Network 4 Debate, Slovakia

I must be happy at work. There is no way to get a job anywhere else.

In Slovakia's Banská Bystrica region, 24.65% of economically active people in the Rimavská Sobota district are without a job. Two inhabitants of the district who work for a meat distribution company share their stories.

The region of Banská Bystrica is the largest part of Slovakia. It bears many scars caused by the economic transformation after 1989, the following privatization and bankruptcy of many companies that provided jobs in the region for decades. Ignoring the socio-economic situation of people has caused widespread despair reflected, among other things, in the fact this region has the highest rate of suicide in the country.

The district of Rimavská Sobota is a part of this region that boasts the highest unemployment rate in Slovakia. 24.65% of the economically active people who live here are without a job. We asked the inhabitants of this region about the situation there for our very first social report: our first two interviewees work for a company that makes and distributes meat products. 

The first interviewee is 45 years old. She has been working at the same position for five years, packing meat. The regular shift length is supposed to be seven and a half hours a day – but since Christmas, she has been working twelve-hour shifts without a break. According to her, the job is not difficult, and she is determined to work for as long as it is needed.

Are you content with your job?

I am content with the job – but not the financial rewards. We make too little, the minimum wage. And I have got the feeling that there are double standards when it comes to deciding pay grades.

What does your job mean for you? Are you happy in it?

I must be happy in it. There is no way to get a job anywhere else.

Are there trade unions at your workplace?

I have got the feeling people are afraid to say what they have issues with out loud. People talk in the changing rooms, but all is quiet at meetings. Meetings are pointless: it is all promises, but nothing ever happens. I am not in the union, a colleague of mine is and she is supposed to speak for us there but she never informs us about what happens at the meetings. The little we find out is always via second-hand information, not coming directly from her. The unionists do not communicate with us at all.

They are using termination notices as a threat, they are using the fact there are very few jobs around here.

What do you think about the communication between your superiors and you as employees?

I will give you an example: once, I was unable to work for health reasons. My shift leader called me before Christmas, asked whether she could count on me for the longer shifts. I said yes, I am feeling better now. And when I came to work, I was told that if I did not agree and come to work immediately, the shift leader would have sent me to the HR department right away – and I would have been fired. What kind of communication is this? They are using termination notices as a threat, they are using the fact there are very few jobs around here.

Is there anything you think would make you happier at your job? What would your ideal job be?

I would be happy if they appreciated my work, if they could reward it financially. And an ideal job would be one that is not shift work – because working three shifts when you have children is not easy. I also think the people who work in one factory should stand together, that if we all stood up to the employers, they would be forced to give us a pay raise.

What kind of social life does your job allow for? Can you make do with your wages or do you have to resort to a second job? How do you spend your leisure time, does your social situation allow you to live culturally?

I would not be able to get by without having another source of income; I cannot imagine how the people who are getting only these minimum wages manage.

I would not be able to get by without having another source of income; I receive social security for being a widow. I cannot imagine how the people who are getting only these minimum wages manage. And now I am afraid of what will happen when my daughter goes to college.

No, the money does not allow me to have a cultural or social life – even though I would like to. And there is no time; I work on the weekends and all my remaining time is taken up by house work.

What social class do you identify with?

Low (laborer) class.

Are you afraid of losing your job?

Yes. That is why everyone is afraid to speak out, we are afraid for our jobs.

What do you think was the best part of your life? Was the work any easier, were you  happier?

Seventeen years ago, after my maternity leave, I had a job at the state forestry department. I liked it there, it was hard work but properly rewarded – I worked one shift, I made 9500 Sk (around 315 euro) a month. Now I am working three shifts for minimum wage.

Do politics interest you at all? Do you vote, and if so, what are your decisions based on?

I do not concern myself with politics, it is just maddening. But I vote in the elections regularly. I would say I cast my vote more or less randomly – because there are so many candidates that one has no chance of even recognizing them all. And I have seen through the ones that are in politics for years a long time ago. We keep receiving the lists of candidates with their profiles with information on what they do and what they care about, so I decide mainly based on that.

How do you see your future?

I think I will be happy if I manage to retire after this job.

***

The interviewee’s fear for her job is understandable, given her prior negative experience with nearly losing her job for being unable to work for health-related reasons. As a mother and the breadwinner of her family, she cannot risk losing her job. This is demonstrated in the manner in which she speaks about her job: she never complains about the difficulty of her job or  workplace conditions. She appears to lack any perspective of career growth or future due to her discontent with her wages being based on her focus to provide for her family and spend time with her children. However, for many women, their family is their future and their career, which is reflected in the fact that she clearly demonstrates having perspective of future growth for her daughter.

Our second interviewee is a 58 year old man who worked at the same company since 1977. Over the years, he has gone through several jobs, as a laborer, a shift master, a technologist, manufacturing supervisor, and a head procurer. His experience working abroad consists of two years spent deboning meat in Belgium and the Netherlands. Currently, he is working in expedition, seven and half hours a day in three shifts. He is responsible for marking the meat products. According to him, the primary difficulty of his job is the fact he has to work in low temperatures; the workplace is built for temperatures between 0-4 degrees Celsius.

Are you content with your job? Are you happy doing it?

I am a butcher by trade so I enjoy it, but it could pay better.

What do you think would make you happier with the job? What would be your ideal job?

My happiness naturally has to do with better financial rewards. I make around 600 euros in net pay, but I would be happier if I made, say, a hundred more, around 700 euros. My ideal job would be a bit quieter, calmer. And having good people to work with is important as well.

I find that it is for the best to shut up, do your work and go home.

Are there trade unions at your work place?

Yes, our company has unions – but I think they are not needed. I was in the union for a year, but I find that it is for the best to shut up, do your work and go home. Every shift has a leader and a master, if there is a problem, we can go to them.

What kind of social life does your job allow for? Can you make do with your wages, or do you have to rely on a second job?

In one word: good. I make 600 euros, my better half gets 350, you can get by with that.

What social class do you identify with?

Standard middle.

Are you afraid of losing your job?

No. People are usually afraid to say what they think at work; I am not, I will tell the shift leader what I think. I am aware of my experience. One has to be more confident – everyone has to realize that if they screw up, they will be fired, but if they do their job well there is nothing to be afraid of. Laying people off is another thing, the company has to be desperate to do that.

Do politics interest you at all? Do you vote, and if so, where do you get your information from?

I used to care about politics, I even was a member of the City Council for the Communist Party, but I lost interest. After the revolution, they came to me from the HZDS (the most powerful party in post-revolutionary Slovakia) but I refused. I vote in the elections, though, and consider myself more of a right-winger. I get my information from colleagues, friends and the Internet. I do not read the news and rarely watch TV.

The best part of my working life was until 2011 because I was also able to save more.

What do you think was the best part of your working life? Was the work any easier, were you  happier?

After 1986. I started to work as a shift leader and in 1992 managed to get into management. The best part of my working life was until 2011 – not just because I made more money for the family, but I was also able to save more.

How do you see your future?

I would like to go into premature retirement. You know, many people work even when retired, off the books. There is nothing for it: if you want to live, you have to live even if it is like that.

***

Our second interviewee has been positively affected by his experience with working abroad, compared to the first respondent he is considerably more confident and aware of his value as an employee; as such, he is not afraid for his job. His job allows for a decent living, although he admits his economic situation is being made more bearable by the income of his partner. He is aware of his skills, knowledge and experience from working in the same field for his entire life. While he makes it clear that he would like to receive better financial compensation, it is also the only issue he has with his job. While he says he is a right-winger, the interview showed on multiple occasions that he confuses the terms of political left and right and cannot define who should be on the side of workers – he thinks it is the right. The interviewee admits the possibility of making money illegally on the side, stressing that this is a common occurrence around him, which indicates a way in which some people stuck in an unsatisfying economic situation and unable to fulfill their basic needs get by.

The goal of the project, “Unionized, Organized, and Unorganized Working Poor,” is to bring the issues of life and work of manual laborers in large companies into the public discourse. The reports based on interviews in four specifically chosen regions of Slovakia (Banskobystrický, Bratislavský, Trnavský a Žilinský) articulate the topic of work from the position of poor workers. The respondents were chosen at random, with regards for gender parity and the age over 40 years. The financial and temporal framework of this project did not allow for a complex and exhaustive coverage of the topic and all the questions related to it; neither could we build a representative sample out of the respondents. As such, the reports consist of individual experience and original stories of individuals. This is why we do not claim this is a generally applicable interpretation and analysis of the issues covered by the reports. Respondents and the companies they work for will remain anonymous.

This text appeared on PoliticalCritique.org as part of the Network 4 Debate project, supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

Bio

Jana Sivičeková

She is PhD student at the Institute of Political Science of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, and is collaborator and author with POLE.

Michael Augustín

Michael Augustín is a political scientist and PhD student at the Institute of Political Science of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of politiquefrance.sk, writer and editor of the blog POLE.