“He’s talking to another Croatian newspaper right now. But, would you be willing to pay him for the interview?”
With these two things that no journalist likes to hear, my conversation with this lawyer started. I was looking for a Croatian guy who was awarded more than 53.000 pounds by the court because his bosses at the factory in Northern Ireland racially abused him.
“I’d have to ask my editors. But, does he really expect to be paid?” I asked.
I had read the court opinion and what this guy had gone through wasn’t pretty. But that he would ask for money for the interview threw a slightly different light on the story. I mean, he had just won money that he’d have to work for for almost three years at the factory and he still wanted to get paid an extra hundred or so? The insult “greedy Croatian bastard” that his bosses sometimes hurled at him (according to the court documents) suddenly came with a different perspective.
I know asking money for an interview might be usual in the U.K., but in Croatia it’s not. My first thought was: we’re not going to pay for it. People have asked me to pay for the interview before, but we’ve never done it. Plus, there’s a crisis going on, so we shouldn’t have money for this. Talking to this guy would be great, but we can do the story just as well without him. However, my editors said: Sure, we’ll pay him.
“As much as our freelance journalists get paid per word”, one of them added.
That kind of ticked me off. But this is not a time to refuse an assignment. For our first edition I wrote the story based on the court papers, and then waited for the interview. Because, of course, not only would this guy want to get paid, but he also wouldn’t have time for me until 6 p.m.
To be honest, I was really only interested in how much he would ask for. My idea was just to ask him how much he wanted, say we couldn’t pay him and then write that he wouldn’t talk to us without the money. I took the idea to one of our editors and she agreed, but another one was confused: “Haven’t we agreed that we would pay him?”
“Be serious. When we said we’d pay, we meant it as a joke,” the first one replied.
They had fooled me.
At 6 p.m. I called, told the guy we had heard about his case and asked if he would talk to us.
“Well, I’ve already talked to your competition, so why not,” he said. But first, he needed five minutes to pull over, then I should call again.
I never mentioned the money.
Neither did he.
He told me that he had come to Northern Ireland 22 years ago, when he was 19, after he fell in love with a girl who later became his wife.
He told me people in Northern Ireland were really nice and sweet, “except for the few rotten apples, but unfortunately, these people were the managers.”
He even told me that the most important thing for him was that the court ruled that he was right.
“That is more important than the money. I mean, the money is nice, I will spend it on a vacation with my children, but most important for me is that people heard me and that people know that you cannot do this sort of thing,” he said.
“I worked there for 12 years, but in the beginning I swallowed it. I was new, I didn’t want to complain, I wanted to keep the job. But it got worse and worse, and they harassed me more and more, until I couldn’t take it anymore. For instance, we were on a break in the canteen, and one of the bosses told me: Serbs were right when they raped your women and children. I complained about this and in my company they said it was racism, but instead of helping me, the bosses higher up started harassing me as well,” he said.
While I was waiting for the interview, me and my colleagues wondered why someone in Northern Ireland would hate Croats, what could they have against us? You’d have to have an experience with a large number of people from a certain nation to be able to hate them, I think. So, you’d expect that Croats could be abused because of their nationality in the countries of former Yugoslavia – we had a war and plenty of experience with each other. Or in Austria or maybe Switzerland, where there’s a large number of Croatian immigrants.
But in Northern Ireland? In the Republic of Ireland, which is larger than Northern Ireland, there’s just over a thousand Croatian workers. Even during the economic boom, when it made sense to go work in Ireland, this number was never more than 3000. In Northern Ireland, the number is so small, that the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment doesn’t record it, as “the sample size for the Labour Market survey is too small.” During the 1998 World Cup in France, when Croatia finished third, journalists were looking for Croats in Northern Ireland and found eight of them, this Croatian guy said. Now he thinks there might be 20.
So, what did his managers have against Croats?
“These people were not just against Croats, they had a grudge with all foreigners. I was black, they’d harass me because of that. For instance, when I started working, these three guys jumped at me during a night shift, dressed like they were in KKK. I got scared, but they said they were joking. I said, OK, a joke is a joke, but don’t do it again,” he said.
He now works as a postman. He actually got the job three weeks after he was laid off at the factory. I’m happy for him. Throughout our conversation he was perfectly nice and sweet, mellow somehow – mellow like the Irish sometimes are, and mellow like the people from Istria, the part of Croatia he comes from, usually are as well.
I’d just say – ditch the lawyer. Or at least don’t let him do your PR.