In-depth | Trade unions

‘These are not factories — these are sadistic torture chambers’

Workers across the region fight back against labor abuses and union-busting.

Wearing knee-high rubber boots and work clothes as she gives a tour of her garden in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Emina Busuladžić, now retired, exudes the same energy that helped her lead a yearslong struggle for the survival of the city’s DITA detergent factory. In this long fight to revive a factory damaged by war and a corrupt privatization process, Busuladžić has gone on hunger strikes, occupied the factory in the face of police resistance, led protesters through the streets and even once laid her body in front of a vehicle to preserve evidence of financial crimes related to the factory’s privatization.

A charismatic figure, she has become a symbol of the fight for workers’ rights across the region. But she’s not the only one. Struggles for independent unions and labor rights are occurring across Bosnia and the wider region.

In the transition from socialism to market capitalism it wasn’t only firms and businesses that transformed, unions and labor organizing did too. But few today put much faith in the large union holdover organizations from the socialist past, while smaller upstart independent unions are battling harassment and pressure from management in Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and beyond.

Anđela Pepić, a PhD candidate from Banja Luka who studies the role of trade unions in today’s Bosnia, says that though trade unions still have power, their role has been greatly diminished in past decades. With the transition from socialism to capitalism, she said, “trade unions were forced to scrape by, adjusting their operations to the new system.” 

This adjustment has been made harder, she says, by the efforts of political and economic elites to keep workers docile and disempowered. Union-busting is common, “exemplified by threats of dismissal and attempts to bribe union activists and leaders,” Papić said, adding that some trade unions are politically compromised.

Independent trade unions have been fighting an underdog battle for workers' rights across the region. Photo: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

Marko Miletić, editor of the Belgrade-based publication Mašina, which has a focus on labor issues, describes trade unions from socalist Yugoslavia as a buffer between the government and disgruntled workers. “They were efficient when it came to solving individual work-related problems, but they completely overlooked the collective, class struggle,” Miletić said. “In the 1990s, such trade unions were faced with the question: What is the role of trade unions in capitalism? Unfortunately, many of them are yet to find an adequate answer.”

Though states and employers have been pushing policies disadvantageous to workers, he says, there are still many people who fight to improve the position of workers. “I hope that some of those people will be able to breathe new life into the unionizing movement across the region.” 

An uprising in the detergent factory

Tuzla’s DITA detergent factory was established in 1977 through a partnership with an Italian investor from Genova. With new technologies and licenses from the west, it produced much of the detergent soap for Yugoslavia.

The factory continued its work until 1992, when the war disrupted production. For years after, the factory struggled to get back on its feet. It had lost its protected Yugoslav market, and cheaper products from western Europe flooded the Bosnian market. Eventually, in 2001, the government decided to privatize DITA.

When it went through its first of multiple privatization processes, the factory had 780 workers. Through years of mismanagement, suspicious loans taken by the new owners and dubious contracts, DITA shrunk and sputtered. By 2012 the owner closed the factory and started selling off equipment. Most of the workers lost their jobs.

When the DITA workers' union didn't step up, Busuladžić and others realized it would be up to the workers themselves. Photo: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

The total dismantlement of the factory was delayed by court cases and investigations into potential criminal acts related to the privatization process. By 2013, 119 workers remained, but they hadn’t received salaries, health insurance or pension contributions for months. Nevertheless, they refused to leave the factory. Busuladžić was among them. Despite their struggle and the widely reported accusations of the owners’ suspect actions, Busuladžić recalls that their union, which should have been leading the fight, was silent. It would be up to the workers themselves.

They subsequently escalated their struggle for their rights and Busuladžić agitated for them to start disobeying management. Lawsuits, accusations and strikes followed and Busuladžić was punished with a pay decrease and a shift in her job duties; instead of working in the laboratory as she had for years, she was now assigned to clean the toilets.

“The fools didn’t know they were doing everything wrong, they only made me stronger,” she said, almost a decade later.

Another strike from DITA’s workers began in early 2014. Soon workers from Tuzla and the surrounding areas joined the protests, and before long, the movement had spread across the country. What would become known as the Bosnian Spring raged across urban centers where people lashed out against government corruption and complacency in the face of widespread poverty and unemployment. By the time the protests subsided, a number of government buildings had been burned down and a number of regional government officials had resigned en masse.

Management tried to punish Busuladžić by making her clean toilets. Almost a decade later she said, "The fools didn’t know they were doing everything wrong, they only made me stronger."
Photo: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

In the end the workers of DITA won, but only partially. The remaining workers managed to start limited production again, but in the end, the only way to keep the company alive was to find a new owner who could reinvest and manage the firm’s debts. In 2015, DITA found a new owner who has since complied with some of the workers’ requests. But for Busuladžić it was the end of the struggle. She retired in 2017, but only after the new owner banned her from the factory, afraid she would lead another rebellion. When she left, the factory still owed her 65 months of salaries. 

Miners, oil workers and call center staff

After the fall of the Hoxhaist regime in the early 1990s, independent labor unions began to take shape in Albania. The organizers of these unions were fighting for their workers’ salaries and working conditions while at the same time they were in conflict with the old trade unions, holdovers from the socialist era who were still embedded with the powers-that-be.

“Trade unions have a glorious origin in Albania,” said Arlind Qori, a lecturer and an activist with Organizata Politike in Albania. “They were very powerful in 1991, when they managed to organize the working class almost everywhere. They even managed to hold a general strike in April 1991, which is the highest form of trade union organization. Workers from many sectors quit their jobs and went on strike at the same time.”

But this period of union power and activism was short-lived. They soon began to shrink and lose their power. “In 1992, the privatization process started and the privatization did not bring about the recovery of those factories, but in most cases it took the factories for scrap,” said Qori.

In recent years much independent union activism in Albania has been in heavy industries with a tradition of union power: mining and oil.

Unions are also forming outside the traditional sectors like mining and heavy industry. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

In 2020 oil industry workers established an independent union, the United Oilmen’s Union. The catalyst for the creation of this movement was the dismantling of the Ballsh oil refinery after a transfer of ownership. In that process 800 workers were left unemployed and months of their last paychecks were withheld.

The union led a series of protests, including a 42-day hunger strike. Led by men from the union, after 17 days a number of women oil workers took over and continued the strike for an additional 24 days. Sokol Dautaj, the head of the new union, says that the oil workers have felt abandoned by the old unions, which he believes are seeking to delay the legal process without bringing it to an end. 

Dautaj is now out of work due to the destruction of the refinery. What keeps him motivated in his labor organizing is the goal of claiming from the new owners the 13 months of wage arrears, totalling 8 million euros, for his refinery colleagues.

The United Oilmen's Union is working to claim 13 months of unpaid wages from the Ballsh refinery's new owner. Photo: Erisa Kryeziu / K2.0.

Independent unions have also arisen in less traditional hubs of labor organization. The union Solidarity formed in the halls of Albania’s largest call center company due to layoff. As Solidarity’s leader Tonin Preci said, “You had no protection as a call center employee” and they saw no hope from the classic existing unions.

During the pandemic, Solidarity led a fight against the installation of the cameras in workers’ homes, which management wanted in order to monitor their work. “We made all the necessary trade union movements and this was canceled as a rule,” said Preci, describing this fight as one of the biggest victories for Solidarity.

Later in the pandemic, Preci was fired from the call center due to union organizing. He mentioned eight other cases of colleagues who have been fired since going public as union members. They’ve started a case in court about the improper termination, but in the meanwhile Preci is finding it difficult to get a job in any other call center.

Arlind Qori says that it can be difficult for workers to form their own unions, independent from the companies or the authorities. “There is an intermediate period that is quite dangerous between the initiative to establish a union and having a sufficiently strong and widespread union among workers that would protect all workers, especially union leaders, from unfair dismissals,” he said.

‘These are sadistic torture chambers’

The South Korean-owned Yura Corporation cable factory began production in Serbia in 2010. They soon were operating branches across the south of the country in Leskovac, Niš and Rača. The factories, established through an agreement with the government, were touted as a source of thousands of jobs for an economically depressed part of the country. But soon after opening, complaints started to emerge from workers. As some claimed during May Day protests this year, “These are not factories — these are sadistic torture chambers.”

Though the Yura factory workers managed to unionize shortly before the pandemic in 2020, like union members at Solidarity in Albania, union membership seems only to place a target on the backs of the most vocal representatives. After Predrag Stojanović, a union organizer from Leskovac, spoke widely in the media about problems at the factory he was given a pre-dismissal warning that claimed he had “disclosed trade secrets.” 

Union activism continues, despite harsh responses from governments and companies. Photo: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

The claim escalated and Stojanović and fellow union organizer Zoran Marković were taken to court by Yura. The case is currently pending. “They filed a suit against us due to damages allegedly caused to the employer’s reputation and credit rating by us speaking out. In fact, the main reason was the fact that we unionized,” said Marković, who noted that there are many similar cases across Serbia.

The president of the Independent Metalworkers’ Union of Serbia recently filed a case against Yura, claiming that workers are denied daily and weekly rest periods and are forced to sign statements forgoing days off. 

Željko Veselinović, a representative of Sloga, the Alliance of Independent Trade Unions in Serbia, said, “The trade union side of Serbia has been made completely numb. Unions are on bad terms with each other.” He added that the situation is similar across the region. “If this trend continues,” he said, “I believe that they will disappear in the whole region because governments will be working towards their closures. Either there will be no more unions or there will be only unions that blindly follow the government.”

‘If you want to work, resign from the union’

The wood industry was once one of the symbols of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The oldest such firm in the country, Nova Dipo, has been running for over 180 years in a small place called Podgradci, just down the road from the town Gradiška on the country’s northern border. The company was state-owned during the socialist era and privatized in 2008. It seemed that things were going better after privatization but after a few years workers recall a period of maltreatment and harassment from management.

After a string of firings and threats, unpaid overtime hours and even being banned from using the toilet during work hours, some of the workers decided to form their own union. Around 140 workers joined right from the start.

According to union co-founder Milovan Tendžerić, management summoned the union members and said, “If you want to work, resign from the union.”

Milovan Tendžerić and Mila Šmitran, former Nova Dipo workers and union leaders, were forced out of their jobs. Photo: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

They received already certified statements on which they just had to sign in order to leave the union. After this step from management, only 40 workers remained in the union. The union’s attempts to get support from the sectoral trade union of Republika Srpska went nowhere.

Meanwhile, some workers were put on a temporary layoff and others were employed in their place. At least one was fired while on sick leave. Union leadership saw these actions as an attempt to break the union.

Miloš Šmitran, a former member of the union board, is another worker who was fired. “We were temporarily laid off in March 2020 before they started inviting us to return to work. But the precondition was to leave the union. I didn’t want to do it, so I was fired in the end,” Šmitran said.

He claims that the managing director repeatedly showed up at his door to say that if he left the union, management would allow him to return to work. He was even offered a better position to do so.

Instead, Šmitran opened a lawsuit against the company to demand two years and eight months worth of salaries, which the company has withheld from him. The court proceedings have dragged on for years and have been postponed twice so far.

The company has stated that unionization had nothing to do with the layoffs.

Tendžerić said that the union was in the end able to make little change. Today, the Nova Dipo union exists only on paper. Šmitran and Tendžerić recall how they were heralded as rebels in Podgradci. Today, Šmitran is tired and not willing to fight any more, while Tendžerić is getting ready for the other struggles.

Feature image: Adi Kebo / K2.0.

The regional program ‘RESILIENCE: Civil society action to reaffirm media freedom and counter disinformation and hateful propaganda in Western Balkans and Turkey’ is implemented with the financial support of the European Union by partner organizations SEENPMAlbanian Media InstituteMediacentar SarajevoKosovo 2.0Montenegrin Media InstituteMacedonian Institute for MediaNovi Sad School of JournalismPeace Institute and Bianet.

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0 and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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