The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) said on Thursday that an Austrian-owned construction company paid prison inmates less than an Euro a day to work on a bridge in the Serbian town of Knjazevac.
“A road company in Serbia owned by Austrian Strabag hired 28 inmates in 2016 for less than a euro per hour,” BIRN said. According to the report the Zajecar district prison was being paid 120 Dinars an hour (1 Euro – 118 Dinars) for each inmate but the prisoners were entitled to about 20 percent of that or just under 20 Euro cents. It added that the PZP Zajecar road company did not have to pay taxes or duties on their wages.
Strabag safety chief Nebojsa Budjelan told BIRN that he learned that inmates were being used for construction work following a traffic accident in 2016 involving the van that was taking them back to prison at the end of the work day. He said that he knew that inmates were used to collect trash and wash signs along the side of roads but that this was the first time they were doing construction work.
“Their only qualification is their price of 1,000 dinars [roughly 10 euros] per day, no matter how many hours they work,” he said, adding that inmates had always been hired in line with Serbian law before.
BIRN said that prisons in Serbia are allowed to hire out inmates to private companies and that they are entitled to pay. It said that official data showed that in the first half of 2016, the average salary of a construction worker in Serbia was around 322 euros per month, or roughly two Euro an hour, adding that taxes and duties would raise the cost of each employee to some 444 Euro a month or 2.77 Euro an hour. Sources at the Justice Ministry department in charge of prisons told BIRN that the law does not oblige prisons to contract wages at market prices.
Milos Jankovic, a former head of the department who went on to be deputy Ombudsman, is quoted as saying that the wages were “in obvious disproportion to the usual price of a working hour”. “The private company clearly gets the extra money, which is the difference between the minimal and market price of labour,” he said.
BIRN asked the Justice Ministry department in charge of prisons for data on inmate recruitment for private companies but received no reply.
In a written statement to BIRN, Strabag confirmed hiring inmates but stressed that everything was carried out in line with the law. Strabag and the Zajecar Country Prison ceased cooperation at the end of 2016. The Austrian construction company has been present in Serbia since the 1960s, expanding that presence after the year 2000 when it acquired several local road companies, including PZP Zajecar, and became one of the biggest players in the industry, BIRN said.
Serbia’s prisons are among the most overcrowded in Europe, according to a 2018-2019 Council of Europe report which said that the average number of prisoners per 100,000 people in Serbia was 156.1 compared to a European average of 125.9, BIRN said adding that the prison population increased by 11.6 per cent over the past 10 years to 10,871 inmates in 2019.