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 Order at work is the order of the day

Order at work is the order of the day

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén Foto: Cata Portin

That’s what Eva Natka, 28, values most in her work in Estonia. ”I’ve always got a big pile of papers on my desk. When it shrinks, I’m happy.”

”The pay is a bit better, and I guess that is the most important thing. The system here also works better than where I was before. Here, each person can do the work of several workers, in the other place everyone only looked after their own specialized task.”

Order and control is necessary. The seamstresses sewing women’s underwear are on piecework, and if the delivery of materials is late, work stops.

Eva Natka has reviewed the logistics, and the bottlenecks are gone. This she is proud of.

”We have all the material we need, the production won’t be delayed.”

Eva NatkaEva Natka takes further education on the side. For three hours, three nights a week, she studies the structure of the textile industry at the technical university. She learns about everything from cutting out patterns to how to run a company.

”I have to show my diploma to get a job somewhere else, and you never know when you’ll have to look for another job.”

No plans to join a union

She says many in the textile business are worried their jobs will disappear to China. Some don’t even dare to take all the holiday they are due, because they are afraid to loose their job. Still, Eva Natka and her colleagues have no plans to join a trade union.

”The union can’t help you if a business goes bust”, says Tiina Haava, who’s cutting patterns.

She feels secure in her job, she masters most tasks and she feels working morals at Marat are good.

”I’m middle aged, but specialists always pull through.”
950 people work for Marat, making it one of the largest foreign employers in Estonia. Torfinn Losvik, a Norwegian, is the main owner and managing director. He feels he has created a good work environment, a sentiment supported by the low turnaround of personnel.

The staff is invited to take part in the decision making process through meetings with the bosses every second week, when they can suggest how the work can be better organised. Torfinn Losvik says the business philosophy is based on making sure everyone dares say what he or she means. This, he says, has been a bit of a culture shock for many Estonians, who have been used to obeying orders.

Make it fun to work

”If you want to hold on to people like Eva – because she can get a job anywhere – the only way to make her stay is to make her feel it is fun to go to work. After all, these workers are the ones who are going to keep this thing going.”

Eva Natka herself feels she has a certain say in things, at least when it comes to the management of the stockroom. And as a supervisor, she tries to set an example and support her colleagues.

”I think people do a better job if they feel that their work is being appreciated.”

When Estonia joined the EU, there was a lot of talk about people wanting to leave to work abroad. Eva Natka has no plans to move, even though she spent one year as an au pair in Finland. Her brother has also returned, after spending ten years in Ålesund, Norway.

”This is a young nation we’re living in, and things can’t be going in the wrong direction. Many things can improve.”

Photo: Cata Portin

Estonia’s textile industries employ 15 000 people, and it is important for a country with strong traditions in the ready-made apparel business. A lot of what is sold in Swedish, Finnish or German clothes shops has been sewn in Estonia. But the industry, which is now Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian owned, has been heavily streamlined over the past years in order to stay in competition.

Wages are rising fast

When Marat moved one factory out of Tallinn last year, few among the 200 employees chose to go with the company, and ended up unemployed. They felt the terms weren’t good enough. In Narva, close to the Russian border, the Swedish-owned textile company Krenholm wants to lay off hundreds of workers and cut wages, in order to increase its competitive edge.

Wages are rising fast in Estonia. This year the minimum wage is going up by eight per cent, but the new wage is still only 2690 Estonian kronor a month, which is around 180 euro. A seamstress at Marat makes about double that.

”The industry feels the pressure when wages go up. Efficiency must rise faster than wages”, says Torfinn Losvik.
He’s no friend of centralised pay agreements like the ones in the Nordic countries. He’d rather put his faith in good relations with the political leadership.

”It’s better to have legislation, so you don’t have to go through all the arm wrestling.”

Lost tradition

Losvik feels the Nordic countries have lost their manufacturing industry tradition. Particularly his former home Norway, which he thinks has lost its manufacturing culture because of the dependence on oil and natural gas.
”Workers here are used to be paid more the harder they work. In the Nordic countries all you have to do is show up for work.”

Little Estonia has become a bit of a manufacturing paradise for Nordic businesses. There are many carrots: cheap and well educated labour, a liberal economic policy with low taxes, a stable financial environment and EU membership. But when the unions knock, nobody answers the door.

”There are Nordic businesses who don’t want collective agreements, even though they’re used to them from home. There is a degree of double standards in that”, says Piret Lilleväli, state secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs in Tallinn.

Just over ten per cent of the country’s work force are organised through trade unions, with slightly higher figures for certain groups like teachers and railway workers. Strike action is extremely rare. It can be difficult to understand
why Estonian workers aren’t organised. During the time of the Soviet Union, all employees had to be organised in order to get their medical insurance. The trade unions were preparatory schools for the Communist party.

Working too hard

”Then again, Estonians are very individualistic and want to decide for themselves. They don’t understand that their salary might be better than their colleague’s right now, but that they’re loosing out in the long run,” says Lilleväli.

She is worried the Estonians are working far too hard. Estonia is exempt from EU employment laws. You are allowed to work eight hours extra on top of the forty-hour working week. It is also allowed to work an additional two hundred hours extra in one year.

”People want to work more to increase their wages. It’s voluntary, but it also leads to health problems. Estonians aren’t particularly healthy, families and quality of life suffer. If you haven’t got holidays and time for your family and time to think about yourself, your health will suffer.”


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