Insecurities in a ‘Secure’ Workplace: Everyday Struggles of Supermarket Workers in Tuzla

From left to right: Model of Bingo City Center Tuzla and graffti at the entrance of a bingo shop in Tuzla, saying: “Tito je krao al' je davo, ovi kradu ali ne daju.” (“Tito stole but he gave, these here are stealing but they are not giving either.”) The “je” is crossed out and becomes the negation “nije” (did not), which changes the sentence to: “Tito didn’t steal, but he gave, the others steal and give nothing.” This reflects the Tuzla-specific nostalgia/adoration for Tito and Yugoslav socialism. Image license: Bingo/Milana Čergić.
Model of Bingo City Center Tuzla and graffti at the entrance of a bingo shop in Tuzla. Image license: Bingo/Milana Čergić.

Tuzla, the third largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, became an important industrial and cultural center during the communist period in the former Yugoslavia. In the course of capitalist restoration and privatization, the city was literally taken over by the country’s largest retail chain – a neoliberal reality with which, as Milana Čergić shows, workers are engaged in a seemingly never-ending struggle.


Tuzla is an exception in the landscape of ethno-nationalist controlled cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its inhabitants are proud of the city’s mining and salt industry, of its workers’ history, and especially of its multiethnic coexistence. Tuzla’s citizens do not direct their anger against their neighbors, but against the ethno-capitalism that violently dispossessed them when Yugoslav social property became public property, which was then privatized into the hands of (foreign) investors, whose sole aim was often to dismantle and destroy the factories before the eyes of the workers. Left without wages, social security, pensions, and a future, the workers rose up in 2014 in one of the first post-war nationwide protests to unite Bosnia around demands for social justice.

What was once one of Yugoslavia’s industrial centers has become the “capital” of Bosnia’s largest retail chain, which dominates many aspects of Tuzla’s economy and urban landscape. Not far from the center is the headquarters of the Bingo company, surrounded by warehouses and its own zoo. Tuzla counts thirty-nine of the brand’s supermarkets, an enormous number for a city of its size. But the company does more: it buys up some of the closed factories in the region, invests in restarting production and places the products in its supermarkets. It develops domestic brands and opens farms for food production. Here, the service industry often replaces and mixes with the production industry. The former workers’ city has become a city of service workers. In a politically divided country that often perpetuates the logic of war through pollution and dispossession, workers have no legal protection and live with many uncertainties in their daily lives. They have to mobilize different strategies in order to achieve “stability” in their workplaces.

Bringing formal employment to town

In the context of post-Dayton politics, where “normal life” is almost impossible, the question is how to think about this economic success and what it means for workers. Workers in the service sector have historically had a subaltern position in relation to the “productive” sector. After the end of the war, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the destruction of industry, (informal) markets and retail trade mushroomed all over the country. Trade was an important economic activity, and it was also a domain of extremely precarious employment. With the proliferation of private grocery stores, many workers (often women) found themselves without employment contracts, social security, or pension rights. They worked unpaid overtime and had little security for the future.

When Bingo opened in 1993 (in the middle of the war), many Tuzlan citizens found regular employment. They signed contracts, and although the salaries arrived in envelopes, they were paid regularly. They received health insurance and pension payments. These aspects were often mentioned by the managers of the company in order to underline the exceptional position of the employees at that time compared to other private companies. In addition, employees were expected to be “grateful” for having a job. But this argument also serves to distract from the poor working conditions, which were manifested in low wages (1.15 € per hour in 2019 for cashiers), accumulated temporary contracts, unpaid overtime and a strong anti-union policy. The liberal labor law in place at the time of my fieldwork gave companies too much leeway and workers too little protection.

Negotiating variegated “stabilities” in the workplace

Given the lack of employment protection in the retail sector, workers in Bosnia are challenged to deal with their precarious situation. Although Bingo presents itself as a “stable” employer, the reality is that workers face many other instabilities: whether one gets a stable contract and how one is protected during pregnancy, for example, is arbitrary. Some workers receive these “stabilities,” others do not, and there seems to be no objective reason for this. Observing workers in their daily lives, I saw that this kind of job security – which is supposed to be regulated by law – often depends on the goodwill of the store manager. It is the manager who can decide whether to provide certain benefits to his employees, and when she (or he) does, it is not systematic. Thus, job security is uneven, relational, and often arbitrary.

Let me illustrate this with an ethnographic observation. One of the most important topics among the older employees (who, thanks to the manager, were given easier work in the shop) was the question of when they would be able to retire. The retirement age changed regularly, and some employees who had started working in Yugoslavia and lost their jobs in the 1990s had gaps in their work biographies, which added to the uncertainty. One day I was talking to two older workers, Asima and Belma, who were complaining about their workload. The conversation soon turned to retirement, and both expressed their concerns about a further increase in the retirement age. “I will have to work until I am 65! Fourteen more years!” exclaimed Asima. Just then, the store manager appeared. Obviously overhearing the conversation, she explained, “Just call in sick – what else can you do? Whenever you feel like you can’t work, you go on sick leave for a while, then you work for a while. That way you will get by until you retire. I have to tell you, I’m worked out and tired too.” This informal authorization to “go on sick leave” was an expression of the manager’s solidarity with the workers, a recognition of the difficulties of everyday life in post-Dayton Bosnia, and it was also an informal authorization to ease everyday life through an “illegal” act.

I have seen other situations like this where employees had to mobilize their personal relationship with the manager to get some “stability.” For example, Dino, a warehouse worker, first made sure that he would not lose his job before taking a long sick leave after a serious operation. Another observation showed that there was informal knowledge about what kind of security one could get from which manager. If someone wanted more “stability” as a pregnant woman, it was advantageous to work in a certain Bingo supermarket, while if someone wanted to go to Germany for three months (the time one could stay without a visa) to do better paid care work and then be rehired at Bingo, one should work in the neighboring supermarket. Employees exchanged this information and scrutinized the manager’s reactions to problems. They knew exactly where they could count on her help. In the eyes of the employees, a good manager was someone who could take care of them, an image that resembles socialist managers. In the context of neoliberalism, the “good manager” was the complement to the “responsible employee,” who had to learn how to navigate personal favors at work in order to obtain more “stability” in the absence of legal protection. In this way, agreements are constantly being made between the manager and the workers, and often one’s job security depends on previous agreements.

Friendships and solidarity at the workplace as social support

The Bingo employees spent a lot of time at their workplace: they had coffee in the adjacent restaurant before and after their shifts, and they visited their colleagues on their days off (retail workers in Bosnia usually work six days a week). Strong ties – friendships – with their colleagues were often cited as one of the reasons they stayed (in the supermarket, in Bosnia) and were thus an essential aspect of everyday work life. These relationships provided support in various aspects of life. During breaks, they discussed financial problems (the company’s notoriously low salaries), exchanged information and gossip about the company owner’s decision to raise salaries (they never talked about collective agreements or legal requirements for proper pay), talked about possibilities of migration, and exchanged recommendations for the best private clinics for giving birth, as the general opinion was that the poor quality of public health facilities put lives at risk. All sorts of hardships created by the post-Dayton political system that had concrete consequences for citizens were dissected in the windowless but cozy break room.

A number of other forms of solidarity characterize everyday life at the supermarket. Employees support each other by collecting money for colleagues in need, “stepping in” when a colleague is overworked, exchanging days off for religious holidays, collecting money for cashiers who accidentally give too much change, and helping to organize events when their colleagues need support. The high level of socialization is evidence that the workplace can be a place of psychological, labor, and financial support. Contrary to other observations of workplace interactions in the post-socialist context, in the case of Bingo, the capitalist system has not led to a “retraditionalization of social relations” into the domain of the family. Instead, the company is a central site for fostering such relations. Whether these forms of support and solidarity have emancipatory potential, however, remains another question.

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