A gold mine – this is how prime minister Ana Brnabić repeatedly described the growing IT sector in Serbia. Although this branch of Serbian economy is still in its infancy in comparison to many other European countries, the fact that profits and number of employees are increasing gives officials opportunity to talk about a bright future and a need to invest in the IT industry.
A research conducted by the Vojvodina ICT cluster, an association of IT companies for cooperation and lobbying, shows that currently about 30,000 people work in the IT sector in Serbia – twice as many than in 2013, when the first research was done.
In the last seven years, the industry has recorded an average growth of 15% per year. If circumstances don’t change significantly in the near future double-digit growth can be reasonably expected, translating to more than 50,000 employees in this sector, the research concludes.
Labour rights in the IT industry have long been treated as a taboo also in countries where this sector is much more developed than in Serbia, but this is slowly changing.
At the beginning of the year, employees of Google, one of the largest IT companies, formed their union. When it comes to our region example is set by Romania, which has a larger IT sector than Serbia and a significant level of unionization. T
he Timisoara IT Trade Union (SITT) gathers more than 4,000 workers in over twenty companies, out of which it is representative in at least eight. SITT was founded in 2009. So far they have successfully negotiated for eighteen collective bargaining agreements in various companies.
Do “software developers” in Serbia need unions?
The entire domestic IT industry is in private ownership and unionisation is virtually non existent, but that doesn’t mean that workers in this sector don’t face problems that unions could tackle.
Although most people think that IT workers live much better than the majority of the population, the perspective changes when their earnings are viewed in comparison to the huge profits the owners of IT companies make.
Most of the domestic IT companies don’t have their own development products, rather they perform outsourced tasks for foreign markets. It’s in the interest of the companies’ owners to lower costs and raise the price of the projects they negotiate for as much as possible.
It’s not uncommon for the employees to be expected to stay longer at work without overtime pay in order to meet the deadlines agreed upon by the companies’ owners. In addition, IT workers are not themselves immune to officially work for minimum wages and receive the rest of their earnings in cash.
The turnover of workers in the IT sector is relatively high, but this doesn’t tell that much about employment opportunities as it reveals the overload workers are burdened with for the sake of maximizing profits. Although IT companies often boast a “different business culture” compared to classic corporate relations, members of Unitech state for Mašina that such “different” relations are maintained only until any problems arise – then a clear hierarchy emerges that puts workers’ rights last.
IT employees also face a big problem in the form of the so-called “non-compete clause” which often appears in their employment contracts. Based on this clause workers may be prohibited from working for another employer or performing certain types of work for another employer, often for years after they stop working for a company. Although the “non-compete clause” clause is legally regulated, it usually remains vaguely defined in the contracts, which causes problems for many workers.
“Managing remote employees”
The coronavirus pandemic introduced teleworking on a large scale. It was perhaps least troublesome for the IT sector to adapt to the new circumstances, so most of the workers brought their work home.
Talking with IT workers, members of the Unitech union learned that a large number of IT companies do not pay their employees work related expenses, i.e. electricity or internet bills, while some companies even stopped paying the non-taxable part of the salary intended for transportation.
“Managing remote employees” is also problematic. In addition to the already tried and tested methods of installing cameras in employees’ homes, which are used by logistics companies and call centres, IT companies monitor their employees by using various types of software that traces mouse movements, keyboard activity and the like (which we wrote about earlier).
As the domestic IT industry grows, the problems the workers in the sector face will multiply; and, although these problems are experienced on an individual level, international experience shows that they can only be permanently solved if dealt with collectively.
Translation: Iskra Krstić
This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on April 23, 2020.