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Serbia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Serbia is a constitutional, multiparty, parliamentary democracy, led by a president. The country held extraordinary elections for seats in the unicameral National Assembly (parliament) on June 21 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated the country efficiently organized the June 21 elections in difficult circumstances, but the dominance of the ruling party, the opposition parties’ lack of access to the media, and the lack of media diversity overall limited voters’ choice. A coalition led by President Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party won an overwhelming majority with more than 60 percent of the vote. The Republic Electoral Commission ruled that elections had to be rerun in 234 of 8,253 municipalities–an unusually high number–due to calculation errors in the voting and other confirmed irregularities. In 2017 Vucic, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round. International observers stated that the 2017 presidential election was mostly free but that campaigning ahead of these elections was tilted to benefit the ruling party.

The national police maintain internal security and are under the control of the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: serious restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists; numerous acts of government corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities; and crimes, including violence, targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, both in the police force and elsewhere in the government, following public exposure of abuses. Nevertheless, many observers believed numerous cases of corruption, social and domestic violence, attacks on civil society, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. There was no specialized governmental body to examine killings at the hands of the security forces. The Security Information Agency and the Directorate for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions examined such cases through internal audits.

Throughout the year media reported on the 1999 disappearance and presumed killing of Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi, three Kosovar-American brothers taken into custody by Serb paramilitary groups and buried on the grounds of a police training center commanded by Goran Radosavljevic. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, stated in a letter to the government in March that the country “has an obligation under international humanitarian law and domestic legal instruments to investigate the criminal responsibility of commanders and superiors, including [police commander] Goran Radosavljevic and Vlastimir Djordjevic, for the killing of the Bytyqi brothers.” The government made no significant progress toward providing justice for the victims, and it was unclear to what extent authorities were actively investigating the case. Criminal proceedings on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Srebrenica-Kravica case) continued, with three hearings held during the year.

Criminal investigations and proceedings related to wartime atrocities in the 1990s were largely stagnant. Hearings that occurred often resulted in further delays and limited tangible progress, according to independent observers.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

While the constitution prohibits such actions, there were reports that the government failed to respect prohibitions on interfering with correspondence and communications. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to obtain a court order before monitoring potential criminal activity and police to obtain a warrant before entering property except to save persons or possessions. Police frequently failed to respect these laws.

Human rights activists and NGOs reported a lack of effective parliamentary oversight of security agencies. The extent of government surveillance on personal communications was unknown. Civil society activists and independent journalists alleged extensive surveillance of citizens’ social media posts and of journalists and activists critical of the government.

In April the Share Foundation discovered a publicly available webpage with password information to access a COVID-19 information database with personally identifiable information on individuals who had been tested, treated, placed into isolation, or died of COVID-19. In response the commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection launched a monitoring process on the implementation of the Law on Personal Data Protection.

In September, Danas reported that the Ministry of Interior would use 8,100 cameras for video surveillance in public spaces across the country. Placing these cameras was part of the “Safe Society” project that the Ministry of Interior was implementing with Huawei based on a 2017 agreement between the Ministry of Interior and the Huawei Technologies Company.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but threats and attacks on journalists, a lack of transparency of media ownership, and the oversized role of the state in the country’s oversaturated media sector undermined these freedoms. The Nations in Transit 2020 report from the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded the country from a “semiconsolidated democracy” to a “transitional or hybrid regime,” citing deterioration of media freedoms as one of the country’s biggest problems. In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, the NGO Reporters without Borders noted, “Serbia has become a country where it is often dangerous to be a journalist and where fake news is gaining in visibility and popularity at an alarming rate.” Unbalanced media coverage and a large volume of fake, misleading, or unverified news stories continued to threaten the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active but were limited in their ability to express a wide variety of views by the oversaturation of the media market and government support of progovernment outlets. The media market was oversaturated with more than 2,500 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable.

Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia, and television stations were heavily dependent on government advertising monies. The largest distributor of paid media content was United Group, which controlled more than 50 percent of the broadband (cable) market, followed by Telecom Serbia, a majority state-owned firm with more than 25 percent of the market. Both firms were vertically integrated and controlled production and distribution of the media content as well as physical infrastructure. This concentration and dependence on government advertising monies strongly benefited incumbents during election periods and made it difficult for opposition leaders to communicate with potential voters.

Independent journalists and outlets continued to operate several independent newspapers, albeit with low and declining circulation. Tabloids remained popular but regularly published incorrect or unverified information. Many of the stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headlines on the cover page. On January 21, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) published a report asserting that the four highest-circulation tabloids, Informer, Srpski Telegraf, Alo, and Kurir, published at least 945 false or unfounded claims on their front pages in 2019. Informer led with 317 such claims, followed by Alo (259), Srpski Telegraf (227), and Kurir (142). The report noted that these four publications negatively reported on the political opposition and its leaders while reporting positively on President Vucic and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Violence and Harassment: The law prohibits threatening or otherwise putting pressure on public media and journalists or exerting any other kind of influence that might obstruct their work. The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 72 cases during the year in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, physical assaults, and frivolous lawsuits for reputational damage, which had a chilling effect on reporting. In July 2019 authorities detained Aleksandra Jankovic Aranitovic without bail for criticizing President Vucic on Twitter. In January the High Court of Belgrade sentenced her to six months of suspended imprisonment. According to the court verdict, the judge determined the tweet was a threat. Authorities released Aranitovic on the day of the verdict, since she had been imprisoned during the six-month procedure. In September, Internal Affairs Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic announced he was suing Danas for one million dinars ($10,000) for reporting eyewitness accounts of violence during antigovernment protests in July. In 2018, two assailants set fire to the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped through a rear window. Jovanovic worked as an investigative journalist for a local news outlet in the Belgrade suburb of Grocka that reported on local corruption. Dragoljub Simonovic, the mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, was indicted for ordering the arson attack. As of September the assailants were yet to be convicted or released as the trial continued. In the meantime Simonovic filed 16 lawsuits against Jovanovic and another journalist for reputational damage based on their reporting about his activities.

Spontaneous violence and threats against journalists also occurred and demonstrated the willingness of nationalistic groups to echo the rhetoric of political leaders while perpetrating violence. Local news and Safe Journalists, a regional press freedom group, reported on July 7 and 8 that demonstrators and police attacked at least 10 journalists who were documenting protests in Belgrade against the government’s decision to reapply restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 1, police arrested Ana Lalic, a reporter for news website Nova.rs, hours after she published a report on the chaotic conditions in a local COVID-19-designated hospital. Authorities held Lalic in custody overnight and charged her with publishing information that could incite panic.

In April 2019, four former members of the security apparatus were sentenced to 100 cumulative years of detention for their role in the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija. Curuvija, a vocal critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, was shot and killed outside his house in Belgrade in 1999. On September 7, the verdict sentencing the four officers for his murder was overturned on appeal. According to the Belgrade Appeals Court, the trial court verdict convicting the men was quashed “due to significant violations of the provisions of the criminal procedure.” A new trial started October 5.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On March 15, the government imposed a state of emergency enabling it to introduce a range of restrictive measures aimed at halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. On March 29, the government adopted a decree, Conclusion on informing the population about the condition and consequences of the infectious disease COVID-19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The decree required all local crisis headquarters and medical institutions to send all COVID-19-related information to the Belgrade-based Pandemic Crisis Team, which would then provide information to the public. In support of government efforts to create a centralized flow of information, the decree warned of the “legal consequences for spreading misinformation during a state of emergency.” Civil society expressed concern regarding efforts to control the flow of information, noting the decision was not in line with the UN and EU recommendations that called for journalists to be allowed to work without obstacles to provide citizens with access to key information. The government ultimately rescinded the decree.

There were reports that the government actively sought to direct media reporting on a number of issues. Economic pressure sometimes led media outlets to practice self-censorship, refraining from publishing content critical of the government, based on a fear of government harassment or economic consequences, according to media association representatives.

Media outlets relied heavily on public funding to stay afloat. Direct government funding to media outlets was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared aimed at supporting entities loyal to the ruling party rather than bolstering independent journalism. In June the Press Council, an independent, self-regulatory body, issued a report, Cofinancing of Media that Violates Ethical Standards. The paper noted that during 2019 the state disbursed more than 2.1 billion dinars ($21.5 million) to media. The Press Council assessed that “local media [recipients], with rare exceptions…became the mouthpiece of officials and ruling parties.” The council stated that funds intended to support truthful reporting and impartiality in the media had become “a reward for obedience and praise of authorities.”

Government representatives continued to receive far more media coverage than opposition politicians. The law mandates equal coverage during campaign periods, but the Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media (REM) often considered campaign-style rallies by government officials to be official activities and therefore outside the scope of the law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended the REM did not pursue its mandate effectively and continually sided with the ruling party, ensuring an unfair media environment before, during, and after electoral campaigns and thereby effectively denying the political opposition access to the media.

Nongovernmental Impact: During the year several media outlets published articles that accused numerous journalists, NGO activists, and independent institution representatives of being “traitors” to the country and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order. NGOs and their employees received frequent threats; these threats often mirrored or amplified the rhetoric employed by public figures on social media and were often targeted by distributed denial of services attacks to take their websites offline.

Internet Freedom

There were no reports that the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communication without appropriate legal authority, or censored online content.

Although the internet remained unrestricted, the law obliges telecommunications operators to retain certain data for one year, including the source and destination of a communication; the beginning, duration, and end of a communication; the type of communication; terminal equipment identification; and the location of the customer’s mobile terminal equipment. While intelligence agencies may access this metadata without court permission, the law requires a court order to access the contents of these communications.

On April 2, Twitter announced that “toward the end of 2019, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity that led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.”

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected the right. The law obliges protesters to apply to police for a permit, providing the exact date, time, and estimated number of demonstrators. Police generally issued a permit if a protest was not likely to disturb the public or public transportation; otherwise, police consulted with city authorities before issuing a permit. Higher-level government authorities decided whether to issue permits for gatherings assessed as posing high-security risks.

Large assemblies, including antigovernment protests, occurred throughout the year. On July 7, spontaneous protests broke out in downtown Belgrade in response to the announcement of possible COVID-19-related quarantines. Media and observers reported that some fringe individuals and groups among the larger group of protesters attempted to stoke violence and attack police, including by attempting to gain entry to parliament. At least one police action–caught on video and made viral on social media–showed police using disproportionate force on a protester who had fallen to the ground. Human Rights House stated the police response during the protest contained “elements of serious violations of freedom of assembly.” The law on public assembly was updated in 2016; civil society organizations (CSOs) opposed the law because it establishes penalties and fines for organizers of unauthorized assemblies to a point where organizations considered it overly restrictive of the right to free assembly established in the constitution. The law gives the government broad authority to identify organizers and impose misdemeanor sanctions or fines against individuals or organizations. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted that while the laws on freedom of assembly are generally in line with EU standards, the country lacked secondary legislation to implement fully the law on freedom of assembly.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.

All companies continued to pay mandatory annual membership to the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. In 2017 the Association for Protection of Constitutionality and Legality filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court, asserting that mandatory membership was against the constitution. In 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled that mandatory membership in the chamber was constitutional.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of men and women, including spousal rape, is punishable by up to 40 years in prison. The government did not enforce the law effectively.

Domestic violence is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment. While the law provides women the right to obtain a restraining order against abusers, the government did not enforce the law effectively. Media reported that through mid-August, 16 women had been killed in family violence. According to the Justice Ministry, there were 12,332 victims of family violence through mid-August, 8,924 of whom were women.

The law provides that authorities may protect domestic violence survivors by temporarily removing the perpetrator from a home from a minimum of 48 hours to a maximum of 30 days. This law requires that police, prosecutors’ offices, courts, and social welfare centers maintain an electronic database on individual cases of family violence and undertake emergency and extended measures. Women’s groups often cited a lack of timely and efficient institutional reaction, lack of response to reports of violence, and a tendency by authorities to minimize the circumstances that affect survivors’ security as contributing to the violence against women.

In May 2019 Mirjana Jankovic and her parents (Nada Pajic and Branislav Pajic) were killed in their family home in Novi Sad. Mirjana’s husband, Goran Jankovic, admitted to killing them with a hammer in front of his and Mirjana’s two children, ages 10 and three. He then threatened to hurt his children if they told anyone he had been in the home and fled. Mirjana had reported Jankovic for domestic violence and possession of an illegal weapon two weeks before the killing; she was granted a restraining order that should have barred him from approaching or entering the family home. In February, Goran Jankovic committed suicide in Novi Sad District Prison.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment of men and women is a crime punishable by imprisonment for up to six months in cases that do not involve domestic abuse or a power relationship, and for up to one year for abuse of a subordinate or dependent. According to women’s groups in the country, sexual innuendo in everyday speech and behavior was perceived as a joke and generally accepted as a form of communication and not as serious harassment.

On July 7, the country’s first prominent case of prosecution of a powerful individual for sexual harassment ended with a verdict against the former mayor of Brus, Milutin Jelicic. Jelicic was sentenced to three months in prison for sexually harassing Marija Lukic, a municipal government worker in the city.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children; and to manage their reproductive health. Most persons had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. According to a 2018 UN Serbia report on sexual and reproductive rights, however, women with disabilities and Romani women lacked the same access as other women to information and the means to manage their reproductive health. Although there are no legal barriers to contraception, contraception remained taboo for some persons, reducing its use. According to a 2017 research by the ombudsman, 4 percent of Romani girls had their first child by age 15 and 31 percent before age 18. The report also indicated that Romani women were the most vulnerable population among vulnerable populations with a maternal mortality rate over 10 percent. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men in all areas, but the government did not always enforce these laws. Women were subject to discrimination, both at home and in the labor force, with regard to marriage, divorce, child custody, employment, credit, pay, owning or managing businesses or property, education, the judicial process, and access to housing. According to the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia, women on average did more than twice as many hours of domestic work as men.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived from a child’s parents. The law on birth records provides for universal birth registration. Some Romani children were not registered at birth. Subsequent birth registration was possible but complicated (see section 2.g., Stateless Persons). Children who were not registered did not have access to public services, such as health care.

Education: Education was free through the secondary level, but compulsory only from preschool through the age of 15. Ethnic discrimination and economic hardship discouraged some children from attending school. In Romani and poor rural communities, girls were more likely than boys to drop out of school and normally did so at an earlier age. Romani children were also disproportionately identified as having mental or intellectual disabilities and were often sent to segregated schools that limited their educational outcomes.

By law ethnic minority populations have the right to be educated in their minority language, but this right was not respected. The Albanian National Minority Council provided free textbooks in Albanian for 4,000 Albanian students with financial support from the Coordination Body for Presevo, Bujanovac, and Medvedja, as well as the Albanian and Kosovo governments.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse with penalties ranging from two to 10 years’ imprisonment. According to research and reports, children were exposed to direct and interpersonal violence, physical and sexual violence, emotional abuse, and neglect. According to the Justice Ministry, 1,715 children were registered since 2017 as victims or at risk from becoming victims of family violence. The Autonomous Women’s Center reported that only 5 percent of all measures issued in cases of family violence in 2019 pertained to violence against children. In May the government adopted the Strategy for Prevention and Protection of Children from Abuse for 2020-2023 and the National Action Plan 2020-2021 to combat the problem further. Children also suffered violence stemming from existing patriarchal social structures that enabled marginalization of children and made them vulnerable to child abuse, discrimination, child marriage, and child labor. Children in historically marginalized groups, such as Roma, suffered various types of social exclusion and were more prone to marginalization. The country’s efforts to prevent child abuse largely focused on protection of victims rather than prevention of child abuse through targeted intervention; these programs included training for police, schools, and social workers as well as hotlines and other platforms for reporting violence.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. A court may allow a minor older than 16 to marry if the minor is mature enough to “enjoy the rights and fulfill the responsibilities of marriage.” Child marriages occurred in Romani communities but were not legal marriages. UNICEF reporting on child marriages in Romani communities stated the prevalence of child marriages in those communities had steadily increased. More than half of Romani girls were married by the age of 18, and one in five was married before the age of 15.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation of children, to include selling, offering, or procuring for prostitution, and practices related to child pornography; the government enforced the law, but abuses nonetheless occurred. Evidence was limited, and the extent of the problem was unknown. The minimum age for consensual sex is 14, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. During the year media reported on several cases of children who were sexually exploited by their parents. In March police arrested a father for sharing online footage of the sexual abuse of his minor daughter, and in August police arrested a man for raping his minor stepdaughter. In a separate case in Nis, a woman, together with four men, were arrested on trafficking charges related to her minor daughter. In September police arrested a man on charges of sexually abusing a minor and production and possession of pornographic material.

Displaced Children: According to local NGOs and media reports, an estimated 2,000 homeless children lived on Belgrade’s streets.

Institutionalized Children: Children in orphanages and institutions were sometimes victims of physical and emotional abuse by caretakers and guardians and of sexual abuse by their peers. The law on social protection prioritizes the deinstitutionalization of children, including those with mental or physical disabilities, and their placement in foster families, but the country had not adopted a comprehensive deinstitutionalization strategy. Children with disabilities who were housed in institutions faced additional problems, including isolation, neglect, and a lack of stimulation. Institutions were often overcrowded, and children were mixed with adults in the same facility. The majority of children with mental disabilities remained excluded from the educational system due to structural obstacles and prevalent discrimination that prevented them from entering formal education.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

According to the 2011 census, 787 persons in the country identified as Jewish. While the law prohibits hate speech, Jewish community leaders reported that translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from ultranationalist groups and conservative publishers. Anti-Semitic works, such as the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were available for purchase from informal sellers or used bookshops or posted online. Right-wing groups maintained several websites and individuals hosted chat rooms (although many were inactive) that openly promoted anti-Semitic ideas and literature. According to Jewish community leaders, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, online anti-Semitism rose dramatically in chat rooms discussing COVID-19 conspiracy theories laced with anti-Semitic language. In February anti-Semitic graffiti appeared in Novi Sad.

On February 24, the parliament adopted the Law on the Staro Sajmiste Memorial Center, establishing the country’s first Holocaust memorial center at the site of a former concentration camp. The law also extends protection to a separate site of a former concentration camp called Topovske Supe. On February 26, the government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism. Holocaust education continued to be a part of the school curriculum at the direction of the Ministry of Education, including in the secondary school curriculum. The role of the collaborationist National Salvation government run by Milan Nedic during the occupation by Nazi Germany was debated. Some commentators continued to seek to minimize and reinterpret the role of the national collaborators’ movements during World War II and their role in the Holocaust.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution and supporting laws prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, including their access to education, employment, health services, information, communications, buildings, transportation, the judicial system, and other state services. The government did not enforce these provisions effectively. The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report noted the government adopted a strategic framework regarding the rights of persons with disabilities in March but lacked a comprehensive strategy on deinstitutionalization. Persons with disabilities and their families experienced stigmatization and segregation because of deeply entrenched prejudices and a lack of information. According to the equality commissioner’s 2019 annual report, persons with disabilities were among the most vulnerable groups in all aspects of social and economic life. Approximately 16 percent of all complaints filed with the commissioner were those of instances of discrimination on grounds of disability. Most of these complaints related to accessibility issues in public spaces, which limited the ability of persons with disabilities to access public services including postal services, health care, and other government services. A high number of persons with disabilities were poor or at risk of becoming poor, had difficulty getting a job, and lacked adequate education.

The law requires all public buildings to be accessible to persons with disabilities, but public transportation and many older public buildings were not accessible. Many children and adults with intellectual disabilities remained in institutions, sometimes restrained or isolated. Persons with disabilities were excluded from some events promoting inclusion, demonstrating low government capacity to consider accessibility when planning public events.

According to the equality commissioner’s 2019 report, the lack of inclusion and support for children with disabilities in education continued. Some of the complaints filed with the commissioner indicated a lack of provision of transportation services or personal assistants to children with disabilities. According to media reports, authorities did not adapt online teaching programs, instituted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to meet the needs of children with developmental disabilities. The Ministry of Education announced there would be no special education or specific recommendations for children with disabilities in regular or special schools. The provision of pedagogical and personal assistance to support children in distance learning depends on individual schools based on their needs assessment and resources. The Center for Investigative Journalism reported that during the state of emergency, some schools did not organize teaching for children with learning difficulties.

The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Issues; the Ministry of Education , Science, and Technological Development ; and the Ministry of Health had sections with responsibilities to protect the rights of persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor had a broad mandate to engage with NGOs, distribute social assistance, manage residential institutions, and monitor laws to provide protection for the rights of persons with disabilities.

According to research done by the equality commissioner in late 2019, the general public, including employers, recognized persons with disabilities as subject to the greatest discrimination when it comes to employment. The National Employment Agency funded several employment programs for persons with disabilities.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

According to the equality commissioner, Roma were subject to many types of discrimination; independent observers and NGOs stated that systemic segregation and discrimination of Roma continued. Approximately 64 percent of all complaints filed with the commissioner related to discrimination against Roma.

Ethnic Albanians were subject to discrimination and disproportionately unemployed.

The government took some steps to counter violence and discrimination against minorities. The stand-alone government Office for Human and Minority Rights supported minority communities. Civic education classes, offered by the government as an alternative to religion courses in secondary schools, included information on minority cultures and multiethnic tolerance.

Hate speech occurred, however, including by senior government officials, including Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who continuously used a pejorative racial slur for Albanians.

Ethnic Albanian leaders in the southern municipalities of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac along with Bosniaks in the southwestern region of Sandzak complained they were underrepresented in state institutions at the local level. National minority councils represented the country’s ethnic minority groups and had broad competency over education, media, culture, and the use of minority languages. New council members were seated following the 2018 minority council elections and were to serve four-year terms.

According to the director of the government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, more than 60,000 minority schoolchildren received education in their mother tongue. The Albanian National Minority Council provided Albanian textbooks to approximately 4,000 Albanian students in the country.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the law does not describe specific areas in which discrimination is prohibited but is generally interpreted as applying to housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. The government did not enforce these laws effectively, and violence and discrimination against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community were serious problems. On the occasion of International Transgender Day of Visibility, NGOs stated that transgender persons were still subjected to discrimination, hatred, and transphobic and transmisogynist violence, both verbally and physically, and to certain forms of institutional and online violence.

Credible NGOs noted a lack of significant progress in establishing dialogue, educating the public on LGBTI issues, and addressing hate crimes and bias-motivated violence.

According to NGOs, activists, and independent institutions, discrimination against members of the LGBTI community continued. The equality commissioner stated that workplace discrimination, degrading treatment in public, hate speech, and physical attacks remained part of daily life for some LGBTI persons and indicated that homophobia and transphobia were present. The ombudsman stated that “LGBTI persons were exposed to attacks and threats, were often victims of stereotypes, prejudice, hate speech, and hate crimes.” He cited difficulty for young persons forced to leave their homes after disclosing their sexual orientation, which became even more prominent and dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the lack of safe houses or other temporary accommodation services. NGO activists commented that homophobic members of society often used the LGBTI community as a way to score political points.

The NGOs Center for Research and Development of Society (IDEAS) and the Gay-Lesbian Info Center conducted social network research in May and June and reported that 58 percent of LGBTI high school students suffered some form of violence; 50 percent suffered psychological violence; 8 percent suffered physical violence; and 3 percent suffered sexual violence. The violence most frequently occurred at school, where 71 percent of LGBTI students heard teachers degrading LGBTI persons due to their sexual and gender identity.

On February 28, a group of masked men broke into the Belgrade Pride Info Center’s entrance and destroyed their inventory. This was the 11th attack against the center since its opening in 2018. The prime minister and ombudsman condemned the attack, but there were no reports of arrests related to the incident. NGOs reported that attackers against LGBTI persons were rarely convicted in court. On March 2, a group of young persons gathered in the town of Leskovac to protest against a fake social media posting which said the city would host a pride parade. The group chanted slogans against LGBTI persons and engaged in physical altercations with police.

In 2018 the courts issued their first verdict using the country’s hate crime provision. Hate crimes are not stand-alone offenses but can be deemed an aggravating factor to be considered during sentencing. The case involved multiple episodes of domestic violence perpetrated against a gay man by his father in the family home. The perpetrator was given a three-year suspended sentence. Activists criticized the sentence as being too light because the perpetrator would not serve prison time as long as he met the conditions of his suspended sentence.

On three separate occasions during Belgrade’s September 14-20 pride week, criminals vandalized the office of an organization whose members participated in pride week events with homophobic slurs and Nazi symbols.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

According to government officials and NGOs, there was significant prejudice against persons with HIV or AIDS in all aspects of public life, including employment, housing, and access to public services. According to Serbia’s Public Health Institute, in the country, there were 2,843 individuals with diagnosed HIV infection, and it was estimated that another 400 persons did not know they were infected by the virus. Since the beginning of the year, 55 persons had been infected with the HIV virus, which was three times less than in the same period in 2019, when 175 cases of infection were recorded. The equality commissioner’s annual report noted that persons with HIV or AIDS were extremely vulnerable to discrimination but were often unwilling to make a complaint, making the scale of the problem difficult to define.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Trade unions must register with the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Affairs, and employers must verify that union leaders are full-time employees. The government designated more than 50 percent of the workforce as “essential,” and these workers faced restrictions on the right to strike. Essential workers must provide 10 days’ advance notification of a strike as well as provide a “minimum level of work” during the strike. By law strikes may be staged only on the employer’s premises. The law prohibits discrimination based on trade union membership but does not provide any specific sanctions for antiunion harassment, nor does it expressly prohibit discrimination against trade union activities. The law provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, and fired workers generally returned to work quickly.

The Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions of Serbia, a federation of unions that operated independently but was generally supportive of government policies, had more members than independent labor unions in both the public and private sector. Independent trade unions are able to organize and address management in state-owned companies on behalf of their members.

The labor law protects the right to bargain collectively, and this right was effectively enforced and practiced. The law requires collective bargaining agreements for any company with more than 10 employees. To negotiate with an employer, however, a union must represent at least 15 percent of company employees. The law provides collective bargaining agreements to employers who are not members of the employers’ association or do not engage in collective bargaining with unions. The law stipulates that employers subject to a collective agreement with employees must prove they employ at least 50 percent of workers in a given sector to apply for the extension of collective bargaining agreements to employers outside the agreement.

The government generally enforced the labor law with respect to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Both public- and private-sector employees may freely exercise the right to strike, although no strikes occurred during the year. The Labor Inspectorate lacked adequate staffing and equipment, which limited the number of labor inspections as a means of enforcing the labor law.

There were allegations of antiunion dismissals and discrimination. Labor NGOs worked to increase awareness regarding workers’ rights.

In October the Military-Disciplinary Court confirmed a 2019 court decision to remove the general secretary of the Military Trade Union of Serbia, Predrag Jevtic, from his job in the army. In 2018 Jevtic was accused of giving an interview to the daily newspaper Kurir and for his media statements as a legal representative of the trade union in which he was critical of the working conditions in the army. Jevtic’s lawyer announced a plan to submit countercharges against the court while the Military Trade Union of Serbia requested support for Jevtic from Tanja Fajon, a member of the European Parliament.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government supported companies through an economic and financial package that amounted to more than 12 percent of the country’s GDP under the condition companies not dismiss workers. Labor inspectors supervised the implementation of the measures and organization of the work in accordance with the safety standards.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution prohibits forced and compulsory labor. The law also prohibits all forms of labor trafficking and “slavery or a relationship similar to slavery.” The government generally enforced the law, but incidents of forced labor were occasionally reported. Citizens of the country, particularly men, were reportedly subjected to labor trafficking in labor-intensive sectors, such as the construction industry in Russia, other European countries, and the United Arab Emirates. Penalties for violations within the country were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

A number of children, primarily from the Roma community, were forced to engage in begging, theft, domestic work, commercial sexual exploitation, and other forms of labor (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 15, and youths younger than 18 require written parental or guardian permission to work. The labor law stipulates specific working conditions for minors and limits their workweek to 35 hours, with a maximum of eight hours work per day with no overtime or night work. The law regulates seasonal work, including in agriculture, and specifies that a work contract be required to employ minors.

The Labor Inspectorate of the Ministry for Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing child labor laws. The government did not always enforce the applicable laws effectively, and penalties were not always commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes. The criminal code does not treat child beggars as victims, and the country’s Social Welfare Centers were overburdened, limiting efforts to combat child labor, including its worst forms.

According to the inspectorate, in 2019 inspectors registered one labor case involving a child younger than age 15 working at a bakery. The inspector immediately issued a decision forbidding the child from working until preconditions prescribed by the law were fulfilled. In 2019 inspectors registered 41 cases involving the registered employment of youths between the ages of 15 and 18, contrary to the provisions of the Labor Law, in the areas of hospitality, bakeries, construction, agriculture, fruit and vegetable processing, retail and groceries, and various personal services. Inspectors issued 11 decisions ordering employers to terminate employment contracts for temporary jobs and eight decisions to obtain the required parental permission and approval from the authorized health institution. Misdemeanor proceedings were initiated in 22 cases.

The government had institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of laws and regulations on child labor. Gaps existed, however, within the operations of the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Affairs that hindered adequate enforcement of their child labor laws. In villages and farming communities, underage children commonly worked in family businesses. In urban areas children, primarily Roma, worked in the informal sector as street vendors, car washers, and garbage sorters.

With regard to the worst forms of child labor, traffickers subjected children to commercial sexual exploitation, used children in the production of pornography and drugs, and sometimes forced children to beg and commit crimes. Some Romani children were forced into manual labor or begging.

The government’s enforcement efforts and penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The law provides penalties for parents or guardians who force a minor to engage in begging, excessive labor, or labor incompatible with his or her age, but it was inconsistently enforced, and beggars were treated as offenders. The Labor Inspectorate reported no children being removed from labor situations because of convictions.

See also the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws prohibit direct and indirect discrimination in employment and occupation and the government enforced these laws with varying degrees of effectiveness. Penalties and enforcement were not commensurate with those under laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.

Discrimination in employment and occupation reportedly occurred with respect to race, sex, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ethnicity, and HIV-positive status. In 2019 labor inspectors did not issue any decisions regarding discrimination or gender equality at work. Inspectors conducted 1,039 inspections and in 15 cases ordered measures for eliminating identified irregularities related to gender equality in accordance with the law. In the labor force, women experienced discrimination in hiring, underrepresentation in management, and lower compensation than their male colleagues.

In one example, in 2018, Snezana Pesovic went public with a case of discrimination against her employer. Pesovic claimed that, despite being an employee for 12 years, she remained unregistered and her employer did not make health insurance or pension contributions, as the law requires. Upon learning she was pregnant, Pesovic asked her employer to register her so she could receive maternity benefits. Her employer agreed but only under the condition that she pay the contributions herself and sign a voluntary termination agreement that allowed the employer to terminate her at the employer’s convenience. By the end of her maternity leave, the benefit she was receiving was less than the contributions her employer was forcing her to make. Her employer invoked the voluntary termination option when her case appeared in the media. The equality commissioner agreed to take the case and represent Pesovic in a lawsuit against her employer. At year’s end the case was going through court proceedings.

The equality commissioner’s 2019 annual report identified 478 discrimination complaints in the area of labor and employment, the highest number from all areas of discrimination, which accounted for 32 percent of the total complaints received in 2019. Since labor and employment discrimination complaints are frequently among the highest types of complaints, the commissioner submitted a special report on the topic to parliament in 2019 highlighting the issue. The highest number of discrimination complaints involved accommodation for persons with disabilities, followed by allegations of discrimination based on age, gender, birth, health status, national or ethnic origin, marital or family status, and sexual orientation.

The EC’s Serbia 2020 Report identified Roma, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV or AIDS, and other vulnerable individuals as the groups most subject to discrimination. It highlighted that adoption of amendments to the law on antidiscrimination to further align with the EU acquis communautaire (the accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitution the total body of EU law) as well as the adoption of a new law on gender equality were seriously delayed. The report also highlighted the equality commissioner’s assessment that the socioeconomic status of women was significantly worse than that of men. A study by the Center for Free Elections and Democracy found discrimination was most frequent in hiring and employment, with the state and its institutions as the major discriminators. The law provides for equal pay, but employers frequently did not observe these provisions. According to a 2017 report by the country’s statistics office, women earned on average 22 percent less per month than their male counterparts. Other reports showed their career advancement was slower, they were underrepresented in most professions, and they faced discrimination related to parental leave.

The International Labor Organization noted allegations that the law restricting the maximum age of employees in the public sector, adopted in 2015, is discriminatory because it obliges women workers in the public sector to retire at age 62, whereas male workers can work up to the age of 65. The law states that the retirement age for women will continue to increase incrementally until the retirement age is 65 for both men and women. Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace.

Labor NGOs worked to improve the conditions of women, persons with disabilities, and other groups facing discrimination in employment or occupation.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage was above the poverty level for a single-member household but below the poverty level for a household with multiple members.

The Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage. Companies with a trade union presence generally respected minimum wage requirements because of monitoring by the union. Some smaller, private-sector employers, however, were unwilling or unable to pay minimum wages and mandatory social benefits to all their employees, leading those companies to employ unregistered, off-the-books workers. Unregistered workers, paid in cash without social or pension contributions, frequently did not report labor violations because they feared losing their jobs. Informal arrangements existed most often in the trade, hotel and restaurant, construction, agriculture, and transport sectors. The most frequently reported legal violations in the informal sector related to contractual obligations, payment of salaries, changes to the labor contract, and overtime. According to labor force survey data, informal employment represented 15.2 percent of total employment in the second quarter of the year, 4.2 percent lower than a year earlier. Independent estimates suggested the informal sector might represent up to 30 percent of the economy.

The law stipulates a standard workweek of 40 hours and provides for paid leave, annual holidays, and premium pay for night and overtime hours. A worker may have up to eight hours of overtime per week and may not work more than 12 hours in one day, including overtime. At least a 12-hour break is required between shifts during a workweek, and at least a 24-hour break is required over a weekend. The standard workweek and mandatory breaks were observed in state-owned enterprises but sometimes not in smaller, private companies, where the inspectors and unions had less ability to monitor practices.

The labor law requires that the premium for overtime work be at least 26 percent of the base salary, as defined by the relevant collective bargaining agreement. Trade unions within a company were the primary agents for enforcing overtime pay, although the Labor Inspectorate had enforcement responsibilities in companies and industries without union presence. The government did not effectively enforce minimum wage and overtime laws, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

The law requires that companies must establish a safety unit to monitor observance of regulations regarding safety and the protection of personal health. These units often focus on rudimentary aspects of occupational safety and health (such as purchasing soap and detergents), rather than on providing safety equipment for workers. In cases in which the employer did not take action, an employee may report the inaction to the Labor Inspectorate. Employers may call the Labor Inspectorate if they believe an employee’s request related to safety and health conditions is not justified.

In case of a direct threat to life and health, employees have the right to take action or to remove themselves from the job or situation without responsibility for any damage it may cause the employer and without jeopardy to their employment. For the first eight months of the year, the Labor Inspectorate completed 15,927 safety and health at work inspections. Inspectors issued 2,616 decisions on deficiencies in safety and health conditions in the workplace, including 307 decisions barring an employee from continuing to work, which was 41 percent lower than during the same period in 2019. The inspectors filed 594 requests for misdemeanor proceedings against individuals for failure to provide a safe workplace for employees, which was 45 percent lower than the same period in 2019. The Labor Inspectorate employed inspectors and was responsible for worker safety and health, but the number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce compliance.

The government enforced occupational safety and health laws with varying degrees of effectiveness. Penalties for violations were not commensurate with those of similar crimes, such as negligence. Labor inspectors were able to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions but were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Labor Inspectorate, the most common violations of workers’ rights involved work performed without an employment contract; nonpayment of salary, overtime, and benefits; employers not following procedures in terminating employment contracts; nonpayment of obligatory pension and health contributions; and employers withholding maternity leave allowances. During the first eight months of the year, the inspectorate recorded 22 workplace accidents in which an employee died. Cases of death and injury were most common in the construction, transportation and storage, agricultural, and industrial sectors of the economy.

South Africa

Executive Summary

South Africa is a multiparty parliamentary democracy in which constitutional power is shared among the executive, judiciary, and parliamentary branches. In May 2019 the country held a credible national election in which the ruling African National Congress won 58 percent of the vote and 230 of 400 seats in the National Assembly. In May 2019 African National Congress president Cyril Ramaphosa was sworn in for his first full term as president of the republic.

The South African Police Service has primary responsibility for internal security. The police commissioner has operational authority over police. The president appoints the police commissioner, but the minister of police supervises the commissioner. The South African National Defense Force, under the civilian-led Department of Defense, is responsible for external security but also has domestic security responsibilities. On March 23, the president announced measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 and directed the South African National Defense Force to assist the South African Police Service with enforcement of a nationwide lockdown. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; official corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons, and the worst forms of child labor.

Although the government investigated, prosecuted, and punished some officials who committed human rights abuses, there were numerous reports of impunity.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

Police use of lethal and excessive force, including torture, resulted in numerous deaths and injuries, according to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), Amnesty International, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Watchdog groups noted deaths in custody often resulted from physical abuse combined with a lack of subsequent medical treatment or neglect (see section 1.c.).

NGOs criticized the use of excessive force by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to enforce lockdown measures that began in March. On April 10, police and defense force members beat to death Collins Khosa after allegedly finding alcohol on his property. On May 31, the North Gauteng High Court ordered the suspension of officers involved and ordered the Ministry of Police to issue lockdown use-of-force guidelines to respect human rights in accordance with South African law and international treaty obligations. On August 26, SAPS officers shot and killed unarmed 16-year-old Nathaniel Julies, who had Downs’ syndrome. Police allegedly took this action because he did not respond to questioning. Following rioting and clashes with police, three officers were arrested and charged with murder. One officer was released on bail, and the other two remained incarcerated at year’s end.

Courts convicted few perpetrators of political violence. Media and NGOs claimed the vast majority of killings resulted from local-level intraparty African National Congress (ANC) disputes, often in the context of competition for resources or as revenge against whistleblowers who uncovered corruption.

In 2018 the Moerane Commission, which then KwaZulu-Natal Province premier Willies Mchunu established to investigate political killings, published a report that identified ANC infighting, readily available hitmen, weak leadership, and ineffective and complicit law enforcement agencies as key contributing factors to the high rate of political killings. There were numerous reported political killings at a local level similar to the following example. In June an ANC councilor for the Umlazi Township, Bhekithemba Phungula, and two other party leaders in KwaZulu-Natal townships were killed.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions. There were no reports the government failed to respect these prohibitions. Civil society organizations raised concerns government management of the COVID-19 pandemic employed telephonic contact tracing that violated privacy rights. In April the government issued amended disaster management regulations. While the regulations recognized the right to privacy, the government urged citizens to make concessions until pandemic emergency measures were no longer necessary.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, a generally effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. Nevertheless, several apartheid-era laws and the Law on Antiterrorism permit authorities to restrict reporting on security forces, prisons, and mental institutions.

Freedom of Speech: Authorities limited free expression and public debate regarding hate speech. The decade-old case of journalist John Qwelane convicted of antigay hate speech for a 2008 editorial, “Call me names, but gay is not okay,” continued, as the Constitutional Court reviewed lower courts’ decisions on the case and examining the constitutionality of the Equality Act’s litmus test for defining hate speech.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, conviction of publishing “fake news” regarding COVID-19 was punishable by fine, up to six months’ imprisonment, or both. The country’s press ombudsman stated that the COVID-19 measure had a chilling effect on journalists. In June the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) stated that the pandemic led to the closure of two magazine publications and 80 other print publications, the elimination of 700 journalism jobs, and the loss of income of 70 percent of freelance journalists.

Violence and Harassment: There were instances of journalists being subjected to violence, harassment, or intimidation by authorities due to their reporting. For example, in August, ANC member of parliament Boy Mamabolo was recorded verbally insulting and threatening to shoot an investigative print journalist regarding allegations that Mamabolo had made derogatory remarks concerning the government’s decision to ban the sale of alcohol as a COVID-19 pandemic mitigation measure. In March Johannesburg police shot at a News 24 reporter when he started to report on police firing rubber bullets to disperse a group of individuals violating lockdown regulations. SANEF reportedly filed a formal complaint regarding the incident.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government and political officials often criticized media for lack of professionalism and reacted sharply to media criticism. Some journalists believed the government’s sensitivity to criticism resulted in increased media self-censorship.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. The law authorizes state monitoring of telecommunication systems, however, including the internet and email, for national security reasons. The law requires all service providers to register on secure databases the identities, physical addresses, and telephone numbers of customers.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no reports of government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

In prior years protest organizers could be legally required to notify local authorities before staging gatherings or demonstrations. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously against this requirement. Legal experts welcomed the decision as an advance for civil liberties; however, they noted the ruling did not address the question of assuring security by local authorities during protests.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes domestic violence and rape of men or women, including spousal rape, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. The minimum sentence for conviction of rape is 10 years’ imprisonment. Under certain circumstances, such as second or third offenses, multiple rapes, gang rapes, or the rape of a minor or a person with disabilities, conviction requires a minimum sentence of life imprisonment, unless substantial and compelling circumstances exist to justify a lesser sentence. Perpetrators with previous rape convictions and perpetrators aware of being HIV positive at the time of the rape also face a minimum sentence of life imprisonment, unless substantial and compelling circumstances exist to justify a lesser sentence.

In most cases of rape and domestic violence, attackers were acquaintances or family members of the victim that, together with societal attitudes, contributed to a reluctance to press charges. NGOs stated that cases were underreported especially in rural communities due to stigma, unfair treatment, fear, intimidation, and lack of trust in the criminal justice system. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, during the first week of the COVID-19 lockdown, police received more than 87,000 rape and other gender-based violence (GBV) complaints.

There were numerous reported sexual assaults similar to the following example. In June a woman eight months pregnant was found dead hanging from a tree in Johannesburg. She and her fetus had multiple stab wounds. Muzikayise Malephane, age 31, was arrested and charged with premeditated murder. He had yet to be tried by year’s end.

SAPS reported an increase in the number of reported raped cases from 41,583 in 2018/19 to 42,289 in 2019/20. According to the National Prosecuting Authority 20192020 Annual Report, the authority achieved its highest number of successfully prosecuted sexual offense cases during the time period. It prosecuted 5,451 sexual offense cases and had 4,098 convictions, a 75 percent conviction rate.

The Department of Justice operated 96 dedicated sexual offenses courts throughout the country. Although judges in rape cases generally followed statutory sentencing guidelines, women’s advocacy groups criticized judges for using criteria, such as the victim’s behavior or relationship to the rapist, as a basis for imposing lighter sentences.

The National Prosecuting Authority operated 51 rape management centers, or Thuthuzela Care Centers (TCCs), addressing the rights and needs of victims and vulnerable persons, including legal assistance. TCCs assisted 35,469 victims of sexual offenses and related crimes during the year. A key TCC objective is prosecution of sexual, domestic violence, child abuse offenders. Approximately 75 percent of the cases it took to trial resulted in conviction.

Domestic violence was pervasive and included physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, as well as harassment and stalking. The government prosecuted domestic violence cases under laws governing rape, indecent assault, damage to property, and violating a protection order. The law requires police to protect victims from domestic violence, but police commanders did not always hold officers accountable. Conviction of violating a protection order is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, and up to 20 years’ imprisonment if convicted of additional criminal charges. Penalties for conviction of domestic violence include fines and sentences of between two and five years’ imprisonment.

The government financed shelters for abused women, but NGOs reported a shortage of such facilities, particularly in rural areas, and that women were sometimes turned away from shelters. In March 2019 the president signed a declaration regarding GBV against women and femicide (the killing of a girl or woman, in particular by a man) that provided for the establishment of the GBV Council and the National Strategic Plan for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide 2020-2030. In May the government began implementation of the plan. Its focus is on GBV faced by women across age, sexual orientation, sexual and gender identities, and on specific groups such as elderly women, women who live with a disability, migrant women, and transgender women.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law prohibits FGM/C of girls and women, but girls in isolated zones in ethnic Venda communities in Limpopo Province were subjected to the practice. The government continued initiatives to eradicate the practice, including national research and sensitization workshops in areas where FGM/C was prevalent.

Sexual Harassment: Although prohibited by law, sexual harassment remained a widespread problem. Sexual harassment is a criminal offense for which conviction includes fines and sentences of up to five years’ imprisonment.

Enforcement against workplace harassment is initially left to employers to address as part of internal disciplinary procedures. The Department of Labor issued guidelines to employers on how to handle workplace complaints that allow for remuneration of a victim’s lost compensation plus interest, additional damages, legal fees, and dismissal of the perpetrator in some circumstances. NGOs and unions urged the government to ratify the International Labor Organization convention on the prevention of violence and harassment in the workplace. Despite presidential support, parliament had yet to ratify the convention by year’s end.

NGOs reported sexual harassment of women in the major political parties. For example, in October a female DA party member filed a complaint with police against former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga. Msimanga subsequently sued for defamation. Only two of the seven major parties have policies against sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide freely the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Contraception was widely available and free at government clinics. Emergency health care was available for the treatment of complications arising from abortion.

The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The country has laws and policies to respond to gender-based violence and femicide, although authorities did not fully implement these policies and enforce relevant law. The law provides for survivors of gender-based violence to receive shelter and comprehensive care, including treatment of injuries, a forensic examination, pregnancy and HIV testing, provision of postexposure prophylaxis, and counseling rehabilitation services.

The maternal mortality ratio was 536 pregnancy-related deaths per 100,000 live births. According to the South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016, for every 1,000 live births, approximately five girls and women died during pregnancy or within two months after childbirth, 77 percent of girls and women ages 15-19 had four or more antenatal care examinations, and skilled health-care providers attended 97 percent of births.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of forced abortion on the part of government authorities; however, there were reports of forced sterilizations submitted to the Commission for Gender Equality and civil society organizations during the year. In February the Commission for Gender Equality documented 48 forced sterilization procedures conducted at 15 state hospitals between 2002 and 2015. According to the commission, the procedures were largely conducted on women who gave birth via cesarean section and were HIV positive.

Discrimination: Discrimination against women remained a serious problem despite legal equality in family, labor, property, inheritance, nationality, divorce, and child custody matters. Women experienced economic discrimination in wages, extension of credit, and ownership of land.

Traditional patrilineal authorities, such as a chief or a council of elders, administered many rural areas. Some traditional authorities refused to grant land tenure to women, a precondition for access to housing subsidies. Women could challenge traditional land tenure discrimination in courts, but access to legal counsel was costly.

By law any difference in the terms or conditions of employment among employees of the same employer performing the same, substantially similar, or equal value work constitutes discrimination. The law expressly prohibits unequal pay for work of equal value and discriminatory practices, including separate pension funds for different groups in a company (see section 7.d.).

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides for citizenship by birth (if at least one parent is a permanent resident or citizen), descent, and naturalization. Registration of births was inconsistent, especially in remote rural areas and by parents who were unregistered foreign nationals. Children without birth registration had no access to government services such as education or health care, and their parents had no access to financial grants for their children.

Education: Public education is compulsory and universal until age 15 or grade nine. Public education is fee based and not fully subsidized by the government. Nevertheless, the law provides that schools may not refuse admission to children due to a lack of funds; therefore, disadvantaged children, who were mainly black, were eligible for financial assistance. Even when children qualified for fee exemptions, low-income parents had difficulty paying for uniforms and supplies. In violation of law, noncitizen children were sometimes denied access to education based on their inability to produce identification documents, such as birth certificates and immunization documents.

Child Abuse: The law criminalizes child abuse. The penalties for conviction of child abuse include fines and up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Violence against children, including domestic violence and sexual abuse, remained widespread.

There were reports of abuse of students by teachers and other school staff, including reports of assault and rape. The law requires schools to disclose sexual abuse to authorities, but administrators sometimes concealed sexual violence or delayed taking disciplinary action.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: By law parental or judicial consent to marry is required for individuals younger than 18. Nevertheless, ukuthwala, the practice of abducting girls as young as 14 and forcing them into marriage, occurred in remote villages in Western Cape, Eastern Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces. The law prohibits nonconsensual ukuthwala and classifies it as a trafficking offense.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering or procurement of children for prostitution and child pornography. Conviction includes fines and 10 years’ imprisonment. The Film and Publications Board maintained a website and a toll-free hotline for the public to report incidents of child pornography. In October 2019 Johannes Oelofse of Alberton in Gauteng Province was sentenced to life imprisonment for conviction of repeatedly raping his daughter who had a mental disability.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Anti-Semitism

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) estimated the Jewish community at 60,000 persons. The SAJBD recorded 69 anti-Semitic incidents between January and December, a steep increase from 37 in 2019. There were reports of verbal abuse and hate speech–especially in social media–and attacks on Jewish persons or property.

In October a district court issued the country’s first criminal conviction of anti-Semitism. The court sentenced defendant Matome Letsoalo to three years’ imprisonment. In 2008 Letsoalo posted anti-Semitic messages on Twitter that included images of Holocaust victims. In November the Randburg Magistrate Court issued a cessation order against Jan Lamprecht for posting online virulent anti-Semitism statements and personal information on SAJBD’s national vice chairperson.

Twin brothers, Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie, arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at Jewish establishments, continued to await trial in detention at year’s end. They were charged with contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy against Terror and Related Activities Act and with having ties to a foreign terrorist organization. On October 1, the Johannesburg High Court of Johannesburg denied bail to the brothers. They remained incarcerated at year’s end.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disability in employment or access to health care, the judicial system, and education. The law, however, prohibits persons identified by the courts as having a mental disability from voting. Department of Transportation policies on providing services to persons with disabilities were consistent with the constitution’s prohibition on discrimination. The Department of Labor ran vocational centers at which persons with disabilities learned income-generating skills. Nevertheless, government and private-sector employment discrimination existed. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, but such regulations were rarely enforced, and public awareness of them remained minimal.

The law prohibits harassment of persons with disabilities and, in conjunction with the Employment Equity Act, provides guidelines on the recruitment and selection of persons with disabilities, reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities, and guidelines on proper handling of employees’ medical information. Enforcement of this law was limited.

The 20172018 Annual Report of the Department of Basic Education stated there were numerous barriers to education for students with disabilities, primarily a policy of channeling students into specialized schools at the expense of inclusive education. The department’s 2019/20 report reported progress toward a more inclusive basic education and cited expansion of “special schools” and increased enrollment of students with disabilities in both special and public schools. Separate schools frequently charged additional fees (making them financially inaccessible), were located long distances from students’ homes, and lacked the capacity to accommodate demand. Human Rights Watch reported that children with disabilities were often denied tuition waivers or tuition reductions provided to other children. Children often were housed in dormitories with few adults, many of whom had little or no training in caring for children with disabilities. When parents attempted to force mainstream schools to accept their children with disabilities–an option provided for by law–schools sometimes rejected the students outright because of their disabilities or claimed there was no room for them. Many blind and deaf children in mainstream schools received only basic care rather than education.

According to the Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa, children with disabilities were 78 percent more likely than children without disabilities to have experienced sexual abuse in the home. Persons with disabilities were sometimes subject to abuse and attacks, and prisoners with mental disabilities often received no psychiatric care. According to the NGO International Disability Alliance, on August 26, Nathaniel Julius, an unarmed boy age 16 who had Down syndrome, was shot and killed by SAPS officers. Police allegedly shot the boy when he did not respond to questioning. The officers were charged with murder (see section 1.a.).

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

There were numerous reports of racially motivated abuses similar to the following examples. In June 2019 the Council on Medical Schemes launched an investigation into alleged discrimination against black and Indian medical professionals in the private health-care sector who stated that medical insurance companies denied payment of their medical-services claims on racial grounds. The SABC reported allegations that the FNB bank (First National Bank) charged black homebuyers up to 40 percent more for mortgages than it charged whites.

Some advocacy groups asserted white farmers were racially targeted for burglaries, home invasions, and killings, while many observers attributed the incidents to the country’s high and growing crime rate. According to the Institute for Security Studies, “farm attacks and farm murders have increased in recent years in line with the general upward trend in South Africa’s serious and violent crimes.” According to the SAPS Annual Crime Statistics 2019/2020 Report there were 36 homicides per 100,000 persons and a total of 21,325 reported homicides in 2019/2020.

Local community or political leaders who sought to gain prominence in their communities allegedly instigated some attacks on African migrants and ethnic minorities (see section 2.d., Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons). The government sometimes responded quickly and decisively to xenophobic incidents, sending police and soldiers into affected communities to quell violence and restore order, but responses were sporadic and often slow and inadequate. Civil society organizations criticized the government for failing to address the causes of violence, for not facilitating opportunities for conflict resolution in affected communities, for failing to protect the property or livelihoods of foreign nationals, and for failing to deter such attacks by vigorous investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.

Indigenous People

The NGO Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa estimated there were 7,500 indigenous San and Khoi in the country, some of whom worked as farmers or farm laborers. By law the San and Khoi have the same political and economic rights as other citizens, although the government did not always effectively protect those rights or deliver basic services to indigenous communities. Indigenous groups complained of exclusion from land restitution, housing, and affirmative action programs. They also demanded formal recognition as “first peoples” in the constitution. Their lack of recognition as first peoples excluded them from inclusion in government-recognized structures for traditional leaders. Their participation in government and the economy was limited due to fewer opportunities, lack of land and other resources, minimal access to education, and relative isolation.

In August 2019 the president signed into law the Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Bill that established the National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office, which is responsible for managing indigenous communities’ rights.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The law prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care. In March 2019 the High Court of Gauteng ruled that the Dutch Methodist Church’s ban on solemnizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional.

Despite government policies prohibiting discrimination, there were reports of official mistreatment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. For example, there were reports of security force members raping LGBTI individuals during arrest. A 2018 University of Cape Town report underscored violence and discrimination, particularly against lesbians and transgender individuals. The report documented cases of “secondary victimization” of lesbians, including cases in which police harassed, ridiculed, and assaulted victims of sexual and GBV who reported abuse. LGBTI individuals were particularly vulnerable to violent crime due to anti-LGBTI attitudes within the community and among police. Anti-LGBTI attitudes of junior members of SAPS affected how they handled complaints by LGBTI individuals.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

HIV and HIV-related social stigma and discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education and health care remained a problem, especially in rural communities. In June 2019 Deputy President David Mabuza stated, “We are not doing well in preventing new (HIV) infections. It is estimated that there are approximately 250,000 new infections annually, and our target is to get below 100,000 new infections by December 2020. This gap is big, and it must be closed.”

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

There were reports persons accused of witchcraft were attacked, driven from their villages, and in some cases killed, particularly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, and Eastern Cape Provinces. Victims were often elderly women. Traditional leaders generally cooperated with authorities and reported threats against persons suspected of witchcraft.

Persons with albinism faced discrimination and were sometimes attacked in connection with ritual practices.

In August 2019 a court convicted a teacher in Mpumalanga Province of murdering and dismembering a teenage student with albinism. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment of two life terms. Three alleged accomplices were charged and pled not guilty. They had yet to be tried by year’s end.

Ritual (muthi) killings to obtain body parts believed by some to enhance traditional medicine persisted. Police estimated organ harvesting for traditional medicine resulted in 50 killings per year.

NGOs reported intimidation and violent attacks on rural land rights activists. On October 27, environmental activist Fikile Ntshangase was killed in her home. As a prominent member of the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organization, she had been involved in legal proceedings protesting expansion in KwaZulu-Natal Province of one of the country’s largest open coal mines. No arrests were made. Another member of her community critical of the coal mine survived a drive-by shooting of his home. The South African Human Rights Commission called on the government to create a safe environment for activists to exercise their rights, including acting on threats against activists.

Discrimination against members of religious groups occurred. In June 2019 a female SANDF member Major Fatima Isaacs was ordered to remove her religious headscarf from beneath her military beret. She refused the order. In January SANDF dropped charges against Isaacs of willful defiance and disobeying a lawful command. A spokesperson for Major Isaacs stated that a complaint regarding discrimination across a wide range of SANDF policies would be filed with the Equality Court.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law allows all workers, except for members of the National Intelligence Agency and the Secret Service, to form and join independent unions of their choice without previous authorization or excessive requirements. The law allows unions to conduct their activities without interference and provides for the right to strike, but it prohibits workers in essential services from striking, and employers are prohibited from locking out essential service providers. The government characterizes essential services as a service, the interruption of which endangers the life, personal safety, or health of the whole or part of the population; parliamentary service; and police services.

The law allows workers to strike due to matters of mutual interest, such as wages, benefits, organizational rights disputes, socioeconomic interests of workers, and similar measures. Workers may not strike because of disputes where other legal recourse exists, such as through arbitration. Labor rights NGOs operated freely.

The law protects collective bargaining and prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants based on past, present, or potential union membership or participation in lawful union activities. The law provides for automatic reinstatement of workers dismissed unfairly for conducting union activities. The law provides a code of good practices for dismissals that includes procedures for determining the “substantive fairness” and “procedural fairness” of dismissal. The law includes all groups of workers, including illegal and legally resident foreign workers.

The government respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Labor courts and labor appeals courts effectively enforced the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and penalties were commensurate with penalties for comparable violations of the law.

Worker organizations were independent of the government and political parties, although the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the country’s largest labor federation, is a member of a tripartite alliance with the governing ANC Party and the South African Communist Party. Some COSATU union affiliates lobbied COSATU to break its alliance with the ANC, arguing the alliance had done little to advance workers’ rights and wages. In 2017 COSATU’s breakaway unions, unhappy with the ANC alliance, launched an independent labor federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions.

The minister of labor has the authority to extend agreements by majority employers (one or more registered employers’ organizations that represent 50 percent plus one of workers in a sector) and labor representatives in sector-specific bargaining councils to the entire sector, even if companies or employees in the sector were not represented at negotiations. Companies not party to bargaining disputed this provision in court. Employers often filed for and received Department of Labor exemptions from collective bargaining agreements.

If not resolved through collective bargaining, independent mediation, or conciliation, disputes between workers in essential services and their employers were referred to arbitration or the labor courts.

Workers frequently exercised their right to strike. Trade unions generally followed the legal process of declaring a dispute (notifying employers) before initiating a strike. The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union, a COSATU affiliate, organized a strike that pressed government to honor a wage agreement signed in 2018. Additionally, after years of division, the country’s largest trade federations united to organize a series of peaceful marches nationwide to reinvigorate labor union organizing, which had languished due to constraints imposed by COVID-19; to call attention to rising levels of corruption; and to reframe the nationwide discourse on workers’ rights. The event took place against a backdrop of rising tensions between the ANC and labor unions concerning the latter’s criticism of the ruling party’s handling of the economy and failure to advance policies that support the working poor. The 2019/20 striking season was heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and saw unions and business working together to salvage both jobs and industries by freezing negotiations until 2021.

Workers at a food factory were reportedly suspended for liking social media posts by trade union leadership. Anecdotal evidence suggested farmers routinely hampered the activities of unions on farms. Casual workers reported difficulty exercising their rights due to fear that their contracts would not be renewed.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced labor. The penalties were not commensurate with those for comparable crimes. Inspectors typically levied fines and required payment of back wages in lieu of meeting evidentiary standards of criminal prosecution.

The government did not always effectively enforce the law. Boys, particularly migrant boys, were forced to work in street vending, food services, begging, criminal activities, and agriculture (see section 7.c.). Women from Asia and neighboring African countries were recruited for legitimate work, but some were subjected to domestic servitude or forced labor in the service sector. There were also reports by NGOs of forced labor in the agricultural, mining, and fishing sectors.

Also see the Department of States Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report./

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits employment of children younger than 15. The law allows children younger than 15 to work in the performing arts if their employers receive permission from the Department of Labor and agree to follow specific guidelines. The law also prohibits children between ages 15 and 18 from work that threatens their wellbeing, education, physical or mental health, or spiritual, moral, or social development. Children may not work more than eight hours a day or before 6 a.m. or after 6 p.m. A child not enrolled in school may not work more than 40 hours in any week, and a child attending school may not work more than 20 hours in any week.

The law prohibits children from performing hazardous duties, including lifting heavy weights, meat or seafood processing, underground mining, deep sea fishing, commercial diving, electrical work, working with hazardous chemicals or explosives, in manufacturing, rock and stone crushing, and work in gambling and alcohol-serving establishments. Employers may not require a child to work in a confined space or to perform piecework and task work. Penalties for violating child labor laws were commensurate with those for comparable crimes.

The government enforced child labor law in the formal sector of the economy that strong and well-organized unions monitored, but enforcement in the informal and agricultural sectors was inconsistent. The Department of Labor deployed specialized child labor experts in integrated teams of child labor intersectoral support groups to each province and labor center.

According to the department, the government made progress in eradicating the worst forms of child labor by raising awareness, instituting strict legal measures, and increasing penalties for suspected labor violators. Nevertheless, it added that more efforts to address issues of child labor in migrant communities were needed.

Children were found working as domestic laborers, street workers, and scavenging garbage for food items and recyclable items. Boys, particularly migrant boys, were forced to work in street vending, food services, begging, criminal activities, and agriculture. Although the government did not compile comprehensive data on child labor, NGOs and labor inspectors considered its occurrence rare in the formal sectors of the economy but believe that there might instances in the informal economy of child labor that are underreported due to lack of dedicated resources.

See also the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The Employment Equity Act protects all workers against unfair discrimination on the grounds of race, age, gender, religion, marital status, pregnancy, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, disability, conscience, belief, political, opinion, culture, language, HIV status, birth, or any other arbitrary ground. The legal standard used to judge discrimination in all cases is whether the terms and conditions of employment among employees of the same employer performing the same or substantially similar work, or work of equal value, differ directly or indirectly based on any of the grounds listed above. Employees have the burden of proving such discrimination. Penalties were commensurate with those for comparable crimes. The government has a regulated code of conduct to assist employers, workers, and unions to develop and implement comprehensive, gender-sensitive, and HIV/AIDS-compliant workplace policies and programs.

The government did not consistently enforce the law. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, HIV status, and country of origin (see section 6).

Discrimination cases were frequently taken to court or the Commission for Conciliation, Arbitration, and Mediation.

In its 2018-19 annual report, the Commission for Employment Equity cited data on discrimination by ethnicity, gender, age, and disability in all sectors of the economy. The implementation of the Black Economic Empowerment Act, which aims to promote economic transformation and enhance participation of blacks in the economy, continued. The public sector better reflected the country’s ethnic and gender demographics. Bias against foreign nationals was common in society and the workplace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

On January 1, the country’s first national minimum wage came into effect, replacing a patchwork of sectoral minimum wages set by the Department of Labor. The minimum wage was above the official poverty line. The law protects migrant workers, and they are entitled to all benefits and equal pay. The minimum wage law also established a commission to make annual recommendations to parliament for increases in the minimum wage.

The law establishes a 45-hour workweek, standardizes time-and-a-half pay for overtime, and authorizes four months of maternity leave for women. No employer may require or permit an employee to work overtime except by agreement, and employees may not work be more than 10 overtime hours a week. The law stipulates rest periods of 12 consecutive hours daily and 36 hours weekly and must include Sunday. The law allows adjustments to rest periods by mutual agreement. A ministerial determination exempted businesses employing fewer than 10 persons from certain provisions of the law concerning overtime and leave. Farmers and other employers could apply for variances from the law by showing good cause. The law applies to all workers, including workers in informal sectors, foreign nationals, and migrant workers, but the government did not prioritize labor protections for workers in the informal economy.

The government set appropriate occupational health and safety (OSH) standards through the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy for the mining industry and through the Department of Labor for all other industries.

There are harsh penalties for violations of OSH laws in the mining sector. Employers are subject to heavy fines or imprisonment if convicted of responsibility for serious injury, illness, or the death of employees due to unsafe mine conditions. The law allows mine inspectors to enter any mine at any time to interview employees and audit records. The law provides for the right of mine employees to remove themselves from work deemed dangerous to health or safety. The law prohibits discrimination against a mining employee who asserts a right granted by law and requires mine owners to file annual reports providing OSH statistics for each mine, including safety incidents. Conviction of violating the mining health and safety law is punishable by two years’ imprisonment, and the law empowers the courts to determine a fine or other penalty for perjury. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy was responsible for enforcing OSH law.

Outside the mining industry, no law or regulation permits workers to remove themselves from work situations deemed dangerous to their health or safety without risking loss of employment, although the law provides that employers may not retaliate against employees who disclose dangerous workplace conditions. Employees were also able to report unsafe conditions to the Department of Labor that used employee complaints as a basis for prioritizing labor inspections. Penalties were commensurate with those for comparable offenses. The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing safety laws outside the mining sector.

The Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing wage standards outside the mining sector, and a tripartite Mine Health and Safety Council and an Inspectorate of Mine Health and Safety enforced such standards in the mining sector. Penalties for violations of wages and workhour laws outside the mining sector were commensurate with those for comparable offenses.

The Department of Labor employed an insufficient number of labor inspectors to enforce compliance. Labor inspectors conducted routine and unannounced inspections at various workplaces that employed vulnerable workers. Labor inspectors investigated workplaces in both the formal and informal sectors. Labor inspectors and unions reported having difficulty visiting workers on private farms.

The government did not effectively enforce the law in all sectors. OSH regulations were frequently violated in the mining sector, and compensation for injuries was erratic and slow. Penalties were commensurate with those for comparable offenses, however, not sufficient to deter violations. Unions in the agriculture sector noted their repeated attempts to have the Department of Labor fine farm owners who failed to shield workers from hazardous chemicals sprayed on crops. Although labor conditions improved on large commercial farms, COSATU and leading agricultural NGOs reported labor conditions on small farms remained harsh. Underpayment of wages and poor living conditions for workers, most of whom were black noncitizens, were common. Many owners of small farms did not measure working hours accurately, 12-hour workdays were common during harvest time, and few farmers provided overtime benefits. Amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act attempted to address some labor abuses at farms. For example, changes prohibited farms from selling goods from farm-operated stores to farm employees on credit at inflated prices. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers cut salaries, without following the law restricting an employer’s ability to change an employee’s pay; this was especially evident with domestic workers. Most domestic workers were either subject to staying with their employers or risk losing both their income and employment.

Farm workers also reported health and sanitation concerns. In a 2017 report, the NGO Women on Farms Project stated that 63 percent of the female farm workers surveyed did not have access to bathroom facilities and were forced to seek a bush or a secluded spot. The report also included the responses of female farm workers and their children who reported suffering from health problems such as skin rashes, cholinesterase depression, poisoning, harmful effects on the nervous system, and asthma due to the pesticides to which they were exposed.

Mining accidents were common. Mine safety has steadily improved from prior decades, however. For example, 553 miners lost their lives in 1995 compared with only 51 deaths in 2019 and 81 deaths in 2018. Mining operations were scaled down significantly during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly deep-level mining. According to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, between January and September, there were 37 reported fatalities and 1,053 injuries among workers in the mining industry.

In July 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled employees assigned to workplaces via a labor broker (“temporary employment service”) are employees of the client and entitled to wages and benefits equal to those of regular employees of the client.

In August 2019 the High Court of Gauteng expanded statutory workers’ compensation coverage to domestic workers for injuries suffered in the course of their employment.

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