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The Pandemic Crisis in Slovenia. Fighting Fragmentation and Precarity

by Saša Hajzler and Aigul Hakimova (Infokolpa community)

This article discusses the measures that the Slovenian government is taking to manage the pandemic crisis and their effects on the subjects which are hit the most by this crisis. Aigul and Saša, activists of the collective Infokolpa community, reflect upon the intensification of social fragmentation and precarity in the workplaces and upon the increasing of violence against migrants and women. The critical conditions imposed by the quarantine are intensified by the insufficient Acts approved by the government, that are increasing hierarchies, patriarchal violence and often result in wage cuts. The companies – in large part owned by Chinese and European capitals – are demanding the workers a total availability, in order to satisfy the needs of global production. Moreover, the suspension imposed by the quarantine is used by the government to further reinforce institutional racism: while all the decisions regarding the asylum procedures are suspended, the Slovenian army is deployed at the border against refugees. But workers do not stand in silence and protests are undertaken in Slovenia as in many other places all over the world. Slovenian workers are contesting the worsening of working and wage conditions and the lack of protections for care workers and medical staff, and are refusing to bargain wage for health for the sake of profit. A variety of movements is emerging on a regional level organizing against the Environmental Act that allows a legal destruction of the nature and worsening the conditions of life of the people. These movements are engaging different struggles showing their political connections to fight exploitation and precarization in all forms.

In March 2020, the government of the Republic of Slovenia prepared a specific Act to curb the Covid-19 epidemic and mitigate its consequences. The epidemic revealed the large variety of labour statuses among the population; some of them were not included in a Covid-19 act (“Mega Act”, 3 billion EUR). For example, part-time workers with self-employment status would not get any subsidy or financial help. The government called a subsidy for the self-employed as a “Basic income”: 350 EUR in March 2020, 700 EUR in April 2020, 700 EUR in May 2020. The government decided to pay the contributions from salary for the mentioned months, too. In April 2020, the government prepared the second Covid-19 Act covering the national economy and business sector and including the other categories of populations that were not included in the first round. According to official data, almost 1 million 300 thousand people fell under both Covid-19 Acts. Still, there are people and precarious workers that do not match any of the criteria defined in each of Covid-19 Act. Workers without any status, who have not been registered at the Employment office, who have no social allowance right, no self-employment status, and who used to work mostly on the copyright agreements (plus similar types of contracts) will not receive any kind of subsidy. Some workers who were employed full or part-time in Austria/Italy and were daily crossing the borders are now left jobless and have registered at the unemployment office. They now depend solely on welfare and other forms of financial aid. Not only in hospitality, catering and tourism services, but also factories workers have been laid off. One of the biggest companies in Slovenia, Gorenje, sold two years ago to a Chinese company, announced the firing of nearly 2000 workers. For the municipality of Velenje, where the factory operates, it is a prediction of social misery in the coming months.

Tightened working conditions, higher hygiene standards and constant exposure to infection have exacerbated the already severe conditions of discount stores. Workers of the LIDL chain of grocery stores, since are now working fewer hours than before Covid-19, would have to replace the hours during the summer months. Sixty per cent of this year’s leave should be spent on the central (summer) part, which does not seem fair to the predominantly female workers. On top of that, there are not enough workers per shift. Besides, the LIDL workers union, formed to address and solve the problems of the workers collectively, states: «The Coronavirus reinstated the fact that capital does not work for the benefit of workers. Workers are now even more exposed to physical and psychological pressures in the workplace. Shopping fever has raised profits in the early days but exposed people to a high risk of infection. Only with the pressures of the industrial union did we receive protective equipment, but not for all of the workers».

Self-employed or part-time working single mothers are most affected. At the time of the crisis, the government ignored them as a category, not considering their conditions while creating Covid-19 mitigating policies, as if they did not deserve necessary help. Even in the field of education the situation is intensifying social differences. Teachers must adjust to the possibilities that children have at home and that they are capable of using. Some have to be available from morning till evening for questions and different types of support, children can call them on mobile phones or write them e-mails. In some families there is more than one child and they have to share only one computer. The wi-fi is not always working and not all the parents and children know how to use the technology and applications, so they need a lot of time and energy to learn that first. There will be big differences among children in the autumn, because they live in different circumstances at their homes and have different possibilities, abilities for individual learning.

The violence against women by men and families already goes unaddressed by the government. Violence in family or relationship is more critical as many are quarantined with their abusive partners, who have full or increased control on behalf of the partner; therefore, many are unable and discouraged or afraid to call social services for aid.

The population is fragmented into smaller groups with different types of rights, the Ministry of work and social affairs included in the second Covid-19 Act more vulnerable groups that were omitted earlier. The fragmentation is growing faster, diversity of different groups with different rights is making the picture of measurements taken by the authorities more confused. The government is using the Covid-19 epidemic to deploy the Slovenian Army at the southern border of Slovenia with Croatia to stop the migrants from crossing the country or from asking for asylum. The Interior Ministry and the mayors of municipalities that are on the border with Croatia are pushing hard to activate Article 37a of the Defense Law to give the Slovenian Army the same powers as police do have. The pandemic is used as a pretext to enforce harsher politics against migrants’ movement, and as a way to show them as our country’s enemies. All refugees with subsidiary and international protection, entitled to social allowance right already before, will get a single COVID-19 pay-check of 150 EUR. Large families will get a single pay-check of 100 EUR or 200 EUR; refugee families are eligible for such help as well. Nevertheless, the Slovenian government is trying to deploy the army at the border with Croatia by all means possible. There are 75% fewer border crossings of the Slovenian (Schengen) border in April 2020 in comparison to April 2019. In April, the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Slovenia announced that it would temporarily stop all decisions regarding the asylum procedures until July 1, 2020, excluding the urgent cases. The Ministry of the Interior justified the suspension of service, which in practice means that asylum is currently not obtainable in Slovenia, by legal measures due to the coronavirus. The Administrative Court, in contrast, stated that «all (international) cases in the field of international protection are still considered necessary by the court during coronavirus measures». Refugee counsellors representing the interests of asylum seekers first noticed that the ministry stopped sending the decisions even if they had been resolved at the department.

The pandemic-mitigating stimulus package, which is worth some 2 billion euros (“Corona Megalaw”), intended to help people is insufficient and increase fragmentation:

  1. Migrants: while their documents are suspended and their exploitation intensified, the activation of the defence law article 37a, as suggested by the government, would give the Slovenian Army police-like powers for protecting the border area on the south, on the border with Croatia.
  2. Women have to struggle against their further precarization and increasing of male violence.
  3. Self-employed workers: they are not all eligible for it, and need to meet many conditions – if not, the aid would have to be repaid with interest, meaning that many people will be afraid even to apply since they cannot know whether their earnings at the end of the year will meet the government’s conditions. A large number of self-employed are cultural workers who have been severely affected by the pandemic. The adopted measures also meant suspended projects, additionally affecting workers.

– Self-employed parents: they have been partially overlooked. Some have been left without any income. Several NGOs have initiated fundraising for both cultural workers and other self-employed who are now in financial distress and facing poverty.

  1. Students: they got a one-off cash payment of 150 euros, which some do not need, while for others (who are forced to work and study at the same time to provide for themselves and pay exorbitantly high rents) the amount is not enough.
  2. Pupils and high-school students: the ones from socially labelled families who do not own a computer and or their room will be experiencing difficulties in studying. If the schools grant them computers, they may face their position of disadvantage in a way that depresses them, thus discouraging them from seeking such help. For many children and adolescents, schools and boarding schools were the only escape from intolerable home conditions, domestic violence and deprivation.
  3. There is a lack of workers in the homes for the elderly, and the instructions for the epidemic given by the government are considered inadequate: there is no universal strategy for stopping the spreading of the virus, and this is systemic discrimination of the elderly. The workers organized protests against this situation.
  4. NGOs: they are the ones who step up to help the most vulnerable during this pandemic, and last week the government also decided to decrease their funding as much as possible.

Workers, migrants, women are not accepting to be exploited in silence. The Union of health and social care required immediate payment of benefits for work in risky situations to which workers in health and social care institutions are entitled: «Workers are outraged, frustrated and on the verge of strength. It is impermissible for them to be expected to do everything in their power and beyond to suppress the coronavirus epidemic and then forget about the rights that, under a collective agreement for the public sector, workers are entitled to work in risk situations due to the coronavirus epidemic». The second supplement, which has not yet been paid, account for the 35 % of the salary and it is provided by the intervention law. The union also does not know whether the promises made by the Auto-Moto Union of Slovenia to offer to commute to workers who depended on public transport, which the government abolished without offering alternative solutions. «We only know that some public institutions cooperate with volunteers, Slovenian Philanthropy, as NGO, and some use taxi services», the union president explained. However, as a result of the lower reimbursement of travel expenses levied on them by an employer who did not take into account the price of public transport, some workers received a lower salary in March than in February.

In March 2020, around 20 different initiatives, organisations, but also a sizable number of individuals called for a strike, to move the protests from balconies into the streets on bicycles, because bicycles secure a certain safe distance among the people. Officially Slovenia entered the pandemic quarantine together with a new right-wing government in coalition with the so-called centre oriented parties. In April 2020, more details about their corrupt business regarding the purchase of protective medical equipment came to the public forcing the balcony movement on the streets. The movement is diverse and includes organised and non-organised different realities. On May 8, almost 10 000 people on bicycles in Ljubljana and hundreds in other cities took to the streets to confront the new government’s measures by demanding:

  • the resignation of the government
  • opposing the announcement of an amendment to the Environmental Act that exempts NGOs and civil society of any monitoring and participation, allowing projects that harm and destroy the nature
  • against the apparent corruption and clientelism
  • against the disproportionate measures on freedom of movement
  • against the deployment of the army on the borders with Croatia
  • against nationalism and revisionism
  • for public health for all
  • for freedom of speech.

The movement that organises itself via social media announced protests every Friday throughout May 2020.

There is another movement which is potent regionally – from Slovenia via Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia to Greece (calls itself “the other Balkan route”). It is officially under the European umbrella organisation “Balkan River Defense“. It composes of local villagers, individuals and various official and unofficial organisations in a battle against the construction of more than 3000 mini-hydropower plants on Balkan rivers (one of the last sources of clean drinking water in Europe).

This variety of movements is exciting because it is developing a multifaceted regional social fibre connecting struggles for commons, ecology, transgenerational rights and is potentially empowering for (mostly village) communities from the ex-Yu region plus Greece, which are in a way politically dispossessed.

The separate protest was held last week in Slovenia regarding the changes to the Environmental Act that exempts NGOs and civil society of any monitoring and participation, allowing projects that harm and destroy the nature and related to the mini-hydro power plant lobby issue. There were also specifically river protection protests in 2019, and there will probably be more, especially for the Mura river. It is also one of the burning issues in Serbia where there is raising anger amongst people and data exchange in online groups. The furious response is aimed at the government but is also a consequence of the already intense political situation.

In Bosnia, the struggle was popularised by the case of “Brave Women of Kruščica” who managed to defend their river for 534 days and eventually won a legal battle against the investors. The women subsequently took power into their own hands from the previous local political party members or aficionados and independently ran for local elections. It was the first time in that region that women (who were before considering themselves merely as housewives, unemployed, mothers, sisters, some with precarious jobs, few with regular employment) got interested, politically involved, were empowered and locally elected to run the village affairs. They became a symbol of empowerment and transformed not only their political identity but became the reason and inspiration for other Bosnian women in nearby villages and municipalities activated themselves politically on a local/municipal level.

These struggles show that the management of the pandemic crisis imposes new challenges that must be necessarily faced on a transnational level, connecting different types of struggles and protests.