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Feature 26 Jun 17

Bosnia’s Ex-Refugees Use Language Skills in Call Centres

When German-speaking clients get through to a call centre, there is a good chance that the operator on the other end of the line is a Bosnian who found refuge in Germany during the 1992-5 war.

Igor Spaic
Workers in one of Bosnia's call centres. Photo: Igor Spaic/BIRN

Irma started playing the flute when she was about six years old. She was in Germany at the time, the country to which she and her family fled to escape the 1992-5 war in Bosnia. Eventually, music became her passion.

“My father listened to a lot of Jethro Tull, while mother listened to a lot of Drugi Nacin,” Irma told BIRN, referring to the famous British and former Yugoslav rock bands - both of which prominently used the flute in their songs.

After the war ended, Irma came back to Bosnia and continued pursuing her passion, often practising for up to nine hours a day.

Now 30, Irma has a degree from the Sarajevo Music Academy and works night shifts at a German-speaking call centre.

“It’s good. It is not a difficult job and the salary is not bad at all,” Irma told BIRN.

In the economically underdeveloped Balkans, Bosnia is in last place according to many economic and social criteria, thanks to its prolonged political crisis.

The unemployment rate among its young people is higher than 57 per cent.

While getting even a modest job is an achievement in itself, the salaries are not high, either; the average monthly net salary is 429 euros.

Although the costs of living is lower than in most other European countries, such salaries still do not offer great living standards.

Since Irma’s firm works for a German company, her salary is decent, however, especially because she works the night shift.

“It is bizarre that I get paid more than my friend who works in a pharmacy,” she observes.

Irma’s case also reflects another of Bosnia's anomalies - the fact that education is not well tuned to the needs of the business sector.

That results in many highly educated people being unable to find jobs in their professions, and ending up working in different fields and often in lower positions than they might have expected.

“It is disappointing after you put so much effort into your education, to work at a call centre,” Irma concedes, obviously frustrated that she was unable to get job in the music industry.

She is not alone in this situation; she has worked alongside law and medicine graduates who also could not find jobs in the fields they studied for.

Yet, Irma is not bitter. She still has her hopes and is happy she did not have to abandon her passion completely.

By day, she works as an intern music teacher at a school. Currently, there are no permanent openings suitable for her there, but she continues to work, so that they keep her in mind if a professor retires.

She is also aware that her working conditions are above the average in Bosnia.

Working in German-speaking call centres has become quite the rage in Bosnia in recent years, even among highly educated people.

Like Irma, tens of thousands of Bosnians spent their childhoods as refugees in Germany during the 1992-1995 war. Many never forgot the German they learned, and, for the lucky ones, their fluent knowledge of the language now pays their bills.

One of those who found great success in the call centre business is Jasenko Merdzanovic.

“I stumbled into this job because I knew the language. I never actually wished to do this but it was the best option available,” Merdzanovic, 31, told BIRN, recalling how he literally stumbled on an online add for a German-speaking call centre in 2012.

Before that, he had worked several odd jobs, such as waiter and store clerk, after his studies in economy were cut short due to financial difficulties.

Little by little, he became good at what he did and climbed the ranks until he finally established his own firm.

In 2015, he registered Client Marketing, to provide call centre, web-development and graphical design services to foreign clients.

Today, he is the proud CEO of a firm that employs 49 young Bosnians and is booked with German clients for the next five years.

“As you can see, we have a pretty laid back atmosphere here,” Merdzanovic said, as he walks into the colourful call centre office which, among other things, contains a dartboard and several 3d puzzle models of world soccer stadiums.

His employees had just come back from their lunch break, exchanging inside jokes while putting on their headsets to begin work.

“Here, we have had people with masters' degrees, working the same alongside people with barely a high school education,” he says, adding that some of his staff had never been to Germany but had simply learned fluent German from the TV.

“Many clients in Germany ask us to provide services for them, and we often have to decline simply because we don´t have the capacity,” he notes, explaining why German firms are so interested in working with Bosnians.

“Here, as a CEO, I have a lower salary than someone with the lowest-ranking job in Germany. Our workforce is a lot cheaper,” Merdzanovic says.

He adds that in Sarajevo alone, he knows of at least 50 similar call centres, though not all of them last for long.

While some of those calling centres, like many other private firms in Bosnia, try to cut costs by not registering their workers and avoiding paying taxes and contributions for them, Merdzanovic says his firm registers all his employees and pays all their healthcare and pension contributions, too.

He also makes sure that the salaries are always paid on time, while the best employees also get to use a company car and/or cellphone.

“In the West they have these trainings in college and in offices where they talk about ‘motivation’. Here in Bosnia, it’s motivation for us if we just get our salary paid on time,” Merdzanovic concludes.

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