Un resoconto sulla realtà sociale della Macedonia che tiene conto dei dati concernenti l'alto tasso di disoccupazione che affligge il paese e gli umori sociali legati alla difficile vita quotidiana. (testo in inglese).
"What can I do?" says Goran, a 32 year old man waiting in line at one of the soup-kitchens in Skopje operated by "Djakonija," a humanitarian organisation ran by the Skopje bishopric of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. "I have no job, I don't even receive any social welfare allowance, so I come here for one meal a day."
Not just a bowl of soup
A friend he has met in the soup-kitchen, Alija, 29-year old Roma, joins in quickly. "It is very hard, mister. The state wouldn't help us, so we have to rely on the soup-kitchens for at least one hot meal daily. I have a family and the three of us have to sustain on the welfare allowance of 2,500 Denars (approximately 40 EUR). I save some on the meals I get here, and then I search for odd jobs, I search the trash-cans or beg for some money. I know it is not the most agreeable living, but it is better than stealing from people."
All of the people that wait or eat at the soup kitchen have a similar story. They are pensioners, redundant workers, unemployed, handicapped, homeless, in any case, people in trouble.
"You can find all kinds here," says Svetlana, a nice lady in charge of the soup kitchen located within the Holy Friday Church located on the outskirts of Vodno, one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Skopje. At first, she is reluctant to speak, saying that she is not allowed to speak without the blessing of reverend Agatangel, the Bishop of the Skopje Bishopric, who is out of the country on business. She finally agrees to talk about the kitchen. It was first established two years ago, in an attempt to help the increasing army of Macedonia's poor and disadvantaged get a hot meal and some shelter. The money for the food come from private donations, and she is reluctant to mention any names. Several old ladies work on the preparation of the meals on completely voluntary basis. "God's gratitude for helping their fellow men in need is their only reward," says Svetlana. "I am a volunteer too, and apart from the Public Transportation Enterprise which agreed to give us free bus passes, we receive no other compensation."
She says that they are mostly pensioners and social welfare recipients, who find this a nice way to complement their daily sustenance. The meals are nutritious and healthy, but in her opinion, it's another aspect which helps the most, that is the ability to be in a place where one can hear a kind word, watch a little television, check the papers, or just spend some time in a warm place (it has been a horribly cold winter in Macedonia).
In her view, another important thing is that, in spite of the fact that it is ran by the Orthodox Church, it caters to all needy people, regardless of their religion or nationality.
"Djakonija" operates several similar kitchens all over Skopje. Another soup-kitchen, operated by a Northern Ireland's Ashall Trust worked for a while at "Metropol" restaurant, a decrepit facility in downtown Skopje. At its opening day, January 4, the representative of Ashall Trust said to "Dnevnik" daily that they planned to provide hot meals for 750 to 1,000 people everyday. They brought the fish and the chicken for the meals from Ireland, and planned to procure all the other products here, in Macedonia. The facility also offered tea and coffee to the visitors and let them stay for as long as they wished. They catered mainly to the Roma population of Skopje, which resulted in their decision to move to Shuto Orizari district of Skopje, which is predominantly populated by Roma. We could not interview them at that moment, but the Roma population (who traditionally live under the worst conditions in Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans) is satisfied with their work and the job they do.
The previous stories should not be surprising. Like every other transition country, the changing economy in a changing world hit the social domain the hardest. Huge factories, relicts of the megalomaniac economic ambitions of the previous system, had to close or transform. In any case, it meant people lost their jobs a huge hit on the labour market. Those who maintained their jobs had to live with small wages and salaries, trying to make ends meet.
The latest figures are alarming, even catastrophic. On Monday, February 18, the State Office of Statistics held a press conference, at which it presented the results from their latest research on poverty. According to this research, almost half a million people, one quarter of the population (24,6%) of the country live in poverty, below that thin line that defines their ability to "live above the minimum of acceptable standard of living" (as the issue is defined by EUROSTAT). They spend less than $1.5 US per family member daily (105 Denars) for the basic needs.
The most exposed group among them are those families in which the parents are between 34 and 44 years of age, who have no employment, and have offspring. 24% of those families live of social welfare. The break-down by families shows that 36.6% of the families that have two or more children younger than seven years of age live below the poverty line. 30.5% of the families with two or more children between the ages of seven and 14 years live in misery, well below the poverty line.
According to another research, done by the standards of the UN Development Program (UNDP) and conducted by Dimitar Eftimovski, Assistant at the Economic Faculty in Skopje. The UNDP standards take into account greater number of factors and data than the research conducted by the State Office of Statistics. According to that research, 56.68% of the total population of Macedonia lives below the poverty line.
On the UN Poverty list, Macedonia leads among all countries from South Eastern and Eastern Europe, and is worse off than Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, or Nepal. "According to these standards set by the UNDP, which includes the overall living standards, knowledge, education, healthcare, and employment opportunities, more than half of the total population fights with poverty. The greatest problem for Macedonia is the long-term unemployment, the parameter that measures the social exclusion. We discovered in the research that 80 percent of the unemployed wait for their first employment for more than one year. Overcoming that problem would reduce the poverty by 25%, maybe full 30 percent on the total population, says Eftimovski.
Eftimovski said that the Office of Statistics measures the poverty using only the consumers basket and ability to purchase that basket with the monthly income of the family. The latest available data, from November 2001, show that the Consumers' Basket total cost is 9,917 Denars, while the Average Salary for Macedonia is 10,617 Denars. The research shows that family of four members with the two parents employed will have to spend one salary on the Consumers basket, and the other salary on the regular monthly household expenses, electricity bill, water bill, heating etc. If you count in the expenses for clothing, footwear, schoolbooks, and occasional night at the theatre or the cinema, the estimated amount of money that would suffice a four-member family ranges between 28 - 30,000 Denars (app. 500 EUR). Recent survey showed that only 10% of Macedonian population said that they had enough money to buy whatever they need at any given time.
In addition, there are approximately 80,000 families in Macedonia that receive some sort of social welfare allowance, ranging from 1,700 Denars (less than 30 EUR) for single persons, to 4,500 Denars (app. 75 EUR) for families of four. A total of about 100 Million US Dollars from the State Budget is spent annually on all sorts of social welfare programs. Sometimes, the recipients have to wait for several months to receive it, like it happened during the December 2001 reform of the Macedonian Payment System. The social welfare recipients had to wait for three months to receive their December allowances.
A problem for any serious study of the employment and average salary in Macedonia is that few figures are certain and confirmed. Consider, for instance, the average salary. It is estimated at 10,617 Denars (160 EUR) but the figure is misleading. First, a large number of people that do receive a salary are actually much closer to 15,000 Denars or so. The problem is with the high unemployment and the fact that a large portion of population has a nominal payment that is sometimes six months belated.
A Kingdom for a Visa
Unemployment is another highly disputed issue. The latest figures made it official, Macedonia is world record holder with 39.1% unemployment rate (354,864 unemployed and job seekers registered with the State Employment Office). These people are a great burden on the State Budget, because 10.3% of them receive monthly unemployment compensation, and 61.1% of them get health insurance through the Employment Office. The unemployment rate is also disputed. The well-informed say that the actual number should be sought in the whereabouts of 250,000 unemployed, because a lot of the registered unemployed actually worked unregistered and register with the Employment Office in order to get Health Insurance.
The education breakdown shows that 69.2% of unemployed people have completed either elementary or secondary education, 7.9% of the unemployed have higher education and 7% have no education at all. By nationality, 66.9% of the unemployed are Macedonians, 20.3% are Albanians, 4.4% are Roma, and 4.2% are Turks.
The overall number of unemployed is estimated to reach the 400,000 when the Government finally solves the issue of the loss-making companies, which will mean another round of lay-offs.
So what do Macedonians do? They get around, is the best guess. They fight and struggle and cope. The catch of a famous joke has it that "A Macedonian makes 150 EUR monthly. He spends about 500 EUR monthly, and he sure as hell doesn't know where the 350 came from." They go to the soup-kitchens, they find a second job (the number of taxi drivers have dramatically increased over the past decade to the current number of 10,000 or so taxi drivers in Skopje, which has to be the highest per capita taxi rate in the world). Or they turn to the grey economy, that time tested leveller of bad economic times. The majority of them can be seen at the green and flea markets over the weekend, selling knitwear they bought cheaply in Turkey, or plumbing equipment they procured in Bulgaria for a slim profit. As Anela, one of the vendors selling thongs and variety of underwear in the Skopje Green Market, said: "It is not a steady job, I know. You have to think of the greedy customs officers, of cops that harass you daily, but I got tired of waiting in the darned line at the Employment Office. It's not much, but at least it pays the bills." They also lose all hope, which is the main reason behind the rising drug and alcohol abuse rates in Macedonia. Majority of them dreams of an immigration visa to Canada, New Zealand or some such country. The estimated figure of young educated people that have left the country over the last ten years is estimated at 100,000, with additional 80,000 waiting in lines in front of the Embassies.
Goran Ivanov, Regional Coordinator for Eastern Macedonia for the PRISMA Project (US Department of Labour program implemented through the US Agency for International Development), agrees that the unemployment is the main cause for all other social problems. However, he says that we should also take another view of our work force. "We usually see our work force as well educated and well trained. That is not entirely accurate. First of all, we are helped by the too general approach of our classification systems. We still don't know what is the exact number of, say, locksmiths in Macedonia, because they are listed under the category of metalworkers, together with a variety of occupations," says Ivanov.
He also believes that the Government could do more. First of all, he says that the Employment Office should be transformed from a bureaucratic institution that provides the registration and evidence of the unemployed and the job seekers into a real Labour Market, that will provide systematic coverage of both the work force and the available positions. Finally, he says that the people from the loss making companies should stop moaning and complaining and should take their future into their own hands. They should try to find what they can do to actually earn their living, instead of letting the life go by.
Dimitar Eftimovski believes that the Government should reconsider its policies. It should start working on viable programs and projects, increase local participation in the planning. It could divide the 100 million US Dollars it currently spends on social welfare into fifty-fifty parts of which one would be used to promote new employment. That would reduce the overall burden for the budget by 40% in five years.
A lot of Macedonians turn to the small and medium enterprises as alternatives for their lost jobs. For now they are mostly interested in services, only a fragment of them dares to open a production facility. Prof. Natalija Nikolovska from the Economic Faculty touched that issue in her 2001 book "The Great Illusion - Changes" (Kultura, Skopje). Her view is that the importance of the small and medium enterprises is blown out of proportion, since they can not guarantee economic development, and are usually used to "lower the gap between the rich and the not-so-rich segments of a society."
Indeed, one has to agree with Prof. Nikolovska, having in mind that even those productive SMEs usually work on providing semi-fabricates and raw materials, thus missing on branding, marketing and other financial advantages that a complete product can bring.
Nevertheless, there is always hope. As Elvir Arnautovic, employed in an NGO that works with drug addicts, says, "we will make it. Yes, it will take a lot of work, probably even more self-sacrifice, but we will make it."
That the Government will have to do something is pretty obvious. The fact is that no one knows what it may do. Well, here is a good idea.
A cab-driver in his forties says to me during a ride to the office, which usually turns into a wild anti-this, anti-that rant that has only me, and an unknown number of total strangers, as an audience: "Listen, I know it is difficult, and frankly, we are used to living well above our means. What I would prefer, I guess, is for someone to come and say it, loud and clear 'Listen people, I promise you another five, ten, twenty, whatever, years of such meagre subsistence, but after that, the 21st year we will be OK.' Such a man will always have my vote."