North Macedonia: textile workers want to do battle for the “without rights”

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AFP

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Jul 9, 2021

A sewing machine and a raised fist, a super heroine ready to do battle against bad bosses: the posters that decorate the office of Kristina Ampeva, a former textile worker from North Macedonia, testify to her fight to defend women’s rights at work.

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She traded needle and thread for the megaphone in 2016 after “horrible” years in the clothing and leather factories of the small Balkan country, which mainly work for Western European markets.

“I joined this fight with all my heart and all my soul to help this workforce without rights”, explains to AFP the young woman of 32 years in the premises of her NGO in Stip, in the east from the country.

“Glasen tekstilec” (Textile worker who speaks out) defends individual employees while campaigning for general reforms. The NGO has achieved success with its campaigns, such as the application of the minimum wage to the sector which employs an overwhelming majority of women.

In recent years, women’s organizations have been making themselves heard more and more.

But true equality still seems a long way off in a patriarchal society where a sizeable portion of the population thinks that the main role of women is to bring up children at home.

The 2021 parity index of the World Economic Forum places North Macedonia in 71st place, far behind neighboring Serbia (19) and Montenegro (48), in stagnation for fifteen years.

“250 euros monthly”

In the labor market, inequalities are glaring, whether in terms of access to employment or wages, Neda Petkovska, researcher at the NGO Reactor, told AFP. In addition, “the rare improvements in the employment rate of women will certainly be swept away by the Covid-19 crisis”.

According to the OECD, 54% of working women had a job last year compared to an average of 64% in member countries.

Stip, a stronghold of clothing in Tito’s time, remains the largest textile city in the country despite the decline of this industry after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Every morning, little hands arrive by coach in front of dozens of suburban factories where they will be collected in the afternoon.

The vast majority work for the minimum wage – less than 250 euros per month when the average wage is around 460 euros.

Women are the backbone of an industry that employs around 35,000 people, accounts for 13% of GDP and more than a quarter of exports. “If we don’t have connections with political parties, then the only possible job is in the textile industry,” says Kristina Ampeva.

Many of them are the only ones in the family working in the formal economy, which means that thousands of households depend on these jobs for social insurance.

Sometimes things go wrong. Bisera Kaftanova, 32, has been defended by “Glasen tekstilec” since she refused to sign a 30-day fixed-term contract with the clothing company for which she had worked on an open-ended contract for six years.

“They told us, it’s better to sign, it’s a secure job. There is no secure job with a one-month contract,” she told AFP, declaring to be at forced unemployment without pay for two months.

“Trademark liability”

Kristina Ampeva says she provided direct or indirect help to thousands of people in this kind of situation and brought a thousand cases to justice, taxes or the labor inspectorate.

The NGO is also proud to have participated in the fight against the production quotas required of the textile workforce and which effectively excluded them from the minimum wage, abolished in 2018 by the Constitutional Court in the name of the fight against discrimination. .

The deplorable conditions which have long tarnished the reputation of the sector are a thing of the past, assures Angel Dimitrov, factory manager and president of the employers’ organization of the textile industry.

“Most companies have strict social and environmental standards” and “conditions are better” than in Bangladesh, Vietnam or Pakistan, he says.

This does not prevent him from complaining about a minimum wage which “demotivates” people: “40% of the staff do not reach the quotas to deserve it”.

Kristina Ampeva disagrees but admits that the abuse she experienced at the sewing machine – no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat, no heating in the winter – is rarer.

But in his eyes, the solution also lies in part with Western customers of factories in his country.

“Brands must finally understand their own responsibilities in the production chain,” she says.

Par Darko DURIDANSKI et Emmy VARLEY

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