“The workshops are seedbeds for degeneration”: Forms of Exposure and Protection of Workers’ Bodies in Vardar Macedonia
By Ivana HadjievskaBetween 1918 and 1941, Vardar Macedonia was the southernmost region in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It represented the Ottoman legacy in the kingdom, with its diversity of religions and ethnicities, and a population that predominantly subsisted on agriculture. In contrast to this, a mainly catholic population engaged in more developed forms of capitalism in the northern regions of Yugoslavia, which represented the Austro-Hungarian imperial legacy. The southernmost region was often imagined by the intellectual and the political elites of Belgrade both as an economically backward and an essentially agrarian society and, at the same time, as a romanticized space retaining noble traditions and holding a rich history. The region was addressed in the nationalist public discourse in Belgrade as “old Serbia” or simply as “the classic South” – a metaphor for the aurea prima aetas of Serbian medieval history. It was an allusion to the historical heritage of the golden era of the medieval Serbian King Dušan the Mighty, who was crowned in Skopje, and also the claim of a “historical right” of appropriating the territory during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The latter claim was politically and ideologically based in the long-lasting nationalist aspiration connected to the unresolved “Macedonian question” in the Balkans. After the Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire on the Balkan Peninsula, the territory of Vardar Macedonia came under Serbian administration. After the First World War, and the constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – the territory became part of the new state, with a strong deployment of the Serbian army and Serbian administration.
Around the time when the central government was initiating processes of modernization and industrialization in this region, nationalistic and class imaginaries intertwined, producing consequences in the spheres of symbolic and political representations and impressions of the new ruling elites regarding the sanitary aspects of the life and labor of the local population. In the public discourse, diseases started to be defined not only in medical terms, but also as social qualifications, as connected to specific groups or ways of life. Some epidemics recurrent in the region, such as those of malaria or typhus, as well as cases of sexually transmitted diseases, were referred to as “social illnesses” or “diseases of the poor”. Tuberculosis, meanwhile, was called the “disease of the workers”.
In this text, I look at the public discourse on the processes of regional modernization and industrialization. Additionally, I consider its effects on the imaginaries of the local elites about the “national health” and the sanitary conditions of different social groups, with focus on the working class. I analyze the discourse within print culture managed by administrative and middle class actors, which voiced contemporary social and health policies and issues. I present a discursive analysis of a periodical press, civil organizations’ publications and printed organs, official and institutional yearbooks, almanacs, and inspectorate reports and archival sources of municipal and court rulings on urban communal and sanitary matters. These sources reflect on the sanitary and technical conditions of the industrial workshops in Vardar Macedonia. The corporeal imaginaries, voiced by agents from upper classes in the public discourse, viewed workers as a physical aggregate in the cities that, if not controlled, could cause “degeneration of the nation”. These imaginaries feared workers as a potential “agent of chaos”.
In the first part of the text, I will briefly describe the economic basis and the sanitary aspects of labor vis-à-vis the technical conditions in the workshops in Vardar Macedonia. In the second part, I review the representations around these conditions in selected print sources using discursive analysis.
Imagining and fearing modernity in a land of suspended urgency
The years between the two world wars in Vardar Macedonia were a period of building of industries and of intensive experimental policies administered from the central government in the fields of agriculture, economy, and social relations. The population becoming economically active within these industries gradually formed into the working class. It was a “class in becoming”, one starting to form its own specific social, cultural, health, urban, and ecological versions of reality. These differed from the ones shared by the “agricultural ocean” – the ethnically diverse agricultural population – and by local elites.
The agricultural population in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and especially the population in Vardar Macedonia, started migrating towards the industrial centers. Economist Jozo Tomasevich describes the emergence of the new strata that started to live near the bigger cities for sessional work in the industrial businesses, but without permanent emigration from the villages and without leaving their agricultural existence and way of life, as semi-workers. Cities like Prilep, Bitola, and Skopje had stations for tobacco management, which were very important for the state. Semi-workers and sessional workers were the main work force employed in this tobacco industry. Although this was not a case of a local industrial revolution followed by the construction of thousands of factory chimneys, specific local developments in the industry took place in this region, with its many feudal legacies from the Ottoman period. This included the gradual flourishing of the textile industries, the industry for lumber and construction materials, and the food production industries, all of which were starting to measure up to the primary agricultural sector.
In the new economic habitus in Vardar Macedonia, workshops for industrial production represented the benchmark of the new cityscape. These spaces of modern novelty, inhibited by oriental guild habits, generated ambiguous feelings in different social layers. Mainly, these were feelings of fear. In one report issued by the State Labor Inspectorate in 1921, the conditions in the workshops in Vardar Macedonia were explicitly described as follows: “The workshops are dark and small, humid and orientally dirty, with broken windows, [a] brick floor or pressed soil. Full of unhealthy fumes and gases.”
According to the Serbian Law for Workshops of 1910, which stayed relevant for the territory of Vardar Macedonia until the passing of the new Law for the Protection of Workers in 1922, the employers were obliged to maintain the safety of the workshops, and to take care of the lightning, ventilation, and the supply of fire extinguishers. The law insisted on proper protection from machines and elements that could be dangerous for workers. The owners of the industries were obliged to provide bathrooms, toilets, and changing rooms for the workers. Additionally, the law stated that, if the industrial complex was within two kilometers of an inhabited area, the owners and employers were obliged to build housing, a canteen, and an ambulance service for the workers. The Inspectorate for Labor was the most important institution responsible for the supervision of the implementation of laws and regulations in this area. In 1921, it issued a detailed regulation book with general, technical, and specific provisions for labor in different industries.
The District Labor Inspectorate in Skopje was established in 1920 and was made up of 16 administrative units. The reports issued by this institution together with the sources of the archival fond, “City Magistracy of Skopje (1918–1941)”, build a compelling image of the formation of the working class in the territory. In Skopje, 90 percent of the bakeries and workshops from the food processing industries, for example, did not meet the requirements for proper hygiene.
The concepts of proletarianization were known to the local elites, represented by the local-cum-national central administrative apparatus; to individuals from the free professions, employed mostly in educational and health organizations and institutions in the cities; and also to the governing structures in general, whose voices on various economic and social topics were widely represented in print media. They described the workshops and manufacturers for industrial production as an uncanny necessity of regional modernization prompted by the state. Representatives from these groups, mainly those who were associated with different “civil societies”, often took a humanitarian approach, accompanied with a “civilizing mission” toward the region where they had their official post. The goal of this approach was to take symbolic and social control over the new physical aggregate, concentrated in the workshops. Many social commentators addressed the fears of workshops as seedbeds for tuberculosis outbreaks, typhus, “physical degeneration”, and also “diseases of the soul” – that is, amoral behavior, abortion, and alcoholism. Addressing and controlling the “degeneration of the workers” meant avoiding the “degeneration of the nation”.
The debate around the health and hygiene of the population in Vardar Macedonia in general, and the working class in particular, was mainly part of national reformist debates with an assimilatory twist, persistent since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. While in explicit Serbian nationalist discourses, the historical romanization of the region prevailed, the “othering” of the population living in Vardar Macedonia, and especially the new social strata of workers, was prevalent in discourses on health and hygiene, where the ruling elites sought the need to emancipate the masses from their “oriental habits”. Different administrative and civil agents participated in the use of health policies as “soft-power” to control the concentration of people and ideas in industrial centers in times when various left-leaning workers unions and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia were becoming a threat for the regime. In this context, a review of printed media that voiced the opinions of bourgeois patrician representatives, institutional spokespersons, and medical and social policy experts can tell us more about the patterns of imagining and the fear of modernization in Vardar Macedonia.
The triangle of the state health policies, the educational institutions, and humanitarian civil organizations
The most obvious success of the Yugoslavian kingdom in policies for administering Vardar Macedonia, in accordance with the Serbian political elites, was organizing health and social protection. In contrast to other administrative levels of government, by building hospitals, ambulances, health institutions, and the Hygiene Institute in Skopje, the state made a big leap towards modernization in the former Turkish vilayet. Among the first institutions founded by Serbian rule were health and medical establishments, prompted mostly by the outbursts of typhus and cholera among the population during frequent wars in the territory. Seen in a historical perspective and understood in the Foucauldian term of governmentality, these establishments were part of the “civilizing mission” of the state, and, more precisely, of the political elites concerned with the region. Health policies played a major part: The first mission of the Ministry of Health was drying the wetlands along the Vardar river to prevent mosquito-borne diseases. The population in Skopje suffered frequently from malaria before the systematic and scientific approaches and the epidemic measurements taken by the new government. In 1927, the Institute of Hygiene was founded in Skopje. It was a well-established scientific institution that organized scientific and medical services, also aimed at terminating mosquito-borne diseases. Additionally, it screened educational movies and its researchers were frequently present in the printed media.
Epidemics that spread from those living in poverty and that resulted from what was deemed as “workers diseases” were seen as a threat to the national body and the health of the nation itself. The developed social policies, together with the activities of agents from the civil and philanthropic sector, were meanwhile aimed at protecting the morals of the upper class. They symbolically sided with the capitalist regime in times of emerging communist political organizations, rater than raising awareness to the poor technical and hygienic conditions in the workshops.
In Jubilee Collection on life and labor among Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918-1928), issued on the occasion of the first decade of the creation of the state, there is a text titled “National Health”, which deals with the eponymous issues. The text comments on the abovementioned imaginaries of the new class reality:
The workers are, together with the infants and the school children, the third group in the society that needs particular health protection. That protection is entirely under the management and surveillance of the Ministry of Health and the Law for Insurance of the Workers. The Law of Worker’s Protection is pretty advanced and answers the requests for modern care of the working class. Special attention is devoted to the working mothers, also, there is covering of all the measurements of social character in favor of protection of this powerful part of the nation’s people. The laws bring rightful understanding of the meaning between the capital and the working part of the nation’s people. The capital is rightfully obliged to take care of the protection of the ones that contribute to its enlargement.
The new social policies also intervened in moral aspects in cities where modern processes were irreversible and gave birth to new patterns in everyday life. The triangle between the state health policies, the educational institutions, and the humanitarian civil organizations was important in managing new social relations and policies. A clear example can be found in the activities of the influential Serbian patriotic women’s organization, the Wrath of Serbian Sisters (Kolo Srpskih Sestara), which was active in this territory from 1903. This organization had a tradition of implementing humanitarian and educational activities by building conservative schools for girls on the premise of guarding national and moral values. In their yearbook, Calendar Vardar, many titles are devoted to the problems of the spread of tuberculosis among the workers, making a connection between the disease and poverty, but also with the immoral values in the cities.
The spread of tuberculosis among workers was also a key point in many policy documents issued by the social worker Rastko Puric, a researcher and functionary in the Worker’s Chamber in Skopje:
In various sheds and cellars, some employers in South Serbia allow the workers to work from 12 to 15 hours. The young workers – the apprentices – live in these places with the workers’ disease – tuberculosis – from a really young age. The state has not managed by far, despite all the efforts in developing the South, to solve the problem of hygiene in the spaces for work.
To address the problem on a national level, a League Against Tuberculosis was established in Belgrade in the 1920s. Its manifesto was printed and distributed in every part of the country. This document stated that “workers’ poverty and the peripheral urban ghettos are seedbags for tuberculosis”. They requested building separate housing areas that offered better living conditions for the “workers’ poverty” in order to stop the spreading of the disease to the “healthy elements” of society. The League had eugenic approaches in their proposed damage management, and called for the prohibition of marriages to persons with active tuberculosis.
An explicit example can be found in the media of the local Temperance Movement (Pokret trezvenosti), which had a circle in Bitola. In their magazine, South Watch (Juzna Straza), they declared their fears of the “new age” and the urban modernization happening in cities, where moral and family ideals among the citizen class were threatened by “the indecent behavior” of workers and their visits to the kafana, where “men, and even women too, enjoyed alcohol”.
Printed media sources, in which the voices of the local administrative elites and the bourgeoisie imaginary of the new working class in the population were most represented, demonstrate that a discourse of fear and moralizing dominates the imaginaries of these groups when dealing with issues of health and corporeality regarding the working class.
Concluding remarksThe technical and hygienic conditions of labor are a reflection of the general economic and cultural positions of workers and the working class in a society. The development of these conditions reveals a lot about the changes in the area of labor protection measures within the frames of industrial and/or capitalist societies. The poor technical conditions in the industrial production spaces and workshops in the territory of Vardar Macedonia disclose the early stages of the modern transformations of this society and of the class differentiations occuring in its population.
The health conditions of the workers, as well as the diseases to which workers were especially vulnerable, were addressed in the public sphere mainly by representatives of the state: experts and various civil society organizations. There was general agreement among the latter upper-class actors that tuberculosis was a disease of workers and the impoverished. In detecting and defining the diseases common among workers, these representatives used different methods of research. Civil representatives, for example, mainly projected their ideological and value-based assumptions. Both groups, however, did not examine deeper societal and class factors. In the discourse on the health of workers as a “national issue”, the voice of the workers was missing due to illiteracy and a lack of education and awareness among them. Similarly, workers unions, as well as organizations and parties from the left political spectrum, lacked a platform for their opinions.
 Vladan Jovanović, Jugoslovenska drzava i Juzna Srbija 1918 – 1929. Makedonija, Sandzak, Kosovo i Metohija u Kraljevini SHS, Beograd: INIS, 2002.
 Nikola Martinoski (1903–1973) was a Macedonian painter of Armenian descent and known as the founder of Macedonian contemporary art. In his early years, he published his graphics in periodicals and in numerous printed publications for art and culture. During the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, he was deeply inspired by the social reality of the working class and groups with lower social status. His illustrations on these topics were featured in publications with social policy briefs on the working class by experts in the Workers’ Chambers in Skopje.
 Nada Boškovska, Yugoslavia and Macedonia before Tito. Between repression and integration, London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2017.
 Jozo Tomasevich, Peasants, politics and economic change in Yugoslavia, Stanford University Press, 1955.
 Rastko Purić, Rabotnički jug, Skopje: “Nemanja”, 1937.
 Izveštaj inspekcije rada kraljevine Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca o njenom poslovanju u g. 1920, Beograd: Stamparija Supek-Jovanović i Bogdanov, 1921, 105.
 Егон Бенеш, „Југославија у борби за хигијену свог становништва“, Службени лист Вардарске бановине, бр. 128, год. III (8 мај 1932), 30.
 See: Јоксимовић Хранислав, Туберкулоза у Скопљу са кратким прегледом њене раширености у Вардрској бановини, Скопље, 1936.
 Maja Miljkovic-Djurovic, “The health care in the Vardar part of Macedonia (1919-1929)”, GINI 42, 2 (1999): 93–107.
 Marina Gjorgjevska, “Vardarskiot del na Makedonija pod srpska vlast (1912 – 1915)”, MA Thesis, Skopje: UKIM, 2018, 108–119; Verica Josimovska, Epidemiite vo Vardarska Makedonija, i borbata so niv za vreme na vojnite (1912-1918), Shtip: “2-ri Avgust“, 2014.
 Б. Константиновић, „Народно здравље“, у Јубиларни зборник живота и рада Срба, Хрвата и Словенаца: 1918-1928 године, Београд: Матица живих и мртвих Срба, Хрвата и Словенаца, 1928, 118–140, 136.
 Стеван Иваневић, „Борба против туберкулозе“, Вардар Календар Кола српских сестара за 1929 годину, Београд: Штампарија М. Карић, 1928, 110–113.
 Rastko Purić, Naličja juga – socijalni problemi, Skopjle: “Nemanja”, 1937, 17–18.
 Љ. Стојановић, „О туберкулози, предавање ученицима за Дан борбе против туберкулозе, 3 мај 1931 године“, Београд: Издање Лиге против туберкулозе, 1931, 32–33.
 See examples from the magazine South Watch: Иван Кањух, „Борба против једног зла“, Јужна стража – Омладински часопис 1, 1 (1933): 2–14; Хрисанта Робевић, „Жене алкохоличарке“, Јужна стража – Омладински часопис 1, 1 (1933): 17.
 Споменица двадесетпетогодишњице ослобоћења Јужне Србије 1912 – 1937, edited by the author Aleksa Jovanovic and published in Skopje in 1937, was a commemorative book dedicated to the 25th anniversary of “Serbian liberation” (as the title reads) of the Macedonian territory from Ottoman rule. It was written in a panegyric tone, propagating the success of the state in the south in an exaggerated manner. Although its visual materials fall within this paradigm, they are, nonetheless, important glimpses into the factories and workshops in Vardar Macedonia.
Arhiv na Skopje, Fond: Gradsko poglavarstvo na grad Skopje (1918–1941).
Izveštaj inspekcije rada kraljevine Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca o njenom poslovanju u g. 1920, Beograd: Stamparija Supek-Jovanović i Bogdanov, 1921, 105.
Jozo Tomasevich, Peasants, politics and economic change in Yugoslavia, Stanford University Press, 1955.
Marina Gjorgjevska, “Vardarskiot del na Makedonija pod srpska vlast (1912 – 1915)”, MA Thesis, Skopje: UKIM, 2018.
Maja Miljkovic-Djurovic, “The health care in the Vardar part of Macedonia (1919-1929)”, GINI 42, 2 (1999): 93–107.
Nada Boškovska, Yugoslavia and Macedonia before Tito. Between repression and integration, London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2017.
Rastko Purić, Naličja juga – socijalni problemi, Skopjle: “Nemanja”, 1937.
Rastko Purić, Rabotnički jug, Skopje: “Nemanja”, 1937.
Verica Josimovska, Epidemiite vo Vardarska Makedonija, i borbata so niv za vreme na vojnite (1912-1918), Shtip: “2-ri Avgust”, 2014.
Vladan Jovanović, Jugoslovenska drzava i Juzna Srbija 1918 – 1929. Makedonija, Sandzak, Kosovo i Metohija u Kraljevini SHS, Beograd: INIS, 2002
Јоксимовић Хранислав, Туберкулоза у Скопљу са кратким прегледом њене раширености у Вардрској бановини, Скопље, 1936.
Љ. Стојановић, „О туберкулози, предавање ученицима за Дан борбе против туберкулозе, 3 мај 1931 године“, Београд: Издање Лиге против туберкулозе, 1931.
Б. Константиновић, „Народно здравље“, у Јубиларни зборник живота и рада Срба, Хрвата и Словенаца: 1918-1928 године, Београд: Матица живих и мртвих Срба, Хрвата и Словенаца, 1928, 118–140.
Егон Бенеш, „Југославија у борби за хигијену свог становништва“, Службени лист Вардарске бановине, бр. 128, год. III (8 мај 1932), 30.
Иван Кањух, „Борба против једног зла“, Јужна стража – Омладински часопис 1, 1 (1933): 2–14.
Стеван Иваневић, „Борба против туберкулозе“, Вардар Календар Кола српских сестара за 1929 годину, Београд: Штампарија М. Карић, 1928, 110–113.
Хрисанта Робевић, „Жене алкохоличарке“, Јужна стража – Омладински часопис 1, 1 (1933): 17.
Ivana Hadjievska is a historian and an independent researcher in the fields of social history, the history of women, and memory studies. She received an MA from the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. She also holds a BA in history from the Institute of History at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University. She works on projects that connect her academic research interests with inclusive education, local activism, and creative industries.
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Malak Labib, Re-shaping the “Socialist Factory” in Egypt in the Late 1960s–1970s, 30 April 2021.
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Goran Musić, European Textile Production Subcontracting and the Transformation of Apparel Factories in Yugoslavia and Morocco, 11 June 2021.
Mariana Stoler, Material Determinations and Workers’ Identity: An Analysis of an Argentinian Steelworks, 25 June 2021
Citation: Ivana Hadjievska, “The workshops are seedbeds for degeneration”: Forms of Exposure and Protection of Workers’ Bodies in Vardar Macedonia in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.07.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30250.