Freelancers in Serbia protest

Online workers held a protest on Saturday in front of the National Assembly of Serbia. The authorities accepted invitation to negotiations, stated Miran Pogačar, president of the Association of Internet Workers (URI). Members of URI added that this is a small victory and that they will continue to fight.

I was called by the head of the cabinet of Ana Brnabić. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, Siniša Mali, will sit at the negotiation table with us. We won one small battle, and we will keep fighting, Miran Pogačar addressed the protesters.

Several thousand people gathered in front of the Serbian Parliament at a protest organized by the Association of Internet Workers. Freelancers, representatives of the association Let’s Defend the Rivers of the Stara Planina and the Defender of Entrepreneurs and Businessmen of Serbia also addressed the gathered.

The protesters repeatedly chanted “Everyone, everyone, everyone as one!” and “Thieves, thieves!”

“Give us a new law, then ask for taxes”, “Yes to taxes, no to robbery” and “Pensioners are with freelancers” were some of the messages that those gathered expressed through banners.

After the speeches given in front of the Assembly have ended, the protesters walked to Nemanjina Street and the building of the Government of Serbia, then to Slavija Square and back to the Assembly.

While in front of the Government, Miran Pogačar called on the protesters to gather again on Monday, when the negotiations between the online workers and the authorities begin, so that “they can see how many of us there are”.

Protest of the Association of Internet Workers in Belgrade (source: Marko Miletić / Mašina)

Why are online workers protesting

Stop the robbery of online workers, stop the robbery of Serbian citizens! — is a message URI used to call for mass attendance of the rally organised in support of the association’s demands.

URI called for a protest demanding that the Tax Administration suspends the retroactive collection of five years’ taxes and contributions on payments from abroad, and that the authorities join the representatives of online workers at the negotiating table.

Members of URI believe that the state has endangered the livelihood and future of tens of thousands of families of online workers through the actions of the Tax Administration.

They accuse us of being tax evaders, of seeking a privileged position, they make us fall out with others. They are referring to a law passed 20 years ago, that doesn’t recognize us – we are neither workers, nor employees, nor employers. They don’t allow us to be equal with others, the call for protest emphasized.

In mid-October, the Tax Administration of the Republic of Serbia gave persons who earn income from abroad six weeks to apply for ‘self-taxation’. This caused great concern among freelancers, as the tax decisions they began to receive required them to pay taxes and interest contributions for the past five years. Such a claim by the Tax Administration can reach up to 80% of everything earned in that period.

In order to fight for their rights, freelancers soon established a guild association — the Association of Internet Workers.

As we wrote earlier, URI members are not against paying taxes in general. In November 2020  association’s representatives demanded of the state that tax control procedures and adoption and execution of tax decisions be suspended until “a sustainable, transparent and precise tax-legal framework for workers on the Internet is established”. They also demanded the authorities to set a date for the beginning of negotiations and dialogue on the legal status of workers on the Internet, and to define the structure and financial rates of taxes and contributions.

As Danas wrote, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, commented on the eve of the protest that he did not think that the protests were a ‘solution to anything’ and that he appealed to the Government of Serbia to accept talks with them.

Miran Pogačar, President of the Association of Internet Workers (source: Marko Miletić / Mašina)

Who are the online workers and what do they do?

Earlier, Mašina’s journalists talked to the online workers in order to gain a clearer picture of the social and economic position of people who earn their living through computers and the World Wide Web.

We learned that among those who work on the Internet, there are a lot of students who supplement family budgets and contribute to the financing of increasingly expensive schooling. But a lot of young people who graduated from college and faced unemployment also earn income by working online.

I am an economist in tourism by profession, but unfortunately I don’t have a single day of work in my profession because whenever I was looking for a job, no one wanted to call me for an internship, let alone an interview, always with the excuse of already having too many employees, Snežana explained.

Women who work online are the most burdened category. Although in some situations flexible working hours would suit mothers, it often happens that due to the difference in time zones, working with clients is difficult to fit into regular daily schedule, while in some situations employers are deaf to the needs of women working online from their homes.

People who lost their jobs after many years of work, or whose employers withheld their salaries, often work on the Internet. Ivana shared such a story with us. Her employment contract at the Institute for Strategic Research at the Ministry of Defense was not extended, nor was she re-hired, despite the promises of the former employer.

Protest of Association of Internet Workers (source: Marko Miletić / Mašina)

For many who somehow managed to get to receive their pensions, it quickly turned out that they were not nearly enough to survive. Slavica, who also works online, talks about this:

My pension is very small, below average, around 23,000 dinars. Of that, 8600 goes to my apartment loan. I spend the other half to pay bills and buy my prescription drugs, so I have nothing left for a normal modest life. To survive the rest of the month and supplement my pension, I work online. I don’t earn much, but it’s enough for me to survive. If my pension was closer to normal, I probably wouldn’t even do this job. But that’s why I have to.

According to the results of the research of the Public Policy Research Center, the number of workers who do business online is around 100,000, and this number can be considered conservative since the research does not cover all categories of the respective sphere of work. However, even with that figure, we are talking about 2.19% of employable people in Serbia.

Photo: Protest of the Association of Internet Workers in Belgrade (source: Marko Miletić / Mašina)

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Jan 16, 2021. It appeared on the English section of Mašina on 18 January 2021.

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