Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, reports of abusive and exploitative practices by employers have been widespread. Filip Balunović argues that these problems are particularly acute in peripheral countries such as Serbia, where profit reigns supreme and workers are paying the price of government policy.

There are many dimensions of crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They can be divided into the psychological, social, economic and political. It is evident that the consequences of this situation will be numerous and far-reaching. The most striking impact has already been announced and encompasses all four dimensions: the coronavirus could push half a billion people into poverty. As the crisis deepens and the number of infected and deceased grows larger and more serious, the tension between the old ‘dying’ system and a new one ‘that cannot yet be born’ is becoming more and more obvious. The elites are concerned about the pandemic, but at the same time they cannot hide their anxiety caused by economic downfalls and recession that have already hit hard. As if their subconscious is imploring people to stop dying because their profits cannot be put on hold for much longer.

On the other hand, working people are becoming aware of a curious dichotomy: capitalism’s ‘success’ would usually be the reason behind the workers’ suffering, and now, it stems from capitalist ‘failure’. Employees now understand that the ‘economic success’ came at the expense of public healthcare systems and the systemic destruction of life-giving social and economic life. The imaginary line dividing ‘success’ from the ‘failure’ of capitalism has thereby become even more blurred. The real question is who would want to go back to the good old times of ‘success’, knowing that this in fact means further degradation of public services which, in times of inevitable downturns and crises of capitalism, serve as the only barrier against the total collapse of a system that leaves the most vulnerable ones in distress.

The economic periphery

This phenomenon is terrifyingly evident on the global periphery, which plays a specific role within the global economic system. Being on the receiving end of excessively accumulated capital from the centre, the periphery serves as a plateau for reinvestment whose purpose is to increase profit that goes back to the centre. Thereby the periphery remains underdeveloped and the centre flourishes at the expense of the underdeveloped periphery.

This logic is clear. And what this logic does to workers in the absence of crisis is exploitation. What the same logic does to the periphery and its workers in times of crisis is complete and inhumane exploitation. In a situation where the crisis is a global pandemic, the workers at the periphery must pay the additional price of their respective country’s peripheral position. They either stay unemployed or must expose themselves to the ever more dangerous working conditions which threaten to jeopardise not only them, their families and fellow colleagues, but entire nations. In a situation of global pandemic, personal and group health is directly linked to the health of entire nations.

Lay-offs and precarious work in Serbia

The situation with workers in countries like my home country Serbia unequivocally confirms this trend. In times of capitalist ‘normality’, before the beginning of the state of emergency due to coronavirus on 15 March, many workers of this country were known as ‘high-skilled and low cost’ labour, as the Serbian government presented them in a state financed TV commercial on CNN. Serbian labour and investment laws are presented as ‘new and modern’, meaning that they were engineered to favour the interest of investors over the well-being of the ‘high-skilled, low cost labour’.

In times of global pandemic, one can easily imagine the current condition of workers in Serbia. On 9 April, Minister of Labour and Employment, Zoran Đorđević, stated that 3,509 workers had lost their jobs due to pandemic. This data is extracted from the number of newly registered people at the unemployment office. Undoubtedly, numerous more people who had part-time jobs, those without permanent employment and those in self-employed are now left without an income. If we include those who work in the ‘grey’ zone of informal labour – it is not a rare phenomenon in Serbia for people to be employed without a valid contract – the numbers could soon reach tens or hundreds of thousands.

One of the first instances of mass layoffs that echoed in the public space was the case of the French company Hutchinson and its Serbian branch located in the city of Ruma. As reported by the media, over 300 workers that produced parts for cooling devices were fired overnight, despite government’s recommendation against layoffs during the state of emergency. This unfortunate situation opened Pandora’s Box: the laid off workers were no longer afraid to talk about poor working conditions they had been forced into. They bared their souls because there was nothing to lose.

Poor working conditions

Evidently, the problem does not end with the workers who become unemployed. Those who are still holding their jobs but are forced to work in unsafe work environments seem to be equally, if not more threatened – they have no choice but to comply with orders of the employer. The local branch of the Korean factory Yura is one example of such practice. Located in several cities across Serbia, including Leskovac, Rača and Niš, the company became well-known to the domestic and international public as one of the most conspicuous representatives of predatory neoliberalism, even before the pandemic. It is not surprising that Yura is today one of those leading the trend of workers’ maltreatment in all of its Serbian branches.

A couple of days after the pandemic broke, workers of the Yura branch that produces cables for Hyundai vehicles in Niš (the second biggest city in Serbia) went on strike because the management ordered them to come to work despite the fact that work conditions did not meet the national safety regulations. These regulations included obligatory distance between people (especially workers in closed spaces) and additional health and safety measures (protective masks and gloves) that every citizen is expected to follow. Although a Yura worker in Leskovac was diagnosed with coronavirus, the remainder of the workforce were asked to disregard the threat and come to work. A couple of days later, six more workers were diagnosed with the infection.

On 8 April, the workers in Niš refused to enter the factory grounds – standing in front of it, they planned to call a strike. The management offered 1,000 dinars (approximately 8.5 euros) bonus per day for every worker who came to work, plus a weekly bonus of 2,000 and monthly bonus of 3,000 dinars. The following day workers were back in front of the factory. Hundreds were standing together, demanding the employer to ensure safe working conditions and, among other measures, stop production on the assembly line because it makes the two-meter distance between workers virtually impossible. Within 24 hours of the protest commencing, Slaviša Pajović, one of the workers standing in front of the factory, was arrested while trying to give a statement for N1 television. At the time of writing, he is still in custody.

Widespread abuses

Yura factory represents the most conspicuous case of poor working conditions in Serbia, during the state of emergency but also during ‘normal’ times prior to the crisis. Other companies such as the local branch of Aptiv, a British manufacturer of car parts in the city of Novi Sad, illustrate the same trend. Similar to other big investors in Serbia, the Aptiv plant is located in the regional centre and employs workers from the entire region (in this case, the autonomous region of Vojvodina). On top of unsafe working conditions in times of pandemic, the additional problem pointed out by Aptiv workers was that they all travel to and from work in buses packed with other workers, without possibility of implementing the recommended two-metre distance.

These alarming problems that industrial workers are faced with serve as evidence about the general state of labour rights amid the coronavirus pandemic in Serbia. One might think that position of industrial workers is specific and cannot speak to the labour conditions of, for instance, medical workers. As a matter of fact, the reality shows a significant degree of overlapping circumstances between medical and industrial workers. This is borne out by the case of a maternity ward at a public clinic in Belgrade, where medical workers were explicitly told not to wear masks so they ‘would not scare the patients’. The clinic ended up with 46 infected medical workers and two patients (pregnant women who gave birth while diagnosed with COVID-19). A similar health crisis occurred in Vojvodina Clinical Center in Novi Sad. A journalist writing for the website published an article about medical workers who were not adequately protected at work. Her sources were informal since the formal channels of communication with the clinic were non-existent (the clinic did not offer an official reply to her inquiries). Consequently, the journalist was arrested and spent a night in prison under accusation of ‘spreading the panic’. It turned out that the protective equipment was ‘in storage’: the government quickly took action and distributed the protective gear, in order to give the impression that the medical staff had always been adequately equipped – and even invited Reuters to film parts of the clinic, claiming that the journalist was spreading ‘fake news’.

Workers paying the price

In plain sight, Serbian workers from various spheres – industrial production, medical care, agricultural production and the media – are (again) paying the highest price for the crisis that is beyond their responsibility. Unmistakably, Serbia is collapsing under the weight of its own ill-constructed system and fragmented society that is unable to respond to the fallacies of the economic order under which we live. Arresting journalists and workers, pointing the finger at people returning from abroad and pronouncing them ‘guilty’ for bringing the virus to Serbia – this is what Serbian authorities are concerned with on a daily basis. However, they are not the least concerned with punishing those who violate workers’ rights and legal regulations in times of pandemic and a state of emergency. Relying on the good old mantra repeated so many times during the past thirty years, the Serbian authorities behave like ‘there is no such thing as society’. ‘No society, no rebellion’, they probably think. They must have been living under a rock.

Meanwhile, even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared the end of the neoliberal era by implicitly proclaiming that Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she said that ‘there is no such thing as society, but only individuals’. In the recent self-made video from his home office he stated: ‘There is such thing as society”’ Johnson was by no means mistaken. Indeed, society was always here, though with a lost sense of its own strength due to the prevailing mantra of individualism and neoliberal socio-economic reason.

This crisis is a chance for the society in itself to become the society for itself, both in the centre but especially, on the periphery. The bad news for Johnson and his counterparts in all corners of global capitalist world is that the society for itself is not to be reconstituted in order to serve them or to help the post-crisis economic recovery of the wealthy. A little over a decade ago, when the world economic crisis hit the world, the term ‘solidarity’ was evened out with ‘solidarity with the rich’ who were ‘too big to fail’. This time, the change is occurring simultaneously in the world of economy, politics, the human psyche and society in general. Hailing for solidarity in this day and age could sound like a call for solidarity among the working people – against those who were maximising profits at the expense of public services, education and science and against those who pacified society by fragmenting it and depriving it of the sense of its strength. Hopefully, the global wave of uprisings after the pandemic will not forget to knock on the door of all those who have been maltreating the working class, before and especially during the pandemic. Hopefully, this wave will not bypass countries of the periphery, such as Serbia.

by Filip Balunović

Originally published on 16 April 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

Filip Balunović is a PhD candidate at Scuola Normale Superiore, at the department of Political Science and Sociology in Florence. His research interest includes political economy, social movements, Marxism, political philosophy and political theory. He is also the executive editor of the Serbian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique and author of the monograph Freedom Notebooks (Beleske sa slobode, 2014).