By Kristina Fidhi
Major construction companies, textile mills and other large employers are preying on the poorest members of society, hiring them illegally for dangerous work without providing medical care, dodging millions of LEK each year in employment tax and then abandoning the workers when they get hurt on the job.
An Albanian Center for Investigative Reporting review of hospital records, employee data and interviews with people around Albania show that illegal workers vastly outnumber legal ones in many industries. Migrant workers who leave other parts of the country seeking work are particularly vulnerable, forced to live in shacks, shells of buildings they are constructing and in decaying structures. Some unscrupulous contractors pack the workers into dirty, converted grain silos, while others are forced to sleep in their cars or under bridges.
In 2012, hospital records detail at least 83 cases of people who visited emergency rooms in Gjirokastër and Sarandë for injuries sustained while working illegal construction jobs. But because they were not on the books – and technically not injured on the job – they are deprived of benefits and payments owed to those not stuck in the black market labor pool.
A review of data and interviews with workers and labor experts show that 40 large construction companies in Southern Albanian claim to employ three to four workers each, on average. Those laborers receive full benefits, including health care and social benefits under Albanian law.
But the true number of workers is nearly five times higher, with more than 90-percent of workers being paid unofficially and in cash. That means they are entitled to nothing if they are injured or if their employer creates harsh and illegal working conditions.
Construction is the country’s largest employer, labor experts said, followed by the illegal cannabis farms and growers in Lazarat, which hire as many as 1,500 workers during peak season to harvest the booming marijuana crops. Textile, footwear manufactures and non-cannabis agriculture are the next largest employers, labor experts say and records show.
The black market construction workers migrate mainly from Northern and Middle Albanian Districts, leaving family behind. They are desperate for work, and are hired daily without a contract, documentation or guarantee for their futures. They are paid in cash, usually about 1,500 LEK ($14.20). This gives the employer complete control over the worker, and also deprives the state of badly needed tax income.
The best indication of the problem comes on a morning visit to what is known locally as “The Square of the Spontaneous Job-Seekers,’’ along the national road NSHN in Gjirokaster. As many as 500 workers gather each morning hoping to be picked from the labor pool, with no idea what the job is, where they’ll be going or who they work for. Similar squares exist in Dropull, Sarandë, Livadhja and Xarrë.
The workers and employment advocates call the conditions a form of slave labor that not only is spreading, but is becoming more openly accepted by both workers and the employers. Companies can choose the strongest workers in the square every morning. The weaker and the older ones are able to pick up no more than ten days of work per month. They spend the rest of the time waiting and hoping at the designated labor square.
Safety for the workers is practically non-existent, according to medical records and employment experts.
“As long as the health and safety of the workers will continue to be considered as an excessive cost for (major construction companies), then we will continue to have accidents at work,’ said Petro Anastasi, a senior construction technician and advocate for workers.
The State Labor Inspectorate in Gjirokastër has repeatedly tried to get companies to focus on and fix this problem, especially the lack of safety equipment on the job, and other conditions that make construction extremely dangerous. Virtually none of the construction companies active in the region meet the technical safety standards, including providing protective helmets, belts, dust mask, safety nets and inspecting scaffolding to make sure it is safe and constructed properly.
The Inspectorate has issued warnings and deadlines ordering the construction companies to meet basic safety standards. The requests have been ignored, and records show that the agency has never issued a fine against any of the offending companies.
Difficult jobs, difficult lives
The daily wage workers receive for their work is not enough to help pave the way to a better life, especially since most are also saving money to feed their families back home.
Edmond from Peqin has been working in Gjirokastër for eleven years now. In an interview, Edmond said he didn’t even have enough money to go home over the holidays, and that his previous employer still hasn’t paid him for work.
“The last employer, the one I worked for and built a 15 meters long wall around the house, told me he would pay me before the holidays but I am still waiting,’’ Edmond said. “A friend of mine and I worked for ten days and we both could not go home. He owes us 15,0000 LEK each (about $145), 1,500 LEK for each day.’’
Edmond says he has never been insured, and he recalls that two years ago, while working in a stone quarry, he injured two fingers of his right hand. Not only did nobody offer to compensate him for the damage, or to cover his medical and rehabilitation costs, but one week later when he tried to return to work, he found out he had lost his job.
A look at emergency room records of the approximately 83 people treated last year in Gjirokastër and Sarandë give a glimpse of the problem. Every single one of the workers came from other regions of the country to find temporary labor in the south, the records show, and all of the injuries had been caused by physical labor done in poor safety conditions.
But none of the 83 cases are technically recorded by either the state or the hospital as work-related injuries. That’s because, without a contract, tax form or other proof of a job, all are officially unemployed in the eyes of the government.
Records show that 82-percent of all the injured were men, and the injuries include broken limbs, internal organ damage, cuts to the hands and arms from sharp objects, spinal damage and lung disease caused by gas pollution or dust.
Behar Kazazi, 36 years old, from Lushnja fell in September 2012 from a third floor scaffolding of a building while he was plastering the exterior with a group of co-workers in the industrial area of Gjirokastër. He was sent to the hospital with severe damage to the head and both legs. After a few days of hospital treatment, Behar was transported back to Lushnja, where his family lives. He is still receiving medical treatment, but despite the family’s efforts, he has not been able to receive temporary disability payments.
According to the law, benefits for a temporary disability are calculated based on an average of the worker’s salary for the last three years. The injured worker can receive 100-percent of his pay for 12 months, if the injury is verified by a committee of specialized physicians.
And there is the problem for black market labor. As an illegal, he is not entitled to those benefits. And, Behar’s friends at the labor square say, he probably would not be able to sue for relief because the company settled with him for a small amount of money, and hired Behar’s brother.
According to records, the same company that hired Behar and countless other workers illegally receives 50-percent of its income from public tenders. The company hires 30 workers from the labor pool each day, and provides no benefits or safety measures, according to workers and labor experts.
The alarming rates of informal labor
The number of accidents at work comes second only to driving accidents. The rates of those injured, wounded and in deteriorating health from poor working conditions are not officially estimated and published by the Albanian government. But interviews with local labor experts and medical professionals show that at least 55 people in Gjirokastra region last year were temporarily disabled on the job, at least two more become permanently disabled and many more received emergency care for several days in local hospitals after suffering work related injuries.
And the costs to the state are equally staggering. The black market labor pool from all sources – construction, agriculture and factory work – is estimated to be around 2,000 people per month. Based on an average salary of 36,000 per month, that means the total amount of income eligible to be taxed by the state pension and tax administration is a staggering 868 million LEK per month.
But since the workers technically don’t exist, the state gets nothing.
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