Hard work, low wages and post-socialist nostalgia: A view of the Macedonian garment industry

Part of the virtual assembly “Labour rights in a neoliberal and post-socialist Macedonia” Author: Chiara Bonfiglioli

Textile production was an important industrial sector in socialist Yugoslavia, reaching up to 12% of total manufacturing in the 1970s. Textile factories spread from bigger cities to smaller towns since the early 1950s, and they employed thousands of workers, women for the majority. The break-up of Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Yugoslav and Soviet markets in the 1990s and global competition from Asian countries in the early 2000s have been major challenges for the South Eastern European garment industry. While the number of employees in textile greatly dropped in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (now employing around 20.000 workers each), Serbia and Macedonia managed to maintain some of their garment production. The garment industry employs around 30.000 workers in Serbia and around 40.000 in Macedonia.

In Macedonia, in particular, private companies acquired some of the assets of state-managed factories, and continued to produce for export, through the system named Outward Processing Trade (OPT), or, as it is commonly known in the region, lohn. This system existed in Yugoslavia during the 1970s and 1980s, but it became much more widespread in the last two decades in post-Yugoslav states, since local firms ceased to create their own collections and became increasingly dependent on external orders. Today Western fashion brands are delocalizing the most labor-intensive phases of production to countries where labor costs are lower, as in the case of Macedonia. The materials are sent to Macedonia, cut and sewn into garments by local workers, and shipped back to the clients in Western Europe. Western clients can benefit from the local highly experienced work force, from low prices, and from the geographical closeness of the country, which means that clothes can be ordered and obtained very quickly, according to the changing needs of Western fashion. As advertised by the official website Invest in Macedonia, one of the competitive advantages of the local textile industry is “high flexibility and readiness to adapt to the demands of foreign markets.”

What this means, however, is that workers are pressured by local factory owners to work very hard and at a very fast pace to meet the demands of Western clients. In order for local firms to keep up with the competition from the rest of Eastern Europe and Asia, moreover, production costs must be kept very low. This results in many Macedonian workers being paid around 150 -200 euros for working days of 12 hours, depending on their position and qualification. Different organizations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Fair Wear Foundation have reported violations of workers’ rights in Macedonian textile factories. These reports have underlined that workers receive “poverty wages” that are 19% of a living wage, so that many of them have to simultaneously engage in subsistence agriculture. Overtime work is common, with Saturdays as “normal” working days. Many factories also lack health and safety regulations. Precarious contracts are widespread and trade union participation is extremely low, around 9%.  In many places, such as Štip, garment work is one of the few available options, especially for women. Workers have a limited bargaining power in a country where the unemployment rate has been over 30% for the last twenty years.

If we compare textile workers’ status during socialist times with their present condition, it becomes clear that workers have lost many labor rights and that their purchasing power has dropped. Workers have also lost a number of social services that were guaranteed by their factory for free or at subsidized prices, such as healthcare services, a canteen, the possibility to take credits from the factory’s common fund, childcare facilities and summer resorts. Post-socialist nostalgia, therefore, is widespread in the garment industry. Remembering a different, more secure past, when they had had a better social status, is another way for workers to cope with the hard work and low wages of the present.

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