Awful conditions for women in the textile industry
Low wages and awful working conditions. Many women work in North Macedonia’s textile industry under inhumane circumstances. Loud Textile Workers fights for their rights.
To get to Loud Textile Workers’ headquarters, you have to walk up a hill along winding streets in the town of Štip in eastern North Macedonia. The front door is adorned with a round, red sign with a sewing machine and a clenched activist’s fist. Inside, the walls are plastered with clippings from the organisation’s member magazine. There’s a buzz of excitement in the office. President Kristina Ampeva is about to leave for an important meeting with North Macedonia’s deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs.
Kristina used to work in the textile industry herself. She got her first job as a seamstress when she was about 20 years old.
“It’s the only work you can find as a woman in Štip. That, or working in a grocery store. Unless you’re politically active and affiliated with one of the parties, then you might get a job in public administration,” she says.
Terrible conditions for textile workers
Nine years later, Kristina was forced to quit because she kept getting ill.
“I caught pneumonia several times a month. In the end, my doctor told me I had to choose. ‘Either you leave that job or there’s nothing more we can do for you,’” Kristina recounts.
Her doctors suspected she had some kind of allergic reaction to one of the textile materials she had to work with. The final blow came one summer when Kristina was working on a winter collection, which involved lots of furs.
“It’s just not healthy to be nine months pregnant and keep working every single day in August, when it’s hotashell inside and there’sno air–conditioning. I even came in on Saturdays and Sundays. Three times a week, we had to work at least ten hours. It was awful,” Kristina says.
For her 31 days of work that month, she received 7,000 Macedonian denar, just over 113euros.
In North Macedonia, 34,000 people work in the textile, shoe and leather industry. About 80% of them are women.
Kristina says salaries have improved somewhat in the Štip region, where an average seamstress wage is 17,500 Macedonian denar (approximately 285 euros). This is partly becauseLoud Textile Workers’ persistent advocacyhas yielded results, andpartly becauseof the large number of competing factories. But in the eastof the country, the situation is still “disastrous,” as Kristina puts it. Sometimes,workers are forcedto return part of their salary—a trick employers use to pretend to comply with the minimum wage legislation.
A grassroots organisation
Founded in 2017, the grassroots organisation Loud Textile Workers works to improve conditions for textile workers.
One of the organisation’s efforts was to survey a large sample of 870 textile workers, to uncover the magnitude of the problems the workers face. Today, the results of the survey form an important tool Loud Textile Workers uses in its advocacy towards decision-makers.
“Overtime isn’t registered, people work without pay during the holidays. Proper legislation exists in this country, it’s just not being implemented,” Kristina says.
She recalls the case of a woman who died while working in a factory: “Technically, she was retired, so it didn’t matter that 20 other women testified she’d collapsed right in front of them. When we called the woman’s son, he claimed we had to have ‘made a mistake’.”
“We’re doing everything we can”
Improving working conditions and wages in the female-dominated industry is important for women’s rights on many levels. Not least because it’ll help strengthen women’s economic independence. Loud Textile Workers also educates workers about gender discrimination and equality in the workplace—much-needed knowledge, as it’s not uncommon for women to be sacked when becoming pregnant, for example.
The car that’ll take Kristina to her meeting with the deputy prime minister pulls up outside the office. She stretches and wraps her black coat tight around her. Her gaze is already fixed on the future. She knows everything she’s gone through has brought her where she is today.
On her way out, we ask Kristina a final question about how she feels about her work. She’s quiet for a long time before answering.
“We’re really changing things, but I don’t know if it’s enough. And of course, it isn’t. But everything we do is an improvement. And I know we’re doing everything we can, and more.”
Kvinna till Kvinna has worked for women’s rights in North Macedonia since 1999. We support and cooperate with several local women’s rights organisations to end gender-based violence and defend women’s rights. We also work to ensure that gender equality, women’s participation and women’s rights are on the agenda asNorth Macedonia applies for EU membership, and that women are participating in the negotiation process.