You need young workers with no labour rights? Join the “My first salary” government programme

Photo: Nemanja Jovanović / Kamerades

Serbian government once again excelled at supporting youth employment. The “My first salary” government programme, implemented by the National Employment Service, provides companies with cheap labour force, besides being dubiously legal.

According to the official internet page, the “My first salary” government programme is meant to act as a youth employment incentive and support the national economy, struggling with lack of educated employees. Ten thousand young people, who have just completed high schools and faculties will be given a chance to work in a company in Serbia.

However, it is hard to tell what exactly does the programme encourage and which problems will be solved by the incentive worth roughly 17 million Euros from the state budget.

Mario Reljanović, a labour rights expert, commented for Danas that the legal basis for the Decree on the Youth Employment Incentive “My First Salary” is unclear, together with the type of agreements the programme entrants will sign with the employer.

When asked by our journalist about the type of contract on the basis of which young people will be hired, the relevant authorities at NES answered that the service, the employer and the selected candidate will sign a tripartite agreement on regulating mutual rights and obligations.

The young people who will take part in the “My First Salary” programme – which will be implemented outside the labour legislative – will be exposed to working conditions that do not even meet the existing, reduced labour law standards. In addition to receiving compensation lower than the minimum wage, the working hours that young people will invest will not be recognized as reckonable service:

Their labour will not be recognized as reckonable service, they will only have partial health insurance covering occupational diseases and they will receive compensation lower than the minimum wage. They won’t have a right to a vacation, and other rights; the employer can engage an intern and thus get an employee at an otherwise highly paid position for free, explained Reljanović for Danas.

Photo: Nemanja Jovanović / Kamerades

After the intern will have worked for a company for 9 months, as anticipated by the programme, the employer will no longer have any obligations to the person engaged through “My first salary”. It is also questionable whether the employer will invest anything in this programme:

As for the question of how much will the expected investments of employers be, at this moment we cannot give any predictions, considering that there is a possibility that the employer will pay additional means – but this will be known no earlier than the moment of signing the contract, the NES answered Mašina’s question.

The Youth Section of the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia also warns of the problems hidden in the existing programme design. They generally welcome the Government’s desire to contribute to the situation young people find themselves in, but also warn that this programme was launched outside the Law on the Social and Economic Council (SES): “The Decree hasn’t been submitted to SES for consideration, nor have social partners, trade unions and employers had prior insight”, their announcement states.

In addition to the problems that Mario Reljanović talked about in the media, the young trade unionists pay special attention to the issue of the amount of earnings:

It is necessary to expand the Article 4 of the Decree so that the employer will be obliged to pay the difference to the beneficiary of the Programme up to the amount of the minimum wage. Also, the employer must provide the user with a compensation for hot meal and transportation. Otherwise, the worker, the beneficiary of the Programme who receives a compensation of 170€ will “earn” about 130€, even if they consume the most modest diet. Is that the salary that the Government promotes for its citizens? Is the amount of 200€ enough to live on at a time when the minimum consumer basket for March is 320€?

Years of wrong policies

Such issues in a programme for encouraging youth employment makes one ask whether they represent  accidental failures of the Government, or a failed policy –  that is, a failed one if we assume that it’s meant to protect the interest of young people to gain long-term security and live with dignity.

Still, the fact that this is not the first time that the Government has responded to the issue of youth employment with a disservice for this social group – that is, by enabling exploitation of young people, and getting them used to insecure, low-paid jobs and relations with employers in which they are denied the right to decent work – suggests that the problems are not accidental, but systemic.

The decade-old “First Chance” programme was burdened with similar issues, and, crucially, it also didn’t provide a solution to the question of secure youth employment.

On this occasion it is worth to remember the promotion of youth volunteering in Serbia, which we wrote about in detail earlier. At that time we pointed out the function of volunteering as a practice for young people to get used to unpaid work.

When it comes to youth employment, we can’t skip the government’s long-standing reform favourite – the dual education model. That programme also didn’t inspire much hope for the improvement of young people’s standard of living. Earlier, we wrote that the “success” of dual education will primarily be a further reduction of labour costs, from which only private companies will benefit.

Indications of employment policy that would enable safe and dignified employment of young people are not found in the National Youth Strategy, which was adopted in 2015. The strategy focused mainly on the individualisation of responsibility for employment and placed emphasis on entrepreneurship and self-employment – certainly without a critical approach that would show realistic opportunities for young people to secure a stable future for themselves as entrepreneurs and self-employed.

Having in mind this series of decisions authorities made regarding the employment of young people in the past years, we can justifiably assume that the Government considers “My first salary” to be burdened with no issues. A race to the bottom, aka increased cheapening of the price of labour, is a policy that the Government pursues consistently, and the attitude towards the real needs and actual social position of young people doesn’t reach beyond the election slogan “For our children”.

A.J., M.M.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Aug 21, 2020.

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