• 2020-07-17

Frontline Workers - Women, Trade Unions and the Crisis

Why do we need trade unions? How can we increase the participation of women in trade unions and provide them with support during the current crisis, which has rendered the role of women in the labour market particularly vulnerable? Report from our online workshop held 17 July 2020. 41 participants partook in the workshop.

According to the latest data from the Monitoring report on measures introduced during the state of emergency in the areas of social policies and employment, public health and consumer protection and education prepared by the National Convention on the European Union (NCEU), a staggeringly large number of frontline employees are women, as many as 86% in fact. 

The Center for Democracy Foundation participated in the drafting of this document in the name of the National Convention Working Group - Working Group for the Negotiations of Chapters 2 and 19 - Social Policy and Employment. The document provides an overview of measures relevant to the fields of social policy and employment, including the application of measures and their consequences on the labour market and labour and social rights. Data collected during the state of emergency indicate that women found themselves in a particularly vulnerable category, due to the type of work they performed and the conditions they worked in, where health and safety standards in the workplace were not adhered to, and as a result of special circumstances which limited or prevented the availability of childcare.

These data were just one of the reasons we decided to hold an online workshop entitled Frontline Workers - Women, Trade Unions and the Crisis held 17 July 2020.

What needs to be done in order for a greater number of women to become unionised? What new and urgent measures need to be enforced to ensure women’s right in the labour market during times of crisis? How can we ensure health and safety in the workplace for women who are frontline employees, and how can we define the legal framework in order to improve working conditions outside of employers’ premises?

These issues were addressed by: Ivana Pavlović (United Branch Trade Union Independence), President Dr Radmila Obrenović (Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia), Zorica Stevanović (Žene na prekretnici [in English: Women Reaching Milestones]) and Nataša Vučković (Center for Democracy Foundation). The discussion was moderated by Aleksandra Vidanović (Center for Democracy Foundation).

Radmila Obrenović (SSSS) - Sticking together, changing the rules, building our own professional power, demonstrating the power of women!

This is the slogan under which women in trade unions continue to fight for labour rights. At the start of the discussion, Dr Radmila Obrenović shared her experiences on the front line, as a trade union activist and a medical doctor and member of staff at the Clinical Centre of Serbia.

The epidemic has exacerbated the issues of health and safety in the workplace. It is very important that employers control the application of the Health and Safety Rules of Procedure, and to ensure that staff are educated, as occupational safety is, in part, their responsibility.

In her opinion, a widespread campaign is necessary to fight for better salaries for frontline workers. For this reason, an entire series of seminars have been initiated to increase awareness on this issue, a campaign has been prepared and the necessary measures have been undertaken to bridge salary gaps, she informed us. She highlighted that this fact cannot be considered from the point of view of the Decree on Salaries, according to which the coefficient for both men and women is the same for the same type of work. We shouldn’t be talking about salaries, but about what is actually taken home. Firstly, men are employed in managerial positions. For the most part, men hold managerial positions, except at the level of healthcare centres. In terms of overtime, on-call hours which are paid more, men are much more available to work during these hours than women. Furthermore, women are much more likely to take sick leave to care for sick children, and when this happens their earnings are cut, which also has an adverse effect on pension amounts.

We know that even before the crisis, women were discriminated against in the labour market. Despite the ILO Declaration, in practice, safety is lacking, access to employment is non-existent, there is no health and safety in the workplace and salaries do not cover the cost of a decent living. This is why the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia advocates for a model that provides the additional protection necessary for women. Primarily, this means harmonising work obligations with the roles of women in the family.

In addition, she highlighted that the epidemic has clearly shown the importance of the public sector, most evidently in terms of healthcare. With a crisis of these proportions, we have no hope of persevering without a strong system of hospitals, pharmacies and well-organised primary healthcare. Furthermore, greater support is needed for social welfare systems, especially in terms of caring for the elderly and the welfare of children. She pointed out that the weaknesses of the public sector most often affect women, as they are the ones who are most often left without an income or their incomes are reduced. This is why it is necessary to fight for good collective agreements, where occupational health and safety play an important role. We cannot allow a similar situation in the future to leave us unprepared. The trade union will play an enormous part in this.

Finally, Radmila Obrenović summarised that the requests for full employment, occupational safety, salary equality, investing in social welfare and the public sector are the most important investments that will benefit women and are conditions of social and economic development.

Aleksandra Vidanović (FCD) – Prohibiting salary discrimination between men and women performing the same jobs or jobs of the same value is a huge topic

The Government of Iceland was the first to ban the discrimination of women’s salaries by law, Vidanović highlighted, emphasising the enormity of the topic, one that requires more attention. Related to this is the dominance of men in managerial and executive positions in the healthcare and other sectors.

She also pointed out it was evident that violations of labour rights worsened during the pandemic, and discrimination in the workplace is a serious form of violence that women often turn a blind eye to, so as not to be left without an income.

Ivana Pavlović (UBTU Independence) – To define Article 42 of the Employment Act more specifically, as this Article regulates working from home

As the legal representative of UBTU Independence, Ivana Pavlović presented from a legal aspect, the trade union’s activities during the state of emergency and provided examples that illustrated the situation in the field. UBTU Independence was available to its members for this entire period in terms of protecting labour rights, despite their having to work from home. In considering the situation during this period, she stated that the rule of law was seriously vulnerable. As a social partner, from the very start UBTU Independence called for the protection of the constitutional order and insisted that the RS Constitution be respected, in particular Article 4, which refers to the division of power, whether violated intentionally or out of ignorance.

In terms of the trade union’s significance, it has demonstrated itself to be of vital importance, not only during the state of emergency but as the only legitimate protector of the workforce. The crisis has shown that trade union activities and organisation must be raised to a higher level. The numerous examples of labour rights’ violations are a huge disappointment. In addition to reported cases, employers, especially those in the private sector, did not hesitate to initiate disciplinary action against their staff. An example of which is one recorded case of a woman employed in a company that manufactures orthopaedic aids. As someone who suffers from a chronic illness, she left her post in order to take her daily dose of medication and a disciplinary report was filed against her for allegedly failing to adhere to the measures. A second, specific case took place at the Institute of Neonatology, concerning the Decree on Organising the Activity of Employers During the State of Emergency, as well as the recommendations of the competent Ministry from March 24, 2020. Pursuant to this Decree, an employed woman with children up to the age of 12 is able to work from home if her spouse is engaged in employment deemed necessary during the state of emergency. The client fulfilled the criteria, and submitted documentation stating that she is a mother of two, 11 and 4 years of age. She was employed in accounting, working with an installed programme, meaning that she fulfilled the criteria to work from home. The employer filed a disciplinary report because she had not shown up for work at the employer’s premises, stating she had not been granted sick leave. She was penalised with a salary cut, despite all the evidence. With this Decree, the Government normatively and decidedly took into account the public sector, whereas the private sector was left to the mercy of employers, who, basically, had discretionary rights.

We received information that those working in the private sector worked full time for pretty much the entire time. The well-known case from the Jura plant that was picked up by the media, where workers refused to work because they did not have adequate protective equipment. The rules of OH&S were not adhered to. Unfortunately, Jura is not the only case of its kind. In the Vali plant in Valjevo, workers were given a statement to sign promising to work full time, and under certain conditions that they had to accept, whereby the employer attempted to transfer responsibility onto its employees.

Article 42 of the Employment Act regulates work from home. Pursuant to this Article, the employer is obliged to procure, install and maintain equipment necessary for job performance. The crisis has shown it necessary for us to pay more attention to this topic and that this Article needs to be more specifically defined. For example, in Switzerland there is a verdict by which an employer who works from home, is obliged to pay half the rent for that month.

In Ivana Pavlović’s opinion, we are yet to face the real challenges, despite the fact that even prior to the state of emergency we were already facing serious challenges. The trade union has to utilise and justify its role in protecting labour rights. It is vital that we join forces in order to fight for the drafting of a new Employment Act in 2021. We will have to put in a great deal of effort to have our voices heard.

Milja Dimitrijević (Serbian Trade Union of Doctors and Pharmacists) – The people must be accurately informed. This is the only way we can fight this crisis

Medical staff, in the true meaning of the phrase, were the frontliners of this crises, emphasised Milja Dimitrijević. And among these, women were specifically vulnerable. 53% of the members of the Serbian Trade Union of Doctors and Pharmacists are women. The same percentage is in favour of women in regard to the number of representatives of this union within the institutions. During the state of emergency, women were heard more than men in the sense that they reported cases of misuse. The crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic caused this trade union to spring into action and as a result, it is now available to its members 24/7. This trade union expanded its activities to include the entire healthcare system and all of its staff.

At the start of the epidemic, the biggest issued concerned protection. Equipment was unavailable at the start, even though it was said that this was not the case. The activities of the trade union were therefore first geared toward procuring equipment. In one healthcare centre, where of the 38 employed dentists, 32 are women, employees who, exclusively as a result of their own personal efforts and resourcefulness were successful in securing their own equipment, equipment that was not procured through formal channels. She said that in one hospital which employs 12 anaesthesiologists, of which 7 are women, 6 women worked in COVID intensive units.

Milja Dimitrijević highlighted the importance of transparency in relation to availability of information. The public must be accurately informed. This is the only way to fight the crisis.

Zorica Stevanović (Žene na prekretnici [in English: Women Reaching Milestones]) – The economic empowerment of women is expressed as one of the most important objectives of the National Strategy for Gender Equality (2016-2020), yet the least amount of improvement was made in precisely this area.

Zorica Stevanović introduced workshops’ participants to the work of the organisation Žene na prekretnici, founded in 2015. The mission of this organisation is to reduce the gender gap in the labour market, through the economic empowerment of women over the age of 45. Over 600 women from Belgrade and 4 other Serbian cities/towns participated in educational programmes.

The Žene na prekretnici organisation conducted research through focus groups in which unemployed women over the age of 45 participated. The women were from Kragujevac, Niš, Čačak and Aleksandrovac. 54 women participated, 22 per focus group and 32 filled in an extensive quantitative questionnaire. Although the sample is small and not representative, the conclusions derived at are important as these are women living in very similar conditions. For example, one alarming conclusion is that 60% of inactive women do not have the prerequisites required to receive a pension. Meaning, for 15 years, their benefits and years of service (contributions) were not paid into. The average number of years of experience among the group is 19 and a half years, and the average number of years that this employment was officially recorded is 10, as a result of unpaid contributions. The findings indicate a very high level of poverty in this population of women. 65% live in households where the material status is below the average. 50% live in one income households, while a third live in households with no source of income.

At the same time, despite popular belief, there is a high degree of readiness to accept any kind of work, including working below their level of qualification, working in the grey economy and the willingness to commute to other cities/towns, as well as learn and acquire new know-how and skills.  Nevertheless, these women spent an average of 6 years seeking new employment. The biggest issue of all is logistics. The greatest obstacles are a lack of transportation to work, not having a driving licence, being computer illiterate or not speaking a foreign language. More often than not, these women are unable to afford courses and other forms of education, which is why it is necessary to think about measures that would provide free training for the skills required on the labour market.

Zorica Stevanović announced that by the end of the year, this association would begin research to find out to what extent the inactive women of this age group impact the GDP. The economic empowerment of women is highlighted as one of the most important objectives of the National Strategy for Gender Equality (2016-2020), yet the least amount of improvement was made in precisely this area. Women rarely dare to start their own businesses or to take out loans. They prefer to seek out some sort of association, and also, there is the issue of a lack of information and familiarity with procedures.  Once over the age of 45, a woman’s likelihood of finding employment declines rapidly. And, even if she is able to find employment, she will earn less not only than her peers but also than younger men.  A quarter of highly educated women work in jobs for which they are overly qualified in terms of education. Less than a quarter of those employed in the IT sector are women.

Zorica Stevanović once again stated that women are the dominant vulnerable group in the labour market. They are the minority among employees and the majority among the working age population.

Nataša Vučković (Center for Democracy Foundation) – we need trade unions, collaboration with trade unions is a necessity

The Executive Director of the Center for Democracy Foundation reminded the participants that this organisation has spent years dealing with the protection, promotion and improvement of socio-economic rights. In its own specific way, the crisis caused by the pandemic has shone a light on all of the deep-seated issues pertaining to women’s rights, which are the subject of much research conducted by the Center for Democracy Foundation both prior to and after the state of emergency. 

She highlighted that the first phase of the epidemic took place during the pre-election period, and the second, the one we are currently in, after the elections. At this time, it is difficult to find any Government activities centred around gender equality. The impression is that serious issues have been put on hold.

As she pointed out, the dire consequences on the economic position of women are yet to be felt.  Predictions thus far are only in the short-term, but the consequences will no doubt be felt in the long run, not only after the period expires in which Government measures are covering minimum wage, but afterwards as well. It is already evident that many sectors will experience huge percussions. Massive layoffs will most impact exposed and vulnerable groups, and as demonstrated during this discussion, for various reasons, these are women.

After taking a closer look at sectors in which women are frontliners, we see the vulnerability of their positions: these are women working in healthcare (doctors, medical staff, hygiene staff), women who work in social welfare institutions, women working in education, women working in retail, women working in food production, whether this be directly in agriculture or in the food processing industry, women working in government administration, women who are the supporting members of a household, self-employed women, women who belong to particularly vulnerable groups, often discriminated against for a number of reasons – Roma women, women who belong to groups of aging workers, women who are engaged under informal employment.

The questions we ask today are these – are the trade unions ready to help women? And, what do we need to do to help the trade unions? We have to be ready to respond to these questions: how will we welcome the autumn? And, how will we prevent the further vulnerability of the extremely sensitive position of women when even the members of the male population start losing their jobs? 

For years now, the Center for Democracy Foundation has been dedicated to the promotion, protection and improvement of economic, social and cultural rights, paying special attention to ensuring these rights are available in the world of work. It is inevitable that in dealing with labour rights, we are also dealing with women’s economic and social rights. The Center for Democracy Foundation continually develops collaboration with trade unions. Collaboration agreements have been signed with the Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia and UBTU Independence, reputable trade unions, but also with employers’ associations. If the trade unions and employers engage in social dialogue, we, as citizens and civil society organisations must promote the idea of civil dialogue, or that which is referred to as ‘social dialogue plus’, as what we are finally dealing with is our economic and social rights.

Nataša Vučković pointed out, in particular, that Center for Democracy Foundation understands the importance of syndicated organisation in today’s world. Trade unions are a necessity, and collaboration with these unions is crucial. In a world in which institutions have been weakened and general social disintegration reigns, where political systems and the role of political parties are in crisis, trade unions continue to act as organisations that collect members, and have structures which should be maintained and strengthened. For this reason, the Foundation insists on collaboration and the strengthening of the trade unions, including the empowerment of women’s sections and women who participate in the decision-making process, as well as the gathering of civil society organisations, including local communities, in order to facilitate collaboration with trade unions.  

At the end of the discussion, she recommended certain directions in which we may act – the necessity of acting with regard to the possible outcomes which the Government of Serbia is currently denying, and these include salary cutbacks in the public sector which will directly result in reducing the economic empowerment of women. On the other hand, it is precisely within the public sector (education, healthcare, social welfare institutions, and government administration) where employees are most unionised. Together, we must have constant and ready demands, with concrete suggestions, i.e. How to strengthen the Labour Inspectorate? How to prepare for new proposals for the Employment Act? She reminded the participants that the Center for Democracy Foundation drafted a copy of the Employment Act, in collaboration with the Olof Palme Centre. Participating in the drafting of this copy of the law were the FCD’s Sarita Bradaš and Ivan Sekulović. In her opinion, this is the starting point for joint activism in the coming period.

Partaking in the discussion were also: Desanka Mihailović-Kovač on behalf of the National Employment Service, Nađa Duhaček from the Center for Women’s Studies and Gordana Čomić.

A recording of the full workshop is available via our YouTube channel: Online workshop ‘Frontline Workers’

The Center for Democracy Foundation dedicates special attention to women and their role in the labour market via project Labour Rights Are Our Rights. The project is financed by Olof Palme International Center


Online workshop ‘Frontline Workers - Women, Unions and the Crisis’