In-depth | Montenegro

Workers living on the system’s margins

Montenegrin workers in a search for their rights.

By - 19.12.2017

Mother to a six-month-old girl, M.C. (36), was fired from her job after she told her employers that she was pregnant. Up until then she worked in a store as an adjunct worker, which meant that she had to sign new contracts every three months.

While talking to K2.0, she didn’t want to give her full name due to fear that she wouldn’t be accepted by any new potential employers, that she would be ‘labeled.’ She said that one of the first questions she was asked at a previous job interview was whether she was married, and if she plans to start a family.

“Then, I didn’t know that I would become pregnant. I was married, but we didn’t plan to have children,” M.C. remembers. “When I found out I was pregnant, I waited for some time to tell my boss. He was hostile, as if I had made some big mistake. After a few days, they summoned me to the boss’s office for a talk. The director told me that my contract wouldn’t be prolonged. I found myself in the position of having no income when I needed it most.”

Labor standards should be enforced by the Montenegrin government’s ‘Market Inspection’ arm of the Administration for Inspection Affairs of Montenegro. When asked why she hadn’t reported this to the inspectorate, M.C. said that she didn’t believe they would do anything about it.

“Report it? Report it to whom?,” she asks. “The Inspection knows that this is happening, but they still don’t do anything about it. They are all connected. You already know how all of this works here. People find out quickly. This is a small town. If I had reported it, probably others would find out about it. Then I could really say ‘goodbye’ to all jobs.”

The Montenegrin transition towards capitalism, as with other countries in the region, saw the shutting down of tens of thousands of jobs, and workers’ rights have deteriorated many times.

Montenegrin workers’ basic rights are often violated, and women find themselves in a particularly difficult position. Photo: Dejan Kalezic.

Working in the informal sector is a problem that the state has issues addressing, due to both the lack of interest in solving the problem and socially irresponsible employers. Trade unions warn that women are a particularly vulnerable category in the job market, and reveal that they are aware of a number of cases involving women losing their jobs if they want to become mothers.

Poor position of workers

In the past ten years, Montenegro underwent radical economic and social transformations. From the economic boom and the sudden inflow of foreign investments after declaring independence, up to the economic crisis period that spilled over from the global level into the Montenegrin market.

These turbulent times have resulted in high unemployment rates. According to data from the State Statistical Office, in the second quarter of this year, the number of people employed was at 188,000, whereas the number of those unemployed at the same period was around 40,000.

However, the state’s statistics aren’t representative, since according to official estimates of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the informal sector is home to some 47,000 workers.

In its most recent progress report on Montenegro, the European Commission pointed to this problem, stating that the situation was “critical, since every third person works in the informal sector.” However, a proper reaction of the state and its bodies is lacking.

The Administration for Inspection Affairs claims that compared to a comparative period in 2015, the number of “informal sector” workers is significantly lower, and these cases are mostly present in the tourism sector, trade, construction, and traffic sectors.

This institution’s primary task is to control the informal sector where it is at its most conspicuous — to protect workers from not being paid their salaries, being pressured into doing unpaid work, overtime or working during holidays, and ensuring mandatory contributions are made.

Statistics, however, show that they are most focused on the irregularities during the course of the tourist season. In three summer months during the last year, they found close to 10,000 irregularities and issued fines amounting to 2.5 million euros.

A particular problem exists in the area of workers’ rights when it comes to the payment of salaries. Most employers pay part of the earnings via banks, whereas the second part is paid “in person.” Estimates suggest that as many as 18,000 workers employed in Montenegro work this way.

Only on the basis of this, due to avoidance of paying taxes and contributions, the state budget is damaged by around 190 million euros. However, since the general socio-economic situation in the state is at a dissatisfying level and poverty is widespread, the number of those who believe in the state system is decreasing, as well as the number who dare to report their unsavory employers to the state inspection.

Neoliberal model applied in Montenegro

Srdjan Kekovic, the secretary general of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro (USSCG), claims that the status of employees cannot be considered satisfactory. He lists low wages, extended hours, lack of pension contributions and inadequate safety measures as just some of the problems.

Talking to K2.0, Kekovic also highlights another problem — working during holidays. Even though the laws are clear on this issue, a large number of construction companies and retail outlets work during holidays.

Kekovic believes that this is a consequence of the irresponsibility of the Ministry of Economy, which hasn’t been able to adopt a by-law passed in 2013, that prescribes the criteria and rules for issuing permits for working during holidays.

Srdjan Kekovic, secretary general of the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro, points to a series of ways in which employers violate workers’ basic rights. Photo: Luka Zekovic.

“For this reason, Market Inspection will not act according to our requests, claiming that without the by-law they don’t have the authority to sanction employers,” Kerkovic says. “On the other side, we believe that every employer that doesn’t have a permit for working on holidays, as prescribed by the Law, is misusing their employees’ rights, and that Market Inspection should have to sanction this type of behavior, since the employees aren’t to blame for the state not fulfilling its duties.”

An additional problem is that although employers should, in accordance with the valid General Collective Agreement (OKU), calculate increased wages for holidays, a large number of employers don’t apply this in practice. Moreover, no sanctions are being applied in these cases.

Kekovic claims that the labor laws in Montenegro are increasingly neoliberal, which suggests that employers’ rights are on the rise, unlike employees’. “In this situation, an efficient protection of employees lies in association, that is to start trade unions, in order to protect their rights from violation,” he stated.

Kekovic outlines the principle that should govern these unions as being ‘all for one and one for all.’ “If employees unanimously stand up in the protection of their colleague, they create conditions for protecting themselves if they are exposed to unlawful and ill-founded conduct from their employer,” he states. “The message is clear, it is easy to break one person, but hard to do it to an organized group.”

A particularly vulnerable category

M.C. says that retail jobs are very difficult and that an employee has to work for more than eight hours a day, with only one day off during the week. “This happens only if no colleagues are sick or don’t have other obligations,” she adds.

She says that there were times when she worked for 15 days straight without a single day off for a monthly salary of 220 euros. “I literally couldn’t cover travel costs or buy myself a sandwich every day,” she recalls. “There was so much work to do. From stacking shelves and cleaning the store, to unloading the trucks. We do all of this. I wish we knew exactly what our duties were.”

However, as with most employees at chain stores in Montenegro, she didn’t have an alternative. Violating rights, miserable wages, and enforced overtime are the cruel reality of tens of thousands of employees in this sector.

Workers fight for their rights by demanding changes and better working conditions, but so far this struggle has faced many obstacles. Photo: Luka Zekovic.

Regarding M.C.’s dismissal, representatives from the The Administration of Inspection Affairs explained that the Market Inspection could not question the legality and justification of the dismissal, because the termination of contracts is final and can only be contested before the competent court, or the Agency for peaceful resolution of labor disputes.

USSCG points out that they are aware of the situation which women face, and that they are a particularly vulnerable category in the labor market. Women who want to have children are especially vulnerable, like M.C., who lost her job for that very reason.

The “Parents” Association have repeatedly pointed out that this is a problem that most future mothers will face. Their legal representatives explain that there are no ways for pregnant women to find adequate legal protection.

In principle, the Labor Law of Montenegro protects women during pregnancy. However, the same law allows the employer to not prolong the contract for the employed woman who is on maternity leave and employed for a certain period of time.

Under article 119 of the new draft Labor Law, that should be adopted this year, pregnant women would finally be protected from losing their job while on leave, because employers will have to extend their contracts for a certain period of time until the termination of maternity leave.

“The employer cannot cancel the contract of an employed woman due to pregnancy or because she used her right to leave due to the maintenance of her pregnancy, or for maternity leave, parental leave, adoptive, and foster care leave,” says the document that was the subject of a public debate.

From the standpoint of USSCG, the problem of this discrimination is well known. They especially emphasize that Montenegrin society isn’t sufficiently fighting to “eradicate this deviant phenomenon.”

According to a 2015 report from the United Nations’ Montenegro office, women are paid less for the same job by as much as 18 percent.

“Current research shows that women are less likely to advance in their workplace, they are paid less than men, they are more exposed to misuses such as [forced] overtime, denial of days off, sexual harassment,” Kekovic said.

According to a 2015 report from the United Nations’ Montenegro office, women are paid less for the same job by as much as 18 percent. The same report stated that women make up half of the human resources in the country, but that they take part in entrepreneurship by a percentage of less than 10 percent.

The EU has the same standpoint. They believe that in the field of equality of women and men in regard to employment and social policies, state support is still highly limited both in terms of financial help and the sense of providing services.

The European Commission’s most recent progress report stated that: “The critical labour market situation continues to be a key issue. In the coming year, Montenegro should in particular: increase the allocations for the active labour market measures targeting youth, women and hard to employ people [and] repeal the legislative measures discouraging woman participation in the labour market.”K

Feature image:  Dejan Kalezic.