Konstantina was the first to join the union

Maya: A colleague of Konstantina Kuneva, interviewed by a Bulgarian comrade

Submitted by Uncreative on January 28, 2011

Konstantina Kuneva is a Bulgarian migrant worker in Athens. She is also the secretary of the union of housekeepers and cleaners of Attika (PEKOP). She worked in ISAP, the state-owned Athens-Piraeus Electric Railway Company, which hired hundreds of cleaners through contract with OIKOMET, Kuneva's direct employer. She had a clash with her employer when she demanded that the entire Christmas bonus be paid to herself and the rest of her colleagues. She also denounced illegal payment procedures, and visited the occupation of the General Confederation of Greek Workers office in Athens. On the 23rd of December, she was attacked in front of her home by unknown assailants who threw sulphuric acid in her face and forced her to swallow acid. She was admitted to the hospital in a critical condition. She lost one of her eyes, and suffered severe burns to her face and internal organs.

What is the current condition of Konstantina Kuneva?

One of her eyes is fully lost and her other eye received a tissue graft. Her vision is weak, but she is able to see outlines, shadows and some colours, meaning that up to now the eye is recovering well. The problem is with her internal organs. The acid that had been swallowed, or possibly the acid fumes that had been inhaled, has subsequently damaged her oesophagus. Two days ago she had a serious operation - the doctors implanted an artificial oesophagus so that she would be able to eat on her own. It is possible that some complications may arise and thus we are waiting to see how things develop. In the beginning nobody went to visit her, apart from her mother. We wanted to leave her alone so that she could decide when she was able to see us. A few days ago I visited her in the hospital... She is unrecognisable. All her face is burnt, and she had a few plastic surgeries. Probably more will be done in the future. She is a bit better, but of course her face is not what it used to be. Basically Konstantina is doing okay and is very strong psychologically. She is aware that there is a lot of support outside, which is very important. She gets information all the time, her lawyers talk with her and with her mother.

Are there any direct charges or evidence against the attackers?

That’s a difficult task. Konstantina saw two of them and she gave testimony and described them, but these are faces she hadn’t seen before. And since she saw the attackers, they took care that she will not be able to see, because even if they are found she will not be able to identify them. But when they had thrown the acid she chased them. Can you imagine what a spirit she has? I would have totally lost it, but Konstantina got back on her feet and ran to catch one of them and told him: "Why did you do that to me? What did I do to you?"

How did you feel when you found out that Konstantina was brutally attacked in such a way? Did you get scared?

Of course. This was a warning against everyone who works in that company to keep our mouths shut.

And why did they choose Kuneva?

Because at this time Kuneva was a member of the PEKOP union and since she held an elected position in a trade union they cannot fire her. This protected her. In all other cases they would simply kick you out and that’s it. The problem with Konstantina was that her employer, whatever they attempted, couldn’t sack her. And Konstantina blamed the state-controlled organisations, pointing out that they I were an obstacle. They tried to buy her - they offered her a high position in the company working as the person responsible for the shifts, which is very highly paid. She refused and went on with her syndicalist activities. So they understood that they could neither buy her off nor kick her out, and thus they decided to stop her in the most brutal way to physically silence her and blind her.

What are the actual accusations against OIKOMET pressed by your syndicate and how did the conflict grow?

The Greek legislation is a bit confusing-there are many new laws and sub-laws and everyone reads them in any way they want. Companies like OIKOMET are private and they have a contract with state-owned companies and get money from them to hire workers and to organise the work on site. In this way state money is poured into private hands. Legally in Greece there should be a six-hour working day without any break. For an eight-hour working day there should be a 20 minute break during the shift. But there is that other law, according to which private companies can negotiate directly with the worker and thus come to an agreement about the working conditions. For a six-hour working day and five-day working week there is a heavy-labour insurance due to the worker. But if they have an oral agreement with their worker, the private contractor can set a thirty minute long break. In this way instead of 30 working hours per week, the worker gets around twenty-five and for that the worker no longer gets heavy insurance but a standard one instead. At the same time the State is obliged to pay for heavy-labour insurance as it is stated in the contract. And the money goes to the private company. In fact the whole situation started to unravel from that point onwards. Konsantina began to look for information and we are now putting that together.

If there is any form of complaint from a worker to a state institution regarding the way legal and labour relations are being controlled, they immediately warn the private contractor and the worker gets sacked. In order to impede the intervention from Kuneva’s syndicate, the private company created its own workers’ trade union. This means that if there are any problems related to the legal and labour relations, they say that the company trade union does not see any problems and that they would take care of everything. This is where the problems started. The company trade union initiated propaganda amongst the workers: "Look girls, we have a problem with Kuneva’s trade union, they want to shut down the company and you will lose your jobs." When you tell 300 people that they will lose their jobs they get scared. But at the end of the day after all the fuss, they stopped the breaks and now we have heavy-labour insurance. Subsequently the company trade union started to control the workers and to threaten them, saying they have no right to any break at all and that if they see them taking a break, even a really short one, they will fire them. This is why some of the girls got scared and decided they would prefer not to have heavy-labour insurance, but to have a 30 minute break instead. De facto now we are divided between two fronts. It is normal that if you’re working for six hours you take a 5 minute break for a snack. The shifts are in the morning and you get hungry at some point and you need to have something to eat, but those breaks are informal. And in the end we are cleaners, not doctors, we are not in the operating room.

Are your colleagues also migrants?

We are an International-from Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Bangladesh.

Do you think it is possible to stop private contractors like OIKOMET?

Really hard, since it had become one and the same thing with the state organisations. It has been three months since we have started trying to cancel the contract. Even only for what happened to Konstantina - it cannot be proven who did it, but there was information that the company is involved.

How did you decide to come to work and live here in Greece?

I came to Greece in 1995. At that time there was a crisis in Bulgaria, there were no jobs, so we came to Greece and settled in Athens. Firstly we started to work in one house. Here there is this system to take care of elderly people and to live with them. Initially I came with friends, and I didn't know the language. Much later my family moved to live here, now my family is here as well, everyone is here. My daughter graduated, my son is working here. None of us has Greek citizenship, but we have work permits.

How do you spend your day?

As anywhere else. The things I have to do after work are the same as in Bulgaria. After the night shift I have to cook, to wash.

How was PEKOP founded?

The union was created in 1998 (even before we came) out of the need to protect workers’ rights. Konstantina was the first to start looking for such an organisation, she found the address and joined. Initially we were afraid to join, since everyone who did lost their jobs. But after what happened to Konstantina there was a huge wave and people started to look for help and to get together, to overcome their problems.

What are the next steps before the syndicate, how do you see its future role?

We will start to unite. It is hard to call it a unification, but at least we will start to work in that direction together. We have to help each other and all the trade unions that are scattered by party interests have to start to work together to protect the interests of the workers.

Do you think youth and student organisations should be actively involved?

Not only that they should, but they absolutely ought to, because this is their future, too. If they do not secure some solid ground for the future, tomorrow it will be way harder. And no one is going to just grant that to you. This is what I learnt from the life here - you have to fight for every single thing. Maybe you are not going to achieve it, but when one day you wake up you can say to yourself - I didn’t achieve it, but at least I tried.

What does your family think of your activism?

They are afraid,..

Have you been threatened personally?

No, because I do not hide. I am very straightforward and direct, Konstantina possibly made one mistake - she went all alone. On the one hand she did not want to harm the others. On the other she was thinking that she would be able to achieve something legally. At that point there weren’t many followers and to be honest there weren’t many people that would have followed her. And practically it turned out that it is not possible for an individual to break through.

At the end of the day how do you evaluate what happened up till now, do you think you won after what had happened to her?

We won. We won a faith in the future, a faith that a human being, even alone, can shake up a large organisation. This means that we just have to work in that direction. No one should consent to being oppressed.

What is going to happen on the 2nd of April in Greece?

There is a call-out for a general strike of the workers in the public sector in Greece. Probably everything will be blockaded on that day. From that point onwards there is going to be a huge wave, something is going to change in this world. I see that most of the wealth of humanity is concentrated in the hands of very few people. Years ago profit was in fuels, after this in the drug and arms dealing. But now most of the profits come from cheap labour. And it seems that this is the future direction, to profit by exploiting people, treating them like labour units. I suppose that the activity of all international organisations should be directed towards this problem. I think that this financial crisis is created on purpose, to make the workers scared that they will lose their jobs and to use their fear to pass new laws. And this is everywhere in the world. I never expected to live at such a fast pace as I do now. But there are things to be finished and I do it mostly for the young.