Exodus of professional drivers from Serbia

Photo: Milovan Milenković / Kamerades

Professional city bus drivers are leaving Serbia with a one-way ticket increasingly often. The prolongation of working hours, low salaries and irrational business policies of the City public transport company Belgrade do not only motivate the drivers to emigrate, but also serve as arguments for further privatization of the company.

A few years ago the citizens of Belgrade were offered to chose the colour of the city busses. This was envisioned to serve as a kind of a confirmation that they live in a decidedly democratic society. They weren’t given a say at how the routs should be organised, or at the billing model, or at who will drive the buses and how, but they could decide the colour. They chose red. Two years later, since most of the buses still haven’t been painted red, the city decided to donate about a million euros for this purpose. The one who will profit neatly from the donation won’t be the City public transport company (GSP), but a few private ones.

At the same time, an increasing number of drivers are leaving the GSP, looking for employement abroad. There is a deficit of functional vehicles, the billing has plummeted. Those who stay in the city (both drivers and citizens) are facing hard working and commuting conditions.

The precarious position of GSP drivers

Low salaries, long working hours and increasingly bad working conditions are chasing the employees of GSP away. As a consequence, D category driver’s licence has become one of the most sought after qualifications at the Serbian labour market. Since 2013, the “leak” of drivers has picked up pace. The summer of 2017 brought about a virtual exodus, with a monthly rate of 40 drivers leaving the country. Though the autumn saw a brief stabilisation, these processes are still quite noticeable. Exact numbers are impossible to find. Unofficial sources state that somewhere between 200 and 250 drivers have left the public company so far. The problem isn’t reserved to Belgrade – most of the major cities in Serbia are losing drivers at a high rate.

The main destinations for drivers in search for better employment are Slovenia, Austria and Germany. A large percentage switches to truck driving. Depending on the state, they can make between 1200 and 2500 euros a month. To put things into perspective, a bus driver engaged at a city route in Belgrade earns a monthly pay of roughly 370 euros.

The GSP is trying to solve this problem by employing. There is a constant open call for bus drivers at the company’s internet site. This attempt notwithstanding, there is still not enough drivers. This especially applies for experienced drivers, given that it’s impossible to quickly replace them with a beginner lacking mileage.

The accelerating exodus of drivers coincides with the worsening of the working condition in GSP. One of the crucial moments was the introduction of longer working hours. In 2014 the working hours got prolonged from seven to around eight working hours. The working hours have been extended in spite of the objections made by the trade union, with the justification that the drivers don’t belong to a risky category of workers in need of shorter working hours. The actual reasons behind the decision were the imposed austerity measures and a structural adjustment introduced in order to meet the “investor’s” demands. The prolongation of working hours brings down the number of required employees. The rest are declared redundant, which is often followed by praises of cut backs in the public sector.

Even such extended working hours are often exceeded. Due to a lack of tachographs, drivers often drive longer than eight hours. After the trade union pressured the company, its representatives promised to acquire tachographs and issue authorized identity cards to drivers. “This should regulate the situation in this respect”, said Ivan Banković, an expert at the Union of Serious Unionized Workers in the GSP (SOS).

Frequent changes in routes, shuffling shifts and a need to work multiple shifts due to the lack of drivers introduced additional stress into the drivers’ working lives. Such circumstances in vacation periods lead to traffic jams, while exhausted drivers are forced to work overtime.

The drivers’ work is very responsible and exhausting. Sufficient rest is not only advised, but absolutely indispensable. Driving city routes, characterised by a continuous stop-and-go rhytm and care for the passengers and others who participate in traffic makes it especially hard. Unlike investment bankers or lawyers in large corporations, whose mistakes influence the lives of ordinary people indirectly, the bus drivers’ mistakes can directly endanger lives. Another difference lies in the fact that drivers are paid less although their work allows normal functioning of the city. If corporate lawyers stop working, nothing bad will come out of it (in fact, something good might), but if drivers stop working, the city will be blocked.

Statistical data on the number of accidents involving GSP busses backs all this up. Representatives of SOS labour union stated that the number of such accidents increased by 5 to 7 percent during the last few years.

The working conditions in private companies are even worse than those in the public company. The working hours are frequently longer, the salaries are lower, and there is almost no functional trade union capable of protecting the rights of employees. All this chases the drivers away from the private companies, mostly into emigration, but sometimes they also seek employement in GSP. GSP still provides a good CV reference, allowing easier emigration.

The tram and trolly drivers find themselves in an even more difficult situation, having less opportunities to change jobs due to their narrow specialisation. Though their position is identical to that of the bus drivers, they cannot transfer to an another employer or leave the country as easily.

A step towards privatization

In a conversation with an expert from SOS, Ivan Banković, we found out that GSP lost the right to drive the routes to a few suburban parts of Belgrade (Sremčica, Umka and Rušanj). A job worth 11.3 billion dinars got appointed to a group of private companiescalled “Avala bus 500”. The problem lies in the fact that the contract for this job applies for the next ten years, robbing the GSP of an opportunity to win these routes back in 3-4 years, by raising its standard and capacity. GSP thus gave up as much as fourteen routs to the private companies. On the other hand, the public company got to cover “route 600”. Still, the mileage, number and overall capacity of these routes are smaller, which translates into less public funding.

At the end of 2017 GSP opened a public call for reparation and maintenance of a number of their vehicles. This decision gave the private companies an opportunity to apply for activities that GSP used to perform routinely. This allowed for further extraction of money from the public company. Meanwhile, the employees are being made redundant, and the public company is keeping its reputation of a negative equity company. Banković informed us that a similar twist already took place with security, vehicle cleaning and painting, and is now happening to servicing. It seems likely that all these steps are also steps towards the privatization of the public company.

GSP is frequently shouted out as being a negative equity company. What is conveniently omitted is the fact that public transport relies on subventions worldwide. Its purpose should be to satisfy the citizen’s needs for commuting, not profit-making. We mustn’t forget that the most profitable part of GSP– the billing –was the first to be privatized. Contrary to its promise to raise it, the billing in fact shrinked since the private company Apex took it over. While we all wonder to whom does the public transport in fact belong to, Apex still pockets a guaranteed percentage of the GSP’s profit. A recent court ruling against the discrimination of the unionised workers of GSP, who opposed the implementation of a business harmful to the city budget, illustrates how important it was for the authorities to implement the BusPlus system.

The SOS trade union stated that they demand an immediate canceling of the dismembering of the GSP and of outsourcing work to private companies that the GSP is capable of handling. This, they say, creates an impression that too many people are employed, leading to lay-offs. The salaries also need to be adjusted. The basic salary in GSP amounts to no more than 280 Euros, a sum one cannot make a dignified living of.

Answering the question posed at the beginning of this article, Nikola Antić, the president of the SOS trade union, stated:

What sense is there in painting the buses and handing off large sums of money to private companies, when our buses are completely covered in adds? In effect, only the front and rear end of the busses would be red. We suggested that a painting shop be arranged within GSP, so that the equipment acquired for this purpose could remain in the ownership of GSP. We have good craftsmen. Instead of engaging them, the job is stolen away from them. Our proposition got denied as a costly investment. Expensive public calls are opened instead, and we can guess the winner in advance just by looking at the propositions. All that aside, when the job finally gets appointed, it will temporarily put twenty one vehicles out of use.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Jan 23, 2018.

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