dismissed en masse from their jobs. But even following the 1999 war, inequalities persist, with NGOs and media reports regularly highlighting the extent of links between business and political support.

An activist for 27 years, Jusuf Azemi is today head of Kosovo’s Independent Trade Union of the Private Sector. He says that conditions for workers today are miserable and have essentially seen no improvement since the 1900s.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Delayed salaries (which are often below minimum wage to begin with), prolonged working hours, and unjust dismissals are some of the challenges Kosovar workers face every day, according to Azemi, who also claims that 80 percent of Kosovo’s 300,000 private sector workers don’t have an employment contract. Workplace safety is also a huge concern, with 28 workplace deaths reported since 2014, including four in the first quarter of 2017 alone.

According to Azemi, the continuing violation of workers’ rights is a result of compliance by state institutions, who are not necessarily incompetent, but unwilling to address issues due to ties with powerful business interests.

To mark May 1, K2.0 spoke to Azemi about the tensions between capitalism and workers’ problems, the challenges faced by workers and unions when rights are systematically abused, and the symbolism of Labour Day itself.

K2.0:Eight hours of work, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of sleep” — this is a slogan from 1855 that is still being used by workers all around the world. Today, when it comes to the organization of unions around workers’ rights, has any progress been made, have the rights being demanded improved, and are there additional demands beyond this slogan?

Jusuf Azemi: This was a basic demand, in order to make clear the amount of time an individual can work during a day. Of course, since then we have increased our demands because we are talking about a very long period of time, and during this journey other needs have emerged as well. A worker today must know what their salary is, their days off, holidays, sick days, other payments and contributions and so on and so forth. These requirements are now included in the Law on Labour.

One of the concerns most frequently raised in our country today is still the long working hours. Does it look like we are still living in that era of the past?

Unfortunately, we are still in the 1900s or even worse; the conditions at that time might even have been more advanced than those we enjoy today. And this is due to one reason: Here, workers forget about working hours — they need to know whether there will be delays in getting their salary, because we have cases where companies do not pay their workers for five to six months in a row. At the beginning of each month, between day one and ten, my union gets hundreds of complaints from workers who have not been paid by companies, even though they get the minimum wage.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

May 1 has Marxist connotations, and this very date marks the decision of the 1866 International Workingmen’s Association’s convention in Geneva, when the 8-hour working day became a legal requirement for the first time. In today’s capitalist system, can we say that resistance in the form of demands from workers is also an ideological clash?

It is an ideological clash if we see the relation between employer and employee. We are talking about two opposite poles. The owner of the company is always interested in increasing his capital and bringing his company to a higher level, and the labor force is none of his concern. On the other hand, we have workers who want to know about their rights and their concern is in having their position regulated according to law and by collective agreement.

Huge sacrifices were made in order to take one of the biggest steps for workers’ rights, when, at the end of the 19th century in Chicago, protests by striking workers ended with killings and life imprisonments. From that time onwards, many things have changed, but the clashes between workers’ unions on the one hand and state institutions and the private sector on the other have persisted. In essence, are those clashes the same as the original union clashes, but simply being organized in a more sophisticated way?

I believe the situation has changed a lot from that time. Big improvements have been made in terms of the organization of workers. As a union we have paid many visits to different countries around the world and have seen that those countries have their elementary demands met. Today, they talk about higher salaries and other benefits. In Western countries, there is no talk of working hours or payment delays — in Sweden employers create special funds that are used in case a worker experiences a tragedy, even if it is not related to their job.

Does today’s economic order — where everything revolves around material benefits — provide space for workers’ unions, or are there continuous tendencies to minimize their effects?

Often during meetings with state officials and business representatives I say to them: “If I were in your position, perhaps I would also do what you do.” The government wants to have divided unions, perhaps even without any organization, because in this way they could realize their goals more easily. As a union we are often ignored, manipulated, and we have also had extreme cases when we have been told that if we go and establish a workers’ union in their company, we would be physically eliminated. And when we resisted and did not pay attention to those threats, they tried to create a fake alliance with us, in order to not deal with [report] their company.

But is it not only one party to blame; both unions and workers share their part of the guilt, since they are not properly organized and do not have the determination to reach their goals. But, considering the economic conditions in the country, where it is very difficult to find a job, we can say that workers are justified [in not demanding their rights more strongly] to a certain extent. That is why as a union we have raised the issue of creating a special court for contests between employers and employees, which would mitigate the existing situation, because currently the judiciary can take up to five years to resolve a legal contest.

"When a worker is paid only 200 euros a month, how can he be productive enough, because that money is not enough for a dignified life."

Perhaps one of the biggest “losses” for workers’ unions is today’s application of individual contracts as the primary guarantee of workers’ rights. Can we say that work contracts will ultimately substitute the organization of unions and, if such a thing happens, what could happen next?

Each individual contract has its nucleus, be it individual, sectoral or a governmental contract. Individual contracts certainly cannot undermine the existence of unions since someone has to protect them, someone has to lobby for them to be applied. Unions are partners that enable the functioning of signed contracts.

In various discussions there is often talk of the one percent — the rich part of society that owns most of the country’s assets. Is this the essence of capitalism? Can we talk about workers’ rights, safety at work, working hours etc., before we discuss the distribution of wealth?

Unfortunately I must say that in Kosovo even if owners gain millions of euros a year, they never think of providing financial stimulation to workers. They do not see that when they stimulate workers, they actually stimulate their very company. Here, it is the other way around. When a worker is paid only 200 euros a month, how can he be productive enough, because that money is not enough for a dignified life.

According to different reports, only seven or eight companies in Kosovo pay workers their 13th salary [bonus] that in a way recognizes that the success of the company is closely linked to workers’ performance. When it comes to the one percent, we have cases where the accumulated wealth is of a suspicious nature, because they manage to get extreme sums of money in a very short space of time. By a simple calculation, one can see that the said wealth is illegal, and in addition to evading the state [rule of law], workers are also exploited.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

In Kosovo there are workers’ unions that are always being accused of failing to protect workers rights. Can we say that their role in our country is symbolic?

The work of the unions can be assessed differently, depending of the point of view. Private sector unions in Kosovo have so far never failed to address workers’ complaints, and have always made efforts to help them. In our country’s economy, every sector, both private and public, has many problems. Our union faces many problems, starting from its staff, since the number of workers in the private sector in Kosovo is above 300,000, and this small staff deals with so many workers in the field.

However, we have still managed to establish a reporting system for our work. We report each month, each year and each four years on the work that we do, and we submit our reports to our steering bodies and we have not had any complaint so far regarding the way we work.

However, you are right when you say that more needs to be done since, again, the conditions for workers are not good. But this is not all the fault of unions. Workers are also partly responsible, while the government has a lot to be blamed for.

"We have reached the point where we are not talking about the salary level any more, but rather whether workers will be paid on time."

Let me tell you something: As president of the union, I have continuous pressure coming from the Ministry of Labour, the government, the Labour Inspectorate, and company owners. This is a network that we, as a union, face constantly. Add to this our denouncements with specific names, and when we say all these things the pressure to withdraw our demands takes place.

A concrete example of our work is our report in which we say that over 80 percent of private sector workers are without work contracts, and the Ministry of Labor reacted aggressively to this statement, denying such a thing. On the other hand, a few days ago Riinvest Institute published a report saying the very same things and there was no reaction by the Ministry, Inspectorates or by any other institution. It seems that our institutions have created an image of our union, that we are continuously trying to cause them trouble.

In a country where 50 percent of workers do not have work contracts, with many irregularities such as long working hours, payment delays, lack of safety at work, but with an unemployment rate that is above 30 percent, can we say that today in Kosovo the important thing is to find a job, while talking about workers’ rights is a luxury?

First of all, this data is questionable, since our reports have found that the unemployment rate is around 46 percent. And this is the essence of the problem. Today, the most important thing for a citizen is to find a job, and after that, what matters is whether they will get paid on time. We have reached the point where we are not talking about the salary level any more, but rather whether workers will be paid on time. These are the problems that state institutions do not want to address, though I believe they are able to do such a thing.

"As a union we are ready to sign that this Law does not change for the next 20 years, under the condition that what is written is actually applied."

Mass dismissals in Kosovo during the ’90s were used as a method of persecution by the Yugoslav regime to help achieve their political goals regarding Albanians. Are ‘jobs’ pure political tools that are used by authorities towards the masses?     

In former Yugoslavia this was always used in order to achieve their political goals. I remember the decisions by the authorities at that time, which said that every business must have its name written in cyrillic or they would be fined. All this was done in order to undermine the national dignity. At that time, we organized an assembly and decided not to respect that decision. After that, the authorities immediately started imposing fines against all businesses.

After the war in Kosovo, political elites also used jobs as a means to achieve their political goals. There are a high number of people employed in the public sector who are in line with the interests of certain political groups. We have people who are close with authorities and who have two or more jobs, for only one reason: They were either war veterans, war invalids, or close to political parties in power. Also, these individuals are engaged in the private sector too, by publicly violating the Law on Labour, which prohibits such a practice.

The General Collective Agreement — you considered your signing of this agreement in 2014 to be an ‘agreement with political purpose’ that would serve both economic development and the protection of workers’ rights. Three years after signing this contract, do you still consider it in the same way?

At the time when this agreement was signed, I was convinced that this was being done for political purposes. Now I am even more convinced and in fact it has been proved that this contract has political background. The very fact that this contract was never implemented indicates that its entire purpose was to achieve political goals. This is what they had in mind: ‘Here, we produced a collective agreement that would protect workers’ rights,’ and in this way [politicians thought] people would vote for them, because now [they would believe that] there are better work conditions in place.

In short, this contract was drafted for electoral benefits. If they really wanted to solve workers’ problems, this could have been done in a simple way by just respecting the existing Law on Labour. As a union we are ready to sign that this Law does not change for the next 20 years, under the condition that what is written is actually applied, because in this way we can solve many problems. Basically, institutions continuously tend to hide behind laws when success is not achieved, claiming that those laws were not adequate and trying to generate more laws. It shouldn’t be like this. The existing laws should be implemented, and if only 70 percent of the Law on Labour was implemented I believe that we would not need to deal with unions at all.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

Since 1999 among the most developed economic sectors in Kosovo with the highest number of employees have been construction, catering and trade (mainly large supermarket chains). According to reports, these are also the sectors with most violations and breaches of workers’ rights. Does our economy base itself on the violation of workers’ rights?

Absolutely, our economy was based, and continues to be based, on the violation of workers’ rights. These rights are violated intentionally [as there is] a certain agreement of support from people in power. We have had cases where company owners have come and said: ‘This is all in vain — protests and everything — because the people who stand behind us are ‘big’ people.’

A similar thing happened with the Grand Hotel. One-hundred-and-five employees had no contracts and we went to the Inspectorate and asked them to address this case. The Inspectorate officials turned us down. We approached them on other occasions as well, until we were told: ‘Sir, even if [then-] Prime Minister Hashim Thaci were to come here and tell me that those contracts should be applied, I would not do such a thing.’

Here you can see the strong link between businesses and institutions. Where does all of that power come from — when an inspector is able to turn down an order from the prime minister? This indicates that all these violations are carried out because they have certain support that allows them to continue with such a practice.

There are also other cases where inspectors impose fines on big companies and when that fine reaches the main office of the Inspectorate and someone within that office finds out about that fine, he says that this fine should be turned down because this company cannot be fined.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

In Kosovo, May 1 is barely marked and leaves little trace of a day of workers’ rights. On the other hand, it has often been emphasized that the private sector stands out when it comes to the violation of workers’ rights. You run the Independent Trade Union of the Private Sector and emphasize that this union has the support of many workers in this sector. Why then is there no proper organization that would have a bigger impact, or a sign that things will not continue in this way?

This year, there will be an organization on May 1. There is a problem with the nature of our work because we are dealing with more than 60,000 companies, and each of them during a day commits a number of violations. If a certain company delays the payment of salaries, another does not pay [pension] contributions, and yet another one has the problem of long working hours — all these things make our work more difficult for the organization of a protest or a march. Add to this the fact that as the president of this union, I do not have the authority to gather a high number of protesters.

Having this in mind, I believe that the best form of organization is to exercise direct pressure on companies. This has produced results, by either increasing salaries or addressing other problems. But again, I state that there are big problems and we still have a lot to do as things will not just resolve themselves for future generations.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This Q&A is a response to reader questions during our #IWantToKnow campaign on the violation of workers’ rights. The #IWantToKnow campaign has been supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kosovo.