I got in touch with Emir by a friend who works for a fair fashion network. The owner of a family business in Bosnia & Herzegowina (BiH). Specialised in manufacturing small fashion designers’ collections from Switzerland, Netherlands, and Scandinavia, he had contacted my friend in search for a fair-trade certification for his company. After comparing a few further offers from various countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands, it became evident: Emir’s company made us the best offer in terms of product and service quality.
The sewing workshop is on the ground floor of Emir’s parents’ large, peach coloured house in the calm sub-urbs of Banja Luka. With 200.000 inhabitants, Banja Luka is the second largest city of BiH. Located between Sarajevo and Zagreb, it is a very green city on the shores of the majestic river Vrbas, an affluent of the Danube. Small hills sparkled with small houses surround the city.
Marko, Lucile and Emir
The neighbourhood - a kindergarten in the pink house
city centre of Banja Luka
view from the surrounding hills
A mysterious meteorite landed here - a local curiosity
Emir’s parents, Junuz and Sena, spent 30 years in Switzerland. He was a doctor – she was a teacher. At their retirement, they moved back to their home place. But it’s not the same anymore:
The neighbourhood has changed a lot. Before the war, I would meet many old friends in the streets. Now, they are all strangers.
In Banja Luka, most Bosniaks and Croatians left the city and were replaced by Serbians during the war. Many families have lost everything.
Junuz and Sena owned a textile manufacture in Banja Luka before the war already. BiH has a long tradition of textile and garment industry. The Bosnian garment manufacturers used to be a top address for western European customers seeking quality, reliability and productivity. However, this favourable market position was lost with the war. Still, the sector is of vital importance for the Bosnian economy: more women than ever need to make a living and the export of clothes accounts for a third on the country’s trade balance sheet. (1)
Emir, together with his sister and mother, has brought the family business to a new life. Sena visits the workshop every day and makes sure everything works fine and everyone is happy in the company. Emir and Aida still live and work in Switzerland. Next to their main jobs, they manage the family business and find new clients in central Europe and Scandinavia.
The first time Marko and I visited the manufacture in 2016, Emir was there too. I was very impressed by how friendly Sena and Emir would communicate with their workers. Emir explained:
When I enter a room, I knock. The women are here everyday. I feel like a guest.
This attitude was confirmed in our long discussions about working conditions and definitions of fair-trade.
Emir’s family business is driven by a wish to promote a region severely hit by wars, floods and earthquakes: The city was devastated by an earthquake of 6.4 magnitude in 1969 and by floods and landslides in 2014.
The city of Banja Luka has nonetheless become the economically strong centre of the country. However, the whole country suffers from corruption, a large trade deficit, and an unemployment rate of 25%. Youth and female unemployment is at a staggering 60%. The average income is 300 EUR/month, and a third of the population lives under the poverty line.
In such an environment, Emir and his family cannot just apply Swiss standards. They have to adapt to local conditions and improve them step by step:
- They refuse to feed the corruption system.
- They create a safe work environment.
- They offer slightly higher wages than comparable companies.
- They build a relationship of respect, trust and support with their employees.
- They do their best to grow their company and recruit more staff.
- They try to avoid over-hours.
The whole team is composed of about 20 textile workers. Their age average is like in many aikido dojos: late 40s, stretching from mid-twenties to well over 70. The oldest, Rebija, used to be the director of a team of 300 seamstresses during 30 years. She is in charge of calculating the prices. She is calm and friendly and her sparkling eyes show that she enjoys her activity. Anka, the master seamstress, makes the first prototypes and teaches the best way to the others. The world of textiles seems to have no secrets for her anymore.
The team doesn’t have an official workshop director. The women coordinate the work amongst themselves and share the tasks according to their skills and capacities: some seamstresses are better at sewing heavy winter coats; others are better at light summer dresses. Here, each seamstress is fully skilled and produces a piece of garment from A to Z. It’s not like in a sweatshop where workers work in a line and do only one particular seam all day long.
This year, I came alone to help launching the production of the gis. I mainly worked with Igor, the key account manager, and Maja, the pattern maker. Igor is a friendly, bright young man. His current job is a great opportunity to acquire a solid work experience. This January, he discovered Berlin’s fashion week. Fascinated by the German capital, he dreams of once moving there and working for a fashion magazine. Maja studied fashion design and would love to also work on her own creations.
Maybe one day… but meanwhile, making patterns is nice too.
While the seamstresses work in silence and with full focus, the two 15 minutes breaks are their occasion for jolly talks and jokes. For me, it was the opportunity to get to know the seamstresses a little bit. Most of the women would gather at the long table in the kitchen and enjoy a salty snack at 11 AM and a Turkish coffee prepared by one of them for all at 1 PM. Each seamstress has an individual cup of coffee. During my stay there, we also enjoyed one of the seamstresses’ son’s 14th birthday cake. And I was very glad to see how much they enjoyed the Swiss chocolate and cookies I brought.
Maja & Lucile
Milka, Rada, Stojanka & Lucile
The Misogi Dogi uniforms are made by a team of three: Stojanka, Rada and Milka. Stojanka always welcomed me warmly in German:
The Bosnians learn German at school. But as they have little opportunity to practice the language, and my Bosnian is yet very poor, our conversations were limited. Milka is very calm. She would mainly observe with a friendly look and listen to the others. She already sewed a few of the Misogi Dogi prototypes.
Rada is the jolly fellow of the team. She speaks only Bosnian, so we needed a little help from her colleagues to communicate. At the breaks, she would smile all over at me and offer me a little sip of one of her home-made fruit brandies:
Try this one, just a little sip, to awake the blood circulation!
Pear, walnut and strawberry, the brandies were excellent and did a good job. During the weekend I spent there, Rada celebrated her son’s wedding. Finding out my age and the fact that I am engaged, her comment was:
I could be your mother. I’ll come to your wedding too!
Spending a week working with such a wonderful team was a great experience. I am looking forward to going back and spending more time with the ladies. But first, I’ll need to improve my Bosnian language skills!