Towards Fair Labour Mobility. Social and labour issues concerning migrant workers in the construction industry in the Western Balkans and the EU

The seminar on “Towards Fair Labour Mobility. Social and labour issues concerning migrant workers in the construction industry in the Western Balkans and the EU” was organized by BIE Int. (Bouw-Industrie & Energie International) in cooperation with the Trade Union of Workers in the Construction and Building Materials Industry of Serbia from 25 to 27 May 2021 in Veliko Gradiste, Serbia. It was supported by EZA and the European Union and took place within the framework of the EZA special project for workers’ organisations in the Western Balkans.

39 participants attended this hybrid seminar via the ZOOM platform: representatives of workers’ organisations from the Western Balkans and the European Union (Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, and Germany), representatives of the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Serbia, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veterans and Social Affairs, the Labour Inspectorate of the Republic of Serbia, non-governmental organizations, and experts engaged in the issue of migrant workers and the fight against human trafficking.

Within the EU the internal market is a single market. Since its creation in 1993, the single market has opened itself more to competition, created jobs, and reduced many trade barriers. Cross border delivery of services is an integral part of the Internal Market and has brought many new opportunities for companies and workers. However, not all effects are positive. Especially in labour intensive sectors, such as the construction industry, it has also contributed a rise in social fraud and social dumping. Resulting on the one hand in unequal competition for business and exploitation of workers on the other hand. This has put sectoral trade unions in the construction industry before many challenges, not in the least how they can protect workers’ rights and decent jobs for all. Taking this into consideration, the seminar mainly addressed the position and status of migrant workers and the challenges faced in the society.

The following conclusions were adopted during the seminar:

1.       Due to the intensive exodus of young, educated and skilled workers, the countries of the Western Balkans are facing a shortage of skilled labor in the construction sector. It is necessary to demand a stimulating fiscal policy from the state and to make it imperative to increase wages in the construction sector.

The most striking example is the eastern region of Serbia, where one in three people of working age works abroad. Due to the exodus of young and skilled workers, Serbia has also been forced to attract migrant workers for certain types of jobs in order to keep the economy going.

2.       The number of people able to work is decreasing and the retirement age is increasing, leading to the need to reform the pension and disability insurance system because of the large number of elderly people who need care and assistance.

3.       Due to the lack of local workers, there is a need for skilled foreign workers. However, we are seeing an influx of untrained workers and an increase in the trend of illegal work.

4.       The main problems faced by migrant workers are defined as: lack of local language skills, lack of knowledge of the local legislative framework and their rights, lack of decent housing, and poor living and working conditions; illegal labor, non-payment of wages, and preventing union representatives from contacting migrant workers.

For the realization of construction projects, Chinese and Turkish companies bring in their local workers/labor force, who are mostly unregistered and hired for a limited period. These companies also hire unprofessional subcontractors with unskilled workers, which leads to poor quality of construction and more frequent and serious work accidents.

5.       Train and educate migrant workers, as well as develop and implement tools such as universally understood language signs on construction sites to overcome communication barriers, following the practice and experience of trade unionist colleagues in the Netherlands.

6.       Through joint activities of the Ministry of Interior, the labor inspectorate, non-governmental organizations and trade unions, make efforts to inform migrant workers on how to contact the relevant authorities and institutions that can protect them, as well as raise awareness among the local population on the issue of illegal labor and labor exploitation. In this regard, promote the establishment of one-stop service centers for migrant workers and their families.

Exploited workers are subject to restrictions on movement, have their documents confiscated, live in poor and unsanitary conditions, are exposed to threats, blackmail and fear for their health and lives, corporal punishment, and work more than 12 hours a day on tasks for which they were not originally hired.

7.       Demand the application of collective agreements that provide the same conditions and rights for all (to local and migrant workers), and the prevention of the employment of children, as well as compliance with Convention 143, which regulates migrant work to avoid the exploitation of migrant workers, and the introduction of severe penalties for non-compliance.

8.       Demand strict control of agencies (temporary employment agencies) dealing with the employment of migrant workers and the implementation of a legislative framework in order to eliminate illegal recruitment practices (false employment, social dumping, confiscation of documents, etc.)

Non-payment of wages is one of the most recurrent problems, made possible by the non-enforcement of regulations, as well as the lack of transparency in the subcontracting chain and the illegal practices of temporary work agencies, among others.

Competitive advantage based on the exploitation of workers and human rights violations undermines the cohesion of society. Protecting the rights of migrant workers is a way to prevent social dumping. Migrant workers must have the same rights as domestic workers, be organized in unions and covered by collective agreements.

9.       There is a need for bilateral cooperation agreements between countries to monitor the activities and situation of migrant workers. National labor inspectorates should work together, and the ELA should assist in coordination in this regard.

Before going to work in another country and accepting jobs advertised online, it is necessary for workers to be informed as accurately as possible about the working conditions, the place of residence and the type of work, as it is often the case that the factual situation in the workplace does not correspond to the agreement.

10.     Promote and provide the necessary resources to train, strengthen and improve the skills and capacities of labor inspectors. Strengthen the cooperation between the inspection bodies and the trade unions, at local and European level.

Labor migration is inevitable. However, this part of the population is too often abused and stigmatized, and a class of workers with indecent wages and living conditions has formed and continues to form. We advocate for equal pay for equal work. The reception and integration of refugees, migrants and posted persons can only work if policy approaches are adopted that advocate sustainable employment growth. Only if there is integration according to good standards and under fair conditions will the arrival of new workers on the labor market have a positive impact on the economy and society.

Such seminars are of great importance for the whole region in terms of education and setting short- and medium-term goals and to overcome the challenges faced on the ground, and to preserve decent work for all workers.

The participants express their gratitude to the EU and EZA as well to ACV-BIE who have financially enabled and organizationally supported this seminar.