© voy ager/shutterstock

© voy ager/shutterstock

Kosovo has been shaken by chain strikes to demand better wages after prime minister Haradinaj doubled his own salary at the end of 2017. The recent approval of a new law on wages does not seem to have cooled tensions

05/03/2019 -  Majlinda Aliu Pristina

At the end of 2017, the Kosovo government took the decision to double the salaries for its members. Haradinaj's big pay rise from 1,443 to 2,950 Euros signalled other public sector employees that forcing the government to increase their salaries was possible. To overcome the public pressure, the prime minister decided to issue a new law on wages, which was approved by the parliament on February 2nd, 2019, aimed to put a threshold to salaries by ranking the positions in the public administration and assigning each a “salary coefficient”. However, this did nothing but add fuel to the fire.

Chain strikes

The first criticisms came from education trade union SBASHK (Joined Union of Education, Science, and Culture). In January 2019, SBASHK called its members to strike: the protest lasted three weeks, keeping at home over 500,000 pupils and students, exactly when the new term was supposed to begin. Teachers were demanding a 30% increase in pay: in the end, the government offered them a humbler raise. High school teachers' salary will increase by 74.5 Euros to reach 515 Euros, while primary school teachers will get an increase of 49.5 Euros and their new salary will be 466 Euros.

The most vocal and unhappy category were the surgeons, who felt offended and undervalued by their ranking: they also started to strike at the end of December 2018, keeping patients on the waiting list for surgery. After three months on strike they got back to work, upon the condition to amend the law and raise their coefficient to 8, equal to judges and prosecutors. The actual law doubles their salary from 600 to 1,200 Euros.

At the beginning of February, air-traffic controllers started striking too. Head of the air-traffic controllers' union Artan Hasani says that, if their status set by the law does not change until October, the government will face bigger problems. According to Hasani, the current law is not in line with the European Union regulations. “EU rules don’t allow governments to interfere with the budget of independent bodies, such as the air-traffic control. We consider that the law on wages puts all the categories in a single box, hampering the possibility to develop capacities”, he told OBCT.

All are equal before the law (?)

According to the government, the law on wages would put order into public sector salaries, since so far there have been different wages for the same positions in different institutions. However, according to Agron Demi – policy analyst at GAP institute in Prishtina – the law has failed to include all sectors. “For example, employees from the Privatization Agency, Post Telecom etc. were not included. A caretaker at the Privatization Agency earns 400 Euros, a theatre employee 337. Instead of putting order, the law on wages has been used as a tool to increase salaries nearly by 100% in some sectors”, says Demi.

The law on wages, which increases salaries in many public sectors in 2019, will cost the Kosovo budget 730.7 million Euros – a 140.7 million Euros increase from the previous year. Ruud Vermeulen, the International Monetary Fund’s resident representative in Kosovo, said that a 30% increase in wages would be too big of a burden for the economy, which the IMF expects to grow by 4.2% this year, compared to 4% in 2018 according to a Reuters report.

Demi believes that the government has violated the law on public finances, approved three years ago, which states that salary increases should be in line with GDP growth. According to him, while GDP growth in 2017 was around 4%, the budgetary line for salaries in 2019 increased by 23%.

Tensions are set to stay high

The law on wages, approved by the parliament in January, will be implemented in ten months (October 2019). In the meantime, the unhappy unions will keep demanding pay rises in almost all public sectors. Air-traffic controllers, nurses, and other public sector workers warned that they will strike again if the government does not listen to them. Some expected the president to veto the law and turn it back to the parliament, but Thaçi neither signed the new law nor took any other legal steps, so the measure entered in force by default.

With the new law, the average salary in the public sector rises to around 761 Euros, while in the private sector it remains much lower, at around 416 Euros. Such a big discrepancy makes the private sector less attractive to workers, says Agron Demi, emphasising that the increase in wages in the private sector in the last seven years was only 4.6% against 6% cumulative inflation in the same period.

What is worse, nepotism, clientelism, and employment by corruption are a “public secret” in Kosovo, and – as Demi says – many people are forced to become party members as a way to find a job. This has broad implications in the labour market, education, public services, accountability, and corruption.

"In political literature, countries like Kosovo are considered 'neo-patrimonial' states: from the outside they look like modern countries, with a constitution, a working legal system etc., but the actual operations of the government and state resources are shared among friends and family", concludes Agron Demi.

Despite OBCT's requests, government officials declined to answer questions related to the law on wages.

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