Fatal accidents at Belgrade Waterfront construction site – interview with a witness

At the gate of Belgrade Waterfrontt; Foto: Miloš Vučković / Radnik.rs

Masina’s journalists managed to talk with a worker engaged at the Parkview construction site, who witnessed a tragedy in which the lives of two of his co-workers were lost. According to his words the working conditions at the Belgrade waterfront construction site are terrible, there are workers without employment contracts, and the labour inspection announces its arrival beforehand.

For a long time now the Serbian media has kept silent about the accident at the Belgrade waterfront construction site, in which the lives of two workers were lost. The case remains obscure, although the police stated that they will “use all their powers to bring the circumstances of their death to light”, while the labour inspection abdicated its jurisdiction up front, outsourcing it to the Serbian-Arabian company Belgrade waterfront. The Sava amphitheatre – part of the city of Belgrade where the Belgrade waterfront development is rising – still echoes the words of the head of the relevant ministry Zoran Đorđević, who stated that the labour inspection had no reason to address the public in relation to the accident – though they did so in every previous case – because the company, as the minister stated, had disclosed “full information” on the subject. With this appalling statement, given in the fashion of the head of the PR department of the powerful corporation, minister Đorđević exposed the practical repercussions of the position that Lex specialis had long ago placed Belgrade waterfront in: it stands above Serbian laws and is in fact extraterritorial. This project of “national significance” is, as it turns out, completely supranational, and unsuitable journalists as well as investigation officers are denied access to the luxurious settlement.

Đorđević plays a perverted version of the role of Dragutin Gavrilović, a Serbian army major who took part in the defence of the capital in the First world war, telling the workers, whose lives he should be the guardian of, that they are, in fact – “erased”.

It is as if minister Đorđević paraphrased Gavrilović’s famous speech to the defenders of Belgrade, saying: “Workers, labourers… The supreme command has erased your working collective from its records. Our regiment has been sacrificed to the honour of Belgrade waterfront and the Fatherland… Therefore, you no longer need to worry about your lives: they no longer exist”, collaborating thus with those he should by law be overseeing.

The accident itself, in which two workers (aged 25 and 47) died by falling from the 22nd floor, has been the most dramatic accident at the construction site so far. A story of Turkish workers who went on strike because of unpaid wages briefly drew public attention last summer, and there have been rumours that the quality of construction is bad and that there were some malversationswith use permits. However, sound information rarely leaves this “forbidden city”, given the fact that the development is a pet project of the ruling political nomenklatura, and that those engaged on it refuse to address the public out of fear of job loss or worse.

Masina’s journalists managed to talk with a worker engaged at the Parkview construction site, who witnessed a tragedy in which the lives of two of his co-workers were lost. He agreed to answer questions, but asked that a pseudonym be used since “there aren’t a lot of people with the same names here”. According to his words, the picture of the majestic, iconic project of “progressive” Serbia doesn’t seem so glamorous from the point of view of those who erect it. Their picture is sketched out by firm contours of labour exploitation, work engagement without employment contracts, disrespect of rules and regulations and inspection controls announced in advance.

How did the two of your colleagues lose their lives?

The tragedy occurred between 9:30 and 9:40. We were at the B tower at the moment of the accident, right there where they fell. Soon the whole building was in panic. The workers without contracts were chased off the site by the employers. The place of the fall was marked by a band used during construction. You couldn’t come near the casualties, but you could see the place of the accident from any window. The workers laid motionless. Their legs were broken from the fall. The femur bones stuck out of one man’s trousers, while the other’s legs were bended to the side. The fall was fatal. A formwork plank, so-called “blažujka”, laid next to them. Allegedly, its breaking caused their fall. Why did they go up there, when the platform was unfinished, is a question only their supervisors can answer. It’s impossible that they didn’t know that the platform was unfinished, since everybody knows the schedule of certain construction operations. The site was working soon after the accident. The place of the fall, 22nd level and everything beneath it was maximally secured after that. Had it been so since the very beginning, the accident would have been avoided.

Have there been accidents or injuries before, during the erection of Belgrade waterfront?

Injuries happen from time to time. Somebody falls, cuts himself… It’s usually nothing serious, but it still gets hidden. The procedures are avoided by saying that the worker in question hurt himself at home. Then you don’t need the report on injury at work and other documentation. The worker gets paid 100% sick leave, according to the law, but he doesn’t receive the insurance payout, since he lacks the needed documentation. Obligations toward the workers are avoided in every possible way. Everything is simply stuck under the rug, avoiding different kind of inspections, which announce their arrival beforehand anyway. We always know when the labour inspection will come, so most workers of Roma nationalities then leave the cite to avoid controls. These inspections are a joke, they are a smokescreen.

Are there many workers without contracts?

There are workers engaged without contract. This was particularly obvious after the accident, you could see how many of the workers were missing. The site was almost empty. Most of them are Roma doing the physical labour. They often bring the other workers in danger in the course of their work. They raise so much dust in the air while they clean, that sometimes you can’t see your way in a corridor. The dust comes from different construction materials, such as cement, plaster, glass wool particles, etc. Their working conditions become our problem too, affecting our health. We often meet with them and talk. They earn 1750 RSD ( less then 15 Euro) a day. Some of them also have meals included, while the others don’t. They say that they receive social benefits, and that this is a good side job, but they work without contracts.All of them dream about taking asylum in Germany. This is something they often discuss between themselves.

Last summer the public found out that there are Turkish workers on the site. Do you know about some other foreign citizens there? Do they have contracts?

There are workers from different parts of Serbia on the construction site. Some of them speak other languages, which I can’t understand. I cannot claim for certain whether they are foreign citizens, or minorities. I know that there are Albanians and Roma people. I know for a fact that a lot of the Roma are working without contracts, but I have no contact with the Albanians, so I don’t know their situation. There is a construction site nearby, close to the Gazela bridge. Some 50 workers, Turkish citizens, used to be driven there by bus. I know that because some of the workers complained that there isn’t enough work for our citizens as it is, but the employers still bring foreigners to work for them.

How would you describe the working conditions?

In short, the working conditions are terrible. The hygiene is bellow standard. It’s dirty. The toilets, the so-called “toi-toi”, are far apart, which makes it difficult to reach them. Many workers urinate in the same area where they work, so that everything smells of urine. It’s hard to get to the toilet, because the elevator that drives the workers frequently gets occupied by loading. It’s simply impossible to come down in time, which makes the workers make do in different ways. We were often forced to work in areaswhere several people relieved themselves.

Do the workers oblige the safety procedures?

It depends. Personally, I oblige to safety procedures for my own safety, not because of the employers, or in fear of a penalty. I try to prevent bringing myself or another person in danger in any way. Many workers don’t use personal protective equipment. For instance, cutting concrete makes a noise which affects everybody around. Although I don’t do that job, I can say that the noise is so strong it makes your ears buzz. The workers who do the cutting often don’t use the antiphons for noise protection. Often danger originates from third parties who do their job unprofessionally. It happened that pieces of concrete, stones, planks and other object fall around us, without us knowing what goes on.

The safety helmet can protect you from small object, but there is no protection from object weighing few kilograms. There are construction fences on the site, placed to protect the workers from falling off a high platform, or falling into shafts. However, it happens that those fences are removed, and not put back in place later, though it is stated everywhere that they have to be put back in place.

What is your salary? Do you work overtime?

The salary is small, under the state median. We work on Saturdays, though the contract states otherwise. The contract obliges us to a 40 hours working week, and we work more than 60 hours. When everything is accounted, I get 50 000 RSD ( around 420Euro) a month. Half of that goes through my bank account and the other half is paid personally. For this reason our credit score is lousy. We don’t have meals, so that presents an additional expenditure.I hope that this doesn’t last for long, and that I will have a chance to move abroad. There is no perspective to this.

The three year’s long construction of Belgrade waterfront, a monument to the absolutist rule of Aleksandar Vučić, has justified all of the fears stated by its criticizers. The lack of transparency, the bending of legal procedures, the demolishing done by people wearing balaclavas, the deprvation of freedom of movement, the violation of rights of local and foreign workers…

Where, as the creator of the project stated, “ brushwood, thorns, snakes, rats and junkies” used to rule, now grows a giant corporative bulge of neoliberal “enlightenment” of the Serbian Progressive party, slowly but steadily. The corrupt condominium in which the cheapest apartment costs 156 000 Euros. An armoured ghetto of the local and foreign oligarchy in which the plain person can be repressed, underpaid – and built into its foundations.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Nov 13, 2018.

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