A NEVER ENDING STRIKE
DECEMBER 4, 2019. EVENING.
It’s minus five degrees Celcius in Bulqizë, a town so abundantly mineral-rich under the ground and so miserably poor above it. Elton Debreshi, the head of the United Miners Labor Union of Bulqizë, along with Xhuliano Bregasi, an activist of the grassroots left-wing movement “Organizata Politike”, have been unlawfully detained for more than seven hours. Their crime? They dared to exercise their constitutional right to peacefully protest in front of the Albchrome mine owned by one of the most notorious Albanian oligarchs: Samir Mane.
But why would the state police arrest a poor worker and an activist when neither of them broke the law?
REWIND: two weeks before the arrests.
On November 17 a promising public event took place in Bulqizë when the miners of Albchrome officially declared their newly founded union: United Miners Labor Union of Bulqizë.
Feeling abandoned by the state, and betrayed by the old Union that was doing the bidding of the owner and its rich cronies (a sad reality for most labor unions in the country which are either corrupt or dysfunctional) rather than protect the miners’ rights and support their demands, these men decided to (finally) take things under control.
The activists of “Organizata Politike” traveled to Bulqizë that day to stand in solidarity with the miners, congratulate them on the new labor union and offer whatever help they might need in getting organized. The majority of the activists showing up in support of the miners that day were students that could strongly empathize because they either come from working class families or are underpaid workers themselves. They firmly believe that solidarity between workers and other social groups, especially students, and vigorous efforts at community organizing can lead to genuine change in society.
The event was enriched by their intelligent, supportive and inspiring speeches, focusing especially on the power that the working class in Albania has if it becomes aware of such reality and mobilizes to win back the rights and freedoms denied to it. Such lively participation by the activist students was so engaging that the crowd grew bigger and bigger drawing a large number of town folk to the event.
That the event was a success one could tell by how alarmingly Albchrome reacted: they terminated the employment of the head of the Union, Elton Debreshi, on the spot! But just as immediate was the workers’ response to this move: they started a protest instantly demanding that Elton be rehired. Albchrome began its threats to everyone protesting, but the protest kept going, expanding its demands to include that all pressure and threats by the company be stopped immediately. Not only did the company not listen to the workers’ voice but it decided to completely crush the labor union by stepping up the pressure even more on everyone involved. Just a few days later, amid ongoing protests, in a despicably loud gesture that runs amuck the Labor Code, an Albchrome representative fired yet another worker right at the company’s gates and in front of everyone.
Mr. Beqir Duriçi, member of the Union Council and in charge of Union finances and record-keeping, was terminated shortly after Elton Debreshi. The strike escalated. More workers joined and the demands expanded while becoming more specific and refined. The workers demanded that Albchrome:
- Raise wages
- Reduce the workload
- Pay the miners during the strike
- Rehire Elton Debreshi and Beqir Duriçi
- Immediately stop the pressure and threats towards the workers
“In a state where Prime Minister Edi Rama brags about the fact that labor unions do not exist and Samir Mane becomes richer by the miners’ blood, to be the head of a real and democratic labor union is considered a radical act.
What Samir Mane hasn’t yet understood is that the United Miners Labor Union of Bulqizë carries the word “united” for a specific reason: this is not a union where the owner of the company can buy its representative for a despicable amount of money. Elton Debreshi is not alone! Behind him are standing hundreds of workers who risk their lives everyday in the dark galleries of death.
Samir Mane better get prepared for what is coming ahead.” – said Redi Muçi, professor at the Faculty of Geology and Mining and activist of “Organizata Politike” when asked about the situation in Bulqizë.
MEDIA COVERAGE AND POLICE INVOLVEMENT
The media, owned in fact by oligarchs like Samir Mane and captured by the powerful few, stood silent during the highest peak of the protest despite the fact that various media outlets were promptly notified by the activists of “Organizata Politike” about the events in Bulqizë. This silence was harmful and for it may have momentarily helped Albchrome to increase pressure by threat of violence as it brought dozens of policemen to arrest the protesting workers. This was yet another way to blackmail every single worker who decided to continue the protest.
The police presence and the arrests were rationalized as necessary arguing that the protest was illegally assembled. Meanwhile the Albanian constitution and specifically, Law No. 8773, dated 23.04.2001, “On Freedom of Assembly”, grants the right to participate in peaceful gatherings to every person in the Republic of Albania, providing a limitation only where national security, public security, protection of order, protection of health or morals or the protection of other people’s rights and freedoms risk being violated by the exercise of such right.
Was the workers’ peaceful strike in front of the Albchrome mine a national or public threat? Was it harming or violating any of the freedoms or rights of other social groups or people? No, it was not. Elton Debreshi was simply exercising a constitutional right. So were the three wagon carrier workers now subject to criminal proceedings, and the seven other workers who were detained and escorted to the police station. So was activist Xhuliano Bregasi who got arrested simply for attending the protest in solidarity with the workers and documenting everything on camera while the media refused to inform the broader public about the protest.
Different major labor unions in the region and the EU, stood by in solidarity the moment they were informed about the ongoing strike of the miners of Bulqizë, Albchrome’s attempt to crush the newly founded labor union and the silence of the media.
Letters of solidarity came from The Mining, Chemistry and Energetics Labour Union in Hannover (Germany), The Independent Miners Trade Union of Trepça (Kosovo); The Trade Union of Engineers, Technicians, Geologists and Designers in Athens (Greece); The Bookstore and Publication Workers Union of Thessaloniki (Greece); The Metro Workers of Greece Labour Union etc.
Recently, a group of French protesters in the streets of Paris sent a sign of solidarity to the miners of Bulqizë among the ongoing strike that has paralyzed France for weeks.
Moreover, the Global Labor Institute in Geneva (Switzerland), sent a letter to Prime Minister Rama on December 9, reminding him that under C087 – Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, as well as under C098 – Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention of the International Labor Organization — which Albania has ratified and which form the basis of the current Albanian labor legislation—the workers possess the right to establish a democratic organizational structure. The GLI notified the Prime Minister that it stood in full support of the workers demands and respectfully asked Rama to uphold international labor standards to which Albania has subscribed.
Also, a petition organised by LabourStart, has already been signed by over 5,200 trade unionists and labor activists from nearly 100 countries.
This kind of national and international solidarity helped the Albanian miners in Bulqizë to realize that they are not alone in this struggle and at the same time, it helped exert enough pressure on certain media outlets to finally start reporting on the situation.
On December 5, in a public announcement, the United Miners Labor Union of Bulqizë issued a statement providing among other things that:
“Today, after a long meeting with the representatives of the State Labor and Social Services Inspectorate expressing their commitment to investigate in detail the firings of our friends and colleagues, we decided to temporarily halt the strike.
In the meantime, we are beginning a legal battle with Albchrome in the courts.
The reasons that lead us to strike remain germane. Our cry for our friends to return to work and for all of us to gain our denied rights, remains pertinent as well.
If the representatives of Albchrome will dare to extend their revenge to other miners, we hereby pledge that the strike will escalate in ways that it will severely harm the company’s profit.
We can proudly say that for a short period of time, since the establishment of our labor union, we revived the hope of the miners of Bulqizë and earned their trust. We are their exclusive representatives. Today, the United Miners Labor Union of Bulqizë is the legal representative of the majority of the miners. According to the Albanian Labor Code, our union has the right to negotiate the collective bargaining agreement with the company which must include the rehiring of our friends and colleagues, granting them and all of us safe working conditions, wage raises and reduction of the inhumane workload.
Our decision to temporarily halt the strike is a necessary step that will help us gain our energy back in the weeks to come to continue putting enough pressure on Albchrome so it starts respecting our rights.
Our aim is to have all the miners of the company join our labor union so that the next strike can be powerful enough to paralyze completely the entire work in the company, hence to completely freeze its profit.”
That very day, in solidarity with the Albchrome miners, the activists in Tirana initiated a campaign that called for the boycott of all of Samir Mane’s enterprises and products. The initiative involved leaflet distribution, street art, and a social media information campaign.
Nevertheless, the retaliation against workers through termination continued. Mr. Behar Gjimi was terminated on December 20, and Ali Gjeta on December 26, both for the exact same reasons as their former co-workers. In the meantime, several trade union members were called at the company’s headquarters in Tirana. Various sources communicated to the labor union that these workers were also singled out to be fired; the reason why they were brought to Tirana had been to warn and intimidate them.
In the interim, in order to keep a constant work flow during the strike and beyond, AlbChrome adopted a strategy of reassigning workstations or positions held by the striking miners to whatever other workers were present, regardless of experience. This resulted into a workplace accident on December 19, where a miner, Tush Asllani, was severely injured. The media coverage was absent yet again, and the incident was never reported.
Following these events, on December 27, the activists in Tirana decided to escalate the boycotting campaign. Seven activists showed up at Tirana East Gate (“TEG”), one of the largest and fanciest shopping malls in Albania, which is owned by Samir Mane. They began distributing leaflets which contained a paragraph describing the recent events in Bulqizë, and which then called for boycott, specifically stating: “Samir Mane oppresses the miners. Boycott all of his enterprises and products!”
TEG private security guards forcefully seized and restrained the activists, then dragged them along around the shopping mall, and later locked them inside an empty room. One of the activists managed to notify the police, seeking protection from the violence of the private security guards. However, when the police arrived, not only did they take no action against the guards, but they lost no time and arrested the activists instead. Mirela Ruko, Vitori Çipi, Bislim Lakna, Enriko Peçuli, Frenklin Elini, Albina Ruko, and Xheni Hajdari were kept for more than seven hours at the police station in Farkë before being all sent to the Police Station No.1 in Tirana, in handcuffs, although leaflets distribution is not a crime in Albania.
Later that evening, the inherent sexism of the police worked in favor of the arrested activists that happened to be female; Mirela, Vitori, Albina and Xheni were released that night because “they are girls”. The male activists, on the other hand—Bislim Lakna, Frenklin Elini and Enriko Peçuli—were kept in jail for three nights and four days. Little did it matter to the police that two of them were simply hanging out at the shopping mall and had nothing to do with the supposedly offending act: the leaflet distribution.
The three activists were made to share a single cell that had only two mattresses and one small but broken window that caused them to endure the freezing cold of sub zero temperatures for three nights. They were denied the request for forensic expertise and a doctor.
The charges filed by the Office of the Prosecutor justifying their arrest were as follows:
1) Inducing panic through the spread of false information (a criminal charge)
2) Disruption of public order and disturbing the peace and tranquility of the community (a misdemeanor charge warranting administrative penalties)
The first charge was dropped by the Prosecutor and the activists were sent to the District Court of Tirana under the charge of “Disrupting public order and disturbing the peace and tranquility of the community”. On December 30, the judge ordered them released on own recognizance but with the duty of appearance on day and time appointed.
However, ever since the activists engaged in the peaceful act of raising public awareness by distributing leaflets at TEG, mobsters and other shady figures started pacing around “Logu i Shkëndijes”, the social center of “Organizata Politike”, destroying its wall at some point, and trying to intimidate activists with their presence.
On December 31, only a couple of hours before midnight and while everyone was getting together with their family and friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve (a major holiday in Albania), a police patrol stopped in front of OP’s social center and arrested activist Nebih Bushaj who was simply standing at the main entrance of the social center. The police’s pretext: one of the policeman told the young man that earlier that month somebody had pushed him on the street and he thought that Nebih was that guy. This was yet another unjustifiable act of intimidation by the state police against the activists. Nebih was released that evening but his arrest on New Year’s Eve caused a lot of distress among his friends and family.
A BROADER CONTEXT
Mineral resources in Northern Albania are divided into “stakeholder sites” much like cannabis parcels are divided amongst big mafia bosses and powerful politicians. Poor workers, living in misery, come mainly from the city of Bulqizë and the villages nearby. They agree to work in horrendous conditions, going underground without proper equipment and risking their lives in what are known as “the galleries of death” where dozens of miners perish every year. They agree to take this deathly risk just so that they can make ends meet.
In some cases, the children are also workers. These kids, often between the ages of 10-13 and sometimes even younger, instead of going to school, can be seen working on the chrome hills, as they pile chrome with their bare hands. 1 kg of chrome earns them just 10 Euro cents. Sacks of chrome on the fragile backs of a ten-year-old comes to 3 or 4 Euros per day, enough to buy a pack of spaghetti that can feed a family of four, and perhaps a kilo of flour to bake bread.
According to local unnamed sources, some of these mining companies afford themselves an armed presence on site. The intimidatingly armed men serve as the “protectors” of the chrome mafia. The police is aware of the situation but pretends not to have a clue about it, in agreement with the government and under the criminals’ pressure.
Bulqizë’s very survival is tied to chrome. There is no family in town that doesn’t have one or more members employed in chrome mining, all vying to survive one more day in excruciatingly horrible working conditions, as the product of their work lines the pockets of the oligarchs controlling the exploitation of natural resources, and buys obscenely fat bribes for politicians.
Despite all of that, there is a spark of joy and hope in Bulqizë and all over Albania right now: the miners are finally getting organized and the Albanian society, especially the youth, is standing in solidarity with them. However, while these workers and activists are doing all they can for the law to be executed and respected, the Albanian government is keeping its eyes closed and it is allowing for the basic human rights to be violated. How does this attitude affect the Albanian citizens and that which the Prime Minister likes to refer to as the “EU commitment”, when activists are getting violated and jailed only because of supporting workers’ rights and workers are losing their job only because they have decided to lawfully organize? There are social and political actors in Albania struggling by each passing day to build a democracy, a socially just and equal society. However, one does not find these actors in the Albanian governmental institutions but among the most common people…