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Remarks on the situation of the working class in Serbia

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Bauboom in Belgrad
Yet another one of the largest construction sites in Europe: the new luxury district “Waterfront” (“Belgrade on the water”) on the Sava River planned in Belgrade. The money for this comes, among other things. from Abu Dhabi, some also derisively call the project “Mini Dubai”. Construction boom in Belgrade, Foto: Marko Miletić, portal MAŠINA

Serbia is in the midst of a construction boom. Construction is underway all over the country. Streets, freeways, bridges, squares, malls, even whole city districts are springing up out of nowhere. Even though often the precise benefit of all of this for the population remains unclear, President Aleksandar Vučić publicly boasts that soon he will have built more than former President of Yugoslavia Josip Tito. These kinds of comparisons to Tito may well seem bizarre, but they are strategic pronouncements. The legitimacy of the small and micro- post-Yugoslav states remains unstable; many are inclined to think that after 30 years of capitalism, they were better off under socialism. But by comparing itself to Tito, the Vučić administration is not taking the crude path of the negation of Yugoslav socialism, which has at times been practised with a religious fervour. That remains the distinguishing feature of the seething, irrational, and Inquisition-like Catholic anticommunism of the Croatian right. By contrast, Aleksandar Vučić and his entourage acknowledge that in Yugoslavia, heavy investments were made in infrastructure. Which has informed their approach to infrastructure projects: the bigger the better. Because that is the only way that he and his henchmen will get to bask in the glory they long for, only then will the last Yugo-nostalgic be forced to admit that today, under Vučić’s tough but benevolent rule, even more construction is going on, and with even more pomp, than in socialist Yugoslavia.

Krunosalv Stojaković is a director of the Regional Southeast Office in Belgrade and Tuzla 

In a recently published essay in the economics publication Telegraf Bizni, Belgrade’s omnipresent deputy mayor Goran Vesić explains that at the end of last year, the Belgrade skyline was adorned with an impressive 324 tower cranes and almost 3,000 construction sites, and that in 2019 alone, over 250 approvals were given for over a million square metres of urban building sites. The real estate boom has found a new home in Belgrade, despite protests such as those against the flagship Belgrade Waterfront project, which will almost certainly end up being a financial and environmental disaster.

But behind the shiny façades of the newly constructed buildings lies a construction sector that is largely unregulated and that exploits the labour power and health of its employees in the most brutal ways. In 2018 for example, 53 workers were involved in serious workplace accidents in Serbia, 15 of which occurred on one of the country’s many construction sites, and some of whom were working illicitly, with neither insurance nor proper training. According to the official figures from Construction Minister Zorana Mihajlović, in 2018 almost 97,000 people were employed in construction in Serbia. Compare this to similar data for Germany for 2018, where there were 1.1 fatal accidents for every 100,000 people employed in the construction sector. On Serbian construction sites the fatal accident rate is therefore more than fifteen times that of Germany! Even if we make a generous estimate of the number of people employed irregularly and assume there are 50,000 of them, the statistic still remains what it really is: the expression of the most brutal exploitation of human labour power, sacrificed on the altar of the exorbitant profiteering of a few construction tycoons and the obsessive image management of local politicians. In 2019, the death rate on Serbian construction sites remained shockingly high: by the end of October, statistics registered 38 fatal workplace accidents, 18 of which were in construction.

But no one need fear that there will be consequences, neither property developers nor subcontractors, nor the politicians responsible for workplace relations, who have announced a war on illicit employment, and baptized 2019 “the year of security and well-being at work”, but who are actually primarily concerned with not getting in the way of the construction firms. Following an accident at the Belgrade Waterfront construction site in September 2018, in which two construction workers fell to their deaths, the Serbian Work and Social Affairs Minister Zoran Đorđević did little more than inform the public that that no independent investigation into the circumstances of the accident was necessary, because the property developer, the Austrian firm Strabag, had provided a voluntary declaration to the effect that the workers concerned were both officially registered and insured, and that all safety standards had been adhered to.

To this day, the words of Friedrich Engels in the dedication to his The Condition of the Working Class in England still ring true: “be their words what they please—the middle-classes intend in reality nothing else but to enrich themselves by your labour while they can sell its produce…”

Apart from such glaring breaches of existing work safety legislation, and despite the obscenely high rates of fatal accidents, in the last five years hardly anyone has been held to account in Serbia. Almost 50 percent of cases where charges are brought fall under the statute of limitations without ever being heard, and in cases that do actually come to a hearing and judgement, the punishments are inexplicably mild. A construction company owner who himself confessed to being complicit in the deaths of two workers on a Belgrade construction site received a suspended sentence, while two other people found responsible were ordered to pay a fine of 250,000 dinars, or a little over 2,100 euros.

To conclude, let’s return to the obsessive comparisons with Tito and socialist Yugoslavia. We can see that unlike today’s naked exploitation, workers back then not only had much better workers’ protections and working conditions overall, they also participated in construction projects that had a broader social utility. Today, by contrast, no construction worker building luxury apartments in central Belgrade or on the banks of the Sava would ever in their wildest dreams think that they could buy themselves and their family an apartment in such a development.

Translated by Marty Hiatt & Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective