SPLIT, CAKOVEC, ZAGREB, Croatia (WOMENSENEWS)--For over a year Biserka Kristofic has been battling depression and anxiety. After witnessing the slow destruction of the company she worked at for 29 years, she knew her own job loss was inevitable.
Now out of a job and owed more than a year's worth of wages, the 50-year-old is worried she'll never find steady employment again.
"Long-term unemployment usually represents a serious barrier to employability as skills, working habits and confidence is lost over time," warned a June 2011 report on women in the Croatian labor market, commissioned by the European Union and in partnership with Croatian Employment Services.
That's hardly news to Kristofic. She has seen what impact a typical case of privatization of state-run, worker-owned companies followed by layoffs has had on her colleagues. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia the textile and garment company she worked at in Cakovec employed 3,400 workers.
After privatization in 1992 and the piecemeal division of the company, thousands lost their jobs while cases of fraud and corruption have been left to linger in the courts.
"Hope is very low. The longer I go, the less I have hope," Kristofic said in an interview. She has a way of summing up her situation: "I'm too old for work and too young for retirement."
Croatia is one of the top 20 tourist destinations in the world. Though its economy is service-based, its major industries include food and beverages, shipbuilding, electrical manufacturing and construction. Women tend to be employed in the services, education, health, administrative and public services sectors.
Since 1994 at least, women have suffered higher rates of unemployment, although the gender gap has narrowed during the recent global economic downturn, when male-dominated fields such as construction took a major hit, said Nada Kerovec of the Croatian Employment Services.
Kerovec, who has worked at the employment center for more than two decades, says the current period looks like a low point. When the country was still part of Yugoslavia, only 5 percent of those above 50 in Croatia were unemployed. Now it's 30 percent, she said.
Learning to Search Online
Kristofic joined a program for unemployed women run by Zora, a nongovernmental group in her town. Now she knows how to use a computer and search for jobs online. "With this project at least it makes you a little happy. Because at home, between four walls, when my husband goes to work and my son is away, I am trapped within my thoughts of job and money."
The jobless are now 17.4 percent of the work force in this Balkan country. More than half are women and, among them, 50 percent have been out of a job for over a year.
Slavica Bartulovic-Barac, a 32-year-old trained seamstress who has also completed business-skill courses, is another face of women's unemployment.
Bartulovic-Barac got her first work experience in the accounting department of a hotel. It was an internship arranged by Domine, a nongovernmental group that promotes women's rights in the coastal city of Split. Though unpaid, the internship gave her experience and confidence.
Despite going back to school, she finds herself caught in a vicious circle where employers dismiss her as being either overqualified for menial jobs or inexperienced for the ones she really wants.
In several interviews, she was also asked if she was married and had children. "And when they heard I don't have any, they disqualify me because of that, because they're afraid that if I work for them I'll decide to have kids and go on maternity leave," she said.
"It's illegal but it's understandable," said Sanja Crnkovic Pozaic, one of the authors of the June report on women's unemployment. "Basically we're asking the employers to bear the whole burden of absences of workers for a public cause when they're not getting anything in return."
A Demographic Crisis
Croatia is suffering from a demographic crisis as the birthrate declines, shrinking the supply of young people, while the elderly live longer.
The government offers some incentives to boost the birth rate, including maternity and child benefits. But neither set of benefits yields full-time employment for women and hampers the development of their marketable skills.
"Women are the ones who bear the brunt of policies which are not streamlined because quite a lot of the benefits are directed at families and children," said Crnkovic Pozaic, the report's author in an interview. "Parents who stay at home and don't continue building their career, what they're sacrificing in terms of their own time and giving a huge benefit to society through that, should be valued in a different way than it is now."
Women also regularly battle discrimination based on gender and age, said Anamarija Gospocic, who has worked for several years on projects to help unemployed women through the Center for Education, Counseling and Research in Zagreb, Croatia's capital.
Anti-discrimination laws have been in place since 2008 and women are more aware of their rights than they were a few years ago, Gospocic said, but pursuing legal action is widely avoided as it is costly and time consuming.
This year, the Center for Education, Counseling and Research shared a 2-million-euro grant from the European Union with 17 other organizations around the country to improve women's employability by offering help on resumes, job searches, computer skills, workshops on positive thinking, overcoming low self-confidence and depression, as well as providing legal advice and vocational training.
Gospocic's organization in Zagreb attracted women over 35 with at least a university degree. She said the women's age was the biggest obstacle to employment, "which is so stupid because they are women who have high education, large experience in working life and they don't have obligations regarding young children. And this is not recognized by employers," she said. "They (employers) say that… younger people also have university degrees, also lacking skills, are better for them because they are cheaper."
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Cyrille Cartier is a journalist based in Croatia following teaching journalism at Shantou University, China.
For more information:
Center for Education, Counseling and Research (CESI):
Women in the Croatian labor market:
Croatian Employment Services: