Macedonia - Africa in the Balkans


SUN, 16 JUL 2000

Skopje, July 7, 2000 - Tropical temperatures are not what is characterising the beginning of this year's summer nor the reason for recent frequent comparisons of Macedonia with some African countries both in numerous domestic sociological studies and analysis of world monetary circles. The last ten years of transition, observed through the eyes of a common man and worker, have brought this country only such great poverty which is unstoppably progressing and causing great dissatisfaction. As many as 420 thousand people here are considered to be poor because, according to the world standards, they have no possibility of spending 160 denars, or 2.5 dollars per day.

The number of the poor rose by almost 10 percent in the last two years, which means additional 40 thousand poor people or every fifth citizen who lives here today on the verge of poverty. In the organisation of the leadership of the Union of Independent Trade Unions, one of the three existing organisations for the protection of workers' rights, two anonymous workers from bankrupt firms being no longer able to watch their children starve, have announced their intention to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire in front of the Government building if the Government failed to help them and ensure them a life worthy of man until early September.

This moving statement brought back to the focus of public attention the disheartening figures about the Macedonian poverty and the National Strategy for its reduction, which was recently published by the Ministry of Development. This strategic document, which was prepared in cooperation with the IMF and the World Bank, inter alia, presents statistical data which confirm that in the last two decades the gross social product in Macedonia fell by 1.7 percent annually.

At the same time, net earnings of workers and pensioners fell by 3.9 percent in real terms and caused devastating effects on the daily life of people with already low living standards. More specifically, expressed in figures, instead of onetime 18 percent, now 21 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. According to analysts, the main reason for this are the fall of consumption and rising unevenness in its distribution. However, many other factors should not be forgotten either, such as, for example, drastic decline of the economic activity or concept of the implementation of privatisation and structural reforms which created an army of unemployed, redundant and workers from bankrupt firms whose number now exceeds 340 thousand, which makes 45 percent of active population. Until now, the figure mentioned in connection with the unemployment rate was 36 percent.

The greatest increase of poverty is registered in families with children below seven years of age. Next on the list are pensioners' families and those with one working member. Each fourteenth family with two working members also falls into this category. What is also characteristic for the country is that the number of poor young job-seeking people has also grown by full 5 percent. The growth rates of the poor population are still on the rise for all categories. The poverty is most expressed in old-age households and those with low educational level. Their number is larger in the country than in the capital. In Skoplje it amounts to 14 percent, and elsewhere to 21 percent. Village population all over Macedonia is also growing poorer every day.

Until now, poverty in Macedonia was a marginal problem for the Government, but now, under the precise instructions of the world monetary organisations who know full well that there can be no economic progress without adequate social policy, this problem became top priority. The World Bank and the IMF have decided to loosen their purse-strings and help the struggle against this sore point of the Macedonian economy, but only over longer term and provided their rules are strictly observed. This primarily means that social benefits, on which about 80 thousand households currently live, will have to be gradually reduced. It was agreed to halve budget outlays for social care. By the end of the year they will be reduced by 30 percent, and by additional 20 percent in the course of the next. The idea is to break a habit of those on the dole that they can live off the government funds and force them to take more active care of their own survival, find self-employment and open small or medium-size enterprises.

According to Trajko Slavevski, current Minister of Development, a series of other measures are planned aimed at enabling the reduction of the poverty growth rates in the course over the next three years, from current 21 percent to 17 percent and the achievement of gross social product growth rate of 7 percent. According to economic analysts, real chances for something like this to happen are minimal, or better said, "pie in the sky".

That this is true is best testified by the latest alarming warnings of the Council of Trade Unions of Macedonia which, as the largest trade union organisation in the country with some 300 thousand members, for God knows which time, has drawn attention to the deteriorated social-economic position of workers and, as the official social partner, has been demanding negotiations with the Government and more efficient reforms, alas in vain. Data show that the economic crisis is constantly growing deeper. Last year, the Macedonian economy recorded losses by 27 percent higher than those a year earlier, which amount to 13,2 billion denars, or if those carried-over from previous years are added, as much as 60,9 billion denars (DM 1= 31 denars).

Internal debts and unemployment are growing, while the liquidity of the economy is drastically reduced. Gyro accounts of over 22 thousand firms with 127 thousand workers are blocked, 96 thousand workers receive wages with two and more months delay. Wages are around DM 300 on average. Some 80 thousand households are on the dole and receive from 1,700 to 4 thousand denars, which is approximately equal DM 50 to 150.

On the lists of State Employment Bureau there are 34,769,000 registered redundant workers who receive some DM 100 monthly, irrespective of the number of family members they support. Employers usually disregard provisions of the Labour Relations Law and are exploiting labour force for a pittance, while collective contracts which were introduced in Macedonia back in 1993, are just a fiction. The price of labour has not been determined, nor the minimal wages for that matter. Trade unions demand that the lowest wages be set at DM 200 for the whole country, but that obviously doesn't suit the power holders.

Examples of side-stepping of regulations are numerous when it comes to the payment of contributions for health, social, pension and disability insurance. Food and transportation allowances and vacation bonuses are also rarely paid. There is an inclination at curtailing all workers' rights. The introduction of value-added-tax as of April 1, also heavily burdened the workers. Prices of all products and services were drastically raised by 20 percent on average. Prices of fuel rose by 56 percent in comparison to last July, as well as of electricity by 65 percent, as summer electricity rates are no longer applied. And it goes on and on.

In addition to the Council of the Trade Unions of Macedonia (VSSM), which exists for half a century and tried to adjust to the newly created conditions of economic activity, unfortunately, not always successfully and in line with the wishes of its members, there are two other trade union organisations in Macedonia. Those are the Union of Independent Trade Unions - UNASAM and the Autonomous Trade Unions of Bankrupt Firms' and Redundant Workers, which were founded two years, i.e. a year ago, respectively. Although it includes 18 branch trade union which operate independently as legal persons, with separate gyro accounts, management and working bodies, many still think of VSSM as the "regime" organisation.

Until recently, its management flirted with all Governments, but did not manage to change the situation for the better. Therefore, according to Zivko Tolevski, "it turned over a new leaf". It no longer explains or begs, but explicitly demands changes and organises mass social protests. At the last one, held in February (April), it took out some 60 thousand dissatisfied members to the streets. The new one has been announced for September. During April negotiations with Prime Minister Ljubco Georgijevski, it demanded the setting of minimum wages and introduction of European standards in labour legislation.

In addition, it insisted that labour should not be a hiring relationship, but, like everywhere in developed, democratic world, a contractual relationship between workers and employers, as well as the respect of acquired rights, such as, for example, payment of vacation bonuses. This is a category with which all Macedonian Governments to date had manipulated, paying it just before the elections. This one, a tripartite coalition for change, is no exception - points out Pece Gruevski, member of the Presidency of the largest branch trade union of state administration workers, in charge of PR in VSSM. Our collocutor partially refuted the claims that SSM was in the service of Prime Minister Georgijevski's Government emphasising that last July it became an informal member of the European Confederation of Trade Union Organisations in the capacity of an observer with all membership rights.

Until now, the activity of the Union of Independent Trade Unions, which recently held its second congress, was mostly based on radical populist methods under the auspices of VMRO-DPMNE, while this party was in the opposition.

The revision of privatisation was demanded by rowdy breaking into enterprises - eg. Skoplje ATP Proleter - as well as fierce attacks against opponents in the trade union struggle. Now, a change of course has been announced and activation of the social-economic council demanded. This council, which is barely functioning, was asked to act together with this union as a champion of workers' rights. They are threatening with mass strikes, blockades of key traffic routes and institutions of the system.

The youngest advocates of workers' and the rights of the poor in Macedonia - the Autonomous Trade Unions of Bankrupt Firms' and Redundant Workers is just defining its methods of work, extensively using the VSSM help in that process.

Original article