Friday, April 12, 2024

North Macedonian Textile Workers and Capitalism

EqualTimes.Org has a piece about the textile industry, in North Macedonia and capitalists doing what capitalists do.

‘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. “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. Every day, Glasen Tekstilec’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.

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) .]

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.

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.”’

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