Sweatshops Producing Big Western Brands in Macedonia Continue Unchecked Leaving Twenty Women Dead This Summer
by Natasha Dokovska
Forty year old Marijana Stojcevska died over her sewing machine after 13 hours of non-stop work just two weeks ago. She was employed by MARKOS, a private textile company that produces underwear for the Greek market, especially the popular Greek department store and magazine, FOKAS. Owned by a Greek businessman, the factory is located in Bitola, the second biggest town in Macedonia, located in the southwestern part of the country. A combination of impossibly deadly working conditions – extremely high temperature, no fans or open windows to provide proper ventilation, and no breaks - was the cause of death for Stojcevska, the mother of two minor children who had worked as a seamstress for more than 13 years. Her husband has been unemployed for more than four years, ever since the company where he once worked went bankrupt - a pervasive trend mirrored in many families’ lives throughout Macedonia.
“She worked 12-13 hours per day without even elementary rights. Now, the officials say that she died from unknown causes. They didn’t connect her death to the bad conditions at work,” says one of her colleagues who wishes to remain anonymous. She explains that the owner of the company has not returned to work since Stojcevska’s death and has avoided communication with her family. His one “humane” gesture was to offer the employees a single, unpaid day off to attend Stojcevska’s funeral.
But initially Stojcevska’s family didn’t know when they would be able to bury her. They did not receive the certificate necessary for burial from the attending doctor because MARKO’s owner prevented the tribunal authority from confirming Stojcevska’s death. (In Macedonia, when a person dies outside of a hospital, a doctor and an authority from the local tribunal must come to the scene to confirm the death. The purpose of the certificate is also to attest that the deceased was neither murdered nor the victim of a crime. Once the family of the deceased receives a certificate noting the cause of death, they can then proceed with a burial.)
The issue that the owner wanted to camouflage, of course, was the cause of death. If the authorities were to confirm that Stojcevska died because of deadly work conditions, the owner would be held liable. The company might then be closed down. The most likely explanation for not issuing a death certificate is that the owner bribed the tribunal authority, as is often the case. In any event, he then left Bitola to avoid prosecution. For the moment, MARKOS’s manager’s hands are tied, because he can’t do anything to demand the death certificate without the permission of the company’s owner, who has left the country. It is unclear whether the company will remain in business or be closed.Macedonia’s Labour Union is not surprised by Stojcevska’s death: in Bitola alone, more than 2,500 sewing workers employed by 20 private companies are all working in unmonitored and potentially unsafe conditions. Bitola has long been involved in the textile industry, but since the country’s political transition brought about privatization of its big textile factories, the government has been struggling to regain equilibrium and some power over infrastructure. Subsequently, large numbers of seamstresses now work for companies not monitored for safety at all.
“Unfortunately foreign businessmen in Macedonia don’t respect Macedonian laws, and the workers work more than eight hours, often more than 13 hours. The Labor inspectorate is deaf and dumb to our [concerns]” – says Ljupco Vasilevski, a legal advisor for the Labor Union, one of the biggest NGOs in Macedonia working on labor rights.
Just a few days ago, six other seamstresses working for the textile company, Royal, in the northeastern city of Kocani were brutally attacked by the 60 year old Macedonian owner front of hundreds of co-workers. The women were punched and pushed down stairs after being thrown out of the working hall. Then the owner started stoning them! The reason for this unexpected attack? The women asked to be paid the salaries owed them (4-5 Euros/$5.40-$6.75 USD per day), as the company was two months behind in their pay.
“He started to act brutally, calling us names, cursing at us, pushing us,” says one of the victims. Workers in this particular factory have put up with blatant exploitation, working more than ten hours per day for 4-5 Euros, even though the company produces swimsuits, t-shirts and tank tops for globally known brands like The GAP and La Perla, as well as the luxury brand, Roberto Cavalli.
“We would have given up the money if we knew that we were going to face such embarrassment,” says one of the workers. One woman recounts the verbal abuse they suffered at the hands of Royal’s owner. “‘This is not socialism here – I’ll give you your money, your rights!’ he was always screaming at us.” None of the victims are part of a union, nor are they aware of their rights as provided by Macedonia’s labor laws.
The Royal case was reported to the police; the victims will seek justice in court. While Royal’s owner was not available for comment, it’s reported that his discussion at the police station went more calmly than his tirades at the workers. He was ordered to pay seven Euros ($9 USD) per day to the workers, a raise from their usual pay.Finally after these two incidents, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs started taking action: a total of 11 factories in Tetovo, Kriva Palanka, Skopje and Bitola have been shut down for violating Occupational Safety and Health laws. Inspectors also issued 167 citations for established defects, like lack of air-conditioning, poor ventilation and other safety issues.
While the closings mark progress for the enforcement of labor laws and workers’ rights, the economic hardship felt by Macedonians who rely on the work is worsening. As reported previously in another article, the trend of men staying home while women find work, has not changed. The Labour Union is now pushing for closed factories to be re-opened but with specific working conditions to protect employees: no forced overtime, breaks, a maximum six day work week with 8 hours per day, proper ventilation, annual holidays and more. Either that or they want the laws changed. But until the state inspectorate for labor decides who will monitor factory conditions, the workers in the closed factories remain out of a job. Those who are working are doing so under unbearable conditions.
This summer alone, twenty textile workers have died from poor working conditions, due in part to soaring temperatures; the average temperature hovered at 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Only 12 women were formally acknowledged as having died due to working conditions, the other deaths went unconfirmed as the business owners refused to admit culpability in their deaths.
“Macedonian workers aren’t protected [from exploitation] despite existing labor laws. A lot of women are now at home, but [despite] terrible working conditions, they want to go to work, because their husbands are at home [without work] too. At the moment in Macedonia, it’s easier for a woman to find a job than for a man,” says Gabriela Adzievska, an ex-sewing worker turned activist for women rights.
Sadly, the twenty women who died this summer barely even made the news in their own country. Only one national television network picked up the story, along with a few local channels.
Macedonia’s textile industry is clothing much of the Western world, but that production is profitable at a high cost to its workers. Brands like La Perla, the GAP, Mango, Zara and H&M rush to buy the country’s production; some dresses sewn in Macedonia sell for more than 200 Euros (nearly $300 USD) each. Clearly, balancing that against the wages of the sweatshop workers, there is little incentive for the country to curb labor exploitation, especially as Macedonia continues to struggle to promote privatization, but still regulate it. With too few resources and deep-pocketed investors willing to do anything to turn a profit, the country is slipping quickly into treacherous waters. This is not a new story; sweatshops have been exposed across the globe, yet the search for ever-cheaper labor has been a driving factor in the textile industry for 20 years, if not longer.
And as for Marijana Stojcevska, family and loved ones were finally able to bury her, but only after fighting bitterly with Bitola authorities for her death certificate.
About the Author
Natasha Dokovska has been a journalist for 23 years, covering social issues and human rights in Macedonia. She has been an editor for international policy, an advocate for human rights as a NGO activist and publisher, and has edited books related to peace journalism and other topics. She currently is the editor for the first internet alternative radio in Macedonia and is also the Executive Director of Journalists for Children and Women's Rights and Protection of the Environment in Macedonia.