Employers and the government deny there's a problem, but weak unions and a lack of worker protections leave many Macedonians vulnerable to abuse on the job
For five years, Marina K. has worked as an accountant for a sanitation company in a town in southern Macedonia. At 27, she is the sole earner in her family of five, so to supplement her income, early this year she also began working as a part-time agent for one of the country's biggest insurance companies. Soon afterward, her original employer began to harass her.
"I began working as a part-time insurance agent because it's a different kind of work than my [accounting job] and I thought that there would be no conflict. But, obviously, according to my boss, there is," said Marina, who was later transferred to another department within the institution where, she says, she "does nothing" and lives in constant fear of being fired.
"I go to work every day expecting to be productive, but instead of that I'm more and more disappointed. I'm afraid of my boss because he could fire me whenever he wants. But he wants to play mental games with me."
Until July, when a Skopje-based group organized a conference about "mobbing"—bullying in the workplace through psychological, mental or sexual, harassment by colleagues and employers—Marina wasn't aware that her predicament had a name, let alone how widespread it was.
Marina, who refused to give her full name for fear of retaliation at work, says she has faith in neither the official workers union in Skopje nor the courts or other human rights institutions. The public institution where works doesn't have its own union—another reason why she feels she can't fight within the system to change her situation.
In Macedonia, unions are disorganized and weak, there are few mechanisms for the protection of workers, and, unlike in many European countries, there is no legislation specifically addressing the problem of mobbing.
According to a survey conducted by a local organization and released in July, out of 1,100 employees (572 women and 528 men) working in Skopje, some 77 percent have experienced mental or sexual harassment in the workplace. The research was conducted from March 2008 through April 2009 among workers ages 20 to 60 employed in schools, public and local administration, private companies, unions, and nonprofit organizations.
"I became interested in this issue because I was myself a victim of harassment at work," said Lidija Kekenovska Pavik, who coordinated survey. "Our research is the first of its kind in Macedonia. … [O]ur job in the near future will be working to raise public awareness about mobbing, educating all workers in Macedonia about their rights and their working conditions, [and] helping to prepare a law against mobbing for the protection of the workers."
According to the research, it was most often competition at work that led to harassment. Of the respondents, 411 said they were abused by a woman and 689 by a man, with overlap between the two categories. Eight hundred and forty-three people said they had been victims of mobbing and felt sick, afraid, or humiliated due to the harassment; 428 said they were thinking about quitting their jobs because of harassment; 236 said they planned to take sick leave; 218 said they are losing the ability of focus on their work; and 121 had refused to go back to work.
Kekenovska Pavik says most Macedonians have experienced or heard about some form of harassment at work but few have reacted through official channels, mainly out of fear of losing their jobs. While her organization has a help line for victims, she says a full-fledged center where people can freely go and talk with experts on this issue is needed.
"We must work first with the employees and after that with the employers because many of them don't know—or they don't want to know—what's going on with their workers," Kekenovska Pavik said. "Workers in these cases must learn how to speak openly, how to develop their communication skills so that they can confront employers or colleagues who are practicing mental harassment at work."
Kekenovska Pavik says unions, labor experts, and government ministries must work together on the problem. "In Croatia and Greece there's a law; in Serbia, the law is going through parliament. Protection of the workers' rights and protecting them from discrimination and mobbing are essential things to be integrated into our legal system if we, as a country, want to be a part of European family," Kekenovska Pavik said.
Although there is no law against mobbing at work, the law does prohibit an employer from putting employees in an inferior position based on their race, nationality, education, gender, age, religion, or political affiliation. It also forbids sexual or other forms of harassment at work, which it leaves undefined. The law does not lay out mechanisms for redress.
S.D. works in a private company in Skopje and, like Marina, refuses to give her full name out of fear of reprisals. S.D., 30, says she and her female colleagues are sexually harassed by one of their bosses. But she wouldn't think of seeking relief in the courts.
"In the middle of work, he has a habit of coming and touching us on the arms, head, back, commenting on how we're dressed, spending 10 or 15 minutes sitting next to us and saying nothing, just staring at us. … So every female employee in the company has started to avoid him. We can avoid him once or twice [in the day] but still we work with him and have daily meetings with him," S.D. said.
S.D. said the women are afraid to talk to the company's general manager, who is a close friend of the offender. "We've never said anything because there are no mechanisms for protection and because we're afraid we might lose our jobs," said S.D. through tears, adding she is happy that someone has started to talk publicly about this issue.
None of the employers approached for this article would comment, some saying only that they do not have such problems.
Bekir Shaini, president of the Skopje court that handles labor issues, agrees that harassment in the workplace falls into a "gray area" in Macedonia. "Unofficially, I know many cases of sexual and mental harassment, but here in my court there's no single legal procedure for this issue," he said. "People are afraid to talk about it. They don't trust the unions because they're politically aligned institutions and in this country the employers are better protected than the workers."
Although Kekenovska Pavik's research showed that women are more victimized than men, the biggest organization for the protection of women's rights, the National Council of Women in the Republic of Macedonia, has no plans to act on the problem. "We know about mobbing, but we're not the institution for protecting workers' rights. … Leave this issue to the unions. We're not supporting some parallel organization," wrote council board member Marija Kuka in an e-mail.
An umbrella group of Macedonian unions aims to prepare a bill against mobbing by September.
Inda Kostova Savik, the group's education manager, said it will try to include political parties in the drafting process because mobbing for political reasons is more prevalent than other forms of harassment. "We will follow the example of neighboring countries and try to apply the experiences from foreign countries," she told a 1 July press conference, citing laws on the books for decades in the European Union, the United States, and Canada.
Labor experts agree that Macedonia must tackle the problem, especially as adopting such legislation is required for the country's integration into the European Union.
But there's little indication that even the pull of EU norms is strong enough to persuade Skopje to act. Ruling party VMRO-DPMNE has lobbied to close the European Commission office in Skopje and Ivica Bocevski, the deputy prime minister for European integration, recently stepped down. Further, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said in late June that the government had other priorities than reworking the anti-discrimination law.
In the meantime Marina and S.D. are looking for new jobs in the middle of a recession. "I'm planning to take my vacation first. After that, I'll take sick leave and after that the second part of my vacation," Marina said. "In the meantime I'll see if I can find a new job. If not, God help me."
Provided by Transitions Online—Intelligent Eastern Europe