5,000 public sector workers protest in Serbia

AFP , Friday 25 Mar 2011

Employees in Serbian health, education, judiciary and police demand urgent talks with government to increase wages

More than 5,000 Serbia's teachers, doctors, policemen and other public sector workers protested Friday in Belgrade demanding pay rises and improved working conditions.

"Employees from the health sector, education, judiciary and police, we are all here to send a clear message that we will no longer allow those who work for the citizens of Serbia -- treating them, teaching or taking care of their security -- to be humiliated," Zivorad Brkic, a health union member, told AFP.

"We want negotiations (with government) immediately, we've had enough of them repeating that there is no money," he said.

Initially called by three out of four education unions, whose members have been on strike since late January, other unions joined the protest to demand urgent talks with the government on increasing their wages.

The average net salary paid in February in Serbia was 35,538 dinars (some 350 euros, $495), a 3.0 percent increase in real terms compared to January, Serbia's Statistical Office said in a statement Friday.

Serbia, severely hit by global economic crisis but also lacking structural reforms, was forced to reduce public costs and freeze public salaries from May 2009 to January 2011 in order to control budget deficit.

The government has agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to a budget deficit of 4.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011, down from 4.8 percent last year.

"One could think that we are only interested in money, but that is so not true," said Zlatko Katesevski, a high school teacher among the protesters.

"We want the education law to be changed as it does not enable us to do our job," he added.

Education union spokeswoman Ivana Bosnjak said the main goal of the protest was to force government into talks on improving the education system, but also on a recent decision of the education minister to decrease the wages of those out on strike.

"We have been on strike for two months and nobody seriously tried to talk to us. We want better education and (instead) we are punished because we fight for our rights," Bosnjak said.

The protestors marched along main Belgrade streets to the government building to hand in their written demands.

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