Yielding to capital: Serbian Ministry of labour is covering for the employers whose workers died in 2019

Workers on a construction site in Belgrade; Photo: Marko Miletić / Mašina

In the year 2019, declared by the Government of Serbia to be the year of occupational safety and health, more employees died than in 2018, when as many as 53 workers lost their lives. Concurrently, the Ministry of Labour for the first time refused to provide the author of this piece with information concerning the employers who hired the passed away workers, as well as the information regarding the possible violations of labour regulations, although withholding such information contradicts the law on Access to Information of Public Importance, the former Commissioner Rodoljub Šabić pointed out for Mašina.

Occupational safety and health only came under media (and, thus, also politicians’, activists’, and the general public’s) scrutiny in 2018 – and for that to happen 53 people had to die in their workplaces, most of them on construction sites in Serbia. In 2018, primarily during the summer season, construction workers died on the biggest infrastructural projects in the Serbian capital, such as Belgrade Waterfront, but also on the construction site of the Israeli company KMR Developments in Kneza Miloša Street, on the former location of the U.S. Embassy.

Due to the series of fatal injuries and large public interest, the Government of Serbia declared 2019 to be the year of occupational safety and health. However, according to Mašina’s analysis, that proclamation remained no more than an alibi dead letter.

Namely, according to the Labour inspectorate’s official data, there were as many as 54 occupational fatalities last year, one more than in 2018, thus repeating the infamous record of 2006.

According to the Inspectorate, 33 workers died on the spot, 16 passed away from serious injuries sustained at work, while five more were killed due to “collective occupational injuries”.

However, the Inspectorate, i.e. the responsible Ministry of Labour, refused to provide the author of the text with information regarding the time of the workers’ deaths, the identity of the company or the investor whom they worked for, the identity of the employer i.e. the party who engaged the workers formally, as well as to reveal whether the Inspectorate has identified any violations of laws and regulations during the inspection, and have they taken any action, in that case. In their reply the Ministry stated to have withheld answering in order to prevent the media from interfering with the investigation.

The Labour Inspectorate has stated that “In order not to jeopardize the investigation conducted by other competent authorities, the Labour Inspectorate will not provide information on the fatalities, established facts and measures taken in relation to fatal injuries at work, in order not to endanger, limit or hinder the prevention or detection of criminal acts, the charge of a criminal offense, the conduct of pre-criminal proceedings, the conduct of court proceedings, the execution of a judgment or the enforcement of a sentence, or any other legally regulated procedure, or fair treatment and a fair trial“.

Such an answer is unusual for several reasons. Firstly, because it represents a kind of a precedent. Namely, the Labour Inspectorate has answered identical questions and provided identical type of information to the author and the public over the past two years. Secondly, because withholding this information is a violation of the Law on Access to Information of Public Importance, on account of which we will also appeal to the Commissioner.

The Former Commissioner for Information of Public Importance, Rodoljub Šabić, stated for Mašina that the information we asked for was “by definition” information of public importance, and that the violation of the law is in this case unambiguous.

The stated reason for withholding the information you asked for is completely arbitrary and essentially meaningless. If there was really any particular reason, they were obliged to state it. This is by definition information of public importance, and you should complain to the current Commissioner, Šabić points out.

Asked whether the Inspectorate is hiding this information to protect employers, Šabić replies that the Ministry’s answer “gives reason for doubts”.

The Inspectorate’s decision not to provide this particular information is indicative. But, I wouldn’t speculate the motives. In Serbia, there is a trend in almost all areas to hide information from citizens that by their nature should be made publicly available, Šabić explains.

Saša Torlaković, president of the Trade Union of Construction Workers and Building Materials Industry of Serbia, points out for Mašina that he is surprised by this move on the part of the Labour Inspectorate. He added that all information regarding direct offences by employers should be made public.

Such a response from the Inspection surprises me, given that we have had good cooperation so far with regard to transparency. I would make every case of occupational fatality public; especially in situations where clandestine workers die. This is a piece of information that must be made public and it already calls for a misdemeanour fine of two million dinars, sais Torlaković.

He adds that “capitalists are too strong in Serbia”, and emphasizes the role of the Foreign Investors Council, claiming that it influences the making of all laws in our country.

Protecting the workers or the employers?

We aim to protect workers. We want to show the state’s determination to fight those who abuse and avoid the law, stated Minister Zoran Đorđević in early 2019, decisively announcing the year of occupational safety and health.

However, his actions so far show that he is more prone to protecting investors and complying with their demands. When two workers died at the Belgrade Waterfront construction site it was the investor, instead of the Labour Inspectorate, who declared that everything had been done according to the regulations. The Minister justified the inspectorate’s “abdication” with the investor’s alleged truthfulness – i.e. their statement that all regulations had been respected – concluding that further inspection was uncalled for.

The latest concealment of information (requested by Mašina‘s journalist) on those investors and employers who had engaged the 54 workers (who died during 2019) is merely a step in turning the state into a service facility for large and/or eligible capital.

At the beginning of 2019, the Minister announced two new laws designed to protect the workers to be adopted by the end of the year: the amended Law on Safety and Health at Work, as well as the Law on Insurance of Workers against Injuries. The latter would oblige employers to provide injury insurance at insurance companies to all their workers, thus avoiding long and ineffective litigation and allowing the workers to get insurance payout immediately after an accident.

Photo: Marko Miletić / Mašina

However, neither the laws have been enacted, nor has the trend of number of workers’ deaths in Serbia been halted.

Saša Torlaković comments that the new Law on Safety and Health at Work has not been adopted yet because the working group has not reached an agreement; that is, because the union’s proposal to introduce a “union inspector”, that would also control occupational safety, wasn’t accepted.

That proposal was probably declined because they fear that we will discover a lot of clandestine workers. They say – have the workers ask for a Security Committee to be formed. That is an empty phrase, since the employer will only tell the worker to go home and form a committee there, Torlaković explains.

He states that both laws will still be an improvement for workers, and he hopes that they will be passed this year.

There are important provisions there, such as closing a construction site for three days, which creates a serious cost cost for the employer, said Torlaković.

No punishment for deaths, no one mentions disabled workers

However, one of the main reasons why safety at work is at an extremely low level is because there are almost no penalties for those responsible.

It is also absurd that an employer will pay twice as much for engaging clandestine workers than if an employee of theirs is fatally injured at work. At the same time hardly anyone is found responsible for workers’ deaths. Although the Penal Code envisages prison sentences of two to 12 years for a person responsible for the death of a worker, in the last nine years only two sentences have been imposed – both only one year long.

I am convinced that if someone who was directly guilty of one’s death were punished the way the law provided – a prison sentence of at least five or 10 years – many things in this country would be different, and that those entering into that type of business would be much more cautious and paid more attention to everything that actually caused people to get killed, Labour Inspector Stevan Đurovic said last year.

However, for the time being there is no progress. Between 2006 and early 2020, 580 people died in the workplace, mostly in civic construction. One of the reasons behind the ever gloomier statistics of deaths on construction sites is the fact that skilled construction workers are leaving the country, leaving their jobs to the inexperienced and untrained people. Also, employers don’t feel obliged to take care of the people who create surplus value for them.

These days, they hire anyone to work on a construction site. It’s horrible. Everyone skilled left the country. No one will risk there life for peanuts when they can earn multiple times more, explains the president of the union of construction workers Saša Torlaković.

In addition to the large number of deaths, thousands of workers have suffered severe bodily injuries that have prevented them from practicing physical work for life.

In 2019 alone, 814 people were seriously injured at work, and 72 more suffered minor injuries, according to the Labour Inspectorate, which is also an increase in comparison to the previous year.

These people are disabled for life, but nobody ever mentions them. They can no longer work and support their families. It is an incredible loss for them and their loved ones, but also for the state itself – imagine how many lost working hours that is. But, nobody cares, Torlaković concludes.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Jan 29, 2020.

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