The Trade Union of United Mineworkers of Bulqiza (Albania) announced its formation on 17 November 2019. Five days later, the chairman of the union was dismissed by the company AlbChrome, part of a very big corporation and the biggest mine company operating in the region. In response, the workers boycotted work and started a strike demanding the reinstatement of the union leader and an end to worker repression, as well as higher wages. In the days that followed, other union leaders and activists were temporarily detained and interrogated by the police. On December 2, AlbChrome fired another member of the union executive committee. Because of the attacks of the employer and the police, as well as under a total media blackout, the union decided to close their strike with the promise by the local labour inspectorate that the issue of the dismissal of trade unionists will be taken up by them.
Although the export revenues from chromium reach over 100 million euros per year, families in Bulqiza are amongst the poorest in Albania. Meanwhile, the attacks on the union have continued. On December 12, another member of the union executive committee was given a warning of dismissal and demoted to another work position. At the start of the year, after a series of accidents in the mines, a local activist who supported the miners was attacked and police arrested people who were distributing leaflets denouncing the mining company. They used the argument that they would "cause panic" and "disturb public order". The workers struggle for their democratic right of freedom of association and collective bargaining. They see that only in their collective action they can defend their rights and struggle for their interests.
Here we want to publish an announcement of the Trade Union of United Mineworkers of Bulqiza, which was founded end of 2019, like written above. It shows the situation of the workers in Albania and the repression of the company and the state against them.
Information on the repression of mineworkers by AlbChrome
We, the mine workers of Bulqiza working at the AlbChrome, find ourselves in a dire situation and need your support in our struggle to exercise the internationally recognised rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.
We have paid the highest price for the export revenues generated by the chromium mines in Albania, which amounted to over 100 million euros in 2018. We live in one of the poorest regions of the country and work in what is notoriously known as the “death shafts” so that before we start working, we greet each other “May you come out alive!”
Over the last decades, the unholy alliance between the state and private companies has left our communities poor and devastated from the lost lives of our friends and family members. And it is not that we have accepted this quietly. We have protested and we have gone even in hunger strikes, but we have been betrayed over and over again by the existing, corrupt trade unions.
In the biggest mine in the region, AlbChrome, which has a collective agreement, or rather a “sweet deal”, with the trade union of mineworkers affiliated to the Confederation of Albanian Trade Unions (KSSH), wages and the bonuses have fallen since the last hunger strike in 2011. Meanwhile, the production targets have at least doubled. Before 2011, the food allowance was additional to the wage we received. Now it is part of the wage. We no longer receive compensations for job hazards and seniority.
Although the health and safety situation is relatively better than in the informal mines, there are many issues in AlbChrome. Of the 19 mineworkers killed in Bulqiza in the period since 2013 when AlbChrome started operating, 8 were from AlbChrome. This is by no means a spectacular record for the AlbChrome and shows that the health and safety issue is still a major concern. Meanwhile, less severe accidents are a daily occurrence.
In cases of accidents, the company tries to avoid any responsibilities by keeping two different charts for work organisation. If an accident occurs, the company changes the chart and claims that the worker was in a work position different from what the company has asked him to be. The dead/injured workers are usually guilty of the accident. Even in the cases where it is proven that the AlbChrome is responsible for the accident, the family of the workers are forced to hire a lawyer to be able to receive the compensation and pay a substantial part of the compensation.
We are not provided with the specialised medical examination needed for the sector-specific health problems affecting us such as those related to the respiratory system, kidney and rheumatism. The infamous check-up examinations, that are provided to all the Albanian citizens for free, have replaced the much-needed visits by specialised doctors who can handle the workers’ specific health problems. As for the personal protective equipment, we have to go through a very long procedure just to be equipped with gloves. Boots are only provided every four months even though they may be already worn-out.
We fully understand that our poverty wages and poor working conditions are the direct results of the way in which our voice and interests have been undermined over the years by the obscure functioning of the KSSH-affiliated trade union in Bulqiza. This union insists on having a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), but the CBA is nowhere to be found. If it exists, it has certainly been negotiated in secrecy by a small group of people. There has never been any consultation with us workers of what should be negotiated. The provisions of the collective agreement are unknown to us as we have never seen the collective agreement. The individual contract is agreed between the management and the headquarters of the trade union. So, when asked to sign the agreement, we are forced to accept the conditions, or the KSSH-affiliate trade union will be the first to ask us to leave the job. Moreover, we are not even given a copy of the individual contract.
Against this bleak reality of exploitation from the employers, the total lack of attention from the Government, and the complete failure of existing trade unions to protect us and their betrayal of our interests, we the mine workers of Bulqiza have decided to exercise our right to establish a democratic and accountable trade union run by us and able represent and negotiate in our own interests.
Thus, on 17 November 2019, we declared the formation of our trade union – Trade Union of United Mineworkers of Bulqiza (Sindikata e Minatorëve të Bashkuar të Bulqizës - SMBB) – which had already obtained legal recognition by state authorities on October 15 2019. The public announcement, which took place in the town centre, was filled with anger for the severe poverty, the death of so many mineworkers, the hazardous working conditions and feelings of betrayal by existing trade unions. But there was also hope at what a truly independent, worker-driven trade union could achieve.
Mere days after the public announcement, the leaders of the new union were faced with an onslaught of intimidation, pressure and threats, all meant to destroy an independent, legitimate trade union before it gains strength. On November 22, the chairman of our union, Elton Debreshi, who works at AlbChrome, was dismissed. In response to this situation, the majority of workers in AlbChrome boycotted the work demanding the immediate reinstatement of our trade union leader. A few days later, the demands included higher wages and a review of the production targets which, as stated earlier, have doubled.
AlbChrome, at all its levels of management, engaged in a campaign of threats of penalisation, downgrading and dismissal to pressure workers to stop the workers’ right of organization. Thus, during the days of the strike, a number of the members of the union council were detained and interrogated by the local police about the organising drive. They were threatened with dismissal if they continued their involvement in the union. Meanwhile, to cope with the strike, AlbChrome changed the working position of workers, with potentially serious risks to the lives of the miners. Indeed, the changing of the working position of workers caused a workplace accident on 19 December, where the mineworker Tush Asllani was severely injured.
Although the strike ended on December 5, on the promise of the local Labour Inspectorate that they will follow the issue of unfair dismissal, the pressure and intimidation of Albchrome against the union leaders have intensified. By the end of 2019, the company had fired four members of the union council. The attacks of the company did not stop at us but were directed against anyone daring to raise awareness about our situation. Thus, on December 28, some labour activists, who have supported our struggle for a democratic trade union, were disseminating flyers about the situation of mineworkers in one of the commercial centres owned by the CEO of Balfin, Samir Mane, who owns also AlbChrome. In response, the security forces of the commercial centre started to beat up the activists. Luckily, the police arrived to stop the heavy violence by the security, but the police forces decided to arrest the labour activists under the charge of spreading panic. The male activists (three) were released only on December 30, but the process against them continued. On December 31, the police stopped and detained for a number of hours another labour activist.
Against a context of extreme repression by the employer, the police, and a total lack of media coverage, which is controlled by economic and power interest of powerful individuals, we have had to deal also with continuous attacks by the KSSH and its affiliate in the sector. Since the formation of our independent and democratic trade union, the KSSH has maintained the language of the employer using arguments such as falling prices of chromium in the international markets, or that workers demanding higher wages were infiltrators by other companies to bankrupt AlbChrome, or that the striking workers have violated the work discipline. During the strike, the KSSH leadership has used the threat of informal mines for workers to stop the strike – the same informal mines where FSPISH has totally failed to organise and represent workers. In addition, the KSSH has continued to post on its Facebook page the same texts published by AlbChrome about their investment in Bulqiza.
In contrast to the attacks of the KSSH, we have received the support of many unions around the world. A petition, organised by LabourStart, has already been signed by over 6,100 trade unionists and labour activists from nearly 120 countries. The petition calls on the Albanian government and AlbChrome to stop immediately the actions of AlbChrome, which are in total violation of the fundamental rights established by the core ILO Conventions No. 87 and 98. These Conventions, which were ratified by Albania nearly 60 years ago, give us the right to establish a democratic trade union, able to negotiate better working conditions and safety at work, as well as fair wages for the millions we are bringing in the pockets of the company and in the Albanian economy.
Although we have asked the company to start genuine collective bargaining with the new trade union that represents us – the Trade Union of United Mineworkers of Bulqiza – the company has refused to respond. Please support our struggle for independent and democratic trade unions and the right to collective bargaining.
Trade Union of United Mineworkers of Bulqiza