If we want Serbia to have modern, green mining, we must have the highest standards in the field of environmental protection, and that’s something we’ll demand of all mining companies and for all new projects. In accordance with that, we pay great attention not only to investments, but also to the values that these companies bring to our market
In order for us to create the kind of society we want, it’s necessary for us to have both economic growth and respect for all standards that contribute to improving quality of life, from environmental protection to the promotion of labor rights, inclusiveness and equality, says Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Mining and Energy Zorana Mihajlović Ph.D., with whom we discussed how all of that can be achieved in practice.
We hear very often about how some companies, whether domestic or foreign, endanger the rights of their workers. What does the Serbian government do to promote good employers and sanction those that violate workers’ human rights?
– First and foremost, respect for workers’ rights isn’t a matter of the good will of employers, rather adherence to the law and its application. It is possible, however, to do some additional things, either through initiatives or certain regulations that encourage companies to take better care of their attitude towards employees and thereby raise standards and promote good practice as a society.
One example of this is the so-called white and black list of works contractors, which we introduced during my time heading the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure. That list ranks construction companies according to criteria like the number of employees on fixed-term contracts, the number of serious and minor injuries sustained at work, regular payments of taxes and contributions, instances of undeclared work, with the aim of clearly identifying companies that violate regulations and giving a preference in the awarding of works to those that act responsibly towards employees and respect deadlines.
At the suggestion of the ministry that I then headed, the Government of Serbia adopted a finding in 2017 that recommended state institutions confirm the rating of companies on the black and white list, via public procurement, prior to making a decision on the awarding of works, precisely with the aim of giving an advantage to companies that regularly pay their taxes and contributions, take care of the safety of workers and respect contractual obligations, all of which are criteria that ensure they’re included on the white list. Of course, such a model can also be applied in other areas, as long as there are clear criteria and a willingness to give a preference to responsible companies.
We often see a lack of responsible business conduct when it comes to the attitude towards women. To what extent do existing documents and control instruments provide a response to these issues?
– Gender equality must be achieved in all areas of social, economic and political life, in order for us to achieve progress in society. The new legislative and strategic framework – primarily the umbrella Law on Gender Equality and the Strategy for the Promotion of Gender Equality – introduce an array of regulations aimed at advancing equality between women and men in many areas, which also includes labor and employment. This includes, among other things, reducing the pay gap between women and men in the labor market (the pay gap stood at 8.8% in 2018), increasing the participation of women in high-paying jobs, establishing systemic support for launching, developing and growing businesses that are majority-owned by women, boosting support for innovative programs and services that aim to encourage women in the labor market. Statistics show that women account for more than half of graduate students in Serbia, while 57% of those who’ve completed doctoral studies are women and 43% are men.
Taking this data into consideration, a question arises as to how women find it tougher to secure employment in the highest positions and how it’s possible that decision- making positions are most often held by men? There are many factors contributing to this situation and maintaining the “glass ceiling” effect, such as – among other things – gender stereotypes and prejudice, the historically unequal distribution of power between men and women, unpaid housework and gender roles that most often identify women as housewives and mothers whose place is in the home.
Respect for workers’ rights isn’t a matter of the good will of employers, rather adherence to the law and its application… An example of this is the so-called white and black list of works contractors, which we introduced during my time heading the Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure
Five years ago, with the aim of promoting responsible business, the Coordination Body for Gender Equality and the Association of Business Women of Serbia jointly established an award for the most gender-sensitive company, in order for gender principles to be included in all spheres of life, including the business world. Companies that implement a CSR strategy that’s guided by gender equality principles, that treat all employees fairly, respect and protect human rights and non-discrimination, that promote the education, training and professional development of women in their operations and that endeavor to ensure the health, security and equality of all workers while publicly advocating for equality and including women’s companies in their supply chains are certainly companies that contribute, with their example, to the creation of a new, gender-sensitive climate in Serbia.
We have a great drive to develop mining in Serbia, but the public is suspicious over whether the companies involved in these operations will behave in accordance with best practices. What mechanisms are available to the Government of Serbia when it comes to ensuring companies comply with the standards and obligations that they accepted contractually?
– When the Ministry of Mining and Energy was formed in October 2020, we set the priority, first and foremost, not only for mining operations to comply with all legal regulations, but also for us to work on the respecting and raising of standards related to environmental protection and the relationship companies have with the communities living in the places where they conduct mining operations.
This all requires the state’s proactive approach, from the advancing of regulations – which we achieved through the adoption of the Law on Amendments to the Law on Mining and Geological Exploration – to the reinforcing of inspection oversight. With the adopting of this law, we wanted to create the necessary conditions for the more efficient and sustainable management of Serbia’s mineral deposits and other geological resources, and to increase investments in geological exploration and mining, given that the value of Serbia’s confirmed mineral reserves is more than 250 billion dollars.
However, mining isn’t merely the exploitation and processing of mineral ores, but rather also implies caring for the people who live close to the mine and taking care of nature. That’s why projects in the mining sector can only be realized if they’ve first satisfied all environmental protection requirements. Mining needs to develop itself and contribute to overall economic growth, but that must be done in a sustainable way. If we want Serbia to have modern, green mining, we must have the highest environmental protection standards, and that’s something we’ll demand of all mining companies and for all new projects.
We are, of course, also aware of the multitude of half-truths and complete lies being propagated when it comes to mining projects, which only cause harm to everyone, and we combat that by informing citizens and being fully transparent in everything we do.
What is your greatest inspiration and which of the practices included in the Canadian strategy on responsible business conduct would you like to see implemented in Serbia?
– Primarily, that would be the expectation that companies – regardless of ownership structure, size, and sector of operations – can contribute to sustainable development and serve as an example to their partners and suppliers, thus contributing to raising standards throughout the entire supply chain. For us, it is very important that the investors that come to Serbia not only bring capital and technology, but also contribute to improving practices with regard to environmental protection, inclusivity, promoting gender equality and human rights, and contributing to the fight against all forms of discrimination in our society.
Gender equality must be achieved in all areas of social, economic and political life, in order for us to achieve progress in society
I also believe that the influence of Canadian companies, as well as the promoting of the values promulgated through the Canadian Strategy for Responsible Business Conduct, would be even more significant with the greater presence of Canadian companies in Serbia and more investors from this country. The highest level of bilateral trade was achieved last year, but space certainly exists to advance our economic cooperation further and attract more investment from Canada. The increased presence of Canadian companies in Serbia would certainly lead to more opportunities to transfer good business practices to Serbia.
To what extent are companies’ CSR policies integrated in the sector that’s under your direct jurisdiction?
– Serbia is a country that’s on the path to achieving EU membership, and the entire process of European integration should ensure the raising of standards in all areas. The opening of Cluster 4 – Green Agenda and sustainable connectivity – is an acknowledgement of the results achieved to date, but also an obligation for us to reach the standards required of us in the coming period. Serbia is undergoing the energy transition process that will change many things, especially in the energy sector, but also in relations towards the environment. No project can be implemented in the field of energy without first complying with all environmental protection regulations and standards.
Green transition is a process that impacts all of us, and we will all have to change our attitude towards energy – from how we access it, to how we consume it in our households, transport, companies, and production processes. Through the laws that we’ve passed and our program of subsidies for increasing energy efficiency in households and installing solar panels, the Ministry of Energy and Mining has made it possible for citizens to become actors in green transition, but it is equally important for business to be part of our route to decarbonization, and for the green agenda to be included in companies’ strategies and operations.
Attitudes towards the environment, contributing to the fight against climate change, reducing carbon emissions and taking care to ensure the rational use of energy are factors that are being seen around the world as ways for companies to set themselves apart from their competition, demonstrate their awareness and responsibility, and thus gain the trust of customers and service users.
It is my belief that this will increasingly become part of the practice of companies in Serbia, especially in the energy transition process, which is a generational issue that we should all contribute to in order for us to become an energy secure country, for us to have enough energy, and to preserve a healthy environment – not only today, but also for future generations.
Mining isn’t merely the exploitation and processing of mineral ores… That’s why projects in the mining sector can only be realized if they’ve first satisfied all environmental protection requirements
For us, it is very important that the investors that come to Serbia not only bring capital and technology, but also contribute to improving practices with regard to environmental protection and inclusivity
The increased presence of Canadian companies in Serbia would provide more opportunities to transfer good business practices to ur country