SARAJEVO (AFP) – “If we must, we will die for our rights,” says Jasmin Arific. Every morning Arific and his former colleagues from the Hidrogradnja public construction company gather in front of the government’s headquarters in Sarajevo to demand their pensions.
Hidrogradnja was once a jewel in the Yugoslav construction sector, an industrial mammoth employing up to 4,000 people.
But after Bosnia’s war in the 1990s, business gradually went downhill like at many state-run firms hit by both the transition to a market economy for which they were not equipped, and mismanagement.
Eventually Hidrogradnja was declared bankrupt in 2016.
Two years on, Arific and his co-workers, eight of whom have been on hunger strike since January 29, are still fighting for what is owed to them.
“Our pension contributions were not paid since 2003,” Arific told AFP.
“And on top of that, they owe us our salaries for 36 months,” said the 51 year-old father of three – his children are either unemployed or students.
He said that Hidrogradnja owed him 11,000 euros ($13,580) in back pay, a small fortune for a family of five living on the 205 euros that his wife takes home a month from working in a small supermarket.
Hidrogradnja’s bankruptcy threw 600 people out of work.
Nearly half of them who were entitled to retire immediately were shocked to find they would get no pension, as the company had not been paying into the state pension fund.
It is a widespread problem in Bosnia.
According to trade unions, between 50,000 and 65,000 former or current employees of mostly state companies, such as hospitals, mines or public transport, are in the same situation.
Tax authorities estimate that unpaid social contributions amount to almost two billion euros, or half of Bosnia’s annual national budget.
State companies account for more than half of that amount.
Trade unionist Redzo Kuric, of the Independent Trade Union of Forestry, Wood Processing and Paper, said two billion euros would cover a “whole year of pensions” for the country’s 670,000 retirees.
Non-payment of pension contributions is illegal in Bosnia but generally goes unaddressed. Economic analyst Zarko Papic said that ruling political parties use public companies to employ “their cadres, activists and voters”.
“So there are more employees than they need everywhere.
“For this to stand up, they don’t pay taxes and pension contributions,” the analyst, who heads an initiative that works for better and more humane social inclusion, told AFP.
In one of Europe’s poorest countries, with a population of 3.5 million, the official jobless rate stands at 40 per cent.
But many people work in the black economy and the World Bank estimates unemployment actually to be around 28 per cent, with one quarter of the Bosnian population living below the poverty line.
“It means they just have enough to eat,” Papic said.
In December, a 55-year-old miner from the central town of Zenica committed suicide because, his colleagues said, he was prevented from retiring due to unpaid pension fund contributions.
In protest, angry co-workers of Sefik Sisic threatened to set themselves on fire in a facility belonging to the coal mine.
“Sefik did not commit suicide, he was killed by the state,” claimed independent political analyst Dragan Bursac.
The prime minister of Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat half Fadil Novalic has urged workers to be patient and cool-headed.
“This is a problem that we cannot solve overnight, we need patience,” he has said.
“I urge workers to refrain from radical moves.”
The Rudnik Zenica coal mine, which employs around 1,500 people, has accumulated more than 50 million euros of debt, according to the tax authorities.
It has not paid contributions since 2009, said Tevhid Svriko, one of around 40 miners who retired last May.
“I should have received eight months of pension so far, but I have not yet had any of them,” Svriko, 55, said.
After several days of staging a hunger strike, the miners were promised the problem would be resolved.
Shortly afterwards, some 340 employees at a Zenica steel works, which went bankrupt last month, took over the wave of protests by blocking a major road to demand 13 months of salary and 15 years of pension contributions.
Many say they are struggling to survive.
“If we have breakfast, we skip lunch and if we have lunch, no dinner,” said Fata Imamovic, a 56 year-old woman employed at the plant.