For Bosnia’s workers, the struggle is far from over

  • May 16, 2015

Work & Workers

A year after a popular uprising took Bosnia and Herzegovina by force, the remaining workers of the DITA factory are still struggling to avoid bankruptcy.

On March 18, the remaining workers of DITA received a notification from the court of Tuzla: their factory has been declared bankrupt. In response, the workers — whose protests date back to the early 2000s and eventually triggered the Bosnian uprising in February 2014 — announced their determination not to leave the premises, and to maintain their occupation to protect their factory. They made their declarations public in an appeal issued on April 16 and addressed to the international trade union movement.

After years of strikes and (failed) attempts to restart production in the once thriving detergent factory, the remaining DITA workers now face the serious risk not receiving any form of compensation from the bankruptcy procedure. In more concrete terms, they will be unable to collect 40 months’ worth in wages, healthcare, social security and pension payments.

“According to the law regulating bankruptcy, the workers are in the last position in the list of claimants,” declared the president of DITA’s workers’ union, Dzevad Mehmedović. “The factory has been mortgaged, and the mortgage claimants have priority in the collection [of DITA’s assets]. The banks that provided them with huge loans and took the property under mortgage have priority in the collection of the receivables, which are huge.” Paradoxically, some shares of the factory are still held by the same workers who were violently pushed back by private security while attempting to enter the DITA premises back in 2012.

Rebuilding solidarity

DITA’s bankruptcy represents only the tip of the iceberg of the criminal privatization process that the industries of former Yugoslavia underwent in the aftermath of the war. A handful of company owners effectively brought Bosnia and Herzegovina’s industry to its knees in the post-war period through state-assisted privatization processes. Following a more general trend across the country, workers were given empty promises of improved trading arrangements — only to be confronted with lay-offs and asset-stripping of the companies in question. A worker from DITA, Emina Busuladžić recounts:

Dita’s owner and director promised better times and asked for patience. The trade union tried launching a warning strike, but we failed to gather enough interested people. We just wanted to earn our salaries, but without any projects to work on our payments were constantly delayed. They would give us a penny or two to keep us quiet. In late 2010, the owner told us that the banks would no longer give him loans and that we would have to wait until the beginning of following year. We later learned that, during this period, he had taken loans galore.

Emina, the most widely recognized face among the DITA workers, is fighting relentlessly to resume production in what she considers her second home.

In an attempt to resume production in their company and create new opportunities for future generations, the workers of DITA staged a protest in front of their factory in late 2011 and early 2012. They did not strike to halt production, but actually mobilized to resume it. In discursive terms, this act was a very radical one within the present political imaginary of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the past, workers’ protests would have been overshadowed by desperation and an inability to act or even think in terms of class politics, as everything would first be filtered through the ethnic prism, leaving social issues sidelined.

This radical act of the DITA workers would later prove crucial — especially during the February 2014 protests — in mobilizing the rest of Tuzla’s workers and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina more generally. It directly helped to bring the notions of solidarity and commonality back into everyday public discourse while articulating a strong ‘no, thank you!’ to the corruption, cronyism and clientelism that has been festering in Bosnia and Herzegovina ever since the end of the war.

Workers refuse to give up

Notwithstanding the widespread sense of fatalism and resignation among the country’s population, stemming from the grim economic situation and the feeling that no real political change has occurred one year after last year’s mass protests, the DITA workers are determined to stand their ground. They have repeatedly staged strikes and pickets outside the factory, and for over three years they have organized shifts to guard the plant day and night, to prevent the theft of machinery and assets by the factory’s owners and/or claimants.

In December 2014, a group of workers from Tuzla’s ruined industry threatened to leave the country together with their counterparts from companies such like Aida, Livnica and Konjuh. Overcome by despair, 300 of them set out on foot, under heavy snow, dragging their belonging towards the northern border with Croatia. Their goal was to enter the brand new EU member state in hopes of gaining asylum there. Some of them eventually returned — others were refused entry at the border for not carrying valid passports.

To draw attention to the desperate conditions they are facing, the remaining workers of DITA have drafted a heartfelt appeal to the international trade union community, calling for international solidarity, support for their protests and the provision of moral and material support. Below you can read the appeal in English, and here you find the translation in Greek, French and Bosnian.

We, the workers of the Tuzla-based detergent factory DITA, have been fighting a wave of corrupt privatization, exploitation and asset-stripping that is destroying the industry of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For over two years now, we have guarded our factory around the clock to prevent the removal of machinery and assets.

The process of privatization of DITA was carried out in collaboration with corrupt politicians, a corrupt judiciary, and banks that failed to carry out due diligence, providing toxic loans to the new owners — money that never reached the factory.

Our country is suffering from a lack of rule of law: criminal elites have pushed through amendments to the criminal code that mean there is no court that can try financial and trade crimes.

This legalized theft has denied us our basic human rights: we are over 40 monthly salaries in arrears, all of which left us hungry and destitute; we have been forced to watch our family members die because we could not afford medical treatment.

Now bankruptcy proceedings have begun. We are resolved to maintain the occupation of the factory and are refusing to recognize the authority of the trustee managing the bankruptcy unless the interests of the workers are protected, or new investment to reactivate the factory is found.

We are now at a critical point. Without outside support it may only be a matter of days before we are forced to build barricades and resist enforcement from special police forces. 
We appeal urgently to the international trade union movement for moral and material support.

DITA factory workers
Emina Busuladžić, Head of the Strike Committee
Dževad Mehmedović, Shop Steward for the Union of Non-Metal Workers

Contact: busuladzic.emina[at]gmail[dot]com

Chiara Milan

Chiara Milan is a PhD candidate working on civil society and social movements in Southeastern Europe at the European University Institute in Florence, and an editor at East Journal.

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