Fellowship | Workers' rights

The short-term contracts denying workers their rights

Thousands employed through poorly regulated public sector contracts.

Jeton* says he had applied for about 100 open calls in both the private and public sectors. But he still hadn’t found a job; in many cases he wasn’t even invited for an interview. 

The odyssey to find a job ended in March 2019. Convinced that it was almost impossible to find work in Kosovo, Jeton decided to seek help from a relative of his who was a member of a political party. He was promised a job and then an open call was published, tailored to suit him.

He was finally employed. Every month he receives a net salary of 341.15 euros. This means he is able to earn money for himself and his family of six who live in Drenica. But most of his wages are spent on rent and food in Prishtina. 

“I’ve been living in a rented apartment for the last few years, because it’s impossible to travel every day,” Jeton says. “I rent an apartment with two other friends. We pay 150 euros per month. Thankfully I’m not married and have no children, otherwise I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Jeton was only able to find work thanks to short term service contracts known as SSAs. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

The 31-year-old finished his bachelor’s and master’s studies in political science at the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Philosophy. He also studied criminology at the Faculty of Law. Despite his education, he says that he was unable to find a stable job and could only find short term jobs that lasted for a few months at a time. He secured the job he has now at a ministry through a Special Service Agreement (SSA), also known as a special service contract.

“The call was just a formality,” he says. “There were some very technical questions. In fact, the evaluation commission wasn’t adequate for that open call.”

He says that while he is officially employed with a special service contract, he actually has a very ordinary job inputting data into the ministry’s electronic database.

“We do many of the things that they [regular employees] are supposed to do in their daily work,” Jeton says. “We input data about cases that [took place] years ago. In normal circumstances, each civil servant must register this data, rather than having three or four thousand cases pile up.”

“The salary is low, but we hope that we’ll be employed as civil servants and we’ll have good salaries"

Arta, who is employed on an SSA at the Municipality of Fushë Kosova

Although Kosovo institutions have a legal right to engage people through SSAs, any engagement in this manner must be limited to six months. And the contracts must only be used for special services that are not provided by regular civil service staff. 

Until September 2019, workers employed for periods shorter than six months were required to be contracted through SSAs, as foreseen by the Law on the Civil Service. This law states that in order to engage individuals through SSAs, a simplified recruitment procedure must be implemented. The exact procedure is not specified.

Article 12 of the law stipulates that SSAs are regulated by the Law on Obligational Relationships, which covers commercial contracts for both objects and people. 

“They called me on the phone and told me that I would start working at the Municipality the next day,” she says. “Although we work at the Municipality, we have contracts with [a] ministry.”

Arta says that 12 other people started working at the Municipality at the same time as her. Since February 2019, she has received a monthly net salary of 220 euros.

“The salary is low, but we hope that we’ll be employed as civil servants and we’ll have good salaries,” she says. “With this wage I can only cover some small expenses for my family of five.”

Arta says she got her SSA contract at the Municipality of Fushë Kosova because she was a NISMA activist. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

Arta’s initial six month contract was renewed for another six months. However, she is skeptical that she will be able to secure a long term job here.

“The chances of us keeping these jobs are slim, because there is not enough work for all of us,” she says.

Problematic employment with legal violations

Employment through SSAs are considered problematic by NGOs that monitor state institutions for principles of good governance, transparency and corruption. 

A 2019 study conducted by Democracy Plus notes that special service contracts that are made by Kosovo institutions are being used mainly for long-term employment. This is against the Law on the Civil Service. According to this law, regular employment must have open calls, something that is not always applied when hiring people through SSAs. 

Legal violations happen the moment that temporary employment turns into a permanent contract. This fails to respect the legal obligation of publishing an open call.

Visar Rushiti, the author of the study, says that the special service contracts have been misused by institutions for political party interests and to secure votes.

“For these [SSA] contracts there are no open calls, managers in institutions have recruited party militants, even when these individuals did not have the necessary qualifications for these positions,” he says. “Usually, these contracts have been used by institutions to employ individuals for six months, and then integrate them as regular staff after they’ve learned the job. There are many cases where certain people have stayed for longer than six months, even for years. This is completely illegal.”

Rushiti says that institutions should make plans for personnel engagement a year in advance. Such planning would eliminate the need to hire many people through special service contracts. 

Visar Rushiti says better planning would help avoid so many SSA hires. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

“These needs must be approved by the Ministry of Public Administration and the Ministry of Finance,” he says. “Then people can be recruited in a conventional manner to positions that are required by the institutions.”

Agron Demi from the good governance NGO GAP Institute says that institutions claim low budgets and limited employment numbers as a justification for SSA employment. According to them, these factors prevent the recruitment of employees through regular contracts. Because of this, they hire employees that are not paid from the salary budget, but are paid through other budget lines, such as, goods and services, which enables ad hoc recruitment.

“Public institutions must be more transparent when hiring people through special service contracts,” Demi says. “They must publish data about objectives, duration, salaries and the criteria required for employment in these positions. Additionally, violating the principle of equal opportunity in employment for public service positions constitutes a severe violation of human rights.”

Agron Demi says the institutions make claims about low budgets and limited employment numbers to justify using SSA contracts. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

In September 2019, the Law on Public Officials, which replaces the Law on the Civil Service, entered into force, centralizing the civil service employment process; it was subsequently suspended until February 28, 2020 following a successful Constitutional Court challenge by the Ombudsperson Institution, which argued that 32 articles of the new law threatened to undermine its independence. 

Until the complaint is resolved, SSAs remain regulated under the old legislation. But when the new Law on Public Officials enters into force, it foresees their regulation by public procurement legislation.

Rushiti says that this is a positive change, since legislation such as the Law on Public Procurement is designed to ensure a more transparent process: 

“Each contract that is higher than 1,000 euros must be made public. Additionally, the following details regarding these contracts must be made public: Criteria and working conditions, position, salary, duration. To renew the contract, an open call must be published, increasing competition for the person hired.”

Central and local level institutions are overloaded with people that have been hired through SSAs.

However, he also says there is a need to implement clear procedures through bylaws so that there is greater regulation in terms of SSA employment. But to date there has been no sign of an administrative instruction or other such instrument that would clarify processes.

Government overload

Central and local level institutions are overloaded with people that have been hired through SSAs. 

According to a National Audit Office report (NAO), in 2018 there were 2,493 people employed through SSAs. Although the number of employees is concerning, in the annual report the Auditor found that there was a decline compared to 2017, when there were 2,929 people employed in this manner — the number reduced by 436, or around 18%.

K2.0 received answers from some ministries confirming that this kind of employment still occurs. 

Some of the institutions that have employed the most people through SSAs in recent times are the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport, the Ministry of Diaspora and Strategic Investment (which under the new government is merging with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (now the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment). 

The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport had 116 employees as of 2019 with special service contracts according to data provided to K2.0. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

A list provided to K2.0 by the Ministry of Culture includes the names of people hired through SSAs in 2018-19. It is notable that up until August 2019, this ministry had 116 employees with special service contracts. Twelve were employed in the “Dr. Ibrahim Rugova” Presidential Residence as guides, guards and maintenance workers. 

One hundred and four were employed in other positions at the Ministry of Culture, as officials, guards and maintenance workers. Out of these 104 workers, 14 were employed without open calls. Four have been on SSA contracts since 2009.

The figures provided to K2.0 aren’t much lower in the former Ministry of Diaspora. Ninety-nine employees were hired  through SSAs from 2018 to August 2019. This ministry justified these contracts by citing busy periods when they have more cultural activities.

“This includes people engaged in activities during diaspora days in Kosovo and activities on Albanian culture days in the diaspora, as well as in activities in diaspora cultural centers etc.,”  the Information Office of the Ministry of Diaspora responded.

The ministry said that these employees were hired through open calls. The same ministry hired  12 people on special service contracts in 2017, according to data provided by the National Audit Office report.

The ministry with the third most SSA contracted employees, according to K2.0 numbers, was the Ministry of Environment. However, data provided by the ministry with regards to the number of employees with special service contracts is very different from what was published in the audit report.

The Ministry’s Information Office said that in 2018 there were only 64 employees, one of whom managed to secure a regular contract. However, the Auditor’s report states that the Ministry employed 148 people through special service contracts, 67 of whom worked in the field, after being employed without any recruitment procedures. The auditor found that in this ministry 13 people who were employed for special services in 2018 were in fact fulfilling regular duties as security officials, administrators and environmental custodians. 

Employment through special service contracts also took place in 2019. The Ministry of Environment’s Information Office told K2.0 that in the first six months of 2019, 62 people were employed through special service contracts. This ministry did not specify how many of them were employed without open calls. While in 2017, 14 people were engaged through SSAs, without open calls.

According to K2.0’s research, of the ministries that provided data, the Ministry of Public Administration (which has recently been merged with the Ministry of Internal Affairs), the Ministry of Regional Development, the Ministry of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (since divided between other ministries) and the Ministry of Justice employed the lowest number of people through SSAs. Some ministries did not supply data.

From April to September 2019, 26 people were engaged through SSAs at the Ministry of Public Administration, while in 2018, it engaged 22 people in this way. Although the Ministry’s Information Office told K2.0 that these contracts were made within the legal deadlines and in accordance with the Law on the Civil Service regulations, the NAO report says otherwise.

The NAO said that in 2018, the Ministry of Public Administration hired 28 people through SSAs, while 14 of them worked for longer than six months; they were hired in permanent positions, which should only be for regular employees.

The Prime Minister’s Office also has employees with special service contracts. But unlike most other institutions, the Prime Ministry’s Office has employed people for special programs. Three experts were employed to develop the Millennium Challenge Corporation project, a U.S. federal agency that operates in 35 countries. Its focus is to fight global poverty through partnerships with individual countries. 

Employees with special service contracts are considered by many to be privileged in Kosovo’s labor market, where the level of unemployment is estimated to be around 30%.

In May 2019, through a decision made by the Government of Kosovo, funds were allocated for implementing the Compact Project for the Millennium Challenge Corporation, as well as allocating funds for fulfilling the government’s annual contributions.

Donjeta Gashi, former spokesperson for the Government of Kosovo, said that two experts were engaged as a result of a request made by former Deputy Prime Minister Fatmir Limaj. 

Gashi also said that 11 people are hired in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) Office for Categories Deriving From the War. She added that they were employed through SSAs, but did not say whether open calls were published prior to their employment.

The Prime Minister’s Office also hired six experts for the Serbia dialogue. The government spokesperson did not say whether the open calls were published prior to their employment. They were employed under six month contracts.

Public institutions have also utilized SSAs.

The NAO says that Kosovo Telecom (PTK) hired 178 people for a variety of duties in 2018, although it is unclear how many of these workers were employed through SSAs. Kosovo Telecom chief executive Bedri Istrefi initially requested our questions to be sent to him in written form. Then he did not respond to them.

Although the Law on Labour requires that public sector employers, including public enterprises, publish open calls when hiring, PTK failed to do this according to the NAO report. 

The Privatization Agency of Kosovo has also employed people through SSAs. According to the Ministry of Finance’s Annual Financial Report for 2018, the Privatization Agency contracted 29 people through SSAs in 2018. Despite K2.0’s attempts to get information from Privatization Agency officials, they refused to speak to us. NAO reports did not include data about the number of employees hired through SSAs in this agency.

National Audit Office reports findings show that in most cases Kosovo institutions do not publish open calls to hire people with special service contracts, discriminating against others.

The Auditor is clear that the hiring of employees for specific duties in regular positions, with no respect for basic principles of a fair, transparent and competitive process, is out of step with current legal obligations. It also increases the risk of under-qualified people being hired in certain positions.

Workers without rights

Employees with special service contracts are considered by many to be privileged in Kosovo’s labor market, where the level of unemployment is estimated to be around 30%. 

However, while SSAs provide opportunities for citizens who would have been unemployed otherwise, in most cases these contracts neglect the employee’s other labor rights. Employment through SSAs in government institutions, local institutions or public enterprises are often against the Law Against Discrimination, because there is no equal treatment. The three main pillars of this law mainly prevent discrimination in employment or promotion in both the public and private sectors. 

National Audit Office reports findings show that in most cases Kosovo institutions do not publish open calls to hire people with special service contracts, discriminating against others. Moreover, people employed through SSAs are deprived of basic rights such as annual leave and parental leave.

This is the case with 27-year-old Dafina Zeka from Prishtina. Dafina studied Economics at the University of Prishtina. Until September 2019, she was working at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (which has subsequently been merged with other ministries).

She initially worked as an intern for one year. Then she signed her first special service contract at the Ministry on July 14, 2017. She was employed as an “official for reviewing and approving cases” in the Business Registration Agency and received a gross wage of 400 euros from the state budget.

Her contract was regularly renewed. Therefore the soon-to-be-replaced Law on the Civil Service was violated, because it limits employment through such contracts to six months.

After working for more than two years, her contract was not renewed. Career civil servants have permanent contracts and they can only be dismissed in the case of severe violation. However, she did not have civil servant status because she had a special service contract.

She claims that this was done to enable the employment of a politically affiliated individual. 

“One week after they dismissed me, [the Ministry] opened an open call for my former position. They published the call specifically in the pre-election period,” she says.

Zeka also says that she was dismissed from work when she was pregnant. 

“They dismissed me without warning,” she says. “They simply asked me to hand in my office key. I was quite surprised.”

Dafina Zeka says that she will continue to fight what she claims is unfair dismissal from her SSA contract. Photo courtesy of Dafina Zeka.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry said that her dismissal had nothing to do with the fact that she was pregnant.

“Mrs. Zeka’s contract ended on 03.09.2019 and this has nothing to do with Mrs. Zeka’s pregnancy. The institution has no legal obligation toward officials who have this kind of contract, because this contract doesn’t ensure employment as a career civil servant,” the Ministry’s Information Office said in response.

One week after Zeka’s contract ended, the Ministry published an open call for a “database 2 officer.” Zeka applied for this position, which was similar to her previous one, but the call was annulled one month after she was sent an invitation for a written test.

“According to a notice from Mail Info [Ministry of Public Administration – MPA], the call is suspended, and all recruitment procedures in all phases are suspended, pending approval of regulations for the implementation of Law Nr.06/L-144 for Public Officials (LPO) from the Government of Kosovo,” the Ministry said.

For now, Zeka has filed a complaint to the institution where she was employed. But her complaint was rejected by the Commission for Dispute Resolution and Complaints at the former Ministry of Trade and Industry.

The Law on Labour states that the employer, be it in the public or private sector, has no right to dismiss pregnant women.

Zeka believes that the Law on Labour and the Law on the Civil Service must also protect people hired through SSAs. Zeka said that she will not rest in her search for justice. But this endeavor has been made more difficult because it is still unclear who is responsible for handling her complaint. 

Both the Independent Oversight Board for the Civil Service of Kosovo (IOBCSK) and the Labor Inspectorate say that they do not review complaints from employees hired through SSAs.

IOBCSK representative Behram Geci said that violations in employment through special service contracts are not dealt with by the board. All the board does in this regard is gather data about employment through SSAs for statistics and monitoring reports. 

Moreover, from December 2018, IOBCSK has not been operational because the board members mandate came to an end. In April 2019, six candidates were proposed to the Assembly after being selected from an open call that was directed by an evaluation committee comprised of Kosovo Assembly deputies. Although the procedures have been completed, the Assembly didn’t vote for the finalization of the board in its plenary session. Now the new legislature must form the IOBCSK board.

[In 2019] it was impossible to monitor and oversee,” Geci said. “We have no data from the institutions, because we remain in limbo.”

He claims that the SSAs are dealt with by the Law on Obligational Relationships, not by the Law on Labour.

If this is correct, then all those contracted in work based on the Law on Obligational Relationships would appear to be deprived of rights that stem from the Law on Labour, such as annual leave and parental leave.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for SSA employees to complain about their treatment. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

Employees engaged through SSAs are not dealt with by the Labor Inspectorate either. Valor Leci, acting chief labor inspector, says that the Inspectorate only oversees complaints filed by SSA employees in cases related to security or health in the workplace. 

The Inspectorate says that they mostly receive complaints from the public sector.

“What is interesting and paradoxical is that 70 to 80% of complaints come from public sector employees,” Leci says. “Complaints are mainly related to working hours, work contracts, etc. Although in the Republic of Kosovo there is a prevailing public opinion that rights are violated very often in the private sector.” 

Basic Court of Prishtina spokesperson Mirlinda Gashi said that the court has not received any criminal reports in relation to SSA contracts.

Meanwhile, the Ombudsperson Institution of Kosovo makes no distinction between complaining employees, be they from the public sector, the private sector, or employees with special service contracts.

SSA employees are at continual risk of having their rights violated, the Ombudsman’s office says. Photo: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

The Ombudsperson information office only spoke generally about the number of complaints from workers, even though K2.0 asked specific questions. They said that they rarely receive complaints from employees because employees fear that they might risk their jobs. When they receive complaints, they are usually from candidates who claim that they have been treated unfairly in job calls. 

Last year 76 complaints were filed for violation of employment rights. Forty-four were opened for investigation. While [in 2019], from January 1 to June 28, 27 complaints were filed. Sixteen were opened for investigation,” the Ombudsperson Institution said.

“I would leave this job today if I were to find a job in civil society or some other profession,”

Jeton, who has an SSA contracted job in the government.

According to this institution, the high level of unemployment has made for a situation where cases of discrimination are very rarely reported, because employees fear retribution from their employers.

Based on complaints filed from workers for human rights violations, the Ombudsperson Institution believes that there has been no clear progress and improvement in the situation. Worker rights are continuously violated, it says.

Meanwhile, the loopholes in monitoring, adjudicating complaints and the laws relating to SSAs appears to leave workers employed through these agreements without any protections in the workplace.

“I would leave this job today if I were to find a job in civil society or some other profession,” Jeton says. “But at the moment, I have nowhere else to go.”

He mentions only one option.

“I am waiting for a work visa,” he says. “The moment it is approved, I will leave Kosovo, because I’ve been applying for jobs for the last 10 years. I’ve failed to find one. You cannot sustain a family with these temporary jobs.”K

Feature Image: Naser Fejza / K2.0.

This article has been written as part of the second cycle of the Human Rights Journalism Fellowship Program supported by the European Union Office in Kosovo, co-financed by the project ‘Luxembourg support to civil society in Kosovo,’ financed by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and managed by Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF), as well as from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This program is being implemented by Kosovo 2.0, in partnership with Kosovar Center for Gender Studies (KCGS), and Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL).
Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0, KCGS, and CEL and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.