Textile workers do without salaries now and pensions in the future

Struggling to remain competitive and profitable, textile and shoe-making factories skimp on salaries and pension contributions and workers don’t protest out of fear they could end up worse off.

Foto: CIN

Hajka Osmanhodžić, 53, has worked at various positions in the Fortuna shoe company in Gračanica for 35 years and she is ready to retire.

But she cannot.

Fortuna owes at least 2.6 million KM to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) Pension and Disability Fund, according to fund records. The company has not paid pension and health insurance contributions for its 1,180 workers since 1998.

‘We have 20 workers at the moment who need to retire, but we don’t have money’ said Fahrudin Osmanhodžić, president of the Fortuna union and commissioner of the Association of BiH unions for Tuzla Canton.

The Fortuna workers are the harbingers of what a recent report described as a looming social crisis.

Workers in increasing numbers will not be able to retire because of unpaid contributions to the pension funds, according to a study put out in December by the Association of BiH Unions, in cooperation with American Center for International Labor Solidarity.

With more than 20 percent of the population already living at or below the poverty line, it said, there is a ‘legitimate question what will happen’ to aging workers in the near future, both those working as black market laborers and those registered but with companies not contributing to their pensions.

These people will not be able to retire and if they are forced to stop working because of poor health they will have only stressed relatives to help.

‘All of this must lead to social disturbances which will additionally endanger the already difficult situation in the society’ the report said.

Textile and shoe industries

It’s no accident that workers like Hajka Osmanhodžić are heading into trouble ahead of counterparts in other jobs.

Some 50,000 people once worked in the textile and shoe industries in this country. But textile companies suffered damage during the war and received little or no investment since then making them less competitive in the textile market.

Today, only about 35,000 workers, 80 percent women, continue to work in these industries. Most have gone without pension and health benefits for up to 10 years and are living on wages of 270 to 300 KM a month.

Other textile and shoe companies in Tuzla Canton are in similar straits.

Aida, where 1,000 workers make shoes for salaries of 260 to 270 KM a month, now owes at least 1.7 million KM in contributions to the pension fund going back to 2000. The textile factory Zina, where there’s been no work for six month owes more than 25,000 KM for its 200 workers.

Interplet, a Srebrenik textile plant that has been without work for five years, owes more than 1.3 million KM for 200 workers.

And in Doboj the 90 workers at the Modex textile factory continue to work for salaries of 180 to 220 KM. Pay is not regular and contributions to their pension have gone unpaid for eight years. The firm owes the RS pension fund, records show, more than 765,000 KM.

‘I have to be content, because there’s nothing better’ said Koviljka Džigumović, 54.

Her colleague Nada Lazarević, also 54, agreed, quoting an old adage about not complaining because things could always be worse.

Employers in the textile industries are now only required to pay contributions to the pension fund on just half of the workers salaries according to a new FBiH law. It means that textile companies are more likely to be able to afford paying pensions for workers but ultimately pensions will be lower.

Ferdija Kojčić, president of the FBiH Union of textile, leather, footwear, and rubber industries believes this is positive for the workers because it will help companies survive.

And many haven’t. Once huge companies such as Triko in Gradiška, Sana in Novi Grad, Knežopoljka in Kozarska Dubica, Itris in Srbac, Prolex in Kotor Varoš, Rotex in Rogatica, Vezionica in Zvornik and Zenit in Bijeljine have gone bankrupt in recent years. This has left some 5,000 workers unemployed and currently reliant on the BiH employment Bureaus.

Another example: the textile factory Svila in Čelinac, which sold its weaving and sewing across the former Yugoslavia at one time, is in the last stage before liquidation and bankruptcy according to union president Petar Tešanović.

The last seven years its 360 employees have worked there is nothing to show for in their pension funds. Svila pays around 220 KM a month but not regularly. One-third of workers are on unpaid standby to work at any given time because of a lack of work.

Optimistic managers

Textile plant managers are oddly upbeat.

Fortuna’s director Safet Pjanić, for example, says western industry is showing increasing interest in BiH goods and the entity governments have passed new laws on restructuring debts. Majority of union officials said they are encouraging a new payment plan to cover pension fund debts.

Miroslav Stanimirović the director of Modex is also hoping for more orders and that the company will perform better under a restructured debt. This proud firm once employed 550 workers at a good wage plus benefits and sold its products throughout the former Yugoslavia, a well as in Switzerland, Germany and Russia.

Now it does work mainly for German companies, he said, and faces idle periods between seasons, mostly in March, April and September. Workers sometimes go up to a month without working, and then have to put in 10-hour days to meet deadlines. No one, the director said, thinks about overtime, food or setting a date for a vacation. Vacation depends on orders.

‘If only there was more work’ Stanimirović chants, pointing at a room filled with idle machines.

Some bright spots

The Borac clothes factory in Travnik is proof that companies can be successful. By restructuring and transforming itself, the firm is now making a profit and has paid off all debt to the Pension and Disability fund. Samir Zahirović, the union president there, said salaries ranging from 350 to 400 KM are being paid regularly to 1,800 workers and over the past two months employees even got a small bonus.

Before the war, Borac employed 4,000 people. Today its main business is with several partners in Germany, Italy and France. Some 36 percent of the companies shares are in the hands of workers.

Kojčić said she believes unions must become more political in order to help workers.

‘This is the way to help the workers more. Our message is – the workers in the parliament, not in front of the parliament’ she concludes.

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