BELGRADE (Reuters) — Health workers and teachers in Serbia announced on Thursday they would strike next month in the first real sign of resistance to wage and pension cuts introduced by the government to try to stabilize the budget.
The government says the cuts, set to take effect on Nov. 1, are needed to bolster Serbia's finances after years of rising debt and deficit levels that the International Monetary Fund says are no longer sustainable.
Cuts of at least 10 per cent were adopted at the weekend as part of a revision to this year's budget, while job losses and cuts in subsidies to state firms may follow in 2015.
The European Union candidate country begins negotiations with the IMF next week on a new precautionary loan deal that it hopes to clinch by the end of the year.
It risks a winter of industrial action, however.
Health unions said doctors and nurses would hold a 24-hour strike on Nov. 5, having called on the government to spare them the pay cuts.
"We'll maintain only a minimum level of work, which means only urgent cases, children, and pregnant women will receive treatment," said Zoran Savic, head of the Union of Employees in Health and Social Services. He said the union's members earned on average 45,000 dinars a month (380 euro).
Education employees said they would launch their own open-ended strike on Nov. 17, initially cutting school class times from 45 minutes to 30 and refusing any administrative duties, training courses and seminars.
"The strike will last until our demands are met and we may escalate it into a complete cancellation of all classes," said Dragan Matijevic, head of the Union of Teachers. The average monthly wage for teachers is around 44,000 dinars.
Serbia's public sector, a hangover of socialist Yugoslavia, employs over 700,000 people -- almost half of the total Serbian workforce. The bloated, inefficient sector has helped drive up the consolidated budget deficit to over eight per cent of national output, with public debt at almost 75 per cent, higher than the IMF recommends for similar emerging economies.
The threats of industrial action come on top of a strike now in its 10th week by lawyers over increased taxes and a loss of work to notaries under new laws.