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Behind closed doors in Macedonia

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What about the circumstances in the clothing industry in Eastern Europe?

There is much to be done about the clothing factory abuses going on in Cambodia and Bangladesh, but what about the situation closer to home? The clothing industry is also a major source of employment in Eastern European countries such as Macedonia. We asked Macedonian trade union leaders Milcho Smilevski and Blagoja Ivanoski of the CNV partner organisation UNASM whether the situation over there was any better. Both were at CNV in Utrecht  for training, and developing new plans for the coming year. "Youth unemployment is high in Macedonia so factories producing clothes and shoes – who naturally come to us because of low wage levels – are very welcome," begins Milcho Smilevski (General Secretary of UNASM).

Sectoral agreements

But what are the working conditions like? Milcho explains that a minimum wage of €125 per month has been agreed for the sector. This is not very high, but the existence of sectoral agreements is positive in principle because there are so many countries where the establishment of collective labour agreements per sector is still a long way off. In those cases the trade unions are forced to negotiate with individual companies, leading to even further competition around wages and working conditions at the expense of the staff.

“But the reality in Macedonia is less rosy than it appears on paper,” responds his colleague Blagoja Ivanoski (Vice-Chair of UNASM). “A common occurrence is that the wage is paid out, but staff are then required to return a certain proportion of it.” And who refuses or protests? “Most don’t dare to for fear of losing their jobs… plenty more where you came from!” This also makes it difficult for the UNASM union to tackle such abuses, either in individual cases or collectively.
Working behind closed doors

The wool is regularly pulled over their eyes

And what does the labour inspectorate do in these cases? “The wool is regularly pulled over their eyes by companies who officially employ only a certain proportion of their staff on regular contracts. The remainder are working “informally” without a fixed contract and naturally for a lower wage. Often they work in a separate area, literally behind closed doors, out of sight of the labour inspectors on their rounds.” “This problem doesn’t only occur in the clothing sector; it’s often the case in the construction industry that only some of the staff have a contract as well,” adds Milcho. In short, a country like Macedonia needs an independent trade union movement more than most.How are things going generally in Macedonia? The economy is seeing slight growth; not a lot, but enough to give hope. Youth unemployment remains very high. The young people themselves need to make an effort too, says, Blagoja, “because many of them have missed out on usable vocational training. As a trade union we aim to encourage them as much as we can. They need to realise that learning has become a lifelong process in modern times.”

Publicatiedatum 05 12 2013