Serbian workers rebel against foreign bosses

Qualified, cheap and little protected by law -- Serbian workers have everything to please foreign multinationals, but many complain about poor working conditions and unpaid benefits (AFP Photo/NEBOJSA RAUS) (AFP/File)

Belgrade (AFP) - Qualified, cheap and little protected by law -- Serbian workers have everything to please foreign multinationals.

But discontent is growing among employees of such companies in the Balkan country, a candidate for European Union membership.

A three-week strike at a Fiat car-making plant from late June was particularly telling: the factory's 2,400 employees in Kragujevac, a city in central Serbia, sought a wage increase of over 18 percent.

While such a raise might seem steep, it would only have put their salary at 45,000 dinars (379 euros) a month -- below the average wage in the former Yugoslav republic, which in July this year was around 400 euros.

The strike was the first crisis for Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, a 41-year-old technocrat, who took over in June. She warned the unions that Fiat would not negotiate as long as the strike continued.

The Serbian venture is a joint enterprise, 67 percent owned by Fiat and 33 percent by the state.

The Italian manufacturer remained silent over the industrial action, letting rumours spread of its departure from Serbia, where it has had a presence since the 1950s.

Such a move would be a worrying prospect for the country of around seven million people and a double-digit unemployment rate.

Fiat's exports, worth 382.2 million euros ($454 million) in the first quarter of the year, account for three percent of Serbia's gross domestic product, according to the national statistics office.

Talks between the unions and the management eventually resulted in a deal on a wage increase indexed to the projected inflation rate -- 4.5 percent for 2018.

But Ranka Savic, leader of the Association of Free and Independent Trade Unions, was not satisfied, saying the state "allows the multinationals to do what they want so it can brag about a historic hiring rate".

Serbia offers employment subsidies and tax exemptions to attract foreign investors to the country. The Foreign Investors Council declined to comment to AFP.

- Afraid to go public -

Beyond Fiat's strike, local media regularly report tales of late wages, "forgotten" social security payments, unpaid overtime and disastrous working conditions.

South Korea's Yura Corporation, which specialises in car electronics components, was at the centre of media attacks last year, with reports of abuse, harassment and refusing to let workers go to the toilet at its factory in Leskovac in southern Serbia.

The story of an unmarried mother suffering from a tumour, whose contract had not been extended, aroused strong emotions in the country.

Yura, contacted by AFP by email, did not comment. Serbia's labour inspectorate said it did not find any trace of "behaviour contrary to the rules".

But workers are "too afraid to publicly confirm these accusations", said Biljana Stepanovic, editor-in-chief of the Nova Ekonomija ("New Economy") magazine.

Savic said workers were afraid of "losing the little wages they earn" in a country where unemployment insurance benefits are extremely low.

This is especially true in deprived southern areas of Serbia.

But the 300 workers at the Gosa railway carriage factory in Smederevska Palanka, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Belgrade, feel they have little left to lose.

Unpaid since the start of the year and on strike since the spring, the workers recently protested in Belgrade, calling on the government to help them.

In March, one of their colleagues, 56-year-old Dragan Mladenovic, hanged himself in the factory, local media reported.

- 'Crushed working class' -

After acquiring the Gosa factory in 2007, Slovakia's ZOS Trnava sold it in April to a small Cypriot company based in Nicosia. Neither company would comment to AFP on the issue.

"At first it was okay, but from year to year our wages have decreased to the bare minimum and our obligations have multiplied," said worker Dobrica Stevanovic.

"In the end, they stopped paying our wages," the 60-year-old told AFP.

He cannot retire as ZOS Trnava did not pay the necessary social security contributions, according to trade unions.

The Gosa factory workers "are the symbol of a crushed working class", said Bosko Obradovic, leader of the right-wing traditionalist party Dveri.

"The problem is that the state let it happen," he said.

Editor Stepanovic questioned why investors would make the effort "if President (Aleksandar Vucic) boasts about cheap labour himself".

"People are at the end of their tether."