• 2020-09-03

Solidarity Among Trade Unions and Civil Societies in the Fight for Labour Rights

On 3 September 2020, the Center for Democracy Foundation hosted a debate entitled Trade Unions and New Membership Potential. The debate was held on a new platform, with the speakers and a select number of trade union and civil society representatives present in person, combined with participants who joined the debate via ZOOM.

The conversation was held at the same time the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia published Serbia’s unemployment rate at a historical low of 7.3%, and the President of Serbia stated that the citizenry has no reason to worry as the most important thing is that there will be no salary cuts. At the same time, independent research and trade unions claim that unemployment numbers are much higher than official statistics indicate and data on a large number of layoffs are published by the media almost daily. What can we expect this forthcoming autumn? How will the Covid-19 pandemic, with the threat of job loss for a large number of employees and rising poverty, affect our plans and priorities? How will we be able to help each other and where will we find the space we need in order to take joint action and create synergy? Who do the trade unions turn to during these times and how do they identify potential for new membership? 

Nataša Vučković, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy Foundation welcomed all those physically present as well as those joining the debate as online participants. She highlighted that the FCD’s focus is on building solidarity in society and the protection of social and economic rights, first and foremost, labour rights. She emphasised that we are living in times of great change, and that the mechanisms of elementary democratic procedure and public dialogue have collapsed. This is why labour rights issues are a constant hot topic, in terms of, among others, our development priorities, i.e. Serbia’s integration into the European Union with the standards that apply there.

She stressed that today’s most important questions are: how to include other vulnerable groups such as the LGBTI communit and where are the points around which association will be made possible? 

The President of the United Branch Trade Union Independence, Zoran Stojiljković, asked whether or not Serbia is a socially responsible society in terms of rule of law, where all members of its society are equality? In his opinion it is not, nor can it be without empowered trade unions. He emphasised that the essential issue today is the problem of building trust in trade unions and the real influence that trade unions have on social change or government policy. This is why, in his opinion, it is necessary to increase the capacities of trade unions which are constantly diminishing. Trade unions will not survive simply on the basis of permanent employment, as this foundation has become shakier and shakier. The path to capacity building is therefore in increasing the level of collaboration with civil society organisations, i.e. organisations with the democratic and professional capacity and understanding of the mission of the trade unions, and this is primarily a matter of decent work. One such organisation certainly is the Center for Democracy Foundation. 

Ksenija Lojpur (Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia) highlighted that youths are completely uninformed in terms of what awaits them in the labour market. According to her, this is the result of decades of systematic suppression of critical thinking, which is the basis of the neoliberal model imposed on us. The latest example of this is the new campaign issued by our Government under the slogan My First Salary. Youths who join this programme will receive between RSD 20,000 and 24,000, which is a salary beneath anything that can be considered compensation for decent work. This is how young people are prepared for instability and fear. This makes it easier to manipulate them and create a framework in which solidarity is non-existent. To sum up, we are working in an environment where the integrative element of society has been disrupted. 

Tanja Ignjatović of the Autonomous Women’s Center, highlighted that there is a vast number of social groups excluded from all support and association networks. The reason is they do not have the time nor the opportunity to think about this issue because they are too busy fighting for their basic survival. As an organisation, we still face difficulties in describing how it is that an unemployed woman, living outside of Belgrade and someone who is subject to continuous abuse, survives. She underlined that the position in which the public views or the trust public opinion has in NGOs is, unfortunately, no better than its views on trade unions. This situation was systematically created, instead of putting to use the capacities these organisations have at their disposal. 

Dragana Todorović of the ERA (LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey) stated that the ERA, an initiative that includes 67 organisations and movements from all countries of the former Yugoslavia and Turkey, has realised that without unity, the achievement of results is an impossibility. She emphasised that LBGTI organisations have only just recently begun to address this social dimension, i.e. the exclusion of this population. The fact is that these groups are also poor and unemployed, but additionally burdened by their sexual orientation. In collaboration with the World Bank, the ERA recently conducted a study on the social status of the LGBTI population which provided dramatic data. For example, it is seven times more likely that an LGBTI person will have to leave a job due to sexual orientation or gender identity. She stressed that a huge issue is the fact that trade unions are not immune to homophobia. For this reason, she urged the trade unions to make concrete their accepting attitudes toward the LBGTI community by publicising it, and that the ERA, as an organisation, is very interested in this form of collaboration. 

Danilo Milić of the Olof Palme International Center shared Sweden’s experience where trade union memberships dropped from 1,500,000 members to 800,000. There are three reasons why this occurred: the first is that the level of protection, in general terms, has increased via legal regulation, which is not the case here at home, but at the same time, this is our comparative advantage for attracting more members to trade unions; secondly, Sweden’s economy type has changed, more and more individuals work from home or engage in remote work, where in our case, those employed in plants, i.e. cheap labour forces have begun to return to work; and thirdly, the previous, right-centred government made trade union membership more costly. 

The debate entitled Trade Unions and New Membership Potential was organised in collaboration with United Branch Trade Union Independence, with the support of the Olof Palme International Center, as part of the Working Rights Are Our Rights project.