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Nicolas Marquier, Regional Manager for the Western Balkans at the International Finance Corporation (IFC)

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Dr Ivan Todorović, Todorović Law Firm

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Marija Stojiljković, Founder, Royal Nanny

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Petar Miljković, CEO, 14. Oktobar d.o.o.

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Ivana Bogdanović, Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications at Addiko Bank

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Branka Anđelković, Co-founder and Programme Director of the Public Policy Research Centre

An Even Bigger Grey Market?

In the case of workers of the platform employed in food production and passenger transport, the Open Balkan initiative might not contribute to the creation of new and productive jobs, but will only serve to legalise existing “grey” businesses

The opening of the labour market means simplified procedures for obtaining work and residence permits for all workers, including workers in food delivery and in transportation via digital platforms (so-called platform workers), but also the opportunity to more easily access the labour market in the countries that are part of this initiative: North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania. Those wanting to gain employment in this way no longer have to knock on the doors of the interior ministries and employment offices, but rather can apply for a work and residence certificate via the Open Balkan portal.

Although the number of applicants remains small for now, initial information indicates that service workers are in the highest demand and could prospectively benefit the most from this programme. However, a question arises as to whether this is really the case for platform workers who are also part of this group of highly sought-after professions.

As shown by the multiyear research of the Public Policy Research Centre and the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork project, most workers in this industry are employed in the grey zone, aka the shadow economy, with contracts that often provide barely any form of social and health protection. As such, these workers actually have precarious contracts and very insecure working conditions, despite the good earnings that are usually attributed to them.

It is possible for increased competition between platform workers to lead to lower wages and poorer working conditions, instead of improving the situation for all involved

This also includes safety at work issues, because couriers and other delivery workers are often involved in traffic accidents. This area nonetheless remains unregulated: regardless of individual and isolated attempts to make this work safer, there has been a lack of success to date. Who, then, will cover medical costs for couriers and drivers in the case that they sustain more serious injuries if imported workers receive the same bad contracts (such as those for casual and temporary jobs) as their local colleagues?

In this context, a question arises as to whether the Open Balkan initiative will really contribute to the creation of new and productive jobs or whether it will merely legalise existing “grey” businesses. For example, both the companies that hire these workers and platform economy workers themselves are already accustomed to working in the grey zone in their home countries. So, although the goal of the initiative is to ease the path to legal employment for workers, it is tough to expect it to change the established habits of employers and workers themselves.

There are further concerns that increasing the number of employees through the portal could lead to the overburdening of the labour market, considering that this is an area that already lacks legal regulation and controls. It is also possible for increased competition between workers to lead to lower wages and poorer working conditions, instead of improving the situation for all involved. As such, it is very important to ask how the Open Balkan initiative will influence social security and the rights of workers. This highlights the importance of monitoring this initiative’s long-term effects and taking measures to ensure workers’ protection and wellbeing under the new conditions for doing business.

Comment by Zoran Panović

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