by Natasha Dokovska
“Sometimes we’re locked up in the tailor’s shop. Sometimes we’re not given free time to go to toilet…The owner, who is Greek, wants everyone to work overtime, even though we’re already at the sewing machine for more than 10 hours. Nobody can leave, because if you do, you’ll lose the work,” says Biljana Smilevska, one of the seamstresses at the private textile department, Somi Velteks, in Veles.
This is only one example of how women in the private textile industry in Macedonia are exploited. According to trade unions in Macedonia, 80% of the workers employed in the textile industry are female.
Salaries in the textile industry are among the lowest in the country. Most of the women in the industry work more than 12 hours per day for only 60 euro per month. It’s not enough to even survive in a country where the average salary is 200 euros.
These textile workers are afraid to talk about their employment rights because they know they will be consequently suspended from their jobs. The Trade Union cluster of textile workers aren’t satisfied with the state inspections, because while they claim to support the workers on paper, they ignore the continued exploitation of women in the industry and the overtime labor forced upon them. But unfortunately, the workers are powerless to do anything about it.
The employers, who are in most cases men from Greece, Turkey and Holland, take advantage of women's difficult financial situations and lack of awareness of their rights. Unfortunately the women believe that they have no choice. They are ready to sign whatever documents or contracts they are given just to be able to work, regardless of the amount of work promised and very small salaries. To make matters worse, these women currently have nowhere to appeal or file a complaint. The existing mechanisms that should protect their rights do not function because of the highly corrupted and weak state institutions, especially when it comes to the institutional legal system.
After Macedonia proclaimed its independence in 1991, many businesses closed, went bankrupt or sold to foreign investors. Due to the country’s structural economic reforms, and the privatization of industry, a huge number of workers were laid off. The insolvency of enterprise led to a high unemployment rate in the country. So, in spite of the terrible working conditions and the exploitation practiced in these textile factories, women in Macedonia, especially in the eastern part of country, have been forced to take up jobs and apply for job training in the textile industry. In the end, these women do not have the protection of the Trade Union, whose structure has proven ineffective due to the slow process of its reorganization. The way the Trade Union is currently operating prevents its influence from being felt in privately owned enterprises.
Owners ready to flog the worker
Two weeks ago in Prilep, a town in central Macedonia, a small textile factory was shut down for gross abuse of workers' rights, especially those of its women employees. One week before being closed down, 30 women were locked against their will in the factory not allowed to go home when the owner received a new order with a restrictive deadline. He was ready to flog the women, but instead started a grievance process. After the families of these women complained, the police reacted. But police intervention proved too little, too late—thirty women now are at home, jobless.
“The factories where me and my husband worked were in bankruptcy. After 5 years of expectation I find a job in this factory. Even though I’m an architect I took work as a seamstress, because I have two children and they need to eat. I worked more than 12 hours per day, but for the last three days I was locked up in the tailor's shop with thirty other women. It was terrible!” says Ilijana Samatlieska, one of the workers in Prilep’s factory.
Men are at home, women work
Also influencing the unemployment rate is the phenomena of men staying at home while the women go to work. Families are increasingly strained under these social conditions and the effect is being felt in the relationships between parents and their children as they cope with difficult circumstances. Future employment development in the country should be gender equal and new employers must respect women’s rights on the job. Until then, these women will continue to live with the daily concern of how to provide for their children.