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BALKANS: Cornered Hopelessly at Work

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Apr 27 2011 (IPS) - Katka Ceh has been selling vegetables at Pancevo’s open-air market since losing her job as a pre-school teacher in the nearby village of Kovacica more than a year ago.

Ceh was fired from her workplace, 35 kilometres from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, after a legal battle against her headmaster who had harassed her for years. She won the court case under a year old Serbian ‘anti-mobbing law’, and thought her ordeal was over as the headmaster was fined more than 1,000 dollars. However, after Ceh’s victory, the headmaster laughed in her face and fired her.

“Sue me again and for this, but you won’t get any jobs anywhere in this sector in the future,” Katka remembers her headmaster saying. “That’s when I recognised I lost my battle and no law can really protect me,” Katka told IPS. “I live in a village and everyone knows about my case… the whole court matter only made my life worse despite me being right. That’s why I decided to turn to my back garden and vegetables.”

Katka (46) belongs to the 43 percent of Serbia’s 1.77 million-strong workforce who face or faced harassment or ‘mobbing’ in the workplace last year. This came as a result of the first research into the problem, carried out by non-governmental organisation ‘No Mobbing’ earlier this year. The study was done six months after Serbia adopted its first anti-mobbing law, in an effort to prevent the practice which had arisen alongside the introduction of privatisation and a market economy 10 years ago.

Experts define mobbing as hostile, unethical, yet systematic harassment of employees – either by their bosses or co-workers – that has the final outcome of pushing a person out of job with or without any reason. It is described as vertical if it comes from superiors, or horizontal if coming from people in similar positions. Motives differ from pure pathology, to jealousy, and fights for promotion.

Statistics from the Victimology Society of Serbia show that 55 percent of all victims of violence registered with the society have also been harassed at their jobs.

“Transition (into market economy) and privatisation have provided an alibi for mobbing here,” Vesna Baltazerovic, author of the book ‘Live Sand, or how to Survive Mobbing’ told IPS. “However, we’re not alone. All former Yugoslav nations face the same problem and the percent of mobbed workers is almost the same.”

In Europe, Baltazerovic says, the number of workers harassed in Finland is the highest and stands at 15 percent; while in Britain and the Netherlands it stands at 14 percent, and in Greece and Spain at five percent.

“At the time of current economic crisis, people tend to keep quiet about being mobbed, both victims and witnesses, as they want to keep their jobs,” Baltazerovic added. “Solidarity among workers dies and only the survival game takes on.”

“There are also cases of mobbing of trade union activists, in order to diminish the role of organised workers’ actions,” says Olga Kicanovic of the Serbian Agency for Peaceful Settlement of Labour Disputes.

Victims of mobbing are often people who dare to point the finger at illegal business practices at privatised companies where new owners either launder money or openly rob resources and funds, Kicanovic says. There is also “political mobbing”, when political parties name their officials as managers of public enterprises and firms. “They are usually incompetent and ignorant, and take to mobbing in order to remove those who point at their unskilled management of firms.”

Harassment has serious health effects, experts in the field note. Psychologist Ljiljana Arandjelovic studied victims of mobbing in the provincial towns of Paracin, Cuprija, Kragujevac and Leskovac over the past six months. “Victims of mobbing suffer from anxiety, depression, headaches,” she told IPS. “More serious cases include heart conditions and diabetes. Victims of mobbing are not only the mobbed, but their families as well, as they all suffer the effects caused by trouble at work and health problems of the victim.”

All experts in the field agree that education is the only answer to the problem of persistent harassment.

“Workers need to be educated on what the mobbing is and how to recognise it, in order to take immediate steps and stop it,” Baltazerovic says. “But employers should be educated as well, as it is not in their interest to mob or allow mobbing. They can be fined, while workers are less productive if mobbed. The law itself is good, but can not mean much if people don’t know how to understand what is happening and use what is at their disposal,” she concluded.

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