The “SDGs for All” society-wide dialogue platform, in partnership with civil society organizations, has launched a series of online debates to discuss the Government’s response to the current pandemic within a range of critical societal issues and with particular reference to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 2030 Agenda implementation in Serbia.
The second such online panel took place on July 1, 2020 on MS Teams web platform, on the topic “Economic activity, labour market and decent work during the COVID-19 crisis”. The event gathered a wide range of perspectives on the quality and safety of jobs in Serbia, with particular reference to SDG 8 (Decent work). The debate also touched upon other related SDGs, including SDG 1 (Poverty reduction), SDG 10 (Economic inequality) and 5 (Gender equality). The event was organized in cooperation with the Center for Advanced Economic Studies – CEVES and Foundation Center for Democracy – FCD and was moderated by Nemanja Šormaz, CEVES Executive Director. The event’s keynote speakers were Jovan Protić, National Coordinator for Serbia of ILO, Kori Udovički, founder and managing board director of CEVES, Sarita Bradaš, researcher from FCD, Jelena Žarković from the Faculty of Economics, University of Belgrade, and Branka Anđelković from the Center for Public Policy Research.
During an engaging two hour debate, more than 120 participants from civil society organizations, institutions, research and academic community, trade unions, professional associations and international organizations, exchanged their experiences and advice on how to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economic challenges, labour market trends and decent work standards in Serbia. Some of the most notable questions raised during the debate included those that referred to the changes in the dignity of work as a result of the pandemic, to the most affected economic sectors and professional occupations, to the adequacy of the state response to protect the number and quality of jobs and to the predictions for a gradual recovery of the labour market in the coming period. The debate also addressed the issue of potential lasting changes in the world of labour at a global scale and the future of work in general.
Ms. Kori Udovički highlighted that for Serbia it is critically important to ponder the models of economic growth that uphold the decent work standards. She said that a steady economic growth that was accelerating in 2019 was abruptly stopped by the pandemic, and the current projections suggest that the drop in industrial production will be around 3 percent at the end of the year. SMEs have displayed a considerable degree of resilience during the pandemics, according to her, both due to the reserves they have accumulated but also thanks to the Government measures. Ms. Udovički anticipated a difficult period ahead of us even as some of the biggest multinational companies started with a practice of transferring their business operations to nearby countries, in preference to more distant ones. As particular obstacles in overcoming the pandemic and its effects in Serbia she identified centralized decision making, fiscal consolidation that has resulted in the decrease of the state/administrative apparatus, and the lack of clear principles and specific focus of the economic measures imposed by the Government.
Mr. Jovan Protić presented the highlights of the global research conducted by ILO on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment worldwide. According to the research, 5.5 percent of working hours was wiped out globally in first quarter of 2020 whereas in the second quarter of 2020, 14.8 percent of the working hours was lost – equivalent to 480 million full-time workers. In Serbia, the effects of the pandemic on the loss of the working hours is like that of the global scale, with the equivalent of 510,000 full-time workers having lost their jobs in the second quarter of 2020.
The global figures, based on this research, far exceed the effects of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The eventual increase in global unemployment during 2020 will depend substantially on future developments and policy measures adopted by the governments.
Mr. Protić highlighted that ILO has shared several recommendations regarding the implementation of the SDG 8, including the need to first tackle the health aspect of the pandemic, to recover the labour market before setting out with the fiscal consolidation, to focus on the particularly vulnerable groups at the labour market, such as women, youth and non-formal workers and to intensify the social dialogue to ensure that the burden of the effects of the crisis is divided in a more balanced manner.
Ms. Sarita Bradaš highlighted that in 2019 registered employment was at 47.5% with high share of those with vulnerable employment, such as temporary and non-formal jobs. Social protection is one of the biggest issues faced by those falling under the category of vulnerable jobs, as no compensation for unemployment is provided. Due to the multidimensional nature of decent work, SDG 8 is connected with other related SDGs, such as gender equality, poverty reduction, health protection and education. Despite a relative increase in employment, numbers of those below and around poverty line continue to remain steady, according to Ms. Bradaš. One of the main objections to the Government economic measures is that none of them is directed towards the employees, but instead, those are all directed towards the employers. Ms. Bradaš expects, that as a result of the pandemic, the number of people that will be in the need for social protection will increase and that trade unions need to be more actively engaged in the discussions over the remedy mechanisms.
Ms. Jelena Žarković focused on how to organize our life going forward as it is certain we’ll continue to live alongside the virus in the next year-year and a half. The economic response of the Government to the pandemic has been as good as it could be at the moment, according to her observations. The economic program might not have been as targeted as it could have been, since some branches of economy have been hit harder than the others, but the Government had to act quickly and it did so, knowing that there is no space within the budget for additional borrowing.
Those who have been hit hardest by the crisis are the most vulnerable categories of employees, and they have, to a large extent, not been positively affected by the Government measures. Those are primarily some 500,000 non-formal employees, many of them employed in agriculture but without registered agricultural households. Ms. Žarković expects that Serbia’s drop in GDP will be less dramatic than in some other countries in the region, as tourism does not participate significantly in its GDP, and as our commodity exchange with external (mostly EU) partners is not as high as that of some other countries in the region.
Ms. Branka Anđelković elaborated on the potential of the digital technology to support the ability of the economy to resist the impact of restrictions and the adjustments of digital workers/free-lancers to the new reality. In addition to the short-term concerns, there are important questions related to how the gig economy will evolve in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the key findings that Ms. Anđelković shared is that some segments of this gig or freelancer economy have collapsed during the pandemic, but it is still uncertain to predict the structure of the Serbian work force in the future and whether some portion of the gig or online workers will cross over the off-line economy. She emphasized that the pandemic is changing the way the work processes are organized and shared concerns that the managements in Serbia still find it difficult to organize and manage the process of online work.
The event demonstrated a great deal of interest among the relevant stakeholders to participate in the discussion over the implications of the pandemic on some of the most critical employment and labour market issues. This interest will present a great asset for the future stakeholders’ gatherings and policy development efforts within “SDGs for All” Platform.
The “SDGs for All” platform enables a broad discussion among Serbia’s most non-state actors, including civil society, corporate sector, academic and research community, media and citizens on aligning Serbia’s development priorities within the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The platform is directly coordinated by six prominent Serbian civil society organizations: the Foundation Ana and Vlade Divac in partnership with the Center for Democracy Foundation (CDF); the Center for Advanced Economic Studies (CEVES) in partnership with the Timok Youth Center (TYC), and the Belgrade Open School (BOS) in partnership with the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE).