Serbia: Sacked Knjaz Miloš water company workers threaten hunger strike

Unjustly sacked workers of a water company in Serbia have been in a legal battle with the management for many years, and now the situation has become so desperate that they are organising a hunger strike to start on 20th February. They are appealing for help.

“Knjaz Miloš” is a Serbian mineral water and soft drinks factory that has been in existence for 200 years. During most of that time it has been a very important employer and a crucial factor for economic development of central Serbia. However, since Serbia entered the ‘transition period’ after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the planned economy, similar to many other previously state-owned factories, the Knjaz Miloš factory was first deliberately bankrupted, and then privatised. Since then workers have been treated as “collateral damage”, their rights have been attacked, wages have been frozen and many were sacked. The whole town and the region suffered.

Serbia is today a country with a most brutal form of neoliberal capitalism. With the absence of state institutions and democratic trade unions (most of the existing ‘unions’ are under the control of the ruling oligarchy), and under the pressure of the NGO sector which implements the will of the big business, employment rights have been completely done away with, and workers are left without any kind of protection, whatsoever.

This is all the result of the neo-colonial status of the country. Neoliberal organisations like USAID and Naled, and the US and German economic institutions, perform experiments with the Serbian legal system, especially in relation to the employment law.

This background is crucial to the understanding of what is happening in the Knjaz Miloš factory. The workers employed on a permanent basis were made redundant, and immediately agency workers were put in their jobs. Ths was bad enough, but to make matters worse, the existing workers were not given an equal opportunity to apply back through the same agency. Some other sacked workers were called to apply back for their own jobs, but on a temporary and part-time basis, and without a contract. According to the labour law, the maximum length of employment for those kinds of jobs is 180 days. This shows the cunning tactics of the management when considering the nature of work on a factory conveyor belt, where there is a clear need for permanent jobs.

There have been strikes, the first one in 2010, when the management promised voluntary redundancy packages. However, they did not keep their promises but instead just waited one year and finally in 2011, started again to unlawfully sack workers. The workers then sued the company but the court did not consider their case at all, instead it simply concluded that the employer fulfilled all the legal requirements and that the dismissals were within the law. Moreover, the court justified the verdict with the statement that in Serbia there is “freedom of entrepreneurship” and that the court has no right to “impinge on the freedom of employers”. With this verdict, the labour law was broken, as well as many international conventions regarding the rights of workers.

After that there were protests and court cases, all without success. It actually ended with the court granting the management the right to decide what is owed to workers. This meant the court gave the defendant the right to settle the case. We can clearly see the corrupt state of the Serbian judiciary.

Drastic measures

If that was not enough, the management then sued the workers for the legal expenses. This process is still going on, and if they win each worker will be liable to pay an equivalent of over 2500 Eur. This is an impossible amount for an ordinary Serbian family, especially for the unemployed. Even before the end of the court process, the management started confiscating the private property of its ex-workers. This is a show of bulling power over unprotected workers. But this kind of behaviour has become “normal” in Serbia, with the purpose of discouraging, through legal means, protests, strikes and battles for rights.

Recently the management boasted that they had “information“ that all remaining court decisions “will be in their favour“ (how do they have this information?). This has brought the dispute to boiling point. About 150 ex-workers and their families have organised under a small but militant trade union, and they are taking their struggle further. Apart from the struggle at home, they will also appeal to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. If they lose, this will set a dangerous precedent for workers all over Europe, in the same way as the Knjaz Miloš case has become a precedent in Serbia, where the same anti-worker decisions have been widely applied as a result. This is why they are appealing for our help, because this battle is one with potentially international implications.

On the other hand, since their struggle in Serbia has come to a dead-end, the workers feel that they have nothing else left in their power but to resort to the most drastic measure — a hunger strike – which is set to begin on 20 February.

We therefore urge workers, trade unionists and left activists to show solidarity by drawing attention to the suspension of workers’ rights in Serbia and to send letters to:

President of Serbia

Prime Minister of Serbia 

The Supreme Court

Ministry of Justice 

Management of the Knjaz Miloš company

With copies to:

Model Letter:

To the President of Serbia, Prime Minister of Serbia, The Supreme Court, Ministry of Justice, and the management of the Knjaz Miloš company:

I have been informed through the CWI about the gross disrespect for workers’ rights in Serbia, in the case of ex-workers of the Knjaz Miloš company, who were first dismissed from their jobs, and subsequently treated, contrary to all international workers’ rights conventions, as well as the Serbian labour law. Having been made familiar with their case, we ask the following questions:

  1. Were the dismissed workers offered the same opportunity to apply for their own jobs through an agency?
  2. Does Knjaz Miloš management resort to an abuse of temporary and part-time workers?
  3. Why did the judiciary, in accordance with its constitutional role and elementary rules of judicial procedure and with due diligence, not examine all the statements and evidence from the workers, instead of completely ignoring them, as if they did not exist?

We call for a resolution to this dispute, with a positive outcome for the workers, where rights for workers under the labour law are respected and workers have an opportunity to go back to their previous work positions without being bullied, threatened, or suffering any retaliation for fighting back against the despicable treatment they are faced with.

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February 2018