Gendering Social Citizenship: Textile Workers in post-Yugoslav States

Chiara Bonfiglioli
Textile industry

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Papers Series and is available for download here.

In the last twenty years, the overall deterioration of social citizenship rights in the post-Yugoslav region had major consequences on women’s position as workers and citizens. This is particularly visible in the case of women employed in the textile industry, a traditionally “feminized” sector that was greatly affected by the economic and social changes which accompanied post-socialist transition. The demise of the socialist citizenship regime of welfare and labour – coupled with overall economic decline as a result of the Yugoslav wars - enhanced women’s precarity on the labour market and led to the gradual dismantlement of welfare arrangements for working mothers which had existed during socialist times.

Women textile workers in the South Eastern European periphery

In socialist Yugoslavia, employment became a crucial means to access wages, social insurance, healthcare, cheap housing and paid holidays, which were also subsidised through the construction of specific holiday resorts for factory workers. Working women gained access to free healthcare, free abortions, free education, extended paid maternity leave of up to a year, canteens and childcare facilities in the workplace, and could benefit from shorter working hours to take care of small children (although all women did not benefit from these possibilities in the same way due to the uneven development of welfare services throughout the country). These welfare measures have been defined by scholars of post-socialist countries as the “worker-mother” or “working mother” gender contract. As noted by scholars, while these policies were effective in ensuring higher rates of labour participation in comparison to Western Europe, they also strengthened the gendered division of reproductive labour within the family. Industrial workers’ social security entitlements - and the “working mother” gender regime – gradually faded away with the disappearance of the socialist regime and with the break-up of Yugoslavia, which caused the dismantlement of a great part of industrial production in post-Yugoslav states, and a rapid deterioration of workers’ living and working conditions.

The socially-owned textile industry was a significant economic sector during socialist Yugoslavia, covering approximately 12% of total manufacturing in the 1970s. In the 1980s Yugoslavia was among the leading producers of garment products. Yugoslav fashion brands were sold both locally and internationally. The situation dramatically changed during the 1990s and early 2000s, when many textile firms ceased to operate and many employees in the textile sector lost their jobs as a result of the collapse of the internal Yugoslav market, and as a consequence of the privatisation process. The process of privatisation of the previously socially owned textile industry, notably, was characterised by shady agreements, mismanagement and corruption. The closure of previously socially owned factories across the region has been accompanied by high unemployment and by a growth in informal and irregular textile labour.

At the same time, private companies have been created in the last twenty years and the industry is still relevant for the region, particularly when it comes to foreign exports. In Croatia, textile and clothing producers employs approximately 20,000 people (as opposed to 83,000 in the 1990s); approximately 20,000 employees are also employed in the sector in Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina respectively. The greatest textile production is taking place in Macedonia, with around 40,000 employees in the leather, clothing and textile sector (64,000 in 1989), as well as in Serbia, with around 30,000 workers (as opposed to 100,000 during socialist times). The main type of textile production in the region is the one based on the lohn or OPT (Outward Processing Trade) process – in which Western partners send the textile material and the local factories carry out the sewing and finishing phases. This particular system started in the 1970s and was further developed in the 1980s, with West Germany outsourcing its production to East Germany or to Yugoslavia. The system expanded considerably in the 1990s, as a result of the tariff and custom protection put in place by the EU towards Eastern Europe and South Eastern Europe. With time, this produced an increasing dependency on Western markets for textile companies located in the European peripheries.

These interrelated processes had devastating consequences for textile workers’ rights in the region of the former Yugoslavia. The destruction of the state industry, the widespread unemployment and the lack of job certainty pushed textile workers to accept low wages and poor working conditions in newly founded private companies. This phenomenon has been defined as the “feminisation of labour”. The “feminisation of labour” is particularly characteristic of the global garment industry, which is traditionally a feminised, low-wage, high-labour intensity industry for foreign export, particularly exposed to shifts in global capital and to a “race to the bottom” in production costs. The narratives of former and current textile workers testify to this shift, from industrial Fordism to privatisation and de-industrialisation, from a system guaranteeing a certain degree of social security and welfare to a system of neo-liberal capitalism, in which the labour in the textile industry became once again associated with exploitative conditions and lack of workers’ rights.

Textile cities: the cases of Leskovac and Štip

In the post-war era the town of Leskovac, in Southern Serbia, became the seat of a big textile kombinat – a colossal complex combining different production processes for yarn, raw fabrics and finished products -- called Leteks, with a number of subsidiary factories around Leteks in the industrial district. In the 1970s the Leteks factory had more than 3000 workers, organised in three different workshops in the city. In Leteks and in the other factories of the region, the workers could count on a canteen serving a daily meal. Women workers at Leteks, moreover, could make use of childcare facilities on the premises of the factory. A holiday spa resort was available for workers at subsidised prices in Sijarinska Banja.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia, inflation started to affect industrial production, causing a considerable drop in the value of salaries after the early 1990s. Around 20% of the workers were dismissed in the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, approximately 50% of the workers remained. A programme of restructuring was inaugurated and between 1st of July 2001 and 13th July 2003, workers went to work but did not receive any salary. In 2006, after a failed privatisation attempt, the factory went bankrupt and became again state property. Today the former Leteks kombinat – and the whole industrial district – is a de-industrialised, ruined wasteland on the outskirts of town. As a result of the overall fall of the textile industry, 12,000 workers became unemployed in the textile sector in Leskovac, a considerable number for a municipality of 156,260 inhabitants.

During the transition period, many workers remained without jobs and without pensions. The privatisation and bankruptcy of many social factories caused the loss of many years of wages and social contributions. From a gendered perspective, the collapse of the textile industry caused a great increase in gendered inequalities. Domestic violence against women and children increased due to men’s unemployment and alcoholism. Domestic violence is often accompanied by women’s economic dependency, making it difficult for women to abandon violent households. Moreover, many women who lost their jobs in the textile industry are often suffering from depression and psychosomatic diseases.

Former workers feel that they have lost their social entitlements, and also, as a consequence, their right to make themselves heard in the political realm. Against present circumstances of invisibility and disempowerment, the collective memory of socialist times is invoked and mobilised by workers, as a way to re-establish their dignity and the dignity of their labour. Workers have also fought through collective mobilisation: 167 former Leteks workers filed a lawsuit at the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg to reclaim their unpaid wages (Anđelić and others vs. Serbia). On 28th of May 2013, the ECHR ordered the Serbian state to pay salary arrears plus 3100 euros of compensation for each worker, a total sum of 540,000 euros.

Similarly to Leskovac, the town of Štip, located in Eastern Macedonia, with a population of 50,000 inhabitants, became a relevant textile centre during socialist times. Štip's main kombinat was the Makedonka factory, which employed several thousand workers since the early 1950s. Makedonka included a restaurant for the workers serving one free meal per day, discount stores, childcare facilities, and library, and a choir which performed around town. The factory also provided housing to its workers, and holiday facilities in different locations in Macedonia. The disintegration of the Yugoslav market in the 1990s brought Makedonka to a deeper crisis. A restructuring program was inaugurated in the early 1990s, and workers were laid off in waves. Several attempts at privatization of the whole complex failed, and the company was put into liquidation and sold piece by piece from 2001 onwards.

While Makedonka and its subsidiary factories collapsed during transition, several private firms (konfekcije) appeared in Štip, which now employ around 45% of the active population in the city. Women are mainly employed in textile factories in Štip, while men are driving taxis or working in the logistic sector, for instance as intermediaries between local companies and foreign clients. Recently, however, men who could not find other professions have also started to look for work in textile factories. In comparison to Leskovac, where textile production has completely declined, Štip is presented as a success story of privatization.  Textile workers’ livings conditions in Štip, however, are quite difficult and often violate international labour standards: working conditions in the factories are often unsafe, with peaks of heat and cold due to the absence of air conditioning or heating systems. Trade unions are completely absent from these factories. The nation-wide minimum wage for textile workers in Macedonia, 102 euros, is even lower than the nationwide net minimum wage of 131 euros established in 2012.

The sense of social uncertainty among textile workers is extremely high.  When it comes to working conditions and working time, seamstresses are very much dependent on the decisions of factory owners and on the urgency of orders coming from foreign partners. Beside workers’ low wages, the competitiveness of textile production in South-Eastern Europe is largely due to its proximity to Western Europe, as opposed to Asia. Because of this proximity, small quantities of garments can be ordered and produced relatively quickly. The working time, therefore, is largely dictated by the speed and quantity of the orders from abroad. Often, workers have to toil on Saturdays and Sundays to complete the orders coming from Western Europe.

The social rights enjoyed by textile workers during socialism are often compared to the lack of social rights experienced after the transition. Due to low wages and intensive working hours, workers are no longer able to afford paid summer holidays, in comparison to their parents’ generation, who could benefit from paid summer holidays in subsidized resorts. When it comes to working mothers’ position, women in the textile industry experience lower social security, as a result of the withdrawal of the welfare state and of the “working mother” gender contract which existed during socialism. Canteens and childcare facilities, for instance, are no longer available in textile plants for working women. After the post-socialist transition, the “double burden” of productive and reproductive work has become heavier, since women’s wages are even more necessary to guarantee the survival of the household, while at the same time women continue to be the main-caretakers for children, the infirm and the elderly, since the welfare state is almost non-existent. Intergenerational solidarity is widespread, particularly among women, who continue to be the ones in charge of social reproduction and care across generations. In Štip the family usually takes the role of a safety net against possible economic and social uncertainty.

In post-Yugoslav states, intergenerational solidarity networks based on family ties have become a safety net for many citizens, and particularly for women, who are traditionally in charge of child caring and social reproduction, while at the same time being often the main breadwinners in the household. The devaluation of women’s labour and the precarity of women on the labour market in the post-Yugoslav space reinforce women’s dependency on extended family networks. While the importance of family networks in informal economic practices was common during socialism as well, in post-socialist times, however, when job security in the public sphere has largely faded, the family – as well as informal economic practices - have an even stronger significance for everyday survival.

The “retraditionalisation” of gender relations in the post-Yugoslav region, therefore, is not only a consequence of nationalist discourses, but is also a direct result of the deterioration of social citizenship, i.e. working rights and welfare rights. The narratives of textile workers in Leskovac and Štip illustrate the far-reaching transformations in social citizenship that have occurred in the region, as well as their profoundly gendered character. In a region in which social citizenship is shaped by multiple inequalities, in which unemployment rates are extremely high and in which industrial workers are strongly disempowered, women have to face additional forms of gendered discrimination, resulting in women’s enhanced precarity and vulnerability in their lived experiences of productive and reproductive labour.