The Center for Democracy Foundation (FCD) and the United Nations Office for Human Rights published an analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on the position and rights of workers in Serbia, authored by Sarita Bradaš, Mario Reljanović and Ivan Sekulović. Compared to the state of emergency declared in 2003 and 2014, this year’s has had the biggest impact on workers’ rights so far. The government didn’t justify its decisions that restricted human rights, nor did it inform international bodies in a legally prescribed manner. Not only did all that intensify a sense of insecurity among workers, but also put them in an even more vulnerable position in relation to employers. This is best illustrated by the statements of union representatives published in this survey:
Who got the worst of it?
All those who worked in Serbia during the state of emergency experienced negative impact on their constitutionally guaranteed right to work. However, it can be said that those who had to continue working on the employer’s premises got the worst of it. Among them, the most endangered were those on the frontline, in residential healthcare and social welfare facilities, who, directly or indirectly, were subjected to compulsory work. Healthcare workers (according to the data for 2019, there are a total of 131.700 healthcare professionals in Serbia, including 100.700 women) were exposed to a huge risk to get infected due to the lack of protective equipment (it has even been documented that directors of healthcare institutions banned protective equipment).
The government did not help reduce the workload health professionals needed to carry due to the large influx of infected people, but actively undermined their rights instead; for example, when it decided to introduce an oral work order for compulsory labour.
Those employed in social welfare facilities have experienced the introduction of isolation in the event of an outbreak at their workplaces. As if that wasn’t enough, the government and the relevant minister basically assigned them to compulsory labour by issuing decisions, such as the one on “voluntary” 15-hour long shift work. Other frontline workers were also at risk – those working in groceries and supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, city maintenance, post office, courier services, as well as those in factories and other production and service facilities. All of them were put at risk by the employers’, but also the clients’, non-compliance with regulations on safety and health at work. A particular problem that affected them all was the lack of public transport, as well as unfavourable health security conditions in it.
The second group of the most endangered workers is represented by those who switched to work from home (according to the estimates of the analysis’ authors, that’s less than 15% of the total number of employees), and had to perform family duties at the same time. The government didn’t proactively protect their right to favourable and fair working conditions, but abruptly repeated the provisions of the Labour Law that refer to work outside the employer’s premises in its decisions instead. Not only that all employers could and should have been made legally obliged to adhere to higher standards, but this should have especially applied to particularly vulnerable categories of employees, such as single parents. In Montenegro, for example, paid leave had been provided to one of the parents of children up to eleven years of age while kindergartens and schools were closed.
The third most endangered group comprises of workers in the informal economy, such as collectors of secondary raw materials (more than half of whom – 54.5% – work every day of the week). Also, the latest data show that during the state of emergency most of the informally employed people who have an employer lost their income because they were sent on unpaid forced leave (45.2%), or lost their job (17.5%). All already existing risk factors were accentuated by the outbreak of the epidemic – uncertain employment status, lack of protective equipment, lack of social security, etc. Those older than 65 or 70 have perhaps been in the worst position, particularly those with no retirement pension who still have to earn for a living, because they were completely forbidden to move outside.
Labour inspections failed, courts stopped
During the state of emergency, the Labour Inspectorate conducted only 1,572 inspections, far less than in regular circumstances, although, on the contrary, the circumstances required even more intensive inspections. The lack of political support and the weakened capacities of this body (which has 20% less inspectors than ten years ago) came to the fore when the workers needed its protection the most. This was best seen in the case of the „Jura“ company, against whose management the inspection did not file a misdemeanour report, although it determined misdemeanour during supervision.
The workers could not ask the courts for a temporary measure as means of protection from, say, illegal dismissal or harassment at work, because the Government passed a decree which froze some deadlines for taking procedural actions. The Ministry of Labour mostly failed to act proactively: for instance, the “E-guide on employee rights” has been launched only after the state of emergency was lifted. The government did nothing to protect the employees who got infected at work, and who suffered a reduction in wages by 35%, but only recommended that the employers provide them with 100% of their salaries. What is positive is that the amendments to four special collective agreements for employees of the state administration have been adopted during the state of emergency, enabling them to receive full salary.
On the other hand, the government has generously helped employers and the economy in general. At the same time, it did not take into account that its measures would in fact discriminate against the weakest, namely small and medium enterprises, as well as the sectors of tourism and catering, which needed additional support to preserve jobs. In addition, the fact that employers were not allowed to lay off more than 10% of permanent employees in order to receive financial assistance from the state has led to an unequal treatment of temporary employees and those working without an agreement. This is not surprising, given that unions weren’t consulted when the measures were defined, while the employers were. The Socio-Economic Council rejected the request of United Branch Trade Union „Independence“ to make it difficult for employers to make collective dismissals during the state of emergency. Due to all that, the unions estimate that the space for their activities has been additionally narrowed during the state of emergency, which is best illustrated by the case of the arrest of a union member in the „Jura“ factory in Nis.
What needs to be urgently changed, and what is to be changed gradually?
Much needs to be done to prevent a repeat of the breakdown of labour rights that occurred during the last state of emergency. The recommendations listed by the authors of the analysis include urgent measures, as well as short-term and medium-term measures. When it comes to the first group, it is recommended to legally regulate compulsory work during the state of emergency, e.g. by adopting a special law or amending the Law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Emergency Management. In any case, the Ministry of Labour would have to propose provisions prescribing how those who are being appointed to compulsory labour could exercise their labour rights.
In the short and medium term, collectors of secondary raw materials should be provided with alternative ways of working within the formal economy, in order to exercise all rights regarding social security and social protection. National and local strategies regulating public transport in the case of an epidemic are necessary. The rights of workers engaged in the social security system should be additionally protected, given that many of them work outside the formal sector and in low-paid jobs.
Law should regulate becoming infected in the workplace and oblige employers to fully compensate the workers who do. The Labour Law should also be amended to make it more difficult to terminate employment contracts in the event of redundancies during a state of emergency. Finally, given that application of labour standards is completely impossible without independent and trained inspection bodies, it is recommended to strengthen the capacity of the Labour Inspectorate.
Furthermore, work outside employer’s premises should be regulated in more detail, in accordance with European standards in that area. As one of the possible new solutions, it is proposed to make employers obligated by law to organise that employees work from home in case that an emergency situation or a state of emergency is declared due to an epidemic. In the coming period, the most important thing is to provide targeted financial assistance to particularly affected categories of workers, such as those working in the informal economy and the socially disadvantaged. It is urgently necessary to provide basic living and hygienic conditions and means of protection at work for collectors of secondary raw materials. Finally, a special state reserve of medical and protective equipment should be created in order to protect the safety and health at work of all workers.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Oct 22, 2020.