Jasmina Husanović is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She received her PhD from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK in 2003. Her research experience is in the field of cultural studies, political philosophy and feminist theory and her recent publications are concerned with critical pedagogies, witnessing and cultural production, focusing on the emancipatory potentials in the triangle art – theory – activism. She is an activist for more than two decades, and is currently engaged in various local, regional and international initiatives aiming at the politics of equality.
May Day was once a symbolic day of struggle for the labour movement and then an official state holiday. How is it commemorated in your country?
May Day celebrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in all the Yugoslav successor states, have a complex history over the last several decades, to say the least. My childhood memories from the 1970s and 1980s spent in Tuzla, an ordinary industrial town in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, tell the story of big family and friends’ feasts in the countryside on every First of May: an all-day outing with 50-70 people of all generations, enjoying food, nature, play, discussions, good humour, music… Lots of peers to spend time with, both for a child and a teenager. In the evening, the news was dominated by reports from sports and cultural events all over the country; in schools, just preceding the holiday, we usually had assignments (in various media) dedicated to Labour Day. Then the war in the 1990s altered the everyday life and social realities of people to an extreme degree. So, how has May Day survived (I pose this question in a sardonic tone)? All sorts of catastrophic things happened in various Bosnian and Herzegovinian towns (especially in the days of May) during the war, and now May is full of commemorations, this time of war crimes. In the meantime, the socialist fabric of society and public governance was destroyed, and Labour Day somehow survived, but in tatters. It is still important, but was reduced for many to a holiday and social event solely in the private sphere, and yet full of the rituals of working class commoning. On the other hand, the post-Dayton ‘transition’ hit hard the unions at the very outset and has brought them to their knees in all possible respects, as it has done to the whole of society, economy and politics. In the last two years, and 20 years after, in the aftermath of the 2014 protests, we have witnessed some new attempts to mark Labour Day with protests, demonstrations and other public activities by unions, workers and activists in various cities. This is encouraging.
The post-1989 transformation led to changes in the role of the unions in society. Could you tell us a bit about what it was like before and what it is like now? In particular, how would you say that these dynamics have impacted on the left in your country, considering that traditionally Trade Unions have acted as the backbone of left mass movements?
I have sketchily touched upon this subject in my previous answer. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the normalization of terror in everyday life originated in 1992, with the outbreak of the war, and a particular process of the annihilation of life, labour and means of production continued with privatisation after 1995. All the unions have been hit in this dissolution – those that were biggest and strongest, perhaps most vital for the common good, were hit the most, in order to neutralize their resistance to privatisation (often with criminal elements imbuing it), to the ruthless laws of the free market, or to the neoliberalisation of the whole labour sphere, even if they remained nominally public. Class (i.e. interethnic) solidarity is also seen as a huge threat by the nationalist and new bourgeois elites. The left in Bosnia and Herzegovina (by that I mean what was the left, and what is now left of it, in the actual representative/party system), capitulated a long time ago in the face of a series of economic, social and political hyper-crises and emergencies. However, a potential for a left mass movement exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, evident in the emergence of much stronger and new networks of workers, unemployed and activists in the last two years.
Many commentators feel that globalisation has had an important effect on worker organisation (race to the bottom and threat of outsourcing, the rise of services, precarity, anti-labour legislation, etc). What are some challenges you have noticed and how have unions responded to these?
Let us see the local faces of globalisation from my perspective. The precarisation of all labour in Bosnia and Herzegovina is demonstrated by the alarming economic figures in the last two decades (for instance, in Tuzla, the number of jobs is still only two thirds of the number of jobs available in 1991, and it is no exception in this regard), and especially in the last few years. At the moment, the rate of unemployment in the industrial region of Tuzla is 54%, and for people younger than 35 it is between 70% and 80%. Public budgets are barely hanging on, totally dependent on loans, and overburdened with the costs of public administration. Corruption abounds. More and more privatised and public companies go bankrupt, and only at a few of them do workers go on strike or engage in protests. Their struggles are disregarded (to say the least) by the authorities that be – public or private, local, national or international. At the moment, we see pressure to borrow more from the banks or the IMF, and recently, pressure from various elites for parliament to adopt a new Labour Law that would erase entirely workers’ rights. Many unions, however weak, problematic, disunited or disorganised they might be internally, are beginning to voice their discontent and are preparing to resist this new comprador Labour Law.
Eastern Europeans are both sending and receiving countries for migrant labor. What campaigns have been made in your country on migrant work either in reference to workers in diaspora, or to new migrant workers?
The emigration of people from Bosnia and Herzegovina to foreign countries (especially Germany, as well as some other EU countries) has been increasing, with 2% overall population leaving the country last year. Most of those are young people still in higher education, or unemployed, and working people with skills in IT, and the health or construction sectors. No public campaigns have been organised when it comes to the issue of migrant work, diaspora workers or new migrant workers. Perhaps some leaflets were distributed by local and international organisations working in this field, perhaps some conferences happened somewhere, but there is no genuine wider public debate about the problems at stake. Not even about the braindrain that is already taking a huge toll even for activist organisations and initiatives concerned with questions of equality and social transformation.
Female work – and especially care work – has been one of the main “exports” of Eastern European countries. At the same time, women who have stayed in the region have often been hired as domestic or unskilled workers by outsourced factories. Have the unions in your country addressed these issues, and has gender been a topic of their work?
These are not exactly the main problems with female work that affect Bosnia and Herzegovina. As elsewhere, women workers are unevenly (i.e. more) taking up the burden of economic crisis and austerity, and the dissolution of capacities for public action when it comes to the questions of public good, including gender and sex equality. Which means that the catastrophe of experience in all pores of society has pushed the working class and poor women to the bottom of the normalized terror, where we can see a spiralling of violence and exploitation, in the workplace, in the family, and so on. The unions in Bosnia and Herzegovina rarely take these issues seriously, or focus on gender in their topical work, except in some of those cases where women are the majority of members in a particular union (e.g. the retail sector), but this is not the rule. Hence, the interweaving of the questions of gender, labour, equality and solidarity is a major task and a priority for any aspiring union activism in the future.