From: Erblin Vukaj
Explaining Albania: What’s Going On with the Miner’s Strikes?

Since November 22, there have been a series of clashes between miners and the Albchrome mining company in Bulqiza. The clashes began after the creation of a new union and the dismissal of four of its founders. The new union has been in conflict with existing unions, which claim that conditions and salaries in the mines have improved. They question the motivation behind the creation of the new union and the way it operates. 

Albchrome and the mining sector

According to a 2015 official report, the Bulqiza mines extracts about 60 per cent of the country’s annual chromium production. About 37 companies operate them – 110 of the 260 mine permits granted locally for chromium exploitation are in the Bulqiza region.

Dozens of murders in the area over the past decade have been linked to conflicts over access permits and their overlap.

The largest company operating in Bulqiza is Albchrome which is owned by businessman Samir Mane and has some 650 employees, out of about 3,300 that the entire chrome mining sector has.

Initially, in 2001, the 30-year concession for the management of the chrome mines of Bulqiza area was awarded to an Italian company, which created the concession company Darfo Albania.

In 2009 it was acquired by the Austrian company ACR Holding, which changed its name to Albanian Chrome.

The company failed to meet the terms of the concession and under pressure from the government, it was acquired in 2013 by Balfin Group owned by businessman Samir Mane. After the acquisition, the company changed its name to Albchrome.

In 2017, with a unanimous decision of the Albanian Parliament, the concession deadline was extended until 2040, with the promise that Albchrome would make more investments, but without changing the terms of the concession despite its extension.

Clashes and claims between the parties

On October 15, 2019, the Tirana Court recognized the formation of a union called the Bulqiza United Miners’ Union (SMBB). A month later, the SMBB announced its establishment in Bulqiza. Five days later, the head of SMBB, Elton Dobreshi, was fired from Albchrome. The SMBB responded by pushing for 9 days of protests demanding pay rises, a revision of labor rates and the return of Dobresh to work.

Following the protests, Albchrome fired three other SMBB founding miners, Beqir Duric, Behar Gjimi and Ali Gjeta. The company justified the layoff with unjustified absences at work, while the SMBB claimed that the miners were fired because of union activity, claiming that other miners were also pressured.

The SMBB position was not supported by the two existing miners’ unions in Bulqiza, which called the layoffs justified.

The Labor Inspectorate has launched an investigation into the layoffs but has not yet come to an official conclusion.

Meanwhile, in the Albchrome miners protests broke out, supported by Organizata Politike (OP), a leftist civil group. Some sources told Exit News that the OP has been one of the drivers of the creation of the SMBB. What is clear is that the OP has been in support of the SMBB since its inception and launched a public offensive campaign against Albchrome owner Samir Mane.

The SMBB, meanwhile, accused the existing unions of being “parties to Albchrome and no longer representing the interests of workers”

Employees, trade unions and collective contracts 

Albchrome has 652 employees under a collective contract with the Federation of Trade Unions of Industrial Workers (FSPI), which is a member of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Albania (KSSH).

KSSH President Kol Nikolaj told Exit News that “for 10 years the FSPI has been negotiating, signing and enforcing collective miners’ contracts” since, as required by law, “it has represented over 50 per cent of employees”. KSSH stated that “FSPI has 460 members in KSSH”, which make up about 70 per cent of Albchrome employees.

Sources for Exit News said the rest of the 190 miners were represented by the Independent Union of Miners, which is part of the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Albania (BSPSH) under the leadership of Mr Gëzim Kalaja.

However, after October 2019, the new SMBB union says that with its creation many miners have abandoned other unions and joined it. On December 28, the SMBB stated that it had over 320 miners – if that figure is true, then the SMBB has managed to represent about 50 per cent of Albchrome employees.

The membership number determines the union that will have to negotiate the collective contract for 2020. But Mr Nikollaj told Exit News that the number is not enough as the union negotiating the collective contract with the company “must have over 2 years of activity, with more than half of member employees ”. It is clear that the SMBB does not meet this condition.

Albchrome, meanwhile, claims to have been informed of the formation of SMBB only on December 16 and, according to a spokesperson, only 21 employees of the company are members of the union. This assertion may not be correct as the creation of the SMBB was announced in the media in November and the union announcement had more than 21 employees.

The SMBB insists that the “miners have not been asked about collective contracts” signed between Albchrome and the FSPI, that “no one has seen the last contract” and that “since November the SMBB has received no response to 4 requests made to the company, the Ministry of Finance and the Office of Labor to make this contract available ”.

Claims for better pay and working conditions

KSSH told Exit News that “miners’ salaries are at rates” and “range from 32,000 lek to 86,000 lek per month, depending on the position, degree of difficulty and realization of the norm.” The salary is added to 15,000 lek, which the miners “would have to pay for the diet.” In this way, the salary of the miners varies from 47 thousand to 101 thousand ALL.

The CTUA president, Mr Nikollaj, said that “for years the accidents in the mines have been minimized” as a result of “underground investments, the provision of clothes and tools and the implementation of technical safety rules”. Mr Nikollaj indicated that the miners receive medical care and care and that the Albchrome company “is the only one that has provided life insurance for all employees.”

But SMBB claims otherwise. In a statement circulated on Facebook , she claims that “for years the Labor Inspectorate has found security breaches” and that “of the 19 workers killed in Bulqiza since 2013, 8 have been killed at the Albchrome mine .”

The number of deaths in Bulqiza is unclear, even because they have passed without being reported in the media and without consequences for anyone.

Albchrome itself disputes these claims, but without directly denying accidents and deaths. The company says it has invested millions of euros in mining and treats workers in the “most dignified way possible compared to any of the other 36 chrome mining companies in the country”.