In North Macedonia, textile workers mobilise in the face of impunity for employers and the violation of their rights

In North Macedonia, textile workers mobilise in the face of impunity for employers and the violation of their rights

“Here, we offer working conditions that are very different from those of other companies in the region,” explains Hristian Velkov, whose family owns one of the few factories in the country that comply with the country’s labour laws.

(Louis Seiller)

In the centre and at the entrance to the city of Shtip, murals catch the attention of passers-by. The thread, needles and, above all, the hands stand out amidst the usual football slogans and tags. These expert hands are those of the women textile workers in eastern North Macedonia. The artistic representations not only add colour to the grey walls of Shtip. “The women who work in the textile factories are the very identity of the region,” explains Kristina Ampeva, founder of Glasen Tekstilec, the organisation behind these militant murals. “We had to pay tribute to them, give them back their pride.”

For 70 years, Shtip has been the stronghold of the textile industry in North Macedonia. The sector is in decline, but it still employs nearly 30,000 people, a considerable number in this country of two million inhabitants.

Every morning, thousands of women workers are bussed to the many factories on the outskirts of North Macedonia’s towns and cities. Ampeva herself worked as a seamstress in one of these factories for nine years. This determined woman in her thirties has bitter memories of the experience, but it has fuelled her resolve. “There was no one to explain your rights or your working conditions, how much you should be paid, how many hours you have to work and how much overtime is paid, or who is supposed to help you if your rights are violated. Nothing was explained to us. That’s why we launched Glasen Tekstilec, to fight for the rights of women textile workers.”

In North Macedonia, hundreds of factories make clothes and shoes for Europe’s big brands. It is no secret how harsh the working conditions are in these factories, but the widespread violations of the labour law have long gone unchallenged.

Since its launch in 2017, Glasen Tekstilec has been collecting revealing testimonies on a daily basis. “The conditions in the factory were disastrous,” says Dimitrinka, in the organisation’s office. This former textile worker, aged around 60, was employed for more than 20 years in one of Shtip’s main manufacturing units.

“It was cold because there wasn’t even any heating. We had to bring our own sewing equipment. It was dirty. The toilets were always closed. We were paid less than the minimum wage!”

In 2021, when their company was experiencing difficulties, Dimitrinka and her colleagues were left without pay for more than three months. “So, we turned to Kristina for help. We asked her to mediate between us and our employers.” Thanks to her regular appearances on television, in just a few months Kristina became the embodiment of the struggle of the women in the textile industry, and the mouthpiece for their grievances. Her phone rings non-stop.

Every day, her organisation’s premises, decorated with huge posters depicting seamstresses as superheroes armed with needles and thread, welcome workers who are powerless in the face of their unscrupulous employers. They receive free advice, as well as practical legal help to defend their rights. Working hours not respected, wages paid months in arrears, unpaid overtime, maternity leave not granted, and so on: the members of the organisation take care of writing up their complaints and passing them on to the relevant institutions, such as the labour inspectorate.

The working class faced with the race to the bottom

Although the textile sector has been in steady decline for many years, it still accounts for over 10 per cent of North Macedonia’s GDP. Almost all of its production is for export, and the factories in the Shtip region work mainly for German, Belgian and Italian brands.

Having factories in south-east Europe is particularly advantageous for these large companies. “You have cheap labour, like in Bangladesh or China, but you’re in the Western Balkans,” explains Ampeva. “In just one day, you can send your production anywhere in Germany, for example. That’s what attracts these companies who have factories in Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia.”

A candidate for accession to the European Union since 2005, North Macedonia has reasonably protective labour legislation on paper, but it is rarely applied on the shop floor. The small country’s institutions remain fragile, and influential employers have little difficulty defending their interests with the decision makers. According to the specialists, the state’s control mechanisms are not working.

North Macedonia’s textile, leather and footwear industry union (Синдикат на работниците од текстилната, кожарската и чевларската индустрија) STKC, says it is trying to take action. “We react to every single violation of labour rights, through the labour inspectorate, the public ombudsman or legal action,” its president, Ljupco Radovski, tells Equal Times. But it is not always effective. “Complaints lodged by employees are most often ignored by the labour inspectorate and the judicial authorities,” says Branimir Jovanovic, an economist with the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW) and a former adviser to the social democratic government, between 2017 and 2019.

“In the rare instances where action is taken, the penalties imposed on companies are insignificant and the workers concerned rarely receive compensation. This discourages workers from reporting violations and, at the same time, encourages companies to break the law because they know there will be no repercussions.”

This clientelist system, which favours the employer, is one of the ills of many Eastern European societies, which have been embroiled in a never-ending ‘economic transition’ for the last three decades. Deregulation and privatisation have accompanied the end of socialism, and the working class has been confronted with the horrors of social dumping imposed by triumphant neoliberalism. The North Macedonian economy is still suffering from post-Yugoslav de-industrialisation, and political leaders are rolling out the red carpet for foreign investors.

“North Macedonia is geographically located in Europe, but it is a typical country on the capitalist periphery, particularly when it comes to labour standards,” explains Zdravko Saveski, a sociologist at the Skopje Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities (ISSHS). “If, for example, a Western company needs more flexible working conditions, which often means violating existing labour law, the government can help it to achieve this...even if it means changing the legislation. We saw this again recently with the Bechtel-Enka project.” In the spring of 2023, this powerful Turkish-American consortium is said to have pressed the social-democrat government to increase the legal working week to 60 hours.

Together with other civil society organisations, Glasen Tekstilec, STKC and the Federation of Trade Unions of Macedonia (Сојуз на синдикатите на Македонија - SSM) mobilised and succeeded in temporarily blocking the bill. Yet another threat to workers, while corruption scandals regularly tarnish the political class. According to a study by the Macedonian Centre for International Cooperation (CMCI), corruption is the number one concern of citizens.

Ten per cent of workers in North Macedonia live in poverty

On the strength of the expertise put at the service of women textile workers, Glasen Tekstilec has established itself as an interlocutor in social dialogue. The organisation has, for instance, contributed to a number of increases in the minimum wage, which has risen from €130 ten years ago to €320 today.

Ampeva and her colleagues also advise the few employers in the region who respect the labour legislation. One example is Hristian Velkov and his family-owned factory in Sveti Nikolé, a small town 30 kilometres from Shtip. “The working conditions here are very different from those in other companies in the region,” says the 22-year-old designer, who plans to take over the management of the factory after his father. “Our employees work 40 hours a week, and wages range from 25,000 to 34,000 denars (€400 to €560). Two extra days a month are paid at the hourly rate plus 35 per cent.” Glasen Tekstilec is soon to become a fully-fledged trade union, and the young boss is not opposed to it setting up in his factory. “We need to offer good conditions so that young people stay and work in our country.”

At a time when galloping inflation linked to international tensions has exacerbated inequalities and made work even more precarious for private sector employees, the issue of pay is at the heart of workers’ demands. According to many experts, the textile industry may not survive the current turmoil. “Nearly 10 per cent of workers in North Macedonia live in poverty, one of the highest rates in Europe,” warns economist Jovanovic. “At the same time, the richest one per cent in the country earn 14 per cent of the total national income, and these economic disparities are most manifest in the textile factories. No one wants to work in this sector when wages are so low, the work is hard, conditions are poor and the workers know that the owners are pocketing all the profits. If things don’t change soon, the textile industry will slowly die out.”

Already hard hit by the 2008 crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, is the North Macedonian textile industry living out its final days? Working conditions in the sector are driving away young people, who would rather emigrate to Germany. And with the shortage of labour, more and more European companies are moving their businesses to North Africa.

“The sector is collapsing, because nobody is taking responsibility for all these companies that don’t pay their workers’ wages,” protests an indefatigable Ampeva. “Unfortunately, this is a criminal economic sector and our politicians support these criminal practices. It is because of this system that our young people and healthy workers are leaving the country.”

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin