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News 28 Dec 17

Albanian Oil Workers Rally for Unpaid Wages

More than 100 workers from a troubled oil refinery arrived in the capital to stage a protest at the Ministry of Energy, demanding that the authorities intervene to resolve their problems with unpaid wages.

Edmond Hoxhaj
BIRN
Fier
Workers protesting outside the ministry on Thursday morning. Photo: BIRN 

The workers rallied outside the Ministry of Energy on Thursday after leaving the previous morning on a march from the southern city of Fier, where the refinery is located, to urge officials to intervene.

They are seeking the payment of two months’ worth of as-yet-unpaid wages, plus a 13 further months of wages that they say have gone unpaid for several years.

They are also asking for the troubled refinery’s operations, which have been suspended for some time, to be restarted.

Energy minister Damian Gjiknuri agreed to meet a delegation of six of the protesters.

One of the workers, Lavdosh Lazaj, told BIRN that they will not leave Tirana until their problems are resolved.

"The ministry has a duty to help us. We don't have anywhere to go if we don't get our unpaid wages," he said.

The workers marched on foot for most of the 100-kilometre route from Fier and arrived in Tirana in the early hours of Thursday.

"We want bread! We want bread! We want our money!" they chanted while walking slowly along the road.

"We are marching because our factory was closed and we have not received pay cheques for November," one of the protesters told BIRN in Mbrostar, about five kilometres into their march.

"We want to celebrate New Year’s Eve but we don't have the money to eat anything," he added.

Albania has two refineries in the towns of Ballshi and Fieri in the south of the country but they have both faced repeated financial difficulties since their privatisation in 2008.

The company that currently operates the refineries, Ionian Refining & Trading Company, IRTC, said in a press release on Wednesday that "the workers’ concerns are also our concerns".

The company added that the current crisis started when Bankers Petroleum, the country’s biggest crude oil company, stopped crude deliveries to the refineries.

"Work at the Ballshi refinery stopped 10 times during 2017 due to a lack of crude oil supplies," the company said.

"Our supplier, which is the only supplier in the crude oil market, made it impossible. It prefers to export crude instead of supplying domestic refineries," it alleged.

However, Bankers Petroleum responded in a press release that IRTC had "failed to provide guarantees to pay for the crude supply" and that it could not supply crude "for free".

Bankers added that IRTC had not yet provided guarantees for 2018’s supplies, warning that if this situation persists, the refineries might remain closed.

The Ministry of Finance and Economy, which owns 14.7 per cent of the shares in the refineries, did not respond to an emailed request for a comment.

The chairman of the Union of Petroleum Workers, Kamber Iljazi, told BIRN that the workers would take their case to the country’s top officials.

"We will protest using all democratic instruments to obtain our rights," Iljazi said.

The Ballshi refinery employs about 1,000 of the 7,600 inhabitants of the town.

The non-payment of November’s salaries has already caused economic difficulties for the few shops that serve the town.

Vladimir Caushaj, one of the shop owners, told BIRN that he was already unable to buy new supplies because most of his customers were unable to pay for anything.

"It is Christmas time but sales are very bad," Caushaj said.

"If the refinery isn't working, no one has money," he added.

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