• 2020-03-20

The Saleswomen of Our Neighbourhoods

Author: Sarita Bradaš

As our social environment has drastically narrowed these days, and contact with others has become limited to those working in retail, we have become more receptive to things we usually take no note of: their faces and voices. Tired faces and exhausted voices. Yes, we see the exhaustion in their faces because they aren’t wearing protective masks. The government has not made it mandatory for employers but has recommended they provide their employees with protective gear. In practice, even though employers are supposed to ensure protection according to the Law on Occupational Health and Safety, there are no controls, and everything has been left to the goodwill and possibilities of employers to provide protective equipment and disinfectants.

When the working hours of the second shift are over, these women rush to catch the last bus and if they’re ‘lucky’ are able to get into the overcrowded bus, as public transportation has been reduced. They don’t have masks on and the distance between them and others is in no way safe. Reducing the number of lines of public transportation available for those who have no alternative means of transportation during the epidemic shows a lack of responsibility and total disregard for the health of people working under difficult conditions and for salaries that are light-years away from decent.

Before or after work, awaiting them at home is more shift work: Serbian women on average spend approximately four and a half hours doing unpaid labour - cooking, cleaning and taking care of children and the elderly members of the family. This is the ‘normal’ state of affairs. In extraordinary circumstances, washing and cleaning take up more time and require more equipment. If they previously had help with childcare in the form of grandparents, they can no longer count on this. Their children remain at home alone (day care and schools are closed) as their employers are not obliged to allow one parent to stay home. This is only recommended .

Two-thirds of women are employed in service and trade industry occupations in Serbia. Every fourth has a fixed-term employment contract. The exact number working under the table is unknown. The earnings of those working in the trade industry are the lowest, more than half of the women employed in this sector have very low wages (less than 2/3 of the median wage [1]). These data are considered to be the ‘normal’ state of affairs.

The level of uncertainty today is much greater. Along with their daily anxieties and worries about how to survive with their small wages, the saleswomen of our neighbourhoods come to and leave work with new fears and unanswered questions: what if I get sick, will I lose my job? What will we live off of if I am left without my wages? What if I get one of my family members sick? How will I help my elderly parents? What are my children up to while they’re at home alone?

Those of us privileged enough to be able to work from home are now more than ever obliged to speak up in the name of the tens and hundreds of thousands of people who are invisible and that are now under threat because of the lack of accountability of the state and their employers. And to persevere until we gain their undivided attention. 

[1] Median earnings are determined such that all earnings are compared by size from smallest to largest, and the middle is taken as the median value. In Serbia, median earnings are significantly below average earnings, and in December 2019 the median wage was RSD 44,530, and average earnings were RSD 59,772.

This is the text that reflects the views of the author and does not represent the views of either the Balkan Democracy Fund or the Embassies of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.

The text was written as part of a project funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshal Fund of the United States (BTD) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway in Belgrade.


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