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feature 02 Aug 17

Kosovo Town Struggles as Industrial Decline Exiles Youth

Business people in the small Kosovo town of Suhareka/Suva Reka face an uphill task to rebuild its shattered industry and convince the remaining young people that it’s worth staying.

Die Morina
BIRN
Pristina
"Solid" shoes factory in Suhareka, Kosovo | Photo: BIRN

The town of Suhareka/Suva Reka in Kosovo’s south used to be home to bustling factories that employed thousands of people – but now many of them have left the country as industry has all but collapsed.

Once renowned for a factory called Balkan that produced rubber conveyor belts and employed over 2,000 workers, as well as for its local wineries, the town and its surroundings have now lost their air of prosperity.

As elsewhere in Kosovo, the war and the decline of major industries during the 1990s has had a harsh impact on the local population.

It is now estimated that some 30 per cent of the town's 90,000 population now live in Western European countries, mostly in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Remittances from relatives abroad provide a lifeline for many people who stayed, and agriculture still plays a key role in the local economy.

Over 2,000 farmers continueits grape-growing traditionsin an area well-known before the war for its vineyards.

In recent years, local farmers have also started the large-scale cultivation of raspberries and strawberries, with the help of state subsidies, as well as growing vegetables.

But there are those who dream of restoring the town’s once prosperous industry and creating new factory jobs - although one local employer complained that he couldn’t find enough well-trained workers.

“Job opportunities at our factory are always open. We have more capacity than Suhareka has people,” said Shefqet Kuqi, the owner of the Solid shoe factory, the biggest private employer in the town.

Kuqi, a former technologist at Balkan, said his factory has 330 employees but there is room for many more.

“Our capacityis 700,000 to 800,000 pairs of shoes per year, but the lack of a workforce in Suhareka that is professionally prepared for this affects us, so we produce around 600,000 pairs a year, which is about 1,500 pairs per day,” Kuqi explained.

Kuqi exports shoes to various countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Romania and Serbia.

“In Serbia our company sells over 100,000 pairs of shoes per year,” he said, explaining that by September, he plans to use part of a factory in Presevo in Serbia in which he has invested in an attempt to make it easier for his products to be sold on the Russian market too.

“We are doing this because of the market in Serbia and Romania, but also in Russia, as we currently work through Romania because of the political problems Russia has with [Kosovo], our goods can not go there directly,” he said.

Russia supports Serbia in refusing to recognise Kosovo as independent, while in 2014, Kosovo backed the US and EU’s decision to impose sanctions on Moscow over its military involvement in Ukraine.

Even during summer when workers take holidays, the production lines at the Solid shoe factory never shut down.

Most of the workers are between 20 and 40 years old, the majority of them women, and they make sure that each of eight processes that a shoe needs to pass through to be ready for sale are carried out as well as possible.

When a pair of shoes finally is packed, they are stamped “Made in Kosovo” - which often causes diaspora Kosovars to proudly publish pictures on social media after buying them in Germany, Italy or other European countries.

A worker in "Solid" shoes factory in Suhareka, Kosovo | Photo: BIRN

‘Kosovo’s youth have lost hope’

Kuqi blames Kosovo’s Education Ministry for not contributing enough towards the development of the economic sector.

“The problem is that secondary schools are not in line with the requirements of the economy, but in the service of politics. In our industrial zone, there is a high school, but it has departments of economics, finance and law. None of those pupils can find a job when they finish school,” he said.

Kuqi explained that such pupils need to study for longer after leaving high school in order to be ready for work in industry.

“Someone who went to secondary school for tailoring for example could immediately work in our factory,” he pointed out.

He said that another problem was that very few young people want to stay and get a steady job in Suhareka/Suva Reka, and that even those who do are often poorly qualified.

Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe, but he expressed fears that “Kosovo’s youth have lost hope of living in Kosovo”.

His concerns were echoed by some of the well-educated youngadults living in the town.

Arian Curri, a 29-year-old doctor in Suhareka/Suva Reka, said he was disappointed with the employment situation in Kosovo and was ready to leave the country.

“My low salary is [only] a little bit different from that of a cleaner. The job is not secure; for example, I and many others work with short working contracts of six months or one year,” Curri explained.

There are also no opportunities for professional advancement, he added, so he sees himself moving to a Western European country soon.

Mirlinda Morina, 27,who finished her studies in Pristina and then returned to Suhareka/Suva Reka, said that for the past two years there has been no suitable job opportunity for her in the town.

“I don’t see my future here. I studied social pedagogy. If there were any possibility for me to work on this, I would go anywhere in the world,” Morina said.

Judging by the statistics, in Suhareka/Suva Reka, she is not alone.

"Solid" shoes factory in Suhareka, Kosovo | Photo: BIRN


 

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