Lindita Rama leaves every morning towards the chrome stacks in Bulqiza with a pickaxe in her hand and her disabled husband by her side. The 53-year-old woman says that she has been working for 13 years in search of ‘black gold’ – a dangerous and often unregistered job, but that provides her family with a minimum income of nine thousand lek per month.
“It is very hard work, my back hurts, but I have no other way. I collect 50 kilograms of chrome (per day) and sell it for 300 lek at the end of the day, ”says Rama, while standing in the ground floor yard, after closing a long working day on the chrome piles.
Like dozens of other women in the town of Bulqiza, Lindita Rama linked her life to chrome due to a lack of opportunities and difficult economic conditions. With her disabled husband and elderly mother-in-law at home, the 53-year-old says she had ‘nowhere else to go’.
Although the Bulqiza mine is mostly known as a ‘place for men’, dozens of women have worked there for years in chromium separation and selection; a hard and poorly paid job, which often takes place in violation of the Labor Code.
According to occupational safety experts, women in Bulqiza mines often face exploitation and only a small percentage of them are insured.
“More than work, it is camouflaged exploitation, related to the extreme economic need of women and their families,” says Edison Hoxha of the Center for Labor Relations and Social Dialogue.
“Contracts are temporary, temporary when there can be a large work flow or after an accident, where the attention and control is greater,” added Hoxha.
The Bulqiza mine is the main source of income for the city’s poor families and one of the main sources of accidents at work nationwide. There are currently over 100 companies licensed to exploit chromium reserves in the Bulqiza area, whose exports together reach the amount up to about 100 million euros a year.
Feruzane Kurti, 53, a mother of three, has worked for years ‘in the black’ for chrome selection in the infamous Zone D of the Bulqiza mine. Insured only two years ago, Kurti hopes that when the time comes, she will not be left without a pension at all.
“It’s a man’s job, but this is the only opportunity we have,” says Kurti, after leaving the bucket and cart for a few minutes and sitting with her colleagues for a few minutes rest.
“For many years I worked uninsured. I worked in the black. We worked all day, we had to catch the norm. In the end, the chrome was weighed and we were given the money in hand. I did not think that the retirement day would come, “she added, explaining that she was happy that she was able to send money home to feed the little ones.
Feruzane Kurti also recalls that for years, the work was not only in the black, but also dangerous.
“We had a lot of difficulties. We worked on stockpiles and it was very dangerous because it could collapse and fall down. “Today it is somewhat easier, because the digger lays it and after we divide it, we put it in buckets and transport it by cart,” she added.
Other women recall the inhuman work to meet the production rate in exchange for meager and negligible wages.
“I do not remember when I started this job. So many years have passed. My daughter used to come with me, but today I am happy that she is already married and has emigrated to Italy. My soul ached when she used to work herself out on the stockpiles,” says Lindita, who stands in front of Feruzana, as they confess the many difficulties of life.
“We work at a rate of 650 kg of chrome per day. Sometimes reach up to 30 tons per month, but we are paid very little,” says Vera Ndergjoni, a mother of six.
Ndergjoni is on the verge of retirement and says she is looking forward to handing over work tools and leaving the stocks. However, only a small number of women working in the mine have this opportunity.
One of them, Zamira Xheka, left the mine after years of hard and uninsured work. The mother of two has found work in a bar in the new town and does not even think about returning to the mine.
“The work was hard. I worked uninsured and with a low salary, so I decided to leave,” says Xheka in her new job.
“We were insured for a few months, when there was an accident in the mine. My life was a horror. That is the truth, “she added.
“Exploitation and discrimination”
Women’s rights and safety activists at work find a range of problems among the stories told by chrome women in Bulqiza.
Mirela Arqimandriti, executive director of the Tirana-based Gender Alliance Center for Development, says that in addition to exploitation, they also face discrimination.
“Despite the fact that the institutional and legal framework is complete, employees are still very afraid to report cases of discrimination in the workplace,” said Arqimandriti, adding that there are rare cases when they are made aware to pursue cases in court.
Lawyer Enida Bozheku says that the laws are good, but they are not implemented. Acknowledging that there is exploitation and discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender, she says that women prefer to remain silent and leave the workplace, but do not go to court. “Most women are uninformed about their rights, an issue that mostly concerns civil society,” she added.
Edison Hoxha from the Center for Labor Relations and Social Dialogue emphasizes the problems of these women with working conditions.
“The extraction of minerals, even though it is done on the surface, is performed in conditions that lack appropriate means of protection, without appropriate work clothes to minimize the risks from work, without risk assessment, which concretizes all the measures that the employer must take for the safety and protection of the health of its employees, “said Hoxha.
He emphasizes that such works “barely gives man the food to survive, but in the meantime deprive them of all the dignity of being alive.”