Bosnian Trade Unions Under Fire as COVID-19 Crisis Takes Toll on Jobs

 Bosnian Trade Unions Under Fire as COVID-19 Crisis Takes Toll on Jobs

The Bosnian economy is expected to shrink by some five per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, IMF. Bosnia’s Agency for Statistics says economic output contracted by a dramatic 9.3 per cent in the second quarter of 2020 year-on-year. Industrial production, exports, remittances and employment are falling too. 

According to Bosnia’s Labour and Employment Agency, in August this year there were 427,593 unemployed people, or 5.1 percent more than in the same month of last year. The general unemployment rate is estimated at around 35 per cent. 

Just over 330,000 of those without jobs live in the mainly Bosniak and Croat Federation and almost 90,000 in the mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska, the two entities that make up post-war Bosnia. Roughly 7,000 were in the autonomous district of Brcko.

The sharp difference reflects the nature of the entities’ economies, with the Federation traditionally more industrial and the Republika Srpska more dependent on agriculture.

Union leaders deny doing too little to protect the jobs of those they represent.

“In all cases of violation of rights that are reported to us, we react and are not passive in any situation,” Mersiha Besirovic, head of the Union of Trade and Service Workers, told BIRN.

“On the contrary, we work 24 hours a day and we have not refused to help any worker.”

Selvedin Satorovic, president of the Alliance of Independent Trade Unions, which operates only in the Federation entity, also dismissed the criticism, arguing that his union had tabled a number of demands of the government.

These, he said, included the regular payment of wages and benefits for employees whose work was paused through no fault of their own and the intensification of labour inspections to prevent employers from exploiting the pandemic to lay off unwanted employees or cut salaries.

But he conceded that the Alliance of Independent Trade Unions had little clout in the private sector, where most of the layoffs occurred, but had proposed a general collective agreement to the government and the Federation’s Association of Employers over a year ago that would determine the basic rights of employees in all companies and would apply to all employers regardless of structure and capital. The response was underwhelming.

Besirovic’s union intervened when some employers tried to get workers to sign requests for unpaid leave and in other cases, she told BIRN. It also created a Viber support group connecting workers made redundant or facing violations of their rights with therapists.

“The Union is neither passive, nor do we calmly observe what is happening in our sector,” Besirovic said.

In the Republika Srpska, Ranka Misic, president of the Federation of Trade Unions, said unionised sectors had fared far better than those without trade union representation.

“In general, in the private sector, workers’ rights are violated where there is no union, and we do not have that kind of problem in places with an organised union,” Misic told BIRN.

She said there had been no layoffs or pay cuts in companies that continued working at full capacity, but conceded that the union’s efforts to secure higher wages due to increased workloads and more difficult working conditions had made little headway.

“We have different experiences, but I can say with full responsibility that labour rights are respected in places where there is a union,” Misic said.

“We can think whatever we want about politicians, but at this point we must admit that a significant number of government measures were effective and that they prevented employee layoffs.”

Worse to come

Armin Zeba

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