In one of the few old houses still standing in central Tirana, a small courtyard covered with colourful posters of social struggles from around the world has become the meeting place for a new generation of Albanian activists. “Fatjon, that’s the name I prefer to use,” says a tall, young man, slightly embarrassed. “I’m one of the members of this union. Solidariteti was created by call centre operators.” Fatjon’s reluctance to reveal his real name is understandable: he is now a unionised employee of Teleperformance, the world’s leading telemarketing company. The French multinational set up a call centre in Albania 11 years ago. Last February, the company learned that some of its employees had formed a trade union, a new development in the industry. Teleperformance Albania did not respond to Equal Times’ request for an interview.
“Call centre employees currently have no real representation,” says Fatjon. “But they need to defend themselves and secure better working conditions such as pay equity. There’s too much wage disparity in the industry. Some employers pay arbitrarily, and we think it’s unfair.”
Over the last 15 years, call centres have become one of Albania’s main sources of employment. The sector officially employs 30,000 Albanians, though according to specialists, there may be just as many working without contracts. An estimated 800 companies, which vary significantly in size and type, operate within the sector. It’s a particularly profitable business and Albanian telephone operators solicit prospective customers and take customer service calls for large international brands such as Amazon and Apple.
Even by the admission of its own prime minister, Albania is something of a “dream” for any company seeking to avoid the regulatory constraints of even the most basic labour laws. Though he is the head of an ostensibly socialist party, the Socialist Party of Albania (PS), Prime Minister Edi Rama courted a group of Italian entrepreneurs gathered in Tirana four years ago by saying: “We want to send a strong message to those of you who dream of low taxes, low labour costs and a minimum possible presence of labour unions. We want you to know that this country exists and it’s right next door [to Italy]. We have seen improvements to every aspect of the business climate in Albania.”
The objective of this charm offensive was twofold: improving the image of a country plagued by corruption and assuring potential investors that, 25 years after the fall of the communist regime, this small country on the Adriatic Sea is no longer a “socialist paradise.” Far from it: since the end of the Stalinist dictatorship in 1991, Albania has been subject to the laws of unbridled capitalism and a small economic oligarchy now reigns over an economy highly vulnerable to criminal activity.
The first victims of these social transformations are the rights of private sector employees. “There are obvious problems when it comes to compliance with labour codes,” Albanian economist Klodian Tomorri tells Equal Times. “This is not because the legal framework is lacking but because existing laws are not being applied. This is not just true of the call centres but all of the industries in the country.”
Unpaid social security contributions, undeclared labour and unpaid overtime hours are common occurrences in Albania’s private sector, where social dialogue is still very weak. In addition to these bad practices, Albania’s private sector has some of the lowest wages in Europe, with the minimum wage increased to €208 a month in 2019. As the primary employer of young people in Albania, the absence of an industry-wide agreement in the call centre sector leaves the door open to social dumping.
An employee of Teleperformance for four years, Besmir Male decided to take on the additional assignment of becoming an organiser for Solidariteti. “In a sector that generates millions of euros, and we are talking about millions, and employs more than 30,000 people, we have no security. Our rights are not protected. If I stopped working today after four years, since I don’t have a university degree, it would be as if I had done nothing at all.”
For wages between €1 and €2.50 an hour, young Albanians make calls in Italian, English, French, German and even Turkish. Working conditions vary significantly from one employer to the next. Larger companies pay up to €300 in monthly wages, an amount approaching the average salary in Albania. “It’s true, Teleperformance offers better working conditions,” says Male. “They pay higher wages than other companies. But I want the same rights as elsewhere in Europe. I do the same work and often with even greater benefits to the company.”
Solidariteti’s demands include benefits based on seniority, the recognition of occupational diseases, wages tied to inflation and payment of all social security contributions. The union was launched with the support of foreign counterparts from UNI Global Union.
Breathing new life into organised labour
Though trade unions have long existed in Albania, they continue to suffer from negative associations dating to the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha (1950-1985). Many Albanians still resent them for their close ties to political parties. “Every time an attempt was made to create a trade union that truly represented the interests of working people, politicians immediately got involved,” says Tomorri. “Either the attempt failed or the union became a mouthpiece for a political party.” The two main Albanian trade union federations, primarily active in the public sector, are still seen as extensions of the two largest political parties, the PS and the centre-right Albanian Democratic Party (PD).
When asked if Solidariteti could fall into the same trap of being absorbed by political parties, Male is adamant in his response. “Impossible!” he insists as he leaves the union’s weekly meeting. “We have a very important clause in our statute: none of our members are allowed to hold a position in a political party. It creates mistrust. We know enough about Albanian politics. There’s no politician that truly defends workers rights.”
The members of Solidariteti (who do not yet wish to reveal their membership numbers) want to distinguish themselves from previous generations by operating in a transparent and democratic manner. In this way, they hope to earn the trust of young Albanian call centre workers.
“Some employers disparage us by labelling us as anarchists who only want to tarnish the company’s image,” says Mirela Ruko, one of the young members of the new union. “But the workers’ voices must be heard and we are here to negotiate with management. It’s not about proving who’s stronger; the goal is to reach agreements.”
In an environment that remains hostile to social demands, the upcoming negotiations may prove to be difficult. Last year three call centre employees were dismissed after going on strike to protest declining wages. While Ruko believes that it is urgent to act within the call centre industry, she hopes that future struggles will address the precarious conditions that affect the whole of Albanian society. To do this, Solidariteti will have to start by changing the way that Albanians view trade unions. “We are talking about a sector, the private sector, where no trade unions have been formed in the last 80 years,” replies an optimistic Male. “This is the first time that a union has been created that is completely independent, apolitical and without financial support from the state.” This first step already represents an important victory against the prevailing resignation.