Workers left without important safety net
The law, first adopted in 2018, was pitched to the government by NALED, which gathers dozens of companies in Serbia.
It was criticized previously for the non-contractual hiring of seasonal workers – which was justified under the explanation that it will help tackle tax collection and make the whole procedure easier for employers, and thus also for seasonal workers.
But lawyers say the inclusion of a so called “verbal agreement” for working rights means these workers are legally deprived of any protection from existing labour legislation.
The new amendments now prescribe that the employer must inform workers about their working and hiring terms in written form, but it remains unclear why there is no obligation to sign a proper contract, said Reljanovic.
“This way, control of what they agreed will be much less and workers will not be allowed to complain. Also, they [employers] can agree to more [pay], but then report to the state that they agreed to less,” he explained.
Reljanovic added that with the lower pay that foreigners from some countries are willing to accept, employers will benefit also since they will not pay complete health insurance taxes, but only taxes related to work.
Serbia’s booming construction sector is demanding more and more workers from abroad, especially because Serbian qualified construction workers are leaving the country, dissatisfied with conditions and an average pay of 450 euros a month.
In 2019, 13,802 foreign workers were legally registered in the country. Last year, the figure fell slightly to 12,897, but this was the coronavirus pandemic year.
Most workers come from China, Turkey, Russia and countries in the region, but more and more come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
With the new draft law, construction workers hired under this legislation will not be able to work on the most difficult aspects of construction projects – but unions claim this is just a way to bypass additional checks.
“I am well aware of the violations in this field. The employers will not respect that [provision], and the workers will be sent to do everything else that’s needed,” union president Torlakovic said.
He said that the government is known for adapting legislation to meet the needs of companies, claiming that NALED is their favourite partner.
“When NALED wants something, they get it. They are the cavalry of foreign investors and want to cut their expenses and paperwork,” he said.
NALED has been part of 40 different government working groups on legislative changes, most of them aimed at boosting the investment environment.
Several social rights advocates, who wanted to stay anonymous, told BIRN that the draft law is also not in accordance with Serbia’s constitution, since it is not in line with at least six social rights conventions that Serbia has signed. They said that if the draft law is adopted, they will submit complaints to the Constitutional Court.