Jurgis Valiukevičius, co-founder of the 1st May Labor Union on the labour dispute of Turkish workers in Lithuania.
The number of foreign workers in Lithuania has been growing in the last few years and 2020 began with a much-publicised strike of Turkish workers in Lithuania who were constructing Kaunas football stadium, demanding their unpaid wages. Even though the workers have not yet received their wages, I would like to draw attention on their struggle and the international solidarity that it has created.
Prehistory: "Only war could stop the construction of the stadium"
As with every large scale project, the construction of Kaunas stadium is shrouded in mist of non-transparent public procurement, "legal" corruption, and political demagogy. In the spring of 2018, Kaunas municipality announced that Turkish company Kayi Construction offered the best price and won the tender to construct the stadium. The company promised to reconstruct the stadium in 20 months for almost 35 million Euros.
Soon after, some of the companies that lost the tender sued Kaunas municipality. The municipality was accused of improper procedure. According to the accusers, the municipality allowed the Turkish company to make some corrections in their proposed budget and correct some mistakes in their documents after the proposal had already been submitted, while the proposals of other companies were rejected due of some grammatical or other minor mistakes. In addition, after the Turkish company won the tender, there surfaced a fact that it had a preliminary cooperation agreement with a construction company Autokausta Keliai; the company did not reveal this at the time of submitting the proposal.
Their cooperation with the above-mentioned company caused some concern as its mother-company Autokausta also participated in the call for tenders: it is against the law for one company to submit several proposals, as it distorts the competition. It is worth mentioning that Autokausta was one of the few companies that was winning most of the procurement contracts by the municipality for a series of years. According to the municipality"s data, in 2015-2017 this company won contracts for 8,8 million Euros. Comparing the amounts, only two other companies received more in the same period: Kauno keliai (13,2 million Euros) and Kauno tiltai (48 million). All these companies participated in the competition but their offers were more expensive than that of Kayi Construction. Despite this, the court rejected the charge of distorted competition arguing that it would be a deviation from the essence of the suit. The representative of the municipality"s public procurement department told the media that the two companies were not to be treated as one, and their offers were completely unrelated (although Autokausta controls 75 % of Autokausta keliai shares).
Finally, in October 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled that Kaunas municipality had chosen the winner unlawfully; but it did not obligate to annul the agreement with the Turkish company. At the time Visvaldas Matijošaitis (the Mayor of Kaunas) said that the ruling of the court looked like revenge of Vilnius against Kaunas (because the company that sued is from Vilnius). When a journalist asked if Kaunas would not repeat the infamous story of the Vilnius stadium construction, the mayor replied that "there will be no such delays in Kaunas, unless of war or some other cataclysm".
But by April 2019, when construction was already undergoing, suspicions were raised regarding the budget of preparatory works. The company had calculated that it would spend 4,75 million Euros on the construction site – meaning that, for example, putting up the temporary fence would cost half a million Euros. Like many large-scale constructions for public money, this one also causes suspicion. One thing is clear: the Mayor"s pride of how "economical" the municipality was suffered a blow; it adds to the list of corruption and money-laundering cases in Kaunas that includes rapidly deteriorating tiles of Kaunas Freedom Avenue, the expansion of private plots in state-protected areas, and other stories.
Before telling the story of the strike, I would like to thank the workers for directing public attention to these grave problems of public procurement and construction. During the strike, the Turkish company and Kaunas municipality downplayed its significance, telling that construction works had stopped not because of the strike, and that strikers were protesting in front of the municipality without a reason. But it is clear that without their protest this story would not have attracted media attention and the construction works might still be undergoing – but with other workers to whom the managers could lie for six months that their wages would soon be paid…
The strike, the hunger, and the meeting in the Parliament
As told by the workers, they had known before coming to Lithuania that during the first 4 months they would not be paid: that had been agreed on with company managers in Turkey. According to Lithuanian law, the employer must pay wages at least once a month, however, as told by a Lithuanian working for Kayi Construction, this way the Turkish company ensures that the workers will not run away – the company also takes their passports for "safekeeping" so they cannot leave the construction site. From March till September 2019, the workers worked without any protest and hoped they would soon get their first payment. But until the very end of the works, they were only receiving 100 euros per diem and their families in Turkey were getting a few hundred a month for subsistence.
In early December 2019, there appeared the first reports in the media about the construction workers stopping their work. But the story soon died: five protesting workers got their wages and went back to Turkey. It looked as if it all had ended. The workers later told that those five were the only ones that resisted managers pressuring them to go back to work. At that time the managers said they were waiting for the municipality to transfer the funds and for this to happen the workers had to put on a performance for the municipality inspectors showing that "the construction is going on without any problems". Only 5 of 64 workers refused to play along, while others returned to work hoping to get their money soon. The municipality indeed transferred the funds on 20 December, but the company only settled with the 5 protesting employees and gave another round of promises to everyone else.
Once they understood that they had been deceived, the workers stopped the construction works, made some posters, and started a strike near the construction site. But, except for a few messages in the media, they did not receive much attention. When we met with them on 30 December, they had already decided to start a hunger strike the next day.
It is important to stress what a difficult state, both materially and emotionally, these people were in. Almost all of them had left Turkey because of the economic crisis that had severely hit the construction sector. Most of them were married with small children. These workers were slaving in Lithuania: working every day for 12 to 16 hours with only one free day every three weeks. It was difficult to describe their anger and hopelessness as it became clear to them that they had been working all this time for nothing. They were ready to do all it took to get their money.
Their anger only grew in the face of the indifference of the municipality and the further lies of company managers. There was little difference between the municipality and the company: they both acted as if the workers had decided to go on hunger strike out of sheer boredom. The municipality never took responsibility for hiring a crooked company. Although a meeting with the Mayor was promised, neither V. Matijošaitis, nor the representatives of the municipality ever met with the workers. A meeting with the company lawyers finally happened after a week-long hunger strike but it yielded no results. One of the younger lawyers even allowed himself to wonder: "if they were not paid, why didn"t they look for other jobs?" We could ask ironically how the company that has no money to pay its workers has enough money to hire expensive lawyers…
The hunger strike started on the last day of the year and continued for a week. Although the wages were never paid, this strike, without any doubt, accelerated all the other processes: the media kept writing about the strike, Labour Inspectorate eventually began investigating the situation, some politicians started pressing the ministries to do something to solve the issue. The workers would have kept striking for longer but there was no point for that. First of all, the damage to their health would have cost them dearly because they had no insurance in Lithuania. Secondly, after a week it became evident that the company representatives in Turkey cared little for the hungry workers. The Turkish consul, who visited the workers, organized a Skype call with one of the company representatives. Instead of negotiating with the workers, he tried to convince them that May 1st Labour Union (representing them) was actually a terrorist organization with ties to Kurdish fighters in Syria. When the workers started laughing, the representative openly stated the company"s position – he told them off and declared that no one even thought of paying them.
While the workers were on hunger strike, we, the members of May 1st Labour Union and Dalia Jakutavičė, a lawyer of the Lithuanian Industry Trade Union Federation, attempted to find out all the legal aspects of the conflict. Eventually, we found out that the workers had been employed under two separate contracts: one Lithuanian and the other Turkish. Most of the promised wage was listed in the Turkish contracts. Other contracts were entered into with the Lithuanian branch of Kayi Construction and promised only the minimum monthly wage: those per diems and those few hundred Euros for their families that the workers actually received.
There is a legal question of how there could be two contracts for the same work. Afterall, the same person cannot work part of the day under the Lithuanian contract and the rest of the day – under the Turkish. The situation looked like a case of unaccounted working time and tax evasion. At first, the employers argued that they had paid their workers in full, but once the situation became clear, we understood that this was only a strategy to send them back to Turkey. This way, the employers won some time and spread lies in the media that this protest meant nothing and the workers had to go back to Turkey and sue the company there. In reality, the workers worked much more than 8 hours per day but received the minimum wage only and nothing for the overtime.
After several weeks of strike and without any negations with the company representatives, the workers" anger and determination were replaced by fatigue and frustration. The managers kept promising to pay a few hundred Euros if they went back to Turkey. After an unsuccessful week-long hunger strike, some of them returned home. Others, who stayed in Lithuania, were threatened that their living quarters would be dismantled and they would be thrown into the street. Regular meals were also cancelled. In the last days of construction, the workers only got a kebab for lunch and nothing for breakfast or dinner. However, tired as they were, the majority of workers wanted to end the strike with a march and to attend a meeting in the Parliament.
As expected, nothing important happened during the meeting of ministries in the Parliament. There are no legal means to help the workers; it is practically impossible to demand and obtain money from Turkey because it is not an EU member-state and there are no bilateral agreements (and, of course, Turkey cares little for Lithuania). On top of that, there are no legal means to force Kaunas municipality to negotiate with the workers and to take responsibility. The powers of the State Labour Inspectorate are also limited: even if the company gets a fine, it will be less than 100 Euros. We can only be glad that the politicians showed some consideration for the workers and that we did our best.
The end: the solidarity march and the victories of the strike
On Saturday 11 January, more than a hundred people came to show their solidarity with the Turkish workers and to demand Kaunas municipality to take responsibility. The protest started near the stadium where one of the workers made a speech to thank Lithuanian people for their support, and then the crowd moved towards the municipality. It is symbolically gratifying that the first public event in the newly restored Freedom Avenue was a labour solidarity march: slogans demanding rights and respectable wages were raised in three languages – Lithuanian, Turkish, and English. Towards the end of the march, near the municipality, video greetings were sent to Kayi Construction workers on strike in Algeria.
Although in the meanwhile the workers have left Lithuania, the story continues. At the time of writing, we await court proceedings regarding unpaid overtime. Unfortunately, due to some legal loopholes, there is little chance of successfully claiming the money from the Lithuanian branch of Kayi. According to current laws, the branches of foreign companies do not have full legal liability in Lithuania. It is obvious that such laws allow companies to employ foreign workers and to disregard Lithuanian law; and, in case of a dispute, to shed responsibility by arguing that the company in question has only a branch in Lithuania and one must address their claim to the country of origin. The strike made this loophole visible and it must be corrected immediately.
Finally, these court cases forced the Turkish company to start negotiations: when the workers got back to Turkey, they signed contracts by which the company agreed to pay 8 thousand Euros in instalments over 4 months. Time will show if the company will honour this agreement. Although it is only half of what was stolen, the outcome is positive. The well-known truth must be repeated: it is very difficult to recover money from such "wage thieves", especially when workers start protesting this late in the process. Only those workers recovered their money who did not wait till the last minute and protested when the construction was still ongoing and the company was afraid to lose the contract. The later protest, the hunger strike, and the threats to sue did not succeed in forcing the company to negotiate with the workers. Nevertheless, I feel the need to rejoice in the newly formed international solidarity. As Tugay, the worker who made a speech during the march, said: "We are protesting not only for money but also for human dignity". The workers left with their heads held high: they were happy that they did not surrender to the company and forced the municipality to cancel the contract. The company was reported to the EU institutions and to trade unions, thus it will not get any construction contracts from the EU countries in future. The workers were also happy that the protest caused much stress to their managers, people who lied about their wages every day for nine months.
We now hear more often about the exploitation of foreign workers in Lithuania. But we also often hear that these people should go home. There appear politicians who want to "defend" the national interest: they create non-existent enemies in the name of maintaining power. The only cure against this kind of politics is solidarity. Trade unions must remain principled on this issue because it is important not only for foreign workers but also to local ones. It is great that the construction workers received support from other people and trade unions. This shows that there is space where mutual support can flourish and trade unions should not be afraid to talk about this. When we are called for solidarity against exploitation in workplaces (and not when talking about liberal ideas of tolerance, human rights, and diversity), what we have in common becomes more important than national or cultural differences. Only this way can we create a wide alliance against poverty and exploitation instead of competing for crumbs. I could only wish to all of us that such solidarity develops further.
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