Living in poverty or having less than eight hours a day to sleep, eat, travel, wash and socialise. This is the choice for many Macedonians, residents of a country that dangles at the bottom of European economic rankings. The Balkan state’s economic situation forces its inhabitants to work excruciating hours or take on a second job.
It is six in the morning when the shrill alarm on the phone of a 44-year-old wakes him from a few hours of sleep. The man, who requested anonymity for fear of political reprisals by criticizing the government, shuffles to the kitchen. He makes himself a cup of Turkish-style coffee, lights a cigarette and then settles in at the makeshift desk and logs into one of his two-hundred Facebook alter-egos. This begins the first hour of his day spamming Facebook pages for his Dutch employer - before his regular working day as a security guard begins.
Then, after eight hours of working guarding at a utility company, he finishes his second eight-hour working day. “The average wages for security officers are between 200 and 255 euros a month”, he tells. “I earn at least fifty per cent more than that, which means that I am well payed for my sector.”
But from his income of around 350 euros a month, the guard cannot make a decent living. “As a single person you need at least 700 euros a month. That will cover your expenses but gives you a miserable life. I want a normal life.”
A fifth of the Macedonian population was at risk of poverty in 2015, according to a survey by the national State Statistical Office. The country’s low salaries make it almost impossible to earn a living wage.
To supplement his income the 44-year-old signed up for UpWork in 2011, a worldwide online platform that connects freelancers and employers. For the security officer it is not uncommon to freelance up to twelve hours a day, on top of his regular job.
According to Professor Mirolub Shukarov of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the South East European University in capital Skopje, it is ordinary for Macedonians to take on a second job. “The wages are extremely low”, he says. “If people have the chance to earn an additional income, they will do so.”
An average error
Shukarov explains the main issue of Macedonia’s economic situation: “We are facing the problem of incredible inequality. There are a few people who are earning enormous amounts of money, where the bulk of people is on an average level.” That average reaches 350 euros a month. Not enough, asserts the economist.
Colleague-economist Branimir Jovanovic of the Association of Economic Researchers in Skopje also recognizes the problem of the low wages in his country. “The wages in Macedonia are among of the lowest in Europe and have been stagnating for five years”, he tells.
Jovanovic believes there are three reasons for this standstill of half a decade. “The labour rights in this country are very low. Workers don’t have bargaining power.” There are Macedonian labour and trade unions, but these are unprofessional and corrupt, according to Jovanovic.
“The second reason for the stagnation is that the low level of Macedonia’s minimum wage brings down the average,” the economist continues. He indicates the high supply of workers as the third reason for the existing wage levels. “If there are more workers than jobs, salaries stagnate.”
The average wage of 350 euros per month has also remained unchanged for five years. According to the economist, two thirds of Macedonians earn less than that.
The security guard is skeptical about the claimed average. “350 Euros is the official number. In reality most people earn between 200 and 250 euros per month. A few people earn a lot of money, they raise the average.”
With two University diplomas, one in science and one in mathematics, he continues to click away the evening. Economist Jovanovic states that overqualification is common in the country: “We produce a lot of students with degrees, but the quality of the education is low so they don’t have the knowledge or skills needed.”
Still, the number of people getting a University degree in Macedonia is lower than anywhere else in Europe, Jovanovic says. “The number is increasing, but that is mainly because the government is opening new universities. That happens for political reasons: if people don’t study they will be counted as unemployed. It is very easy to open universities and thereby reduce the unemployment rate artificially.”
Being paid comes at a price
The security officer does everything that can be done online: data entry, proofreading, spamming, marketing. But all the hours hunched over his laptop take their toll. “My social life suffers. I have lost friends. I don’t have enough time to enjoy my life.”
He lights another cigarette and continues the list of problems he encounters because of the time he spends confined to his desk. “My back is hurting. I need regular massages because I am in the same position for hours and hours. I gained a lot weight because I am not physically active.”
Jovanovic of the Association of Economic Researchers says there are further complications with working online. “These online jobs do not provide any social security like health insurance or a pension.”
Despite all the disadvantages, the security guard will continue working these long days. “I have no option”, he sighs. Almost all his friends do the same thing. “If someone is a plumber during the day, he will have an extra gig after working hours to do the same job off the record. Everyone who is able to have a second job, has a second job.”
All in a day’s (and night’s) work
Working online is one of the ways Macedonians ensure they make ends meet. A 35-year-old taxi driver from the capital works an extreme amount of hours to make his living. Just like the security officer, he could only share his story anonymously because of fear of political reprisals. “I drive up to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week”, he tells from behind the wheel.
“I have to work these hours to earn 300 euros a month”, the cab driver continues. It equates to less than one euro an hour. He does not have a wife or children. “I simply can’t afford a family.”
The 35-year-old can just scrape by on his wage because his parents support him. “I am lucky. They bought me an apartment. If you don’t have parents that help you, life is very hard”, he says. The taxi driver estimates that you need at least 400 euros a month to live in Skopje. “You can’t live a normal life with a monthly wage of 300 euros.”
Time for politicians to clock in?
The cab driver feels sorry for the people that live in Macedonia, especially the children. “They should have a future. Too much pressure is put on the people. Adults feel nervous, kids feel hopeless. The government must do something, they should create jobs so we can live a normal life.”
Economist Shukarov agrees. He explains that instead of Macedonia’s richest investing their money back into the country, it goes offshore to tax havens or is spent on luxury goods across the border. “A lot of money is not coming back.”
An additional problem is the infiltration of politics on working life, he continues. “It is no secret that there is a price list to be hired for some positions.” This price is not only set in money, but can also be paid with a nominal number of votes.
The political affiliations continue all along the food chain. “I was a frequent guest at TV shows and appeared in newspapers.” But, because Shukarov believes being critical forms part of his duties, he didn’t receive invitations anymore from the national broadcasters. “I wasn't welcome for four years.”
“Only companies with a good relationship with the government are successful,” he continues. Some businesses are inventive in their ways of tackling this situation. He gives the example of a company with a director and vice-director, both representing one of the two main parties in the country. “If the political situation changes, they swap positions.”
The security guard recognizes the politically invaded labor market. “If you are not a member of the ruling party, you have almost zero per cent change on a job.” He is not a member of any party. “I work in one of the rare companies that is not politically oriented.”
According to Shukarov the cure for Macedonia’s economy lies in the European Union. “Joining the EU would solve all the economic and political problems. It would open our small and closed market and encourage investors to come to Macedonia.”
When asked how the security guard thinks the economical situation in his country could be solved, he laughs loudly. “We would have to start from scratch, renew everything: the politicians, the parties, the institutions. We need to find people that care about Macedonia and the Macedonians.”
Text by Fieke Snijder & Samantha Dixon