In-depth | Labor

New workers, old problems

By - 20.11.2023

Workers coming from abroad face challenges in Kosovo.

On a Saturday in Mitrovica, amidst the noise of construction sites, residents were doing their daily shopping, raising their voices to haggle with vendors.

Near the market, Donaldo had his head lowered as he counted steel rebars for his fellow construction workers, who had started laying the foundations of a building. The 25-year-old came to Kosovo from Nigeria three years ago. He was used to being asked what kind of work he does.

“I’m trying to understand you, but I can’t,” he answered, when asked if he prefers to communicate in English or Albanian. He keeps on working, his face glistening with sweat in the early October sun.

After seeing Donaldo trying to communicate with us, a man, who later introduced himself as the owner of the company, came out of the office in front of the construction site.

“He is in his working hours,” he said emphatically.

Donaldo left the accessible area and joined 10 other workers, most of them Kosovar, in an underground pit around ten meters deep, which they had dug to lay the foundations. The area was unsafe and hard to access, so the conversation ended there.

The pit was also unsafe for Donaldo and his colleagues, who were working without proper work attire, helmets, appropriate shoes, gloves, or safety belts — basic protective gear for construction workers.

“He doesn’t work for us. He is a footballer. He plays for Vushtrri football club. In the meantime, he comes to work for us,” said the man from the office. “He has documents, because the football club has organized his paperwork. But he has free time and comes here to work. We have nothing to hide.”

It was midday and a match between FC Vushtrria and 2 Korriku was about to kick off in Prishtina. It seemed unlikely that Donaldo would leave the construction site to go and play. This was confirmed by Agim Maloku, president of FC Vushtrria, who said that FC Vushtrria does not have a player named Donaldo.

Despite our best efforts and staying for a while at Donaldo’s construction site, he never managed to tell us about his experience in Kosovo, the work conditions or how he is treated.

“He came with a friend. But he [the friend] left. He returned to Nigeria,” said one of Donaldo’s colleagues in passing.

53-year-old Mehmet Ture came from Türkiye to Mitrovica five years ago to work as a manager at the Viprint printing company.

Ture, who spoke using a mixture of Albanian and Turkish, said that in Kosovo he is paid less for his 35 years of experience, but he doesn’t complain. “It is more comfortable here. In Türkiye [health] insurance is expensive — there are a lot of expenses. In Kosovo, the salary is lower, but other things are better,” said Ture.

Mehmet Ture came from Türkiye five years ago to work as a manager for professional industrial printing machines.

As Ture walks through the company, workers gather around him. “Could you come and have a look at this? It seems to me that the colors the machine is printing are too warm,” asked one, and “Do we dare to print it like this?” asked another. Without hesitation, Ture, recognized by his colleagues as a driving force in the workplace, approaches the printer and checks the color.

The lack of Kosovar professionals who know about printer maintenance has forced the owner of Viprint, Visar Idrizi, to hire workers from abroad. Ture is not the only one. Idrizi has hired three other workers from abroad, while six more are in the process of obtaining work visas.

“We are planning to hire around 10 foreign workers. They come from Türkiye, Bulgaria, India and Germany,” said Idrizi. “Our industry is developing, since the need for new machines and products is increasing, the need for people with experience and specific education is also increasing. There is a lack of professionals in this field in Kosovo.”

The owner of the company where Donaldo works sees things differently. “There are workers in Kosovo, but they are not interested in working. It is not true that they are not being paid well. We don’t pay a salary less than 600 euros, not even for ordinary workers,” he said, while adding that the workers themselves are spreading misinformation about the lack of workers.

Some attribute the lack of workers to migration while others argue that there is a lack of qualified workers. Others maintain that there is no shortage of workers, but a lack of interest in employment. Nevertheless, workers from other countries are choosing Kosovo as a destination to find work and a better life.

The job seeking process for foreign workers is often facilitated by recruitment agencies. The Government of Kosovo does not help workers obtain work visas, improve labor market conditions or protect workers’ rights.

Workers coming and going

Different entities, which present themselves as job recruitment agencies, serve as a bridge between employers from Kosovo and job seekers from around the world, mainly from South Asia.

This has already become a well-known practice for employers and construction workers. “Three or four days ago, an agency asked me if I would like to hire workers from Pakistan,” said Donaldo’s employer. When workers coming from other countries to work in Kosovo were mentioned, a young man who was working in another construction site replied, “agencies are bringing them to Kosovo.”

In Mitrovica, as well as in other municipalities, Donaldo and Ture have dozens of colleagues who came to Kosovo with the common aim of finding work. Another construction company that works mainly in Mitrovica and Vushtrri has about six employees from Bangladesh. However, despite our efforts to talk with these employees, the owners of the company did not allow anyone to approach us. The owners also refused to speak to us, on the grounds that they have nothing to say on the matter.

Employment agencies that predominantly operate through social media recruit workers for job opportunities in Kosovo. Recently, a Facebook page issued an urgent call for citizens of Bangladesh about job opportunities in Kosovo in sectors such as construction, agriculture and hospitality.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, 1,857 requests for residence permits in Kosovo were submitted in the first six months of this year. These requests resulted in 1,814 temporary residence permits for work purposes being granted. In the last three years, there has been an increase in applications for residence permits. In 2022, there were 3,221 requests, or 23.5% more than in 2021, when there were 2,607. In 2021, there were 2,607 requests, 21.3% more than in 2020, when there were 2,148, which means that from 2020 to 2022, the number of applications increased by 49.9%.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora, requests for entry visas in Kosovo are mostly from Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, China and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While workers from abroad are coming to Kosovo, Kosovars continue to look for work elsewhere.

According to the 2022 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on labor migration in the Western Balkans, Kosovo has the second highest emigration rate. The report also notes that migration for employment has increased over the years. In Switzerland, the number of work permits issued to citizens of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro was 10 times higher in 2019 than in 2011.

Out of the OECD countries, Germany hosts the largest concentration of Kosovar immigrants, accounting for 60% of emigrants from Kosovo. Germany experienced a significant increase in immigrants from Kosovo from 2021 to 2022, with 44,000 or 15% more individuals. In 2022, Germany faced its largest ever labor shortage, with 1.74 million vacant positions. Responding to this challenge, the country implemented a series of reforms to migration legislation in 2023. These reforms included reducing bureaucratic procedures for obtaining visas, creating job opportunities and not requiring university degrees. These changes helped to facilitate the process of foreign workers entering the German labor market.

While migration for employment reasons from Kosovo to western European countries is nothing new, the dynamics of this migration may change after visa liberalization. Many believe that Kosovars will use this opportunity to travel in search of work.

According to the Chamber of Trade and Industry in Kosovo, an organization started in 2016 dedicated to representing the interests of businesses in Kosovo through networking, counseling, services and advocacy, there is a shortage of qualified workers in Kosovo.

While the Chamber of Trade is concerned about what awaits Kosovo after visa liberalization, Hysen Sogojeva from the Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism dismisses the concern that many workers will leave. “Europe is no longer the Europe it once appeared to be. Even young people have started to realize this. If you are a good worker, you can earn more in Kosovo,” he said.

For Hysen Sogojeva from the Chamber of Hospitality and Tourism, visa liberalization is not a concern when it comes to the structure of the workforce.

Idrizi from Viprint, who has already hired several workers from abroad, thinks the recruitment of foreign workers is mutually advantageous. “These people help the creation of jobs by training young people. We are all beneficiaries,” he said.

However, the instability of Kosovo’s labor market concerns one of the young laborers who was working on a building in Mitrovica. “Here, you work your whole life and can barely afford to buy a house,” he said, exhausted, as he filled up his water bottle. “You get exhausted working and in the end you have a low wage. And then you hear people saying, ‘the younger generation don’t want to work.’” 

Every day, construction workers in Kosovo, including Donaldo and his colleagues, work in a high risk environment.

In August 2023, the Independent Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo said that 17 workers lost their lives in the workplace. This number differs from the Labor Inspectorate’s data which states that 14 workers lost their lives at the workplace in the period between January and August 2023.

A 2022 report published by BIRN notes that the process of handling workers’ complaints about the violation of labor rights, safety at work and other issues faces major challenges. The data from this report show that Kosovo’s institutions have failed to build a communication system to identify labor law violations and workplace injuries. The report also notes that the justice system continues to be negligent in the handling of cases involving workers’ rights.

K2.0 asked the Labor Inspectorate about the treatment of workers from other countries, potential cases of abuse or discrimination, working conditions and the most common workplace violations, but despite numerous attempts, has not received an answer.

In addition to the risks, especially in the construction sector, the labor market in Kosovo is generally insecure, characterized by high levels of informality, instability, low wages and institutional neglect. 

Foreign workers and the law in Kosovo 

As the institutions have lagged behind in ensuring proper and stable employment for Kosovars, according to the Chamber of Trade, they are also not doing enough to facilitate the integration of migrant workers into the market.

According to them, Kosovo is stagnating in implementing procedures for granting work permits to foreigners. “Continuous delays, non-responsiveness and the lack of staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in embassies represent only some of the barriers faced by those that wish to work in Kosovo,” said the Chamber of Trade. K2.0 contacted the Ministry of Internal Affairs for a comment, but has not received a response. 

The criteria for obtaining a residence permit in Kosovo for employment purposes are outlined by the Law on Foreigners. In addition to valid travel documents, health insurance, proof of professional training, employment contract, proof of residential address and sufficient funds for living in Kosovo are required. Processing these permits often takes months, while the temporary residence permit for work purposes is only issued for six months to a year.

Idrizi from Viprint, who aims to hire 10 more workers from abroad, admits that the procedures are slow. “The process of obtaining visas is slow; it should be faster since entrepreneurs are the ones who develop the country,” he said. 

Visar Idrizi from Viprint believes that the workers coming from abroad help to develop the Kosovo market.

The Chamber of Trade criticized the government for not developing adequate policies for the faster integration of foreign workers into the labor market. The Government of Kosovo has not yet come up with any concrete strategy for foreign workers and did not answer K2.0’s questions as to whether they plan to have one in the future.  

The disputed Law on the Minimum Wage in Kosovo remains a concern, as it increases the possibility of abuse of workers, including those who come from other countries. This law was approved in the second reading by the Assembly of Kosovo on July 13 of this year, but it has not yet been signed by the President of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani. After being approved in the Assembly, it faced strong objections and was sent to the Constitutional Court for revision due to concerns that it is not comprehensive. The Court has not yet given its verdict.

The approval of the Minimum Wage Law in the Assembly was criticized by the Chairman of the Independent Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo, Jusuf Azemi, who called on President Osmani not to sign the law, which, according to him, does not consider the Independent Union of the Private Sector of Kosovo’s request that the 2023 minimum wage should be 450 euros and increase by 100 euros in 2024.

Despite all these challenges, Idrizi from Viprint, who sees the employment of qualified workers from abroad as an opportunity to increase jobs for local workers, hopes that the government will help entrepreneurs by easing the hiring process.

“Entrepreneurs are the ones who develop the country, who find ways to move things forward and make the impossible possible. I’m talking about the entrepreneurs I know. They are people with great energy, people who love their country and who contribute to culture,” he said.

Feature Image: Artina Muçiqi