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Supporting Serbian workers to win a living wage

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18 February, 2019Meeting in Belgrade, Serbian affiliates pledged to increase organizing in the textile industries and reach for a branch collective agreement with living wages. For that, stronger unions and more representative employer associations are needed.

The seminar in Belgrade on 13-14 February was part of an EU-funded project, “Strengthening the capacity of trade unions in South-East Europe to improve wages and working conditions in the garment and footwear sectors”, carried out in cooperation between industriAll Europe and IndustriALL Global Union. The project targets seven countries; Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia.

Serbian textile, clothing, leather and shoe industries officially employ more than 64,000 workers. In fact, employment has increased in the past two years. But there are probably tens of thousands of workers in the informal economy.

Three affiliated textile unions organize a total of 10,000 workers in the textile sector. Now there is a new focus on increasing union density and building bargaining power.

“We are growing membership in factories where we are already present, and we have recently organized nine new plants thanks to active field work”, reported Radojko Jovanovic, president of the Autonomous textile workers’ union Sindtkos-CATUS.

Following training on organizing methodology and techniques at the seminar, the unions will now work on organizing plans with the help of a detailed mapping of potential target factories. The principles of cooperation and non-competition were emphasized. With 50,000 unorganized workers in the sector, there will be enough work for everyone.

Another goal is to increase collective bargaining. The unions have only four company level collective agreements. There is no branch agreement in the textile industries, but reaching one is something the unions definitively want.

“For industry level bargaining, we need both stronger unions and a more representative employer counterpart”, said Dragan Vesic from the industrial union IER Nezavisnost.

For representativity, unions must reach 10 per cent membership in the textile industry cluster. An employer association needs to represent 10 per cent of the companies employing at least 15 per cent of the workforce.

Despite increasing employment, the textile sector suffers from a lack of workforce. Young people are not interested in working in an industry where conditions are so poor. Professor Goran Savanovic from the Textile College explained that this was very much due to low wages. Average gross wages range from 319 euros per month in clothing industries to 438 euros in textile, well below the industry average of 498 euros.

Bojana Tamindzija from the Clean Clothes Campaign network said that the net minimum wage was raised to 230 euros per month, but according to studies, as many as 50 per cent of workers receive less. There is also a lot of unpaid overtime.

Slavko Ignjatovic from the Association of Employers, also the owner of a small company, asked for support in convincing foreign garment brands to raise the prices they pay to their suppliers, which operate with small margins under constant cost pressure. That would create space for wage increases.

Professor Petar Djukic from the Faculty of Technology lamented the absence of government representatives who were invited but did not show up. He suggested that the unions together contact the ministries of labour and economy and convince them of the need to cooperate to boost collective bargaining and improve pay to reach living wages.

Luc Triangle, IndustriAll Europe’s general secretary said:

“Serbian textile and garment workers cannot be treated as cheap labour. These sectors are traditional sectors with good skilled workers and skills that went from generation on generation in Serbia. It is unacceptable that wages are paid under the level of a living wage. Our trade unions will increase their efforts to organise workers and to go with employers into meaningful collective bargaining."

Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union’s assistant general secretary stated:

“The Serbian government is attracting foreign investors with huge subsidies and other financial incentives.  At the same time textile workers are paid poverty wages to sew clothes for big brands.  Keeping wages low is not the way to a sustainable textile industry in Serbia.  We will continue to support our Serbian affiliates in their efforts to build bargaining power and negotiate decent wages for workers in this industry”.