Serbian workers win an important victory – and they need our support

Falc East factory in Knjaževac is one of the subsidiary companies of Falc Spa, Italy, which produces footwear for several luxury European brands. The factory in Knjaževac produces one million pairs of shoes a year generating huge profit for the company, while workers have to survive on poverty wages. This summer, they decided it was time to raise their heads.

In fact, around 80% of workers in the Falc East factory receive a minimum wage. This means that those who produce luxury shoes – including for brands like Burberry or Gucci – then try to survive on a monthly salary close to the statistical poverty line for Serbia as defined by the European Union.

The minimum wage in Serbia is about 40,000 RSD per month, or 230 RSD per hour [less than 1 EUR], so the amount varies depending on the number of working days in a given month. The minimum wage is only slightly higher than the statistical poverty line for Serbia, the SILC poverty threshold, and three times lower than the real cost of living in Serbia according to the calculation of the European minimum living wage.

Workers, organised within trade union Sloga (Serbian: Unity), initiated a warning strike in January, demanding a 10% wage increase. Then, on 2 June 2023, they went on strike, demanding a three-part increase:

→ salary increase by 10%,

→ stimulus from 2,000 to 5,000 RSD [approx. 17 EUR to 42 EUR].

→ hot meal value from 150 to 200 RSD.

After a series of unsuccessful negotiations, at the end of May, a unanimous decision was made to end negociating and to go on strike.

Most of the workers in Falk Ist have been working for years for the minimum wage or earning slightly more than the minimum wage. In addition, this year’s minimum wage increase does not cover the increase in prices caused by inflation, so the actual standard of workers is even lower than last year. Workers believed that their demands were realistic, even modest in relation to the rising cost of living in Serbia, that’s why they also asked the factory management for guarantees about a progressive increase in wages to the level of 70% of the living wage in the coming years.

After 11 days, the strike ended with a modest but very important victory!

Workers received a 10% salary increase and an increase in hot meals from 150 to 200 RSD. Further increases will be discussed from September.

However, 11 days of strike for Falk Ista workers meant 11 non-paid days in June. The net amount they will receive in July will be reduced by 20,000 dinars. For wages that are around the minimum, that amount is almost half of the income, and Falk East workers who have been barely making ends meet for years do not have savings or spare sources of income with which they could amortize this shortfall in the family budget.

Why is this strike important for all citizens of Serbia?

According to the labor law, it is possible to pay the minimum wage in certain circumstances for no longer than 6 months, however, union estimates say that it is a reality for about 300,000 workers in Serbia. Even though this amount is barely enough to survive, most workers do not fight for an increase in wages for fear of losing their job and any regular income. Instead, the money necessary to replace the basic household budget is earned by doing one or more side jobs.

The situation is unsustainable in the long run, but it seems that Serbian workers have internalized poverty and are used to living in poverty.

In this context, the victory from Falk Ist is a message that one does not have to suffer and that solidarity and perseverance are prerequisites for victory. A 10% increase in the minimum wage is a modest amount in terms of monetary value, but an important achievement for the future of the workforce in Serbia.

The workers of Falk East paid for that achievement with their 11 daily wages. Supporting them at this point is crucial for anyone who cares about basic rights, democracy and self-organization, as well as dignity of working people.

The total amount that would compensate the daily wages for 600 workers for 11 days is huge, so the action Center for the Politics of Emancipation is launching has a more modest goal: to cover at least two daily wages for everyone. The donations can be made here. The same request was made to international luxury brands, the real employers of Falc East workers.

The workers’ movements in Central and Eastern Europe are usually described in mainstream media as something that belongs to the past. In the present, the societies of former Eastern Bloc and Yugoslavia are supposed to focus on building a liberal democracy, opposing populism and authoritarianism, and waiting for the free market to reward the smartest, the fastest, the most hard-working. After three decades from economic transition, anyone who can observe the facts know that this is not the story. Privatized industry in the region is working for the benefit of the owners, not the entire societies. ‘Cheap states’ attracting investment on the expense of their own badly paid citizens became simply bad places for living. And it is only the people’s self-organization and struggle from below that might change this. The political classes from Serbia through Romania, Czechia or Poland feel comfortable enough to play their own power games – inside and outside. This cannot be said about the citizens, who are hit by one crisis after another, with the free market being unable (and unwilling!) to offer them basic life security.

It is a hope-bringing view to see workers of Solaris in Poland, Nexen Tire in Czechia, Vilnius city transport in Lithuania and now Falc East in Serbia to win their just fight for living wages and for respect. We all deserve this. By supporting the brave people who stand up to exploitation, we build a better life – for everyone.

All photos by Miloš Ćirković.

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