After suffering injuries at work, many of Kosovo’s workers are left to cover expenses and deal with the long-term effects alone, with the absence of state protection leaving them at the mercy of their employers.
After taking some advice from one of his relatives back in 2012, Emin Ademi decided to change his job. He had previously been working at a furniture company, which required a long commute from his home village of Koshare, near Ferizaj.
Ademi, 41, started working at a company in the village specializing in steel manufacture and installation, Exim Metal, but only made a verbal agreement with his manager regarding his employment. He was asked to provide his ID card, allegedly to prepare a contract, but a formal contract was never finalized.
Ademi was mainly employed by Exim for offsite jobs. On January 7, 2013, as he and some other workers were dismantling some scaffolding, Ademi slipped and fell, breaking his left hip.
The seriousness of the injury was not immediately apparent. “I told my colleagues to carry on working, thinking I’d only sustained a slight injury,” says Ademi, who later contacted his brother to take him to the hospital.
Unable to take an X-ray examination at the public hospital in Ferizaj, Ademi visited a private clinic, where he was prescribed ten days of bed rest by the orthopedist.
“But it wasn’t just a matter of ten days,” Ademi says.
The next day, Ahmet Petrova, the owner of Exim Metal, paid Ademi a visit. He asked for the X-ray scans in order to send them to another orthopedist in Ferizaj. This second orthopedist told Petrova that his employee’s condition was serious, and that he should be sent urgently to the University Clinical Center of Kosovo, UCCK, in Prishtina.
“Ahmet came in the morning and took me to Prishtina by ambulance,” Ademi explains. “I was told to stay there and wait as I would undergo surgery immediately. I paid for it out of my own pocket – 450 euros for three bolts, although I only got two.”
Kosovo’s Law on Labor requires employers to provide their employees with insurance against injuries and illnesses that could be sustained while they are performing work or services for their employer.
Ademi believes that because he had not received an employment contract, he was not covered by the law. The Exim employee received only 100 euros from Petrova, which was given to him at the hospital.
Speaking to BIRN on the phone, Petrova refuted the idea that Ademi was ever employed by the company. “He was not a worker of mine. If there was no contract, he was not a worker of mine,” the Exim Metal owner told BIRN, before hanging up the phone.
In May 2016, three years after Ademi sustained his injuries, Exim Metal expanded, creating a new steel pipe production line after receiving a grant of 400,000 euros from the EU Office in Kosovo and the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Former Speaker at the Kosovo Assembly, Kadri Veseli, and former Minister of Trade and Industry, Hykmete Bajrami, attended the opening ceremony, inaugurating the production line and presenting the company as a success story. The factory employs 52 workers, all of whom, Petrova says, possess contracts.
This was not the case for Emin Ademi though, and it was the absence of that contract that prevented him from taking legal action against the company. “Some people told me I should have sued him, but I needed the document,” he says.
However, Acting Head of the Labor Inspectorate, Valon Leci, says the lack of a contract should not discourage workers from filing complaints. According to Leci, the Inspectorate – an independent body within the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare that monitors workplace safety – will be ruthless when it comes to companies that violate employee rights.
“It is true that in terms of procedures, this issue creates a lot of extra work for us,” Leci says. “But an employer should never be relieved of [legal] responsibility solely because of lack of a contract, he should be charged twice in fact.”
According to Leci, during 2019, most complaints to the Labor Inspectorate came from public sector employees, surprisingly, who lodged 1,648 complaints compared to 89 complaints received from private sector workers.
Leci told BIRN that the Labor Inspectorate receives very few complaints about the failure to receive an employment contract and suggests that this is due to employees’ fear that employers will retaliate against those making complaints. However, the acting head asserts that the Labor Inspectorate’s policies are aligned with those of the EU, and that complainant’s identities are completely protected.
The Inspectorate was not able to provide data on the number of employees working without contracts, but Jusuf Azemi, the chairman of the Independent Private Sector Trade Union, BSPK, estimates that there are a total of 150,000 people in Kosovo working without an employment contract, including 52 per cent of workers in the construction sector. A World Bank report published in 2017 found a lack of employment contracts to be a persistent problem, and placed particular emphasis on the violation of the rights of construction workers.
Azemi believes that the Labor Inspectorate is at least partly to blame for the situation not being resolved, claiming that the inspection body notifies companies one month prior to inspection. The union boss suggests that this allows companies to discourage employees without contracts from attending work on the day of the inspection.
Leci, however, denies the allegation, stating that companies have never been told in advance that an inspection was about to happen.
Azemi also questions the Labor Inspectorate statistics on the amount of people injured in the workplace which state that in the first half of 2019 there were 61 injuries sustained at work. Azemi says that although no institution has the exact number, from the data collected by BSPK from Kosovo’s six regional hospitals, more than 1,748 workers were injured in 2018 alone.
“During one case in which I have personally been an intermediary, a worker fell from the second floor suffering injuries, but not fatal injuries,” Azemi says. “I was present at the time when a doctor suggested one month of bed rest at least. But four days later, the company owner told him ‘If you don’t come to work, then your employment contract will be terminated.’”
Leci states that the Labor Inspectorate has assessed companies for workplace safety, and believes that standards are slowly improving, pointing to statistics recording deaths in the construction industry. In the final six months of 2018, there were 15 recorded workplace deaths in the construction industry, while between January and July 2019, this figure reduced to eight.
In the same period, the Labor Inspectorate imposed 127 fines related to safety violations, while in 2018 there were 270 fines issued, mainly in the construction sector. The Labor Inspectorate has faced criticism in recent years over the number of inspectors it employs, which in 2018 stood at 42.
After three months of being bedridden, Emin Ademi began walking again, cared for by his family. “My wife had to hold me by the arm,” he recalls. He gives credit to his brothers living in Switzerland for financing his recovery, including surgery, visits to the doctor and trips to the thermal baths. Ademi’s monthly salary of 300 euros would not have been enough to cover his expenses.
After two years, Ademi recovered and appealed to Exim Metal to reinstate him, this time inside the company’s factory, as he is no longer capable of heavy lifting. Initially he received promises that he would be reinstated, but his request was later ignored.
“[Petrova] used to say: ‘I’ll take you back!’ But he never did,” Ademi says.
BIRN questioned the Exim Metal owner on the subject, but Petrova continuously replied that he didn’t remember the incident.
“I think he’s scared to take me back to work,” Ademi claims. “He thinks that if I get a contract, I will sue, and that’s why he doesn’t want me back.”
Ademi walks with a limp and is no longer capable of physical work, but there are times when he is forced to do so because he has to feed his family of five. However, when applying for new jobs, he usually doesn’t reveal his previous injury.
“Each time I apply for a job, I keep my injury secret,” Ademi says. “I worked for Bechtel-Enka for a while but I never revealed my condition to them,” he adds, saying that every time the seasons change, he feels pain in his leg.
Halit Rushiti, a 53-year-old from the village of Qirez near Drenas who sustained injuries at the Ferronikeli factory in Drenas, is also still suffering the effects of a workplace injury. While trying to fix a fault in the factory’s machinery, Rushiti got his hand stuck inside a conveyor belt carrying metallic ore at the factory.
“I couldn’t remove my hand because the ore was in constant circulation and by the time the belt stopped, no one was able to remove my hand from there,” he explains. “The mechanics then came and they had to cut the belt so that I could get my hand out of there. Otherwise it was impossible.”
Rushiti was taken to a plastic surgery ward in Prishtina, but doctors were unable to save three of his fingers. Unlike Emin Ademi, all of Rushiti’s medical expenses were covered by the company, who paid him his full salary for seven months as he recovered, as well as for his medical treatment.
However, during his time off work, the management at Ferronikeli changed Rushiti’s position. He now works at an industrial landfill as an external contractor for Ferronikeli, overseeing workers at the landfill. His salary remains the same: Rushiti’s monthly income is 360 euros.
He has not received any compensation for the damage or the degree of disability he suffered, after deciding to accept the company’s decision having taken advice from the Independent Union of Ferronikeli Workers.
Fehmi Nika, the head of the union, says that in these cases the employee’s preference dictates whether to proceed with legal action against the company or not, and he believes the best solution in this case was not to pursue a lawsuit.
“His contract lasted for a year, he may not even have had a job afterwards,” Nika said, adding that a case for compensation would probably not be successful. “What do you think? It would cause problems for the employee, right?”
However, according to Abedin Haxhiu, vice-president of both BSPK’s governing council and the union at Ferronikeli, Rushiti’s decision not to challenge the company in court lacked courage. He recommends that Rushiti still mount a legal challenge in the future to seek compensation and try to guarantee a disability pension for himself once he retires.
Jusuf Azemi from BSPK says that cases like Rushiti’s often occur. He recalls a similar case that took place in Lipjan, which his union was involved in. “We have a worker who completely lost his hand,” the union leader explains. “The worker underwent surgery and then was transferred from UCCK to Belgrade.”
According to Azemi, when the employee returned to work he was offered a new position to compensate for his injuries. “When the procedure was over, the owner of the company offered a deal to the employee. The owner of the company told him: ‘I will offer you some kind of managerial position in the company, an apartment and a car.’ The employee agreed to this deal, and then, five or six months later when the contract expired, the deal was not honored,” says Azemi, adding that employees in these cases often lose their legal battles.
Upon Rushiti’s request, BIRN did not address specific questions to Ferronikeli’s management regarding this case. When asked if injured workers were compensated at the company, the company’s management did not respond.
Rushiti continues to face physical difficulties. It is almost impossible for him to perform any physical work and he suffers pain in his hand throughout the winter. However, Rushiti continues to count his blessings. “I still have my right hand, and that’s why I feel a bit lucky,” he says.
Workers in the public sector have also not been fully compensated for even the most shocking of injuries. Such was the case of Xhafer Musliu, a former employee of the Kosovo Energy Corporation, KEK.
Xhafer Musliu, along with his brother Ismail Musliu, began working with KEK at the Kosovo B power plant in 1981. Having worked in both the Yugoslav and post-war political systems, Ismail, now retired, says conditions at KEK in the pre-war years were much better than now, describing the post-war years as a period of degradation for the corporation.
In 2004, Xhafer Musliu suffered a horrific injury while the workers were carrying some pipes. One of the pipes slipped and hit Xhafer on the head, the impact placing him in a coma for one month. “Even parts of his brain came out,” Ismail recalls. According to data provided to BIRN by KEK, 380 of its employees suffered injuries in 2004 alone, more than one per day.
Xhafer took one year off while recovering, during which only 60 per cent of subsistence expenses were covered by KEK. As his health improved, Xhafer began to work at KEK again, but only for a short period, as, after the injury, he was diagnosed with liver cancer.
“From the time he sustained that injury, he found it hard to readjust at work, then he was diagnosed with cancer,” recalls Ismail, who says that his brother was neither compensated for the injury nor financially assisted by KEK after being diagnosed with the disease.
When it comes to compensation, Valon Leci of the Labor Inspectorate says that power lies exclusively with the courts. BIRN submitted a request for information to the Kosovo Judicial Council, KJC, but the organization was not in possession of any concrete statistics on the number of compensation decisions issued by courts.
In the first six months of 2019 there were only six cases held in Kosovo courts trying defendants for the criminal offense of “violation of employment rights,” three of which have now been resolved.
Insured but not compensated?
On top of unresolved issues over compensation after accidents at work, KEK employees currently face difficulties receiving money owed to them through their company health insurance. The corporation has a contractual relationship with the private insurance company Euro Sig, through which KEK pays 23.5 euros per employee per month for health insurance.
However, whenever employees encounter health problems, they must first pay for medication out of their own pocket, and are then reimbursed later. According to the President of the New Trade Union of KEK, Nexhat Llumnica, there are many problems with this system.
“In cases involving a small amount of compensation, when the insurance companies are aware that workers will not complain about those small amounts, they don’t reimburse the workers’ expenses at all,” Llumnica says, adding that every time the reimbursement is made, the interest on bank transfers is always invoiced to the workers.
Ismail Musliu also experienced this, stating that in some cases he was not reimbursed for medication. “I had to pay 30 euros for a single drug! I was not compensated at all,” he tells BIRN.
BIRN contacted Euro Sig over the matter, but Ardita Ramaxhiku, Chief Administration and Human Resources Officer at the company, says that Euro Sig could not provide information regarding delays in reimbursements, as, according to her, disclosure of information without KEK’s prior consent is considered a violation of KEK’s confidentiality.
KEK spokesman Skender Bucolli says the issue is dealt with, and insists that KEK is the best example in the country for respecting workers’ rights, both in terms of corporate obligations and their responsibilities.
Bucolli also claims that the corporation has good provisions for sick leave. However, according to the law, employees subject to occupational hazards are entitled to 30 days sick leave, while KEK only gives dispensation for 20 days.
The workers are also not adequately compensated during time off for ill health. While the Law on Labor foresees 20 days of sick leave per year, where the employer is obliged to pay 100 per cent of the expenses, KEK pays only 40 per cent, with Euro Sig obliged to make the payment, as per their contract with KEK.
Llumnica, however, says that the agreement is not respected by the insurance company, and that the 40 per cent is rarely paid, if at all. According to the union president, the agreement between KEK and the company is a violation of the law and there are cases when workers appear sick at work, because they can not survive on only 40 per cent of their wages.
As long as institutions continue to fail to implement existing legislation to provide dignified treatment to employees who are faced with hazardous working conditions, workers like Emin Ademi will continue to suffer injuries and cover the cost of it themselves. Halit Rushiti will continue working without his three fingers, as if nothing has happened, and Ismail Musliu will try to honor his deceased’s brother memory by repeatedly voicing his indignation over the conditions KEK employees face.
As institutions delay the protection of workers’ rights, many employees will continue to suffer, with the support of neither their employer nor the state, their injuries or deaths remaining only statistics.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Halim Kafexholli and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or BIRN and AJK.