Pensioners on the edge of survival

Unless the question of unpaid contributions for pensions is addressed soon, social unrest threatens and many workers may never be able to retire, union representatives warn. Even when many people do retire, they are barely surviving by working unregistered and eating in free public kitchens.

At age 70, Bogdan Vučković, after a lifetime lazing wooden floors for the Vrelo Bosne company in Sarajevo, cannot afford to retire. His son and daughter have their own families and cannot help so he sells slippers on the Ferhadija.

Smail Musić, a 73-year-old Sarajevo pensioner, tries not to miss lunch at a public kitchen at Baščaršija.

He had a stroke two years ago and sometimes he’s too ill to leave his apartment. For the past year and a half, his wife who has diabetes has mostly kept to her bed. But when your income is 208 KM a month or less a free daily meal is important. About 9,000 pensioners in the city, many of them ashamed of their situation, depend on the city’s four public kitchens.

This man is one of 6,000 Sarajevans who use the city’s six public kitchens.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 556,000 pensioners have dropped to among the poorest in a poor population. The average pension paid out in the Federation of BiH (FBiH) is 226 KM, in the Republika Srpska (RS), 210 KM.

In contrast, Croatia’s average pension is more than double at 480 KM. Some of that is due to higher wages. In the former Yugoslavia pensioners could count on average on getting about 300 KM.

‘If I knew how little my pension would be, I wouldn’t have worked at all’ said Musić. ‘I would have become a thief.’

Yet Musić actually may be doing well in comparison to aging workers hoping for retirement in the years ahead.

A recently released study of the pension system by the Confederation of BiH Unions and the Solidarity Center ominously predicts “social disturbances which will additionally endanger the already difficult situation in the society” if the problem of unpaid contributions to public pension funds is not tackled now. Workers in the Black Market – in other words those without official standing or benefits – simply will not be able to retire. As they become too old or ill to hold down jobs, the immense burden of their care will fall on their families – or on the state. And neither is able to bear it.

Getting By

Even in the present the elderly already are running into trouble.

Up until 2000, with war veterans swelling the ranks of pensioners and employer contributions for their retirement lagging, getting any pension on a regular basis was unlikely. In that year, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch looked at the increasing debt in the pension system and decreed that pensions had to be paid monthly on time and that payments could not exceed contributions.

So, pension payments are more reliable, but they are no longer pegged to the salaries workers once earned. Instead, payments vary according to a formula that calculates how many pensioners are drawing checks, how much employers are paying in contributions — plus salaries once earned.

Pensioners wait for food outside the Old Town kitchen. Many BiH pensioners say they can’t feed themselves on the meager pensions the government provides.

The system depends on about 1.4 billion KM coming in from contributions. But for a decade now, many companies have fallen behind or stopped paying — either illegally or with government approval.

To make up for missing or lower than expected pensions, many retired people have turned for help to their children. Others have moved to villages where life is cheaper and they can plant gardens and raise animals for food. If they are able, they supplement pensions with work on the labor black market.

Šefkija Elezović, president of the Alliance of Pensioner Associations in the FBiH, said pensioners work in the market if they can. ‘One has to be strong to get a good place there, look for and haul in supplies’ he said.

‘Go to the market and you’ll see how many retirees work there’ said Rade Rakulj, president of the RS Association of Retirees, ‘They have to…’ They are there, he acknowledged, working illegally, unregistered. To declare themselves, Rakulj pointed out, they would put their pension on hold.

Šefkija Muhić, 72, of Vragolovi, lives on a pension of 172 KM a month. He worked for 37 years as a construction worker in Sarajevo, but his failing eyesight makes a job now impossible.

Where they exist, public kitchens supported by grants and communities, are another source of help for pensioners.

Fahrudin Prlja, president of the Merhamet charity for northwest Bosnia, said that its kitchen in Banja Luka attracts about 100 diners a day, 80 percent of them pensioners.

Prlja said, ‘they get a 150 KM of pension and what can they do with it? They are forced to come to public kitchen.’

Some of the other bigger towns in the northwest, Prijedor and Doboj, need public kitchens too, he said.

Village life: affordable but hard

For 37 years while working with Sarajevo construction companies Putevi and Igman, contributions were made into Šefkija Muhić’s pension and health care funds. At 72, he never foresaw that he and his wife Azema would have to struggle on an inadequate pension He gets 172 KM a month.

So they live in Vragolovo, a village near Rogatica. Residents of the village fled during the war. International contributions have helped to reconstruct destroyed homes, restock farms and reconnect electricity. But life remains hard.

For 41 years, Nurija Muhić, now 71, was head machinist at a water supply company. Much of his property in Vragolovi was destroyed in the war that turned him into a refuge. He returned to his home and now lives on a pension of 320 KM a month.

‘How can I live off this pension?’ he said. ‘It’s not enough for medicines, let alone for life. If I knew what was coming, I would have left for who knows where. Now is too late. My wife and I are sick. Age has caught up with us.’

Many of their neighbors are in trouble too. Idriz Šovšić, 73, is sick and cannot work on the side. His wife died a decade ago and his four daughters have families of their own to look after.

Nurija Muhić, 72, gets a 320 KM pension because he was head machinist in a Sarajevo water company for 41 years. He and his wife Derviša get by in the village, and try not to ask much of their children, but it’s hard to get to doctor visits or to shops from the village. Rogatica is 10 kilometers away and there is no bus service.

Rade Stanišić, 69, moved from Lukavica to another village near Rogatica, Rudine, to stretch his 250 KM pension. He retired from Energoinvest in 1996 but says he has never worked more than now.

Rade Stanišić, 69, builds enclosures for the sheep he and his family depend on to live in addition to the small pension he got after years working as a machinist in Sarajevo.

He and his wife Rada raise sheep and have pooled resources with his son, a disabled veteran with three children, who gets a 290 KM pension.

‘Here I’m making a stable for sheep and it’s taking me ages’ he said. ‘Money always seems to be missing. And sheep, eh, I have to take keep an eye on them all the time, I cannot leave them on their own for a minute, because wolves will come and eat them.’

‘I couldn’t even dream that I’d be living this kind of live in my old age. If I knew what was coming, this little pension, war and all this poverty, I wouldn’t have stayed in this country.’ He said, ‘I would have left while I was younger, across the world.’