Slovenia: Interview with, Endre Mesaroš, leader of recent bus workers’ strike

(Koper Citaro K.JPG/CC)

Bus workers at the Slovenian company, Arriva, went on strike from 4 to 14 September for better working conditions, pay and safety standards. Arriva is owned by the German company, Deutsche Bahn, and is typical of how foreign companies mistreat workers’ rights in the Balkans.


Below we publish an Interview with Endre Mesaroš, president of the bus drivers‘ union of Slovenia, that took place during the strike. He was fired because of his union activities.

Since the interview was conducted, the union reached an agreement with Arriva to increase the hourly wages (further details of the deal have not been made public). Although many demands were not met the strike was ended, but further conflicts are possible.

You have currently been on strike for more than a week. What is the strike about?

The management refused to discuss problems in the company, such as the high levels of pressure on the drivers, the increasing workload with no increase in salaries, and management’s pressure on the drivers to falsify the data from the tachographs. In 2012 and 2013, the company’s supplementary pension insurance scheme was cancelled. The explanation given was that drivers who do not travel at least 60,000 km a year and who do not spend at least 80% of their working hours at their actual work site (i.e., in a bus, without considering the waiting periods between journeys, for example) are not entitled to the scheme. These criteria are unrealistic since it is impossible, for example, to drive many kilometres in urban traffic.

Legislation is also part of the problem. There are two Acts which define the rights and obligations of transport drivers: one is for short-distance drivers, who do a maximum of 50 km in one direction, while the other one is for those who do over 50 km. Management abuse this by also applying the over 50 km Act to short-distance drivers.

The bus fleet is outdated: the company purchases discarded vehicles with over a million kilometres on them. This is unreasonable. Vehicles with over half a million kilometres already on the clock show clear signs of wear-and-tear and are written off. But Arriva purchases them and then fails to maintain them properly. These buses are then used for driving schoolchildren, tourists, workers and other passengers.

We demand that the management withdraws all the sanctions made against members of the bus drivers’ union; the management reinstates the pension insurance scheme for all workers who spend more than 80 % of their work time at work; the management complies with the legislation for short-distance drivers the hourly wage for drivers is raised to 7 euro; the managements drafts a collective agreement for all Arriva workers, including the stipulations on promotion and fair remuneration; the management complies with all regulations regarding the equipment and methods for carrying out bus transportation.

Which services does the company cover and what is the ownership structure?

Arriva Slovenia provides short and long-distance transport for schoolchildren, workers and tourists. It has the largest market share in public road passenger transport in Slovenia, and owns 500 buses (room for more than than 20,000 passengers).
The group consists of four regional subsidiaries (Arriva Štajerska, Arriva Dolenjska, Arriva Primorska and Alpetour). It is part of the Arriva International Ltd international group, based in Sunderland in the UK, with branches in fourteen European countries outside Germany, and a total of 19,500 buses. Since 2010, Arriva International has been owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway company, whose main focus is on logistics. Deutsche Bahn wanted to purchase Slovenian Railways (Slovenske železnice) and the Port of Koper (Luka Koper) which is why some years ago the government of the then Prime Minister, Pahor, at the suggestion of the German consultant and former Deutsche Bahn boss, Helmut Mehdorn, promoted the idea to form a holding between these two logistics companies and Intereuropa, another large logistics company.

How profitable is the group?

Let me give you an illustrative example: there are ten drivers on the route between Koper and Piran, two small Slovene coastal towns, each one of them takes in between 40 and 50 thousand euro annually, that’s half a million euro in cash collected on the buses alone, without even taking into account the monthly bus passes and tickets bought directly at bus stations.

Arriva Group had a total of 3.5 million euro net profit last year. This is quite controversial, even illegal, since all Arriva transport services (apart from tourist transport) are subsidized, which means they shouldn’t generate a profit. I don’t understand why the authorities fail to respond.

How is the strike going?

There are approximately 950 employees working for the company, out of which 570 are bus drivers, and 70% of them joined the strike. The management has threatened the workers, texting them on their work-phones saying that the strike is illegal, that they will be sued in civil and penal court for taking part and will have their employment contracts terminated. Similar texts are being posted on bulletin boards in the drivers’ quarters.

They’re removing strike notices from the buses, sending in security guards, while the CEO of the company, Bo Karlsson, arrogantly stated that he refuses to negotiate with blackmailers.

There has been no development in the negotiations with the management board; they are only interested in providing the minimum transport services to be carried out during a strike, as required by the legislation. To this day (Monday, September 11, 2017) we have, as a sign of our willingness to act constructively, provided more: next to providing school and work transportation, we have also provided the transportation to health facilities. From today on, the drivers on strike will only provide the legal minimum of transportation to school and work. Last week, striking workers in Kranj held a spontaneous protest.

Do you receive solidarity from other unions or other organisations?

There has been a huge response from trade unions from Slovenia and abroad, including the union of postal workers, maritime workers, miners, social workers, civil servants, firemen, police officers, customs workers, university workers, journalists, insurance workers, health workers and many others. They are sending us letters of support, which we publish on our Facebook profile, and they have written to the management board of Arriva Slovenia urging them to abstain from hindering the activities of our union, to which we are constitutionally entitled, and to comply with our demands.

We haven’t received any support from the two representative unions in the company – they remain loyal to the management. The management suggested that both of them should also participate in the negotiations, but we are strongly opposed to this possibility. If we manage to negotiate an increase in the hourly rate, we are willing to put a temporary halt to the strike until December 31st and to participate, together with the other unions, in the negotiations for a new collective agreement at the level of Arriva Slovenija.

What is the role of the political parties and the government?

The Ministry of Infrastructure, which is responsible for the sector of public transportation, hasn’t responded yet, and neither has the Slovene government.

Thank you, Endre Mesaroš.


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September 2017