Contrary to the officials’ pompous announcements, the newly introduced legal measures diminish financial support for expectant and new mothers.
The new Law on Financial Support of Families with Children provoked a public outcry. The Law has until recently been announced as the best social policy ever, with authorities claiming the rise of birth rate to be the Serbian Government’s top priority. Throughout last year authorities praised the law that would allegedly rise the baby bonus and extend the right to paid maternal leave beyond women with permanent employment3. Thus, the new law should grant this right to women managing family agricultural businesses, women engaged on temporary and casual work, and freelance agreements. In the same pompous tone it was announced that VAT reimbursement for baby accessories will be replaced with a fixed sum of 5.000 RSD (42.14 €), to which everybody will be entitled.
This fairly convincing PR stunt of the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy was followed by a pro-natalist campaign. The Ministry of Culture and Information held a public competition for slogans to be used in a campaign designed to promote the Serbian Government’s population politics, with the intention of increasing the birth rate in Serbia. Negative publicity didn’t stop the campaign. Instead, we saw celebrities and politicians lecturing about the importance of a high birth rate, and the president himself appealed to women to have (more) children, citing the demographic prognosis according to which “we will no longer have neither a state, nor a people” by 2060, if the current trend continues.
The actual state of affairs
What kind of changes does the new law introduce? Let us take a look at the baby accessories VAT reimbursement. The old law entitled parents to an overall VAT reimbursement of 77.279,95 RSD (approx. 650 €) – 44.159,97 RSD (370 €) to be received during a child’s first year, and another 33.119,98 RSD (280 €)during the second. The entitlement to the reimbursement was limited to families whose income was lower than 1.059.839,40 RSD (approx. 9000 €), providing that they do not own a real estate property valuable more that 25.833.585,14 RSD (approx. 218.000 €) . The new law abolishes this measure, and introduces an amount of 5.000 RSD (42 €) to be paid to all new parents, regardless of their monthly income and assets. To illustrate how ridiculous a sum we are talking about, let’s compare it to any single baby accessory item, such as the baby trolley. The cheapest trolley costs around 29.000 RSD (244 €), meaning that the abovementioned sum barely covers this item’s VAT. And that’s without even mentioning other items, such as the bed, drawers, feeding chair, etc.
The public reacted most vividly to the changes in the salary reimbursement. According to Article 13 of the law, the reimbursement is calculated by dividing the income earned in the last 18 months by 18, weather the woman in question was employed for a month or during the whole 18 month period. The calculation resulted in a number of ridiculously low reimbursements, so low that some women proved to be entitled to a mere 1.000 RSD (8.43 €) a month. So, there is no minimal limit. This spells a breach of the Convention 183 of the International labour organisation, signed by Serbia in 2010. There is, however, an upper limit of three average salaries, or 150.000 RSD (1264 €).
In a guest appearance in Belgrade chronicles TV show, the representative of the ministry in charge of social affairs, Milena Antić, explained the calculation by stating that a woman invests in the state budget through taxes and contributions within the specified timeframe, and receives a reimbursement proportional to her investment. If we indeed adopt such logic, it’s puzzling why only the particular 18 months prior to childbirth or pregnancy are taken into account. Does the ministry assume that women don’t work in other periods, and don’t pay different taxes and contributions, VAT and excises throughout their lifetime? We are left guessing, since the Ministry failed to provide any answers to that question.
Besides ignoring the lifelong “investments”, and presenting the right to a reimbursement as the State’s charity, instead of a right that the women herself earned, this law ignores the precarious conditions of labour and the fact that most people live in continuous uncertainty, moving back and forth between employment and unemployment. The flexibilisation of labour, and the proliferation of all sorts of engagements such as freelance, temporary engagement and casual work, flexible hours, labour in the informal economy, seasonal jobs, etc. make long-term planning impossible for a large number of people. If a woman, in addition, need to take maternity leave to protect a high-risk pregnancy, she will find herself in an even more vulnerable position. Only the time prior to the leave will be taken into account. To say nothing of the fact that the employers are hesitant to employ women in the first place. In the words of Milena Antić “(T)he employers need a woman that will actually work. So, you sign a labour contract to perform labour, not to go on a leave the very next day”. These are only a few changes brough about by a law that law professor Mario Reljanović conveniently dubbed the Law on financial ruin of families with children.
Housework remains invisible to the lawmakers
Among the numerous problems of this law is the fact that unpaid housework and reproductive labour, which rests mainly on women, remains completely invisible, and its contribution to social reproduction unaccounted for. At the same time the control over female reproduction and their subjugation to state goals increased to such amount that women get openly blamed for the bad demographic reports, and there have even been announcements of limiting the availability of elective abortion. Given the fact that the exploitation of labour is the main source of profit in capitalism, the production of cheap labour force is inevitably one of the state goals, not only in the future, but also in the present. All those unable to earn a living wage (the minimum income needed to cover basic expenses), or an estimated 77.828 RSD (656 €) in Serbia (which reads the great majority of the population) find themselves under pressure to agree to precarious working conditions in order to provide for their children. These frequently assume not only engagement in the field of informal economy, but also risky jobs. It’s not hard to understand why many people have a hard time to decide in favour of parenting, delaying or dismissing it altogether instead.
The presented policies represent only a segment of changes used to create entirely anti-social policies. Not only does their sub context assume that everybody should pursue their own individual interest and abandon solidarity which represents a basis for retirement, disability, and health insurance, but the fact remains that even adopting such worldview and behaviour cannot guarantee a safe future. The most often result of such systemic individualisation is, sadly, a type of resistance which paves the way to even greater individualism, represented in the form of anti-natalist policies which arise in response to the strengthening of conservativism. One can ever more often hear that parenting is selfish since it endangers the planet’s survival through its contribution to pollution and climate change. Instead of such particular approaches, the retreat in front of the aggressive neoliberal policies and the promoting of the ideas of personal withdraw, only systemic changes can allow everybody to freely choose whether they want to be a parent (biological or otherwise), following their own priorities, and not be steered exclusively by their material and (a)social (im)possibilities.
In order to rebuild the kind of sociability that has been under relentless attack in the ex-Yugoslav countries in the decades following the restoration of capitalism, we should demand decent social policies. They should include pay reimbursement, paid maternity leave, and paid parental leave for both parents at the same time, regardless of gender and length of employment. (Current policies limit this right to mothers, and the father is only entitled to a leave in the case of the mother’s death, disappearance, in cases of serving jail sentence, and the like. Maternity leave is followed by paternity leave designed to allow taking care of the new born. Paternity leave is limited to nine months. Both parents are entitled to enjoy a right to a paternity leave, but not at the same time.) Baby bonus,and other reimbursements that apply in cases of childbirth, care and special care of an infant, and also kindergartens, education, medical care and other precognitions of a happy and carefree childhood should be universally available, regardless of income, length of service and material conditions. Every woman should have free access to elective abortion, artificial insemination, suitable prenatal tests (which are currently expensive and unavailable to the majority of women), a suitable psychophysical preparation (currently still existing in some health centersas a practice inherited from the times of SFRY, although in a shortened version, due to the lack of staff), psychological post-partum counseling, and all other things necessary to go through this life-changing transformation in the best and the safest way possible should be available to all women.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Sep 9, 2018.