Employment security and public sector reform in the Western Balkans – can resilience help to shape the future?

From 12 to 13 December 2019 took place in Belgrade / Serbia a seminar about “Employment security and public sector reform in the Western Balkans – can resilience hlep to shape the future?” The seminar was organized by EUROFEDOP (Europese Federatie van het Overheidspersoneel) with the support of EZA and of the European Union. It took place in the framework of the EZA special project for workers' organisations in the Western Balkans.

During the opening session of the seminar, one of the main problems of public sector reforms (PAR) in the Western Balkans was already mentioned – the challenge of implementing laws on PAR. With inputs from experts representing very varied organisations and backgrounds, this seminar aimed at understanding the current state of PAR in Western Balkan countries and discuss those areas, where trade unions can and are already acting.

On the first day of the seminar, six different experts provided a very profound overview of public administration reform in the Western Balkans against the background of European integration from multiple perspectives.

For local governments, one of the biggest challenges are the new skills and knowledge necessary to carry out tasks arising from new competences that need to be introduced due to the EU accession process. The trade unions successfully fought for a collective agreement, however many challenges remain, such as the seemingly impossible combination of an employment ban and the very high average age of public servants in Serbia.

The EU put forward six principles of public administration that are applied to monitor the reforms. There are some positive results in all Western Balkan countries in different areas, but the governments struggle with implementing laws they adopted in practice. A further interesting insight from the economic point of view was that while the EU’s and other donors’ neoliberal approach to PAR has opened up space for the private sector to create jobs, this can have several backlashes in the future and has reduced the effectiveness of public services.

During the discussion at the end of the first day, depoliticization of positions in public administration was brought up, which poses a problem in all Western Balkan countries.

One aspect of PAR that cannot be neglected is training. After having touched upon training and advice activities on the regional level during the first day, the discussions on recent trends and changes on the second day started by highlighting the importance of training, which can be done according to many different models. Furthermore, training can also be an important tool to fight corruption.

The public sector must continuously reform and modernise itself, and some speakers put an emphasis on the fact that local actors must be more influential in driving the reforms and also believe in themselves and in their achievements and develop trust in each other. According to the so-called ‘sandwich strategy’, there needs to be pressure from the people – and trade unions – on the government to efficiently counter-act the pressure by the EU from above.

Several speakers also mentioned the point that in the region, a high percentage of people still prefers to work in the public sector due to its job security, even if wages are low. As this means that people value a secure and seemingly pleasant workplace higher than money, one of the conclusions of the seminar was that this aspect can be used as a driving force for people to engage in influencing and implementing reforms.