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“Our office is an international hub where the international language of exploitation is spoken”

Note from LeftEast editors: This interview with Goran Lukić of the Counseling Office for Workers, Ljubljana, was conducted and translated within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO). The original will be published by Mašina. The illustrations included in this article are from Ivan Mitrevski’s comic book about the Counseling Office for Workers, Nevidna življenja [Invisible lives] (Kamnik: samozal, 2023).

Tibor T. Meszmann (TTM): Goran, you are one of the founders of the Counseling Office for Workers (Delavska Svetovalnica), which was established more than seven years ago in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Could you tell us about its prehistory, how and why it was established and in what circumstances?

Goran Lukić (GL): The Counseling Office for Workers was preceded by a project set up in 2010 within the framework of the Association of Independent Trade Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS). That project focused on the “Integration of unemployed migrants.” After its completion in 2013, our team received funds from the Slovenian Employment Office to continue for another two years, after which neither the ZSSS nor the Ministry of Labor showed interest in funding the project further. That’s when we decided to establish an association, the “Counseling Center for Migrants.” We realized the name narrowed down a rather large group of workers who needed counseling, and therefore in 2017 we changed it to “Counseling Office for Workers” (Delavska Svetovalnica).

TTM: How many of you worked on the project within the ZSSS?

GL: There were four of us initially. We did not work only in Ljubljana, but all over Slovenia. At that time, the ZSSS had a very strong regional network, and we were able to use all the offices that were part of it. So this first project was the prototype for a network of counseling centers that we wanted to build. After the project ended, we had to start from scratch with one office in Ljubljana. 

Institute for nice walks.
Arif. A beam fell on him at a construction site. Every hundred metres he has to stop and massage his right leg.
Radenko. Since he fell off the scaffolding, he walks by rolling from side to side, so that when he walks he looks a bit like a lego brick figure.
Šahida “As if one leg was shorter than the other.” A forklift crashed into her. She twists her right knee to make it difficult to walk. To top it all, the little finger on her left hand is completely numb.
Andreja: “I have the feeling as if someone has a grip on my feet.” A forklift hit her; she has problems climbing down the stairs.
Adrijana: “Oh.” She sounds like a horny girl but she is not. Since the accident at the factory she is walking with sticks.
Hilmija. At the construction site he broke his pelvis. Just one more clumsy fall and he’ll end up in a wheelchair.

Ideal worker: A centipede. “Can I work abroad? gladly!”

TTM: When you first started the project in 2010, the workers who arrived, I assume, mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, were caught in the economic crisis.

GL: That’s right. The crisis affected workers as early as 2007, and again, year after year, until 2010. Then, in 2013, the crisis struck again. Through this, we learned what is the worst that can happen and how important it is to inform workers not only about employment, but also about social rights and social security. When you offer counseling, people come. But with that you also accept responsibility: once you open the door, you must not close it. When we ran out of project funding in 2015, we knew we didn’t want to close the door.

TTM: Why did and why do migrant workers need such an organization in a country like Slovenia—or in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe? What is their legal status and what are their working rights in general? What do they lack the most? 

GL: The vast majority of workers who come to Slovenia are economic migrants. Until now, these were mostly construction workers, which means that the migrations were male-centric: the man moved first, then his wife and children. In these cases, all the paperwork had to go through the husband/father, who worked twelve-hour shifts on the construction site and didn’t know what he needed to do, didn’t even have time to familiarize himself with the existing regulations and procedures. There was also a language barrier, as most workers didn’t know Slovenian. These people had to sort out a pile of papers, and renew them year after year—the circles of administrative hell.

“I brought you some plum brandy. Home made. So that you don’t fill up only on sweets. It’s not healthy.”

TTM: Workers are highly dependent on the employers in these cases. But when it comes to an economic crisis, in the case of transnational employment and migration, workers suddenly have no employer. The crisis of 2008 showed this for the first time in our region.

GL: I remember when in 2007–2008 migrant workers lost their jobs as in a chain reaction. Then Slovenia essentially showed them what it means to be a migrant worker. While it was good that they lived and worked in Slovenia, no one asked them how they lived, and when the crisis started, it came to light that Slovenia had concluded bilateral agreements, for example, with Macedonia and Bosnia, which stipulated that workers had the right to unemployment benefits only if they had a permanent residence. This was discrimination compared to Slovenian workers, who have this right even in the case of hybrid residence. To this day, we do not know how many workers had to return to Bosnia and Macedonia because they didn’t fulfil the conditions to receive unemployment benefits.

Now you have a situation where employers demand that bilateral interstate agreements require workers to spend the first year of work in Slovenia with the same employer. As far as we know, the employers’ intention is to extend this obligation to five years.

TTM: The status of migrants also changed a lot over the past decade. Can you tell us about the most recent legal changes in Slovenia, which prevent workers from coming with their families?

GL: This is similar to the situation in 2007, when social rights provisions did not apply to migrant workers. Instead of learning from that crisis that it cannot secure labor force in this way, Slovenia has continued on the same path.  

An ordinary day in the Counseling Office
“I’ve been working in Slovenia for a couple of years now and I’d like my wife and baby to come here too. So that we are together again.”
[Barbara, counselor, typing:] “Without insurance. We two will now prepare the paperwork, and start the whole procedure. We can talk again when there’s something new. OK?”

The changes in regulations regarding foreign workers made by the previous government have clearly shown that foreign workers are seen exclusively as labor force, whereas their families, if they were to move, are seen as a security problem, as potential social “parasites” who will “exploit” the social welfare system. What were these restrictive regulations?  It became more difficult for foreign workers to prove they have enough means to live in Slovenia; the time requirement for family reunification was extended from one to two years of residence in the country, which was the maximum allowed by EU regulations; and the requirement for knowledge of Slovenian was tightened, while there were not enough courses and teachers, so it was difficult to meet. The most recent changes in regulations have reversed the time requirement for family reunification to one year, and the language requirements have been somewhat loosened. But the very same set of regulations is still in place. 

TTM: You say on your website “We are an organization dedicated to the advocacy, protection, promotion, and development of the labor, social, and status rights of workers and other vulnerable groups.” How would you describe in more detail the organization’s work? 

GL: A lot has changed in the past 15 years. Many of the people we worked with at the beginning are no longer around. They went either to the East or to the West. New generations of foreign workers arrived, not only from Bosnia, Serbia, and North Macedonia, but also from India, Nepal, Bangladesh. Slovenia used to be a small ex-Yugoslav labor market, it has only just opened to global migration flows. Now there are more and more large infrastructure projects involving foreign companies that bring their workers.

We see increasingly more people come to the Counseling Office for Workers with the same problems, but they speak different languages. There are interesting situations when we have workers from Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Serbia, and Bosnia present. People start talking. Although they do not share a common language, they understand each other because they are in the same situation, because they get the same pay slip that no one understands. So sometimes our office becomes an international hub where the international language of exploitation is spoken.

“I would like to make a comic about the office and about the people who are coming to you.”
“Sure.” [Tap tap tap]
“A journalist once said that our workers are invisible. … Make yourself invisible too, observe, and you will gather enough stories for your comic.”

TTM: Who runs the office? 

GL: There are four of us. Only one of our colleagues is a lawyer. The rest of us are from other fields: social work, business science, administration. One of our former colleagues used to be a manual worker and joined our team after a physical injury. As I like to say: we are very complementary in our joint work.

TTM: What does your typical day look like, if there is one at all?

GL (laughing): There is no such thing as a typical day. Our clients used to start coming at 7 in the morning. Fortunately, we managed to get them used to coming at 8, so now we have some time to prepare better. People come in large numbers, so it sometimes looks like a crowded agency. Workers’ questions concern state administration, social rights, retirement procedures. Young workers come who have no idea what is happening on the labor market, but know that something is not right when you work three hundred hours per month. We receive overworked cleaners who are moved by employers between three locations in one day; construction workers who fell from scaffolding from a height of several meters. There are many cases of work injuries, not only in Slovenia, but also in Austria and Germany. So we need to put together a list of best practices to address all these different problems.

In our turn, we learn from all these cases, for example how to establish networks for resolution. We managed to develop a template for how to address and solve certain situations, but something new always happens.

Basically, you never know what the day brings, you just know that it will bring many problems.

TTM: How many members does the organization have and what is the funding model? Would you say the organization belongs to the workers themselves? 

GL: We have two thousand members. We can say it is a kind of worker co-ownership because, in essence, we are financed by the workers. Membership fees make up approximately 85% of our finances, and we provide the rest through small projects. We keep it this way because we really want to be an organization for the workers and to advise them efficiently, and you can’t do that if you are working on projects, maybe even several of them at once. At the very beginning of our work, we decided that we would go in that direction: as many members as possible, as few projects as possible.

An ordinary day in the Counseling Office
[Elmir, counselor:] “Look, if he’s started to be late with paying wages and is looking for excuses, that means he’s started manipulating you. Sign the letter. Leave the scoundrel. Find yourself a different job. With that one, you will only have problems.”
[Marija, advisor] “I will discuss and prepare things and you can come pick them up today.” [Out of paper]

TTM: You have brought many of cases before the courts over the years. What were some of the big challenges and some significant victories?

GL: We don’t have our own lawyers who passed the bar exam and could represent injured workers in court. Instead, we have a cooperation agreement with a law firm whose four lawyers represent our members. They work very efficiently, and as one of them told us, they also learn from our cases. They also sometimes scratch their heads and wonder what is going on. They fight both with state institutions and with employers.

Foreign workers are usually ready to resolve their situation through the courts. And as far as success is concerned, if we have all the necessary documentation, we usually win the cases. The employers simply have nothing to overturn the case, so it happens that they don’t even appear at the trial.

Of course, trials are not resolved overnight. They can take months and it is sometimes difficult to explain this to our members.

TTM: Are you facing any other challenges?

GL: Of course, there are plenty. It happens, for example, that our members are angry and argue with us because some important document has not been processed, but there is nothing we can do about it but call on the institution in charge. I understand, of course, why they are angry, they need those papers to continue working, to stay in the country.

Cooperation with the labor inspectorate can be challenging. We communicate a certain problem to them, and instead of going to inspect it unannounced, they let the employers know ahead of time and then comb through the records that the employers have prepared for them and find nothing.

We have a responsibility towards the workers. We have to tell them what is realistic. “If you go to court, it will last. If we go through the labor inspectorate, we don’t know what the outcome will be.” To which the workers say: “Then what should we even try?” So, these are big challenges.

TTM: What are your current issues and future plans?

GL (laughing): To survive another day. Sometimes it really is like that. There are also lighthearted moments. For example, we had a very dear guest in the office, a border collie, and the chemistry changed. So we said we should also have a therapy dog to relieve our tensions.

How to proceed, in what way? I think the way we organize our work is very important. Now I’m thinking specifically about the administrative part. Because it sometimes happens that a problem for which we are not prepared appears unexpectedly. It sometimes happens that the situation is chaotic and that also slows down our work. So I would say that the most important thing for us right now is to organize work in the most efficient way possible within the center.

Goran Lukic is among the founders of the Counselling Office for Workers, a non-governmental organisation which has directly advocated for workers and their rights for more than eight years, by phone, through social media, mail and in person in their office in Ljubljana.