Economy & Trade, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour

BOSNIA: Workers Make a Start for Rights

Zack Baddorf

SARAJEVO, May 1 2008 (IPS) - "Parliamentarians, shame on you!" read a sign in Bosnian carried by four union workers in downtown Sarajevo.

May Day demonstration in Sarajevo. Credit: Zack Baddorf

May Day demonstration in Sarajevo. Credit: Zack Baddorf

The workers hoisted the banner above their heads and joined a procession through the capital city to mark International Workers Day May 1 and to call on the government to protect their rights.

"It was a message for our government and Parliament that finally they have to start to think about workers rights, because in this country we don&#39t have worker rights," Ismet Bajramovic, president of the Trade Union of Metal Workers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one of the protest organisers, told IPS.

"We don&#39t have salaries, we don&#39t have a pension system, we don&#39t have insurance – and these we want."

International Workers Day, also known as May Day or Labour Day, celebrates the working class. Workers take to the streets each year to demonstrate their solidarity and to commemorate the struggle of workers worldwide.

May 1, 1886 marked the day labour unions in North America declared that eight hours is a "legal day&#39s work" and started a general strike.


"The first of May is, in fact, our day," said Bajramovic, who is also executive committee member of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bosnia Herzegovina. "Today we use this day, our day, just to send a message that we will do whatever we have to do. If it is necessary, all of us will spend day after day after day in the street, asking for our rights. We will not give up."

Demir Mahmutcehajic, Sarajevo-based organizer of the DOSTA! (Enough) movement, told IPS that the May Day street action in Sarajevo was "very special" because the unions spoke in "strong, direct language."

"What happened today was the first time that any union in Bosnia and Herzegovina raised a proper voice, raising proper demands, and taking a stand," said Mahmutcehajic, who described himself as a "grassroots street activist".

Mahmutcehajic, 31, is not usually so upbeat about the nation&#39s trade unions.

The unions, he said, were "really weakened" and "divided along nationalist lines" after the wars of the 1990s that broke former Yugoslavia into several countries, among them Bosnia. Today, he said, the unions are "ineffective, controlled by politicians, and have lots of criminal elements."

Bosnia is now a deeply divided society, said Mahmutcehajic. "The unions are always careful to not do anything that would inflame division, or they would be seen like traitors attacking their own nation, people. And in that way they are very passive."

Furthermore, he said many union leaders take cuts from companies in the awarding of contracts. Labour organisers have accumulated a "huge amount of money" by joining corporations&#39 board of directors. "These people are paid huge amounts of money for work that they are not doing," Mahmutcehajic said. "I consider that like stealing money from the people."

And people here do need every Bosnian mark they can get.

Government statistics say about 45 percent of the country&#39s one million-strong labour force is unemployed. But with many people working unofficially, the real figure could be around 25-30 percent.

Much of this is a hangover of the past. Inter-ethnic warfare in the 1990s brought an 80 percent drop in production. Today, about 18 percent of the nation&#39s 4.5 million citizens live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

But still, Mahmutcehajic is optimistic.

"Today&#39s protest is a first step in the awakening of the unions," he told IPS. "The process of liberating all workers in the country…is the responsibility of the unions and their leadership…they should be leading the workers and the oppressed people in this country to open rebellion against the politicians who are basically mafia, criminals, who say all sorts of things to get elected and then do nothing once they are in office because there is no one to make them responsible."

Union leaders have started a campaign to demand that the parliament reject proposed legislation to increase parliamentarians&#39 salaries to 8,000 Bosnian Marks (about 6,500 dollars) a month. An average family earns that much in a year.

Fatima Fazlic from the unions confederation pointed out that the minimum monthly wage in the mostly Muslim nation is 343 KM (about 280 dollars) and the minimum monthly pension is 282 KM (about 230 dollars).

"They want 8,000 KM!" said Fazlic. "Our message is: You (the Parliament members) will not do that. We ask first (for) our salary. We ask for the worker&#39s rights."

Some union members held up banners saying they would not vote in the October elections for any parliamentarian who supports the legislation.

But Bajramovic, who worked for 15 years as an engineer in a metal factory before joining unions, isn&#39t overly confident. "We don&#39t have any expectations because they don&#39t want to listen to us. They don&#39t want to solve the problems."

The trade union confederation, which represents 267,000 workers in 24 branches, is planning bigger protests this month and in June.

 
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