Protest as the Last Warning


SUN, 12 MAR 2000

Skopje, March 1, 2000 - In the last days of February, the dissatisfaction of workers in Macedonia accumulated over the last several years erupted into a large-scale social protest which served as a warning to the Government and state political leadership that people's patience was running short. It was organised by the Council of the Association of Trade Unions of Macedonia under the slogan "Together we are stronger". About 25 thousand people - workers, pensioners, students - gathered at the central city square in Skoplje to raise their voice in defence of their fundamental right to work and human dignity. They expressed their wish to participate in decision-making which concerns their vital interests, development and better life.

They said "stop" to the moves of the Government of the "Coalition for Change" which they accused of making the people bear the brunt of economic and political reforms. They have resolutely opposed, as they said, "greediness of power-holders, sale of social property for pittance but to the advantage of some ministers, growing crime, corruption, nepotism, reforms of the pension system and labour legislation imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, introduction of the value-added tax without any preparations, increased prices of electricity and petrol, declining living standards". What hurt them most from all the problems the country is faced with, could be seen from numerous banners and signs that covered the "Macedonia" square and the surrounding streets in the central city area where the protest was held. They read, among other things: "We want work", "No democracy without collective bargaining", "Reforms YES, anarchy NO", "To Europe through work", "We want to be masters of our own fate", "You get the balls, we get the sack", "Today - the protest, tomorrow - the general strike", etc.

Zivko Tolevski, President of the Trade Union Council, addressed the assembled masses pointing to the need for a social consensus about all reforms before they can be submitted to Parliament for adoption. He accused the Government of non-transparency, of treating the transition from one system to another offhandedly and behaving irresponsibly. It usurped the right to "squander" the unprotected workers' property, to lay-off large number of people and deprive them of means for bare survival, of closing down factories as instructed by the IMF and the World Bank, which has got out of hands and has became too dangerous.

In his speech at the protest, the first man of the Macedonian Trade Unions reminded that, like true demagogues and petty politicians, the authorities have promised bright future which is nowhere in sight. Quite contrary, Macedonia is in a long and dark tunnel and no one knows when and whether it will ever manage to get out of. Tolevski denied that the protest was organised by the opposition parties, as the authorities claimed.

The citizens who have answered the call of the trade union leadership and came to this rally, think that the situation in Macedonia is worse than ever before. This was the first truly socio-economic rally held in this country since it won its independence. That was the opinion of others who did not show up in the streets this time. The protest was eventful, but dignified and without any incidents.

Figures, bare statistics can perhaps give the best picture of the precarious position of these mortals whom no one asks anything, who are eager to work and provide for themselves and their families, but are prevented from doing that for various reasons. They are convinced that everything that has been done in the country in the last ten years was to their detriment.

Negative phenomena are at full swing, especially after the coalition of Ljubco Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE, Vasil Tupurkovski's Democratic Alternative and Arben Dzaferi's Democratic Party of the Albanians, came into power. Today Macedonia holds the inglorious European record in many economic-social categories. It convincingly ranks first regarding the unemployment rate which ranges between 36 and 48 percent. In late January there were 357,426 unemployed in the country.

From June last year until today, over 16 thousand people lost their jobs. The same will happen to another 10 thousand workers from factories that have been wound up because of years of unprofitable production. The overall situation becomes dramatic if it is known that by the end of 1998 the Employment Offices had registered 258 thousand job seekers.

That means that in the course of one year the number of job seekers increased by another 100 thousand workers. Let us remind that before the 1998 elections, current authorities promised to employ as many workers in one year. Today, the country has some 320 thousand employed, which is less that the number of unemployed, which is another "record" Macedonia holds in Europe. In addition, one third of the employed do not receive their wages regularly. Average wages amount to some DEM 300. The majority of workers get DEM 100 to 200 per month. Because of unpaid contributions to pension funds, some 10 thousand workers cannot realise their right to pension and the number of those who do not receive basic health care is approximately the same and changes from month to month.

The army of 230 thousand pensioners, out of which as many as 94,000 receive the minimum monthly pensions of DEM 100, rounds up this depressing social picture of Macedonia. Today, some 70 thousand families are socially endangered and receive minimum monthly social welfare of DEM 50 to 150, depending on the family size. When this figure is multiplied by four, which is the average number of family members here, it can be seen that some 280 thousand people are on welfare. As a comparison, a year ago there were 64 thousand families on welfare, i.e. 6,000 less.

Workers of Macedonia cannot accept constant restrictions of their rights which were first initiated back in 1993 when the new Law on Labour Relations was adopted. That Law granted the employers the right to fire and hire and decide who is redundant labour. Dismissals became such a threat that in fear of lay-off workers were forced to work without pay for months. Since the adoption of the General Collective Agreement in 1994, not one of its basic provisions has been implemented in practice to this day.

The minimum wages have not been specified yet, nor the amount the employers are obliged to pay regularly. There are many examples of workers living with wages which are below any human dignity, with DEM 100 to 200 which they received every 40 days or so. The Law on Labour Relations has been changed four times till now and each amendment meant the introduction of new restrictions. First the employers were granted the right to lay-off workers without a period of notice or with only three instead of prescribed six-month period of notice. Also, they have full freedom to employ whom they want and to reduce the severance pay to the amount the worker received from his last employer. After that, the maternity leave was shortened from twelve to nine months, and when employing new workers, the employers were allowed to set lesser rights from those specified by the General Collective Agreement. The employer was also allowed to proclaim up to twenty percent of his workers redundant labour without any criteria, which was in direct contravention of international conventions.

Judicial authorities are prohibited from assessing whether the firing of redundant labour was justified or not. The Trade Union Council claims that all this was done according to the instructions of the IMF and the World Bank. The introduced changes were not transparent and the Trade Unions learned about them only after they were adopted by the Parliament so that they were forced to contest them before the Constitutional Court. Although they won a case, the court decision has not been enforced yet. Amendments to this Law for the year 2000, which are in procedure, will even more simplify the firing of workers without any provision for their protection.

The main reason for this large-scale public outbreak of dissatisfaction were the latest amendments to the Law on Pension System which envisage the introduction of stricter conditions for retirement, reduction of the retirement-benefit base and the possibility of establishing private pension funds in addition to the state ones. Until now 20 percent of workers' wages was allocated for pension-funds. The plan is to reduce this percentage by 7 percent, which would be paid into private pension-funds. That would automatically reduce the inflow of resources which are used for the payment of pensions, while the law doesn't prescribe who would compensate the balance. The national development programme until 2003 specifically prohibits covering of such deficits from the budget.

Age limit for retirement has also been raised from 60 to 64 years of age for men and from 55 to 63 years of age for women. In order to receive full pension one must have 40 years of past labour or 15 years, at minimum. If that is not the case, the retirement-benefit base is reduced by a certain percentage for each year below this limit. It will be calculated on the basis of the total years of employment, and not as before, on the basis of ten years in which the person in question made the highest average earnings. The base for the calculation of pensions would gradually be reduced from current 80 to 70 percent. Wages in Macedonia have been "frozen" for the last six years and public servants are hit hardest by this measure. Their loyalty was also "awarded" with the reduction of allowances for transportation and food, while vacation supplements are paid only before elections.

Because of wide-spread practice of direct payment of wages to workers, i.e. without the payment of contributions for pension and health insurance, the state was forced to adopt a law whereby it prescribes that employers first have to pay the contributions, and can pay the wages only if they have any money left. There is no need to go any further.

There was no reaction to warnings of the trade union of the adverse effect such legal provisions and measures. It remains to be seen whether the same will happen to their demands presented in the Memorandum of this public trade-union protest, which was submitted to the authorities. Among other things, this document demands a stable state pension system, abandonment of the idea on private pension funds, urgent determination of the minimum pay, provision of cost-free health care for all citizens, halting of bankruptcy procedures and firing of workers without previous securing of subsistence level funds, ensuring the participation of public sector employees in the privatisation of social capital. It also specifically demands a decisive struggle against crime and corruption, halting of the further decline of the living standards and the initiation of a dialogue between the Government, Trade Unions and Chamber of Commerce with a view to resolving problems regarding social-economic and labour-legal position of all citizens of Macedonia, with due regard for the Constitution and international conventions.

Government representatives who have received the Memorandum, promised to consider all the demands and set a date for the start of negotiations. There are no deadlines. Trade Unions have announced the general strike if the authorities break their promise.

Original article