Workers at risk from crisis and abandoned by unions

The economic crisis has already begun and this crisis inevitably hits the poorest strata of society – the ones on social benefits, the unemployed, and low-income employees. This is true for every country and it is becoming very difficult in Kosovo.

Private sector employees are the most endangered for many reasons.

Most of them are employees with short-term contracts and no institutional support. At the same time being mostly employed in low-skills or no-skills jobs they are easily replaceable. In such circumstances these workers live within a high and daily job insecurity. Now that we are in a period of health emergency, and especially in economic crisis, these are the ones whose employment is suspended. It is true that the government’s emergency fiscal package covers the salaries of these workers at 170 euros (so far only for April and May). However, this is extremely insufficient for a living wage for the average family in Kosovo (4-5 members). This becomes even more severe given that most people with employment contracts already have a bank loan which they have planned to pay through their monthly salary (300-400 euros per month).

The other most vulnerable category of workers are those without regular contracts. The number of unregistered workers in Kosovo goes up to 35% of the total number of workers (Analysis of the shadow economy in Kosovo, KASA 2019). This part of the labor force automatically becomes without any monthly income and by not being officially registered, in the eyes of public authorities they do not exist at all. Consequently, they can have no support other than registering as unemployed in order to secure a monthly income of 130 euros per month. Even this possibility remains unclear as the Government’s Emergency Package has guaranteed a fund that will cover “Payment of monthly assistance in the amount of one hundred and thirty (130 €) euros for citizens who lose their jobs due to the situation of public health emergency, for April, May and June… ”. However, workers without a contract find it impossible to prove that they have lost their jobs as they have never been officially employed. But even if they become beneficiaries of this scheme, they will switch from 300-400 euros per month to 0-130 euros per month overnight. Even when they were employed within the shadow economy, their rights were extremely violated and their incomes truncated (when we consider that pension insurance was not paid for them). If we add to this the permanent delays in monthly salaries and debts accumulated by employers who have exploited the difficult position of these workers, all these remain undocumented injustices.

The vast majority of these workers come from sectors that are not unionized in Kosovo such as construction, hospitality, financial sector, wholesale and retail, small and medium production workshops. These sectors are almost completely uncovered by the current union (for the sake of correctness, the Private Sector Trade Union operates in Kosovo, but a significant part of these workers are neither members nor aware of its existence). Consequently, these workers are left alone. The Government unfortunately sees this economic problem and the current crisis only through two prisms: that of business (capital) and its needs; that of poverty, for which it imposes mitigating measures of charity and not such social policies that are based on rights and according to the principle of solidarity and equality. While unions are not heard to talk about these categories as they do not have members (and consequently no clients).

The aggravated position of these workers in this time of crisis speaks loudly about the necessity of strengthening the trade union organization in Kosovo. Empowerment also means expanding trade union organization across the many active sectors of our economy that are completely outside such an organization. Of course, in such circumstances, in which these workers live, they make the trade union organization very difficult, since the above sectors mainly require no-skills or low-skills labor, which makes these workers easily replaceable and as such they become much more exploitable. But at this point there must be strong support from public authorities to guarantee these workers their job security and the right to assemble and organize. In this regard, it is necessary to intervene in the Labor Law to eliminate the extreme and absurd flexibility of contracts in this law. There is no minimum term for concluding an employment contract in the current Labor Law. The only fixed term there is the maximum (10 years) for a fixed-term contract. If this is exceeded by the contract then it is considered as an indefinite contract. Lack of minimum term (e.g. termination of contract shorter than 1 year) creates great uncertainty for workers as it has already been proven that short-term contracts are used as a means of discipline for workers, because they greatly increase the arbitrariness of the employee and they deprive workers of their rights.

Such a trade union organization would also benefit our state and our society. Firstly, because these united and organized workers will have much greater capacity to improve their working conditions, including their wages. Wage increases in the private sector serve the economy in general, as it increases aggregate demand. Secondly, the trade union organization would speed up the registration of these workers and reduce the gray economy in this area. Membership in the union, when not afraid of losing the job, becomes very attractive to workers. Thus, they would be legalized through registration in the union. Such a thing would directly help our state because it would increase the amount of money paid in the form of taxes to the state.

The current crisis has highlighted an extraordinary weakness that the Republic of Kosovo has, especially the workers in it – the lack of the Unemployment Benefits. Of course, such a fund would find it impossible to cover this unexpected burden on its own. But these kinds of crisis are ever present in micro-economic and social structures in our economy. And just as it is not affordable when most employees in Kosovo do not have an income due to pandemics, so it is not affordable for individual workers when they lose their jobs in normal times. This crisis shows how important it is to have protection of the rights and interests of workers in Kosovo. Now that we are all experiencing the crisis, we should be reminded and aware of how difficult and unfair it is to deal with such crises. And understand that there are others who deal with such calamities on their everyday life. They, and potentially each of us, desperately need institutional support in the event of job loss. Therefore, the Unemployment Benefits Fund is a social and economic necessity for our country.

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