Perspectives | Workers' rights

Unearthing stories from Bulqiza’s underground

By - 01.02.2020

Elton Debreshi, head of the Bulqiza United Miners’ Union (SMBB), talks to “Organizata Politika” activist Gresa Hasa.

On November 17, 2019, Bulqiza witnessed an inspiring event when AlbChrome miners publicly announced the founding of a new union in the town square. This was a voluntary response by the workforce against the old union’s dysfunction and allegations of corruption. 

In a reality where going to work every day signifies either victory over death or loss in the face of it, these miners felt that their humiliation, ridiculous wages and normalized enslavement should no longer be tolerated. Therefore, they found a solution to gain the rights they were denied through a structured organization in an active and democratic union.

In this initiative, as activists from the “Political Organization,” we offered all of our help to the miners in terms of the organizational and legal aspects of the workplace.

However, just five days after the announcement of the new union, Elton Debreshi, elected for a three-year term as chairman of the SMBB, was fired without notice. On the other hand, the SMBB showed its strength immediately when, through solidarity and fruitful organizational work, it succeeded in provoking a respectable protest with the support of most AlbChrome miners, resulting in a strike and freezing production for over a week. 

The demands made to the company were clear and non-negotiable. They included raising salaries, revising rates, getting paid for the days they were on strike, and returning Elton to work.

The mainstream media in the country did not cover the protest, although the protests increased and continued for more than a week after Elton, his colleague Beqir Durici, chairman of the SMBB Union Council and responsible for its finances, was also fired. After him, Behar Gjimi would have his turn and, lastly, Ali Gjeta was fired.

Those who are willing to speak out about their experiences are the miners from the new union — but they have rarely received the media space their cause deserves.

The company’s fierce fight against its workers only began because the workers chose to exercise their constitutional rights by organizing a union.

Of course, we activists, like the miners themselves, are interested in learning why AlbChrome  chose to respond this way to the new union that represents the vast majority of workers in the mines. We want to know why AlbChrome has refused to enter into a new collective agreement with SMBB. But above all, we want to know what Samir Mane, the owner of not only AlbChrome but an oligopoly business chain in Albania and abroad, fears in this whole situation. 

However, credible answers from AlbChrome have hardly been forthcoming.

Those who are willing to speak out about their experiences are the miners from the new union — but they have rarely received the media space their cause deserves.

Wanting to help change that, I sat down with Elton Debreshi to shed light on the new union, his engagement with it, family responsibility and Bulqiza — from a deeply personal perspective.

Gresa Hasa: How was the idea of creating a new union conceived? 

Elton Debrkeshi: The idea for the new union has been discussed among miners for years. However, only in May did we manage to get a considerable number of signatures to initiate the process to legally establish the SMBB, which was recognized by the Court of Tirana on October 15, 2019. 

The conditions that we work in are not only challenging, but also dangerous, seeing that every day we go deep underground and face death. Even when we manage to escape death, we cannot escape the illnesses that come as a result of our continuous exposure to humidity, gases and the overall lack of security. In Bulqiza, we often say with irony that there are no elderly people in Bulqiza, and to a certain extent this is true, because anyone who works in the mines barely reaches retirement age. 

The mines have many issues. I worked as a searcher miner for AlbChrome up until recently when I was dismissed from work. The role of searcher miners is to break the front lines of the rocks to reach the chrome. We break the rocks open and we search for chrome. You never know what will happen during this process, how the rocks will break down. Moreover, the mine is under extraordinary pressure and there is the risk of hydrogen gas explosions, which can take the lives of miners. 

Moreover, in the part of the mine where I worked, temperatures are extremely high. The deeper you go, the hotter it is. Sometimes the heat can suffocate you. This becomes worse when there is humidity. The combination of these factors causes asphyxiation. Different materials can start  falling while you are working. It is a double-sided blade. 

And most importantly: We are all alone! There is no one else with us down there, just ourselves, our friends and the help of God. AlbChrome did not provide emergency services. There are a group of experts. We usually see them eating and drinking like pashas together with the director, who keeps them close to himself. These experts get to the scene only after the injured miner has received first aid from his friends.

In this situation, many miners have lost their fingers and toes, have injured their shoulders and heads etc. Three times I had to rip open the jaws of my colleagues, who had fainted from the many toxic gases that circulate in the mines. I was also there when my friend Eduard Xheka was crushed by a wagon, or when my other friend Elton Hoxha was injured and I had to react quickly to help him as best as I could. 

"We don’t care about anything besides our rights, our basic rights not only to have our lives protected, but also to live dignified lives."

Elton Debreshi, Bulqiza United Miners' Union

Since Bulqiza’s mines were opened, 364 miners have lost their lives and thousands of others have been injured. The state doesn’t care! The media doesn’t care! The owners treat miners as their slaves, thinking of their lives as numbers, but for us and our families, our lives are all we have. We don’t think that we deserve to die in these conditions. 

So due to all these reasons, including the abuse inflicted by the old union and the fact that it still functions as a ghost union, we decided to give a voice to the underground and take responsibility in our own hands. 

SMBB doesn’t care about political parties, unlike the old union that feasts together with them. We blame the three main political parties, and the corrupted unionists Kol Nikollaj and Taf Koleci, for violating the rights of miners. We don’t care about anything besides our rights; our basic rights, not only to have our lives protected, but also to live dignified lives. 

The media have censured our attempts to secure humane work conditions, our strike, the violations committed by AlbChrome and their threats. Without a doubt, we were aware that something like this would happen, considering Samir Mane’s power, which he has extended to the biggest television channels in the country, which function as his marionettes. 

However, we will not rest until we bring the truth about Bulqiza to light. We will convince Albania’s citizens as to what is happening in this city. Bulqiza has spirit! A just initiative has been established, and it will serve employees of every sector in Albania, not only miners.

How do you see AlbChrome’s position in relation to SMBB?

The dismissal of my friends and I was an unjust, illegal and vengeful decision from AlbChrome, not only toward us and our union, but all the other miners. Samir Mane and his representative at AlbChrome, Luan Saliaj, are desperately trying to intimidate miners and suppress SMBB.

What these gentlemen don’t understand is that the depths of the mines teach us about the value of solidarity, sincere work and trust in our friends. Because down there, your life is in your friend’s hands, and his life is in yours. Our union stems from this solidarity. 

"The concerns of Bulqiza’s miners are the concerns of society as a whole."

Elton Debreshi

Compared to how the old union functions, SMBB is something new. In our basic document, the Statute, we’ve decided that the union will not be led by only one person, but by the principles of democracy and inclusion of all members. One man alone, however determined he is, can be corrupted and blackmailed, but they can’t do that to all of us. 

The most important decisions about the interests of workers are made by the General Assembly of Union Members. The other body, The Union Council, has expanded a lot. It has 20 members, and it implements the Assembly’s decisions. The director is a representative of the union and of the decisions that are made by the majority of members. The first mandate of the director of the union and members of the union council is one year long. After the end of this mandate, through free and democratic voting from the majority of members, representatives are elected for three year mandates. 

This organogram implies not only organizational facilitation, transparency, democracy in decision-making and proper functioning of the union, but also the ideological essence of it. Bulqiza’s miners have been abandoned by the state, the media and other important institutionalized structures, but not by their friends, the whole city of Bulqiza, and the people of Albania, because the concerns of Bulqiza’s miners are the concerns of society as a whole.

I am now unemployed, and being unemployed in Bulqiza is a death sentence, much like work in the mines. This is because Bulqiza has no other opportunities for work and survival, only the mines. I am the head of the family, a father of three. My wife is unemployed. There are no textile factories or call centers in Bulqiza. My children expect me to bring food to the table. How can I explain to my kids why there is suddenly less food for them?

There are two alternatives: Either my friends and I will submit and continue to work in scandalous conditions so that Samir Mane can become richer with our blood, or we will stay together and fight this evil and injustice, not only for ourselves, but for the next generations of miners — because our lives and dignity cannot be bought or violated.

This is exactly what Samir Mane fears, the fact that SMBB will serve as an example of unionist organization in other employment sectors. This is a man who has become rich through abuse. He has created a chain of hundreds of markets, supermarkets, household electronics businesses, hotels, tourism companies etc. not only in the Balkans but also beyond. He is afraid of the idea that employees will get organized and put a stop to his criminal impetus by demanding that he be held responsible. 

What is a day like for a miner in Bulqiza?

I live seven to eight kilometers from the city. As a result, I wake up at 5:20 in the morning to get ready for work, which starts at 7:00 a.m. I pray to God each day that no miners will die. Sometimes I eat breakfast, but other times I have no appetite due to stress.

There are miners who do not have the luxury of eating breakfast because they have no food at home. They skip this meal altogether. Whoever has food, eats. Those that don’t go straight to work.

Before I rush to get a van to take me to Bulqiza, I hug my wife and children, hoping that I will be reunited with them in the afternoon. I spend the whole day in the gallery, and if I’m lucky, I return home after five p.m. 

After work, those that can, have a coffee or buy food for their children. Nevertheless, the children don’t care about what’s in the bag when their fathers come back home. It doesn’t matter if it is empty. It’s important that their fathers come back alive and well. This is a day in Bulqiza. This was what my days were like before I was fired from work.

What does it mean to work in the mines?

There are many jobs. There are more than 50 miners like me, who are charged with breaking rocks and finding chrome, starting from four stories under, 480 meters underground, going thousands of meters deep.

Then there are the workers who clean the front lines, the wagon drivers, the movers, the signalers, and the transporters who take the chrome out of the mine and give it to the women who clean and select it. They work three shifts, and also work during winter, just like the men. They keep their hands in water all day for a monthly wage of 280-320 thousand [old] Lek wage (230-260 euros).

These women are the shadow of Bulqiza. No one talks about them. Usually in strikes we shout “Minatori, minatori, minatori!” [word that refers to male miners] and often we disregard women. I must criticize myself and my friends for this, and I want to point out that women are the arteries of Bulqiza.

There were cases when children went home from school and didn’t find their parents there.

Elton Debreshi

In Bulqiza, there are no employment opportunities for them, and usually when their husbands die in the mines, they take over the responsibility of caring for the family, so they have to collect chrome from the chrome leftovers to keep their families alive. In the winter, sometimes the roads are completely blocked from snow, and often these women have to walk from the surrounding villages to go work the third shift. 

There are also tens of women who have experienced the same fate as their husbands, brothers, fathers or sons. Besides the ten to fifteen thousand [old] Leks per day (8 to 12 euros), they receive no compensation in case of an accident. Often the only “reward” was that they were able to get away with their life. They’ve spent their lives trying to bring food to the table by working in Samir Mane’s mines, who continuously feeds off Bulqiza’s blood.

There were cases when children went home from school and didn’t find their parents there. This is more than pitiful… It is revolting! 

What are the wages and contributions of a miner?

There is something that we call “special treatment” and it has been preserved from the system of the past. I am talking about the food that the company gives to miners before they go inside the mines. With the arrival of democracy and establishment of unions, this treatment was translated into monetary values. So in addition to their wage, they receive money for food. But the sum hasn’t changed since then.

With this supplement, our wages vary from 450 thousand to 550 thousand [old] Leks per month (370-450 euros). If we remove the “special treatment,” our wages are 320 thousand to 420 thousand [old] Leks per month (260-345 euros). 

In our work contract, we have an additional wage at the end of the year that is called the  “thirteenth wage.” However, it is not a gross wage, rather it is taxed by the state. My thirteenth wage can go up to 350 thousand [old] Leks (around 285 euros), and if Samir Mane makes a big profit from chrome, he’ll give each of us an additional 200 thousand [old] Leks (around 165 euros). This happens only if he reaches a certain profit level. If not, we don’t get this sum. 

Elton Debreshi says that there were cases where family members of miners who lost their lives in the mines did not receive the compensation that they are entitled to. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

What happens when a miner is injured? What compensation do they receive?

When we get injured, we are pressured by the company not to make it public, to not speak to anyone. In particular, we are told that this information cannot be given to the media in any case. In fact, before we are transported to the hospital, the director of the company, the head engineer and the chief of production arrive there before us. They are the ones who speak to the doctor in the miner’s name, reaching an agreement that is most suitable for them.

For example, the doctor can sign a simple report for a two week long medical leave and the issue is closed there and then. We do not receive any compensation for the family if we get injured. There were cases where miners lost their lives in the pits and their families did not receive the sum of 60 million [old] Leks (around 49 thousand euros) that they are entitled to. Some of these families have employed lawyers and promised to give them half of this sum just so they can get half of it for themselves.

What is the value of a miner’s pension?

Those of us that get to live to an old age are lucky, because miners generally die young. And I don’t mean that this happens just because of the depths that swallow the miners one after the other. Even when they escape death in the mines, they often suffer from illness. Many of them suffer from different kinds of health issues: Some have issues with their lungs due to the humidity, some have eyesight issues, some memory issues, and others suffer from irreparable damage as a consequence of accidents they’ve had.

A miner who has worked in the pits for thirty years received a pension of 240-280 thousand [old] Leks (196-230 euros) per month. This is an insult! They do not take into account that these men are still the heads of their families, therefore they are not only responsible for themselves, but also for their family members.

How can a miner set his priorities with this pension? How should he pay for his medicine and doctor visits? How should he pay his water and electricity bills? How should he bring food to the table for his family or fulfill other basic household needs? What can this person do in cold, snowy Bulqiza that doesn’t provide opportunities in agriculture, for example? Bulqiza is a synonym of only one word: Mine. 

Three years ago, the Italian investigative TV show “Le Lene” broadcast interviews with Bulqiza’s children who do not go to school because they have to collect chrome to secure an income for their families. Are there many children who work in today’s Bulqiza?

I saw that show and I remember it well because it was also broadcast by some media in Albania. Our television channels chose to speak about Bulqiza for as long as their curated stories convey mercy, rather than presenting a critical opinion or seeking accountability from all those who are responsible, who have robbed and destroyed Bulqiza.

I remember that at the time, Rama labelled the Italian show a “cauldron,” which is shameful for many reasons. First of all, because he insulted the just, objective and correct work conducted by their whole staff, who came to Albania to investigate what the Albanian state and media fail to do. Second, because the show brought to light certain truths that made the prime minister uncomfortable and stained the false image that he uses to present Albania abroad. Third, because his position of power doesn’t justify the use of such language to describe media and journalists.

"There are many cases in which children were pinned oddments of chrome, and we had to get diggers to get them out, or in other cases we used our hands and nails to get them out alive."

Elton Debreshi

However, the prime minister can vomit poison as much as he pleases, but neither he nor anyone else can undo the fact that Bulqiza is the true face of Albania. Bulqiza represents the destitution, oppression and revolt of our whole society, as a consequence of the ruin caused by unscrupulous politicians such as Rama, in cooperation with bloodthirsty oligarchs like Samir Mane.

The only thing that it showed was the truth. In fact, the journalist didn’t manage to just portray how grave the situation is in reality. In Bulqiza, there are hundreds of children who have left school to collect chrome so that they can help their families, because some of them have disabled fathers, others have mothers who suffer from health issues, some have only one parent. There are ten year olds who are carrying chrome on their fragile backs. 

There are many cases where children were stuck under the chrome stocks, and we had to get diggers to get them out, or in other cases we used our hands and nails to get them out alive. I am a father myself. My wife just gave birth to our third child. I cannot even imagine a reality where I am not alive and my wife and children go out to collect Samir Mane’s chrome just to make some money to have at least a bit of food. 

I remember the case of a 13-year-old boy in Bulqiza who was pinned under leftover piles of chrome while he was collecting one day. It was his mother’s birthday, and he wanted to give her a gift. Although his father had told him not to collect chrome, promising him that he would give him money so that he could buy his mother a gift, the boy didn’t listen because he knew that his father had no money, and that it was an empty promise to keep him from going. A parent’s intuition doesn’t fail. The boy was badly injured that day! Although he escaped death, he still suffers from severe health issues to this day.

Elton says that he worked in Greece for a while, but after he returned he was unable to find a job anywhere else besides in the mines. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

Moreover, as if this wasn’t bad enough, often the ones that go out to collect chrome in this way are labelled as “thieves.” “They are the thieves of the owner’s chrome,” but the chrome has no owner. The chrome belongs to all of us. The chrome belongs to all Albanians, but it has been seized by Mane and his collaborators, just like they’ve seized the coast in the south, and just about every other natural and mineral treasure. 

If you could choose, what profession would you choose?

You can’t do anything else in Bulqiza. You have no other place to work besides the mines. I’ve tried to go abroad as well. A few years ago I migrated to Greece, where I worked in construction, as a repairman, whatever honorable work I could find. But they sent us back, together with some other Albanians at the time, and then, especially after starting my own family, I put my head down and entered the mine. I had no other choice. But they sent us back, together with some other Albanians at the time. Then, especially after starting my own family, I put my head down and entered the mine. I had no other choice. 

I wanted to continue my higher education, but my family couldn’t get me to university. I had no money. I’ve never had money. I am the third generation in a family of miners. My father was a miner, and so was my grandfather, and his father before him. I started to work in the mine at the age of 20, and now I am 30 years old. 

Nevertheless, I must say that I’ve always had a passion for painting. I believe that God gave me this talent, but I don’t paint anymore. What could I possibly paint now? The figures of miners? 

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.