Croatia: TOKG – five examples of betrayal by an anti-worker union

In modern-day Croatia, sectors such as the garment, shoe and leather industries are marked by hard labour for minimum wages, coupled with non-existent workers’ rights and constant pressures from management. The trade union for textiles, garments, leather and rubber (TOKG) is making sure that things get even worse. This article, originally published at Radnički Portal, describes five cases in which TOKG served as management’s right-hand, and was an ally in the destruction of companies, ramping up exploitation and undermining workers.

Naprijed factory

The Naprijed (Forward) garment factory was based in Radnička 42 in Zagreb, and once employed about 1,000 workers. This formerly successful company entered a downward trajectory, starting with its privatisation in 1992, when it was sold to Zvonimir Gucić, who was also responsible for the downfall of many other companies that he owned (for example, Vesna and Sportska obuća Novska). It is clear that the destruction of the company’s production capacity was deliberately planned if we look at what is currently based at its former location. Namely, the Green Gold business center, which is more profitable for the Privredna Banka (Commercial Bank), which owned the factory when it was a garment company.

The oligarchy’s machinations can also be witnessed in the planned destruction of the company. One of Gucić’s first moves in Naprijed was forming a new company: NIK, with no property in its name. Then the first swindle came: workers were transferred to the new company without knowing it. According to official records, workers had received eight days of stoppage, but they actually had not stopped working because they knew nothing about this transfer. And the guilty party for this is TOKG and its then-president Josip Zidanić, as TOKG was the only trade union in the company until the bankruptcy.

After transferring the workers, the company continued to function normally for the next 10 years. But then – at the start of the 2000 – problems began, and a notice for bankruptcy was filed. At that time, bankruptcy manager Miroslav Borš and the company management advised workers to sign an agreed break from their contracts, and then sign new contracts with the mother company. The reason was that the bankrupted company had no property, so the workers would not be able to get their wages. But in reality, by signing this agreement, they were also giving up their rights as employees – effectively losing the right to severance pay. Workers sought advice from TOKG, where they were coldly advised to sign the deal because it was, in the opinion of TOKG, “good for the workers”. A straight lie.

At roughly the same time, New Union (Novi sindikat) started functioning in the company (at the time it was called Union Zagrepčanka). They noticed that work on Saturdays was not being paid under the explanation that, during the week, production quotas were not met, and that workers would have to finish their work on Saturdays in order to get paid. In conversation with the bankruptcy manager, Union Zagrepčanka emphasised the illegality of this, but the manager and TOKG said that this was the usual practice, which is not surprising as TOKG had never taken any steps against it.

The practice was stopped after a labour inspection confirmed that it was indeed illegal. At around the same time, Union Zagrepčanka started accepting new members and warned them not to sign the agreement to break their contracts, but by then around 90 percent of all the workers had already signed it. Still, the workers began organising with the help of Union Zagrepčanka, then took over the factory and won a deal. The agreements were annulled and they received severance pay for the 10 years they spent at daughter company. If TOKG had reacted quickly enough, the workers would have got severance pay for the whole duration of their employment (some had spent up to 30 years at the company). Zagrepčanka had no means to correct this damage, but they have shown with their actions in the factory that trade unions can be fighting organisations that can change the law when it becomes an obstacle.

In short: an illegal transfer of workers from one factory to another took place under TOKG’s nose, Saturday work went unpaid, and when the company was in trouble, the union advised workers to act in a way that was obviously contrary to their interests.

Kamensko Factory

Established in 1949, Kamensko was a textile giant of socialist Yugoslavia that employed several thousand workers and was a successful exporter of goods. Transforming Kamensko into a shareholder company during the ’90s opened the doors to the land-grabbing profiteers and parasites that would eventually destroy it. Considering that paychecks were downgraded to the minimum wage, the workers were forced to sell their shares at extremely cheap prices, and they were bought primarily by oligarchs. One of them was Miroslav Kutle, who had the loyalty of some members of management, especially then-head manager, Antun Crlenjak.

kamensko danica sabljak Image Radnički PortalTOKG at Kamensko allowed management not to pay workers, avoid health insurance and pension contributions, and actively dissuaded workers from striking / Image: Radnički Portal

At the end of 2010, the situation for workers became desperate. Pension contributions and health insurance were not paid for, and then the paychecks also stopped, although production continued as normal, with orders coming in daily. When this happened, the workers planned to strike in order to force management to pay them, but TOKG, together with its president Željko Šengin, persuaded them not to strike, claiming this would be illegal.

Nonetheless, sometime after that, on the square of Franjo Tuđman, the workers announced a hunger strike, after which they were called by Krešimir Sever, president of the Independent Trade Unions of Croatia (Nezavisni hrvatski sindikati, NHS). But he only warned them that they were breaking the law and eventually called on them to quit striking and go back to work. A hunger strike eventually started on 20 August and lasted until the end of the year. 426 workers were fired without receiving their lost wages or severance pay. In March 2016, the Kamensko premises were sold to the company Radnik D.D., whose director and biggest shareholder was Marko Habijanec, member of and generous donor to the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union, the biggest right-wing party in Croatia).

For many years, TOKG allowed management not to pay the workers, not to pay health insurance or pension contributions, and when even the paychecks stopped, and the workers started to fight for their rights, TOKG not only failed to organise them in taking strike action, but tried to actively dissuade them. In the end, part of workforce even started a hunger strike, but with no results. This is what an anti-workers union led to: the workers inflicting harm upon themselves without any advancement.

Inkop shoe factory

At the beginning of summer 2016, workers of the Inkop company rebelled after their paychecks were not paid for months. The workers themselves were in an extremely difficult position as most of them were not a part of any trade union, nor did they even know there was a trade union at the company, so they were unable to negotiate with a unified voice and threaten to strike, even in the event of missing paychecks.

Radnički portal visited on the first day of the protests and talked to protesters in order to find out their problems and demands. Our first piece of advice was to insist on union-based organising, because trade unions are the only legal means that workers have to defend their rights. TOKG was active in the company, so part of the workforce contacted the representative of that trade union in order to enrol in the organisation.

Even at this early stage, TOKG showcased its wrecking role. At first, their representative was not answering his phone, and when he finally showed himself he advised workers to start a mediation process with management without striking and without any alternative strategy.

The company was in such a bad condition at that moment, and its financial obligations towards workers were such, that the only solution was bankruptcy, even from the perspective of the workers. However, there were two possible scenarios in this eventuality: either the workers would be partially paid from the bankruptcy settlement on mass, as in Ivanec, or they could demand their claims be turned into shares. For the latter, a workers’ and trade union organisation was needed. And this is exactly what was missing.

Instead of opting for the bankruptcy, the trade union representative Savo Šmitran stood on the side of the management without the knowledge and permission of the workers and agreed to a pre-bankruptcy deal. In the process, he committed a number of seemingly amateur mistakes (in fact, these were deliberate, anti-workers actions) such as the misfiling of the documentation form (which led to it being dismissed), organising a meeting in which only a small number of workers were present, together with the director of the company; squashing the kernel of workers’ unity by agreeing to make a deal for some of the paychecks be paid directly to workers that were not striking; and also accepting the promises of management without any form of insurance. He even said that he trusted the director of the company because he was a “human being and a social partner.”

Radnički portal demanded an explanation for these destructive moves. We asked then-president of TOKG, Nenad Leček, Vice President Ljubica Hosni and Krešimir Sever, President of the Independent Trade Unions of Croatia (one of the five union confederations of which TOKG is a part). We never received direct answers, though we did see in other media sources that the vice president said she was in support of the pre-bankruptcy deal because it was, so she claimed, the only way to preserve jobs and the continuation of production. She also added that there is no reason not to financially back Inkop if, at the same time, millions of kunas are being spent backing the shipbuilding industry.

Evidently, the actions of TOKG did not only go against the interests of the workers of Inkop, but also against class interests of all the workers in Croatia.

Orljava textile factory

TOKG also functions in the Orljava textile factory, located in Požega. Workers receive minimum wage and paychecks are regularly considerably late. For example, the paycheck for May was only paid on 27 July. Beside this, overtime work is not being paid. From our sources, we have been able to find out that Union Zagrepčanka managed to initiate two rounds of legal processes regarding unpaid overtime: overtime work up to 2017 has already been paid, and legal hearings for the period later than 2017 will be initiated soon.

Orljava factory Image Duško MirkovićIn the Orljava textile factory, located in Požega, where wages are miserable and paychecks are regularly considerably late, TKOG has done nothing / Image: Duško Mirković

TOKG did not initiate any legal actions and has even misled its members into believing that this issue might be overcome through peaceful negotiation, which is obviously the wrong course of action. Furthermore, not even members of the Works Council are taking any action in the name of the workers, and we also found out that members of TOKG are having difficulty in getting advice from their own trade union. It should be noted that TOKG won elections to the Works Council (held a year and a half ago) only by initiating a huge campaign, and even calling workers directly into their offices, “advising” them on how to vote and, in the end, discriminating against Union Zagrepčanka as an organisation that is planning to bring down the whole company – by which they mean actually fighting for the rights of workers.

Ultimately, the only thing that TOKG has done after these elections is move their trusted members to less-labour-intensive workplaces.

Boxmark Leather Company

The Austrian company Boxmark Leather is one of the world’s largest producers of leather seats for cars, planes, cruise ships and household interiors. At the moment, it has production lines in seven countries (Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, Mexico, China and Argentina) and its workers produce 14 million square meters of leather fabric annually. This is a major industry, with enormous profits that are being created by the hard work of its labourers.

Boxmark Croatia Image CroatiaSindikat Boxmark, which works as part of TOKG, is a faithful ally of management’s exploitation of workers at Boxcar factories / Image: Croatia

Boxmark arrived in Croatia in 2001, when it opened a production line in Trnovec Bartolovečki – a place that was, after several years, transformed into a free zone with special conditions, i.e. various incentives for investors, such as complete or partial exemption from taxes or communal expenditures. In time, Boxmark opened two other production lines: in Zlatar Bistrica in 2012 and in Slavonski Brod in 2015. Today, it employs around 4,000 workers, mostly women workers, that are producing leather seats for leading automobile companies – BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, WV, Audi and so on. The anti-worker Croatian government is also providing Boxmark with substantial subsidies for modernisation of its production lines. Last year Boxmark received up to 3,700,000 kunas (about 500,000 euros), and when they opened their lines in Zagorje, local governments provided them with free infrastructure.

Boxmark workers subsist on close to the minimum wage, with constant abuses, pressures, insults and work-related illness – as testified on Nova TV by a family doctor. She said that she treated a large number of Boxmark workers with psychic problems (anxiety, insomnia, apathy), for which she prescribed them tranquilisers. Additionally, she testified to various work-related ailments (affecting the spine, shoulders, neck and fingers). She explained that certain groups of the workers’ muscles, joints and tendons are becoming inflamed and burnt out from overuse. Finally, she testified that a large number of Boxmark workers rejected her advice and refused to go on sick leave for fear of losing their jobs. Furthermore, the usual practice in this company is not to extend contracts after an initial three-year period (which is the legal maximum one can be employed without being taken on full time), but to throw workers onto the street when their short-term contract is up.  

The Boxmark Union (Sindikat Boxmark), which works as part of TOKG, is a faithful ally of management’s exploitation of workers. When asked to comment on this on TV, the president of the Boxmark Union, Anica Đurinec said that she had no comment, as the workers in question were not members of her union. The Boxmark Union and TOKG also took part in a ridiculous and cynical display for International Women’s Day when, together with top Boxcar manager Tomislav Cesarec, they handed out roses to women workers.

To conclude, after years of being robbed, disempowered and abused, workers at Orljava, Boxmark and others must come to conclusion that TOKG is not their ally, but rather their enemy. It has not acted to support workers, which is supposed to be its objective, but has rather served as a tool of management to pacify the workers.

In Croatia, there are a number of such trade unions in other sectors (trade, metallurgy etc.) and they ought to be criticised. The solution is not giving up on trade unions all together, but rather a mass abandonment of those unions that are incapable of doing what true trade unions should do: fighting for better conditions and rights in the workplace.