Slovakia

No work, no bread. I know what that means.

In what some may consider a surprising turn, our next social report covers the wealthiest part of Slovakia – the Bratislava region. It is widely known that the capital offers the most variety in jobs and so many people from all over Slovakia come here looking work; the unemployment level is 3,72% (April 2017). Naturally, we were interested in how happy the workers in Bratislava were with their jobs, so we interviewed employees at a car manufacturing plant.

The first interviewee is 60 years old and originally from eastern Slovakia. She works as a handler, unloading parts onto a trolley, which then brings them to the assembly line. She works seven and half hours a day in four-day shifts with no breaks.

Are you content with your job? How long have you been working at this position?

Yes, I am content. I have been working here for five years and I like the work, I enjoy it. Before, I worked as a seamstress, but after 35 years of sewing I got bored with just sitting and stitching. Here I actually get to move.

Could you describe your workplace? The conditions, the atmosphere, the way your superiors monitor you, the communication with them?

I do not feel we are especially monitored; of course there is the occasional audit. I have to say the work is good, I am content with my supervisor – I do not think he is overbearing or anything like that.

Are there trade unions at your workplace?

Yes, there are unions. Until a short while ago, I worked through an employment agency – I have only been a regular employee for three months, so this is still my probation period.

Are there any differences between being an external, agency-provided worker and a regular employee?

It is better to be an employee, especially if you are young. For example, the workers provided by the agency will not receive an indefinite duration contract, which is a disadvantage if you want to take out a loan for a house. There is also a difference in wages – employees receive the 13th and 14th payments.

What about the potential for professional growth at your workplace?

I never advanced anywhere because I worked through the agency and I never asked because I liked (and still like) the job. Employees advance through pay grades after having worked for a certain time – for example I will advance after I have been an employee for three months. Career growth is definitely possible: my nephew has been working here for thirteen years and has been made a supervisor.

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

No work, no bread. I know what that means: when the financial crisis started, the factory I worked in for 35 years closed down. And at my age, I could not find a job anywhere, so I received social security, which was 118 euros. I am lucky that I own the flat I live in so my housing expenses were lower, and I also did not need any money for medication. Look, I worked for my entire life and when one loses their job, it is horrible. Before I started working here, I lived on 118 euros a month for half a year and that is a big difference from what I am earning now. On one hand I am glad to have a job and I like my work but on the other hand, I am not with my family and I live in a company-provided lodging – but at the end of the day one can get used to anything.

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 spend my leisure time strolling and shopping, usually in a mall and running the errands I need to do. I do not visit theatre or cinema; as I’m not from Bratislava, I don’t have any friends to go with. I do not need a second job – you know, when I worked as a seamstress, I earned minimum wage, but the money I make now is much better, twice as much. And even though I live in a hostel, ever since I became an employee, the company pays for some of it in housing allowance.

You said you were content with your job. Is there anything that would improve your situation?

Yes, I am content with it. But of course, the ideal thing would be to have a job nearer to home.

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

People can’t just pack their things and go work in Bratislava: home is home.

Life was better when I was younger as now I am away from my family. I do not want to say that things were better under communism, but we made enough to survive and families were together; now young people have to leave to find work. Even I had to leave my grandchildren. I always say that young people should be with their families – it is not good when only one parent or a grandparent has to bring up the children. I remember it was different when I was young: I would see families going on trips together, visiting cultural sites. Even my family – with my two daughters – was together, we all worked and lived in one city. I also see the difference in prices – back then, the rent on a three-room flat with central heating cost 600 crowns, now it is 200 euros. One can get used to not having much but the way the prices keep on rising is getting out of hand. People can’t just pack their things and go work in Bratislava: home is home. Another difference is that women used to retire from their jobs when they were 53-54 years old, I have to wait until 61. These are all big differences.

***

This interviewee is an example of someone who has worked for their entire life and who lost their job shortly before retirement. She found herself in material poverty and was forced to leave her home and family and to move to the other end of the country. Throughout the whole interview, she radiated modesty; she is content in her job, she did not complain about anything, just remarked that it would be ideal if she could work nearer to home. She attaches great importance to having an orderly familial background, having experienced the current reality of a family’s breadwinners having to travel long distance to work; a trend she considers as negative.

The interviewee’s modesty is understandable when we acknowledge that she spent 35 years working for minimal wages and currently makes twice as much in an age where it becomes even more difficult to find a job; given this situation, it is hard to imagine why she would complain. The respondent has clearly defined the differences she sees in the way life between 1989 and now: the increasing retirement age, the growth of costs of living and  the problem that moving in order to find a job presents for family life. She revealed that she uses her spare time to obtain the necessities for living and that she is not interested in politics.

The second interviewee is also 60 years old and born in Vojvodina (an autonomous province of Serbia). He works as a forklift driver, usually for eight hours a day and with overtime that can stretch to sixteen hours a day in three-day shifts. He does not consider his job to be difficult.

Are you content with your job? How long have you been working at this position?

I have been working at this position for six years. I am content with the job, but it could pay better –I can make around 1000 euros when working overtime, but normally I earn 650-700 and that is too little for a job like this.

Are there trade unions at your workplace?

Yes, we have unions and I am a member. Currently we have two factions competing over who will be the union’s head; in my opinion, the union does not do its job properly. For example, I have been stuck on the same pay grade for six years, so I went and complained to the head of the union but nothing has been done about it so far. I think it is because I come from another country.

I think one can make do. The most annoying part is the double standards.

What part of your job would you like to see improved?

It is alright. I think one can make do. The most annoying part is the double standards.

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

You know, I come from Vojvodina. I studied there and the former regime, Yugoslavia, had its best times under Tito. Then, after the bombings, there was no work so we moved here, to Slovakia. I bought a flat and my wife and son work here whilst my daughter goes to university. We got used to living here.

What kind of social life does your job allow for? Can you get by 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 consider myself part of the middle class. We naturally took a lease on the flat and since we both work, we can make ends meet. I spend my free time with my grandchildren or out in nature.

***

The second respondent identifies himself as middle class. The primary issue he deals with is a slight discontent with the financial side of his job: he claims that without working overtime, his wages would not be sufficient. He even considers the fact he has not advanced his pay grade for six years is due to discrimination for being a Slovak born abroad and takes this as a sign of double standards.

Apart from age, the two respondents share the story of having travelled in order to get a job, be it from the other end of Slovakia, or from another country. They both showed modesty and the ability to be content with less, which is typical for someone who has come  “from rags to riches”. Neither of them has any interest in politics; they keep up to date with events more or less sporadically via the Internet or TV, as opposed to anything systematic or purposeful.

 

***

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.

Translation by Michal Chmela.

Featured photo courtesy of Vratislav Darmek.

Bio

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.
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.