This text was originally published in RAD, a quarterly magazine based in Zagreb.
“The knife has come to the bone”, is a simple yet terrifying sublimate of the everyday existence of laid-off workers in Macedonia. It often appears as a slogan at protests organized in the country by the victims of the transition processes from the past 20 years. That slogan is also used by many workers to describe their working conditions or monthly wages.
Macedonia today has the third highest rate of unemployment in Europe (28% in 2014), highest income distribution inequality in Europe and beyond (Gini coefficient is around 40), 50.3% of the population lives at risk of poverty or social exclusion, while the percent of workers that are poor and live below the poverty line has been continuously increasing in the past years, reaching to 11.1% in 2012 (last available data). Average monthly net wage is the lowest in the region, close to 355 euro in January 2015, and according to the latest data, estimated 78% of the employees are earning less than the average net wage. In January 2012, Macedonia was the last country to introduce the Minimum wage Law. The minimum monthly net wage was set at around 130 euro (the lowest in the region), with a framework of three-year adjustment period, reaching to 155 euro in 2015. But in fact, the minimum monthly net wage was 101 euro if we consider the adjustment agreement intended for lowest wage sector in the economy – textile manufacturing industry, manufacturing of apparel, leather and products from leather (where 83.7% of total employees are women). The Minimum Consumers’ Basket that represents the minimum monthly living costs for Macedonian household of four is close to 522 euro, so considering previous statistics; it is really difficult to understand how the majority of Macedonian workers are able to survive the month.
Since the beginning of the transition in the early 1990s, workers’ rights have been continually diminished. This was done through continuous changes of the legislation, on the one hand, and by systematic violation and ineffective labour legislations enforcement, on the other. Workers right to strike in Macedonia is constitutionally guaranteed but highly limited. There are 27 laws with provisions regulating (for the most part, limiting) workers’ rights to organize strikes, and on top of that, since 2005 only registered unions are authorized to strike. The rules are so strict and numerous, and Government pressure is so strong that it is almost impossible to call for a strike, even in cases of a union with strong representation. Namely, in the autumn of 2014, the Syndicate for Education, Science and Culture cancelled the announced general strike in primary and secondary schools, after the Government managed to rush through a new legislation where it is clearly stated that in case of a strike, strikers shall be replaced by temporary teachers until the strike ends. Possibilities for strike or defending workers’ rights are even worse in the private sector, especially in the factories with the hardest working conditions and lowest wages, i.e. where they are mostly needed. Indeed, textile factories and some of the foreign–owned factories are famous for instant firing of workers who attempted to strike. Employers in these factories keep most of the employees on short-term work contracts, figuratively “on short leash”. Short-term work contracts, high levels of unemployment, complicated legal terms for strike, as well as the low union representations in the private sector factories, keep Macedonian workers frightened, helpless, humiliated and unmotivated in their struggle for better working conditions.
This short account of the labour rights, working conditions and wage levels, clearly points out that in neoliberal, post-social(ist) Macedonia the bargaining power all these years has been mainly on the side of the employers and the Government. One can wonder how is this possible in a country with an estimated 25% of union density, a percentage that is not negligible and is in fact slightly above the EU average (23%). Besides the relatively good union density in the country, most of the workers have justified doubts in the capacities and willingness of the Union representatives to protect labour rights and provide better collective agreements that can secure higher wages and better working conditions. In one recent public opinion poll, highest percent of workers (37.6%) stated that the trade unions’ role in protecting workers rights is very low. Trade unions leadership is often perceived by the membership and public as corrupted, under strong political influence, concerned only with personal interests rather than fighting for what is supposedly its main goal – representing and protecting worker rights.
There are four national trade union confederations (Federation of Trade Unions of Macedonia (SSM), Confederation of Free Trade Unions (KSS), Independent and Autonomous Trade Unions of Macedonia (UNASM) and the Confederation of Trade Union Organisations of Macedonia (KSOM) in Macedonia, consisting of close to 40 craft unions. In addition, there are at least 5 independent branch trade unions. The basic level of union organization in the public and private sector has around 2000 union organizations, which are by the law obliged to become part of a branch trade union. The highest union density is present in the public sector (education, health, public administration etc.), whereas in the private sector union’s ability to organize is drastically lower and more prevalent at privatized companies, i.e. those that inherited existing unions.
In August 2010, Economic and Social Council was established. The proclaimed aim of this body was to improve the social dialog at national level, involving representatives of the two largest trade union federations (SSM and KKS), the Government, and Employers’ Organization of Macedonia. The critiques of this Council are usually aimed at the model of representativeness, as well on the political influence on some of the trade unions representated in the Council. Trade union representatives in these past four years approved decisions or laws that were proposed by partners in the Council, even when those were damaging for labour rights and conditions.
New positive wave of changes came in 2013, when several non-“yellow” syndicates (Independent Syndicate of Journalists and Media Workers – SSNM, Confederation of trade unions – KSOM, Trade union of the diplomatic service – SMDS, Trade Union of the Judiciary – UPOZ and the Independent syndicate of the Clinical Centers – SSKC) and two leftist organizations “Solidarnost” and “Lenka” signed The Syndical Charter, joining forces in the struggle for protection and improvement of labour rights. In 2014 and 2015, they organized a May Day protest, setting demands concerning the minimum wage, and the right to strike. At the end of the same year they initiated mass protests and campaign against the law changes that imposed new additional social contribution for honorary workers and threatened with further growth of the precariat. The May Day protest with new demands was organized this year again, supported by a new branch trade union member. The number of syndicates joining the Syndical Charter is expected to rise, as it promises to strengthen the bargaining power of the workers represented by participating syndicates. Only strong, authentic, uncorrupted and united syndicates can secure greater mobilization, better labour rights and better future for every worker in the country.
Marija Bashevska is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Economics, University “Ss. Cyril and Methodius” – Skopje. She holds an MSc Degree in European economics and International Finance from the Faculty of Economics, University Tor Vergata – Rome, Italy. Currently she is a researher at “Reactor – Research in action”. She is part of the Leftist movement Solidarnost.