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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a democratic republic with a bicameral parliament. Many governmental functions are the responsibility of two entities within the state, the Federation and the Republika Srpska (RS), as well as the Brcko District, an autonomous administrative unit under BiH sovereignty. The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace (the Dayton Accords), which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, provides the constitutional framework for governmental structures, while other parts of the agreement specify the government’s obligations to protect human rights and enable the right of wartime refugees and displaced persons to return to their prewar homes or be compensated for properties that cannot be restored to them. The country held general elections in October 2018. As of December, however, the election results had not been fully implemented, as the state-level government and two cantonal governments had not yet been formed. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) reported that elections were held in a competitive environment but were characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines. While candidates could campaign freely, ODIHR noted that “instances of pressure and undue influence on voters were not effectively addressed,” citing long-standing deficiencies in the legal framework. ODIHR further noted that elections were administered efficiently, but widespread credible allegations of electoral contestants manipulating the composition of polling station commissions reduced voter confidence in the integrity of the process. More than 60 complaints of alleged election irregularities were filed with the Central Election Commission.

State-level police agencies include the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Border Police, the Foreigners Affairs Service (partial police competencies), and the Directorate for Police Bodies Coordination. Police agencies in the two entities (the RS Ministry of Interior and the Federation Police Directorate), the Brcko District, and 10 cantonal interior ministries also exercise police powers. The armed forces provide assistance to civilian bodies in case of natural or other disasters. The intelligence service is under the authority of the BiH Council of Ministers. An EU military force continued to support the country’s government in maintaining a safe and secure environment for the population. While civilian authorities maintained effective control of law enforcement agencies and security forces, a lack of clear division of jurisdiction and responsibilities between the country’s 16 law enforcement agencies resulted in occasional confusion and overlapping responsibilities.

Significant human rights issues included: significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions of free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; significant government corruption; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence against members of national/ethnic/racial minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

Units in both entities and the Brcko District investigated allegations of police abuse, meted out administrative penalties, and referred cases of criminal misconduct to prosecutors. Observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. Ineffective prosecution of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 conflict continued to be a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but governmental respect for this right remained poor during the year. Intimidation, harassment, and threats, including an increased number of death threats, against journalists and media outlets continued during the year, while the majority of media coverage was dominated by nationalist rhetoric and ethnic and political bias, often encouraging intolerance and sometimes hatred. The absence of transparency in media ownership remained a problem.

Freedom of Expression: The country’s laws provide for a high level of freedom of expression, but the irregular and, in some instances, incorrect implementation and application of the law seriously undermined press freedoms. The law prohibits expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance, including “hate speech,” but authorities did not enforce these restrictions.

Data from the Free Media Help Line (FMHL) indicated that courts continued to fail to differentiate between different media genres (in particular, between news and commentary), while long court procedures and legal and financial battles were financially exhausting to journalists and outlets. The FMHL concluded that years of incorrectly implementing the law had caused direct pressure against journalists and media and that such pressure jeopardized journalists’ right to freedom of expression.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, but sometimes this resulted in pressure or threats against journalists. The law prohibiting expression that provokes racial, ethnic, or other forms of intolerance applies to print and broadcast media, the publication of books, and online newspapers and journals but was not enforced.

Political and financial pressure on media outlets continued. Some media outlets noted that allegations of tax evasion and elaborate financial controls continued to be powerful tools in attempts to intimidate and control outlets. The number of physical attacks against journalists increased during the year.

Attacks on journalists’ professional integrity and freedom of the press continued to grow throughout the year. On a number of occasions, public officials obstructed the work of journalists. During one weekend in February, for example, the FMHL registered three such incidents. In one of the incidents in Banja Luka, police stopped journalists from E-Trafika and Dnevni Avaz, who were clearly displaying press credentials, from reporting on the “Justice for David” protests there.

The practice of pressuring journalists to censor their reporting continued during the year as well. Investigative stories on corruption in the country’s judicial sector focusing on high-level officials resulted in additional pressure on journalists. In June, for example, the BiH Prosecutor’s Office issued a threatening press release announcing that it was opening a case to investigate the motives of persons disseminating negative reports in the media about their work. The BiH Journalists Association (BH Journalists) strongly criticized the statement. In April the country’s chief prosecutor, Gordana Tadic, told investigative journalists that they were to run their stories, accompanied by supporting evidence, by prosecutors or police offices before publishing them. This “advice” came after prosecutors questioned journalists who wrote high-profile investigative stories about fake university diplomas and alleged Croatian intelligence activities in the country.

Authorities continued exerting pressure on media outlets to discourage some forms of expression, and party and governmental control over a number of information outlets narrowed the range of opinions represented in both entities. Public broadcasters remained under strong pressure from government and political forces due to a lack of long-term financial stability. Public broadcasters remained exposed to political influence, especially through politically controlled steering boards. These factors limited their independence and resulted in news that was consistently subjective and politically biased.

The Public Broadcasting System consists of three broadcasters: nationwide radio and television (BHRT) and the entity radio and television broadcasters RTRS and RTV FBiH. The law on the public broadcasting system is only partially implemented and entity laws are not in line with state level law. Public broadcasters continued to be in a difficult financial situation, primarily due to the lack of an efficient, unified, and stable system of financing.

The institutional instability of the governing structures of RTV FBiH continued, as the broadcaster failed to elect a steering board or appoint organizational management and remained open to political influence. As a result, RTV FBiH continued to demonstrate political bias and a selective approach to news.

The RS government continued directly to control RTRS, which demonstrated strong support for the ruling political parties in the RS. The BHRT, which previously had a reputation for being balanced and nonbiased, caved to increased political pressure and censored its own reporting. Authorities remained subject to competing political interests and failed to establish a public broadcasting Service Corporation to oversee the operations of all public broadcasters in the country as provided by law.

Violence and Harassment: Intimidation and threats against journalists continued during the year. Cases of violence and death threats against journalists were recorded as well. Intimidation and politically motivated litigation against journalists for their unfavorable reporting on government leaders and authorities also continued.

As of August the FMHL recorded 37 cases involving violations of journalists’ rights and freedoms, five death threats, and six physical assaults. According to data from BH Journalists covering the period from 2006 to 2019, authorities prosecuted approximately 30 percent of criminal acts reported against journalists and investigated more than one-third of alleged violations of journalists’ rights.

On March 28, for example, Huso Cesir, the head of the municipal council of Novi Grad in Sarajevo, shoved and verbally harassed Adi Kebo, a cameraman at the online news magazine Zurnal, while he was filming the entrance to Cesir’s company as part of an investigation into the politician’s business dealings. Cesir’s son joined his father and also harassed Kebo, briefly taking Kebo’s camera. Kebo sustained light injuries and his camera was damaged during this attack. BH Journalists reacted and strongly condemned the attack, while Party for Democratic Action (SDA) leaders made light of it, stating that Cesir attacked the camera, not the cameraman. Sarajevo Canton police filed a case with the canton prosecutor.

Early in the year, journalists at TV Sarajevo, the public television service of Sarajevo Canton, complained they were frequently censored and harassed by their SDA-allied management and reported the case to the FMHL. In February a former TV Sarajevo employee set fire to the car of the then director of the station. The director, Edina Fazlagic, blamed false accusations about the station’s employment policies for triggering the attack. The SDA condemned the attack, calling it political pressure against press freedom. In March, BH Journalists issued a press release condemning political pressures against TV Sarajevo. The FMHL contacted the Ombudsman and cantonal labor inspector concerning the alleged violation of TV Sarajevo’s employees’ rights, which the labor inspector ultimately confirmed. Following a political reshuffle, the Sarajevo Canton government–now formed without the SDA–made Kristina Ljevak the acting director of the station in May. The SDA strongly criticized her decisions, and right-oriented web portals took issue with her ethnic background and questioned her suitability for the position, as she had spent the war in the RS. An SDA member of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, Samra Cosovic Hajdarevic, referring to Ljevak’s appointment, commented on Facebook that Muslim names in important positions were being replaced with other ones. The comment sparked strong reactions from media professionals, who condemned it as discriminatory, while the multiethnic Social Democratic Party and Democratic Front party condemned it as hate speech.

On July 12, the Banja Luka District Court convicted Marko Colic, one of the attackers in the 2018 attack on journalist Vladimir Kovacevic. Kovacevic, a BNTV journalist based in Banja Luka, was severely beaten as he came home after covering a protest. Colic was sentenced to four years in prison. The second attacker, identified as Nedeljko Dukic, was never apprehended. Journalist associations continued to assert that this unresolved case had a chilling effect on press freedom in the country.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Multiple political parties and entity-level institutions attempted to influence editorial policies and media content through legal and financial measures. As a result, some media outlets practiced self-censorship.

In some instances, media sources reported that officials threatened outlets with loss of advertising or limited their access to official information. Prevailing practices reflected close connections between major advertisers and political circles and allowed for biased distribution of advertising time. Public companies, most of which were under the control of political parties, remained the key advertisers. Outlets critical of ruling parties claimed they faced difficulties in obtaining advertising.

Libel/Slander Laws: While the country has decriminalized defamation, a large number of complaints continued to be brought against journalists, often resulting in extremely high monetary fines. Noteworthy court decisions against journalists included temporary bans on the posting or publication of certain information as well as very high compensatory payments for causing “mental anguish.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, but some restrictions remained. Although the legislation on asylum provides for freedom of movement for asylum seekers, authorities of Una-Sana Canton imposed restrictions without a due legal basis. This resulted in asylum seekers–including some who were duly registered–being forcibly disembarked from public transports at the entrance of the canton territory and being prevented from using buses and taxis within the canton. Groups of asylum-seekers and migrants were regularly marched involuntarily from Bihac to a location several kilometers away, where their movements were limited. The location itself offers very poor humanitarian and safety conditions. UNHCR’s legal aid partner legally challenged these restrictions.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum (refugee or subsidiary protection status), and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Asylum seekers with pending claims have a right to accommodation at the asylum center until the Ministry of Security makes a final and binding decision on their claims. Provision of adequate accommodation remained one of the biggest challenges since the beginning of 2018 due to increased arrivals of asylum seekers. It was common practice for some migrants to apply for asylum in order to gain access to temporary benefits and services, even if they had no plans to remain in the country. The increase of arrivals delayed registration procedures and access to rights and services, including legal, medical, and basic needs such as food and basic hygiene facilities and items, which were tied directly to the accommodation facilities.

According to an AP press service report, on October 24, the International Red Cross issued a statement warning of an imminent “humanitarian catastrophe” at one particular site, overcrowded makeshift migrant camp near the country’s border with Croatia. According to the statement, migrants in the Vucjak camp had no running water, no electricity, no usable toilets, and leaking overcrowded tents for the 700 persons there. The statement noted there were persons living in the camp with untreated broken limbs, and 70 percent of the population had scabies. The camp had only 80 tents and five volunteers from the country’s Red Cross Society. According to the report, local authorities restricted the camp’s water supplies in an effort to pressure the BiH government to relocate the migrants.

In official migrant centers, international organizations, NGOs, volunteers, or local actors provided services on an ad hoc basis. In May 2018 an additional facility, the Salakovac Refugee Reception Center, was opened for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Five temporary reception centers for refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants were opened and managed by the International Organization for Migration in cooperation with the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs (four in Una-Sana Canton and one near Sarajevo). Nevertheless, adequate shelter capacity was still lacking, in particular for families, unaccompanied and separated minors, and other vulnerable categories. The swift processing of asylum claims was another area of concern, as there were many obstacles to registering an asylum claim, including the obligation for asylum seekers not accommodated in an official government-run center to register their address. While the situation improved over the course of the year, the Sector for Asylum still lacked resources to ensure that applicants had full and timely access to asylum procedures. In addition, asylum authorities lacked sufficient personnel, making the asylum process very lengthy and discouraging refugees from seeking asylum in the country.

Asylum seekers have the right to appeal a negative decision before the Court of BiH. The system for providing protection to refugees seeking asylum continued to suffer from a lack of transparency.

Authorities appeared to have stopped their previous practice of placing foreigners with irregular status or without documentation in immigration detention centers and issuing expulsion orders without giving asylum seekers the ability to present applications. The change came with the increase of new arrivals in 2018 and 2019. In the past, the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs held asylum seekers for 90 days, the maximum initial holding period prescribed by law. Detention decisions were issued in the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian languages while, according to the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, individuals were informed of the content of the decision orally with the assistance of an interpreter. A foreigner may appeal a decision on detention within three days from the date it is issued. Many asylum seekers did not receive legal aid within this timeframe and subsequently told the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were not informed of this possible remedy.

UNHCR paid ad hoc visits to the Immigration Center of the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs, where foreigners were detained. UNHCR’s main concern with regard to the center was the difficulty experienced by legal aid NGOs that wanted to access it on a regular basis and the fact that authorities occasionally detained families with children there, pending their voluntary readmission to countries of origin.

According to UNHCR, authorities held several individuals seeking asylum at the Immigration Center during the first eight months of the year. Information on the right to seek asylum was not readily available to potential asylum seekers in the center. UNHCR expressed concern that foreigners in detention might not have access to asylum procedures and that authorities might prematurely return some potential asylum seekers under readmission agreements before they had been afforded an opportunity to file a claim for asylum. In addition, some provisions of the BiH legislation on extradition gives authorities the possibility of extraditing a person who has expressed the intention to seek asylum if the request was made after the country had received an extradition request. In addition, UNHCR reported that applicants for refugee status did not have sufficient legal assistance; that there were no clear standards of proof or methods of assessing the credibility of claims, including country of origin; and that guidelines for determining whether there was a risk of persecution were unduly strict.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The law provides for the application of the concept of “safe country of origin or safe third country.” Under this provision, authorities may deny asylum to applicants who cannot prove they were unable to return to their country of origin or to any country of transit. The application of this concept would require a list of safe third countries and countries of origin to be made by the BiH Council of Ministers.

Durable Solutions: The laws provide a program for integration and return of refugees and displaced persons. The country was party to a regional housing program funded by international donors and facilitated in part by UNHCR and the OSCE to provide durable solutions for up to 74,000 refugees and displaced persons from four countries in the region, including 14,000 of the most vulnerable refugees, returnees, and IDPs from the country. The process of selecting program beneficiaries was protracted due to capacity and management problems that resulted in extended delays in the reconstruction of homes. Fragmented institutional arrangements added administrative delays to the process, as did the political imperative to select beneficiaries proportionally from among the country’s constituent peoples.

Temporary Protection: The government provided subsidiary protection status to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. In the first seven months of the year, authorities provided subsidiary protection to 17 individuals and extended existing subsidiary protection to four others.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and the law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Observers noted a number of shortcomings, however.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively nor prioritize public corruption as a serious problem. Courts have not processed high-level corruption cases, and in most of the finalized cases, suspended sentences were pronounced. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and corruption remained prevalent in many political and economic institutions. Corruption was especially prevalent in the health and education sectors, public procurement processes, local governance, and in public administration employment procedures.

While the government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption, but political pressure often prevented the application of these mechanisms. Observers considered police impunity widespread, and there were continued reports of corruption within the state and entity security services. There are internal affairs investigative units within all police agencies. Throughout the year, mostly with assistance from the international community, the government provided training to police and security forces designed to combat abuse and corruption and promote respect for human rights. The field training manuals for police officers also include ethics and anticorruption training components.

Corruption: While the public viewed corruption as endemic in the public sphere, there was little public demand for the prosecution of corrupt officials. The multitude of state, entity, cantonal, and municipal administrations, each with the power to establish laws and regulations affecting business, created a system that lacked transparency and provided opportunities for corruption. The multilevel government structure gave corrupt officials multiple opportunities to demand “service fees,” especially in the local government institutions.

Analysts considered the legal framework for prevention of corruption to be satisfactory across almost all levels of government and attributed the absence of high-profile prosecutions to a lack of political will. Many state-level institutions tasked with fighting corruption, such as the Agency for Prevention and Fight against Corruption, had limited authority and remained under resourced. There were indications that the judiciary was under political influence, and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council was at the center of corruption scandals, including allegations that the president of the council accepted a bribe in exchange for interfering in a case. The accountability of judges and prosecutors was low, and appointments were often not merit based. Prosecutions also were considered generally ineffective and subject to political manipulation, often resulting in suspended sentences or prison sentences below mandatory minimum sentences. Authorities reported that, in the previous five years, 84 indictments were filed against high-ranking public officials, of whom 38 were found guilty.

Gathering evidence to prove corruption has been seriously impeded as of 2018, when the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional certain provisions in the BiH state law that governs special investigative measures. The BiH parliament adopted amendments to Criminal Procedure Code that define the crimes for which special investigative measures may be applied and regulate the granting of immunity to witnesses and the duration of investigations in line with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. The RS also amended part of the Criminal Procedure Code to define the crimes for which special investigative measures may be ordered.

According to professors and students, corruption continued at all levels of the higher education system. Professors at a number of universities reported that bribery was common and that they experienced pressure from colleagues and superiors to give higher grades to students with family or political connections. There were credible allegations of corruption in public procurement, public employment, and health-care services.

Financial Disclosure: Candidates for high-level public office, including for parliament at the state and entity levels and for the Council of Ministers and entity government positions, are subject to financial (assets/liabilities and income) disclosure laws, although observers noted the laws fell short of standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and other international organizations. The Central Election Commission received financial reports of elected officials, while the Conflict of Interest Commission within the BiH parliament receives financial reports and retains records on public officials. Both institutions lacked authority to verify the accuracy of declarations, and it was believed that public officials and their relatives often declared only a fraction of their total assets and liabilities. Authorities generally failed to make financial disclosure declarations public, using as an excuse the conflicts between the laws on financial disclosure and protection of personal information.

Failure to comply with financial disclosure requirements is subject to administrative sanctions. During the year the Conflict of Interest Commission had no cases as the mandate of parliamentary members expired, and new members were not appointed. A new government in Sarajevo Canton made positive steps in the fight against corruption by adopting legislation on the verification of assets of public officials. The government also adopted a decree on public procurement, which introduces anticorruption measures to regulate these processes.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were seldom cooperative and responsive to their views, and the Council of Ministers still largely excluded NGOs from politically important or sensitive decisions. NGOs continued, however, to expand cooperation with the government at lower levels.

Government officials in both the Federation and the RS attempted at times to limit NGO activities. Observers noted that some civil society representatives working on highly sensitive issues such as war crimes and combatting corruption have been subjected to threats and verbal assaults. Several NGOs in the RS reported being pressured by local authorities while subject to protracted tax inspections, sometimes lasting up to six months. NGOs can only be involuntarily dissolved if found in violation of the law.

Civil society organizations frequently lacked adequate funding, and most were dependent on either governmental or international assistance. Local governments generally extended support to NGOs, provided the governing parties did not consider them threats.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In contrast to Federation and Brcko District governments, the RS government was noncooperative and unresponsive in dealing with the Office of the High Representative created by the Dayton Accords and given special executive powers in the country.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The state-level Ombudsman has authority to investigate alleged violations of the country’s human rights laws on behalf of individual citizens and to submit legally nonbinding recommendations to the government for remedy. Members of the international community noted that the Ombudsman lacked the resources to function effectively and had to contend with disagreements between representatives of the country’s three constituent peoples over what constitutes a human rights violation, which sometimes caused disagreements within the institution. A Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb shared leadership of the Ombudsman Institution.

The state-level parliament has a Joint Commission for Human Rights that participated in human rights-related activities with governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Due to delays in government formation at the state level, the commission had not been formed during the year.

In January the government began implementing a 2017 cooperation agreement between the Council of Ministers and NGOs by adopting a decision to establish an advisory body for cooperation with NGOs. The decision foresees the appointment of five members by the Council of Ministers at the proposal of the Ministry of Justice.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

Federation and RS labor laws provide for the right of workers in both entities to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Employers in the private sector did not always respect these rights. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide adequately for enforcement of these protections. The labor inspectorates and courts did not deal effectively with employees’ complaints of antiunion discrimination. Unions themselves have complained that their own union leaders have been co-opted by the company and politicians, and that they mostly protect their own privileges. The law prescribes reinstatement of dismissed workers in cases where there is evidence of discrimination, whether for union activity or other reasons. Entity-level laws in the Federation and the RS prohibit the firing of union leaders without prior approval of their respective labor ministries.

The law in both entities and in the Brcko District provides for the right to strike. The law in the Federation contains burdensome requirements for workers who wish to conduct a strike. Trade unions may not officially announce a strike without first reaching an agreement with the employer on which “essential” personnel would remain at work. Authorities may declare the strike illegal if no agreement is reached. This provision effectively allowed employers to prevent strikes. Laws governing the registration of unions give the minister of justice powers to accept or reject trade union registration on ambiguous grounds. According to informal estimates, approximately 40 percent of the work force was unregistered and working in the informal economy.

The lack of workers’ rights was more pronounced in the private sector largely due to weaker unions in the private sector and to the broad and pronounced weakness of the rule of law.

The government did not effectively enforce all applicable laws. Authorities did not impose sanctions against employers who prevented workers from organizing. Inspections related to worker rights were limited. Ministry inspectors gave low priority to violations of worker rights; state officials focused instead on bolstering revenues by cracking down on unregistered employees and employers who did not pay taxes. Some unions reported that employers threatened employees with dismissal if they joined a union and, in some cases, fired union leaders for their activities. Entity-level penalties for violations included monetary fines that were insufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The governments and organizations of employers and workers in both entities negotiated general collective agreements establishing conditions of work, including in particular private employers. It was not confirmed that all employers recognized these agreements. Trade union representatives alleged that antiunion discrimination was widespread in all districts.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Adequate legislation exists at the state level and in the RS and the Brcko District criminalizing forced or compulsory labor while Federation laws do not criminalize all forced labor activities. The government did not enforce the law effectively, but there was little verified evidence that forced labor occurred in the country due to the limited number of inspections into forced labor allegations. Penalties for violations were generally sufficient to deter violations.

The prosecution of 13 BiH nationals for collusion in forced labor involving 672 victims of forced labor in Azerbaijan in 2015 continued in BiH court. The government failed to prosecute organized crime syndicates that forced Romani children to beg on the streets, alleging that it was Romani custom to beg. There were reports that individuals and organized crime syndicates trafficked men, women, and children for begging and forced 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 of children in both entities is 15; minors between the ages of 15 and 18 must provide a valid health certificate to work. RS and Brcko District laws penalize employers for hiring persons younger than age 15. The labor codes of the Federation, the RS, and the Brcko District also prohibit minors between the ages of 15 and 18 from working at night or performing hazardous labor, although forced begging is not considered a hazardous task for all entities. The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Entity governments are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, and both entities and the Brcko District enforced them. Boys and girls were subjected to forced begging and involuntary domestic servitude in forced marriages. Sometimes forced begging was linked to other forms of human trafficking. In the case of Romani children, family members or organized criminal groups were usually responsible for subjecting girls and boys to forced begging and domestic servitude in forced marriages. Several of the worst forms of child labor occurring in the country included the use of children for illicit activities, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and the use of children for the production of pornography (see section 6, Children).

During the year the government did not receive reports of child labor at places of employment. Neither entity had inspectors dedicated to child labor inspections; authorities investigated violations of child labor laws as part of a general labor inspection. The labor inspectorates of both entities reported that they found no violations of child labor laws, although they did not conduct reviews of children working on family farms. The government did not collect data on child labor because there were no reported cases. The general perception among officials and civil society was that the exploitation of child labor was rare. RS law imposes fines for employing children younger than 16, but the law does not specify the exact monetary amount. Penalties were usually sufficient to deter violations.

NGOs running day centers in Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar, Bijeljina, Bihac, and Sarajevo in cooperation with the country’s antitrafficking coordinator continued to provide services to at-risk children, many of whom were involved in forced begging on the streets.

Also see 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 and regulations related to employment or occupation prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, sex, gender, age, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status, other communicable diseases, social status (including refugee status), religion, and national origin. The government generally enforced these laws and regulations effectively. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, gender, disability, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV-positive status, and social status (see section 6).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although the monthly minimum wage in both entities is above the official poverty income level, more than 30 percent of the population was exposed to the risk of income poverty. The Brcko District did not have a separate minimum wage or an independent pension fund, and employers typically used the minimum wage rate of the entity to which its workers decided to direct their pension funds.

The legal workweek in both entities and the Brcko District is 40 hours, although seasonal workers may work up to 60 hours. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week in both entities. An employee in the RS may legally volunteer for an additional 10 hours of overtime in exceptional circumstances. The Federation has no provision for premium pay, while the RS requires a 30-percent premium. Laws in both entities require a minimum rest period of 30 minutes during the workday.

Employees may choose which holidays to observe depending on ethnic or religious affiliation. Entity labor laws prohibit excessive compulsory overtime. The entities and the Brcko District did little to enforce regulations on working hours, daily and weekly rest, or annual leave.

The Federation Market Inspectorate, the RS Inspectorate, and the Brcko District Inspectorate are responsible for the enforcement of labor laws in the formal economy. Authorities in the two entities and the Brcko District did not effectively enforce labor regulations. The penalties for wage and safety violations were generally sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.

The Federation and the RS set mandatory occupational health and safety standards, especially for those industry sectors where working conditions were hazardous. Worker rights extended to all official (i.e., registered) workers, including migrant and temporary workers.

Governments in both entities made only limited efforts to improve occupational safety and health at government-owned coal mines; such efforts were inadequate for the safety and security of workers. Workers in certain industries, particularly metal and steel processing and coal mining, often worked in hazardous conditions. There were no official social protections for workers in the informal economy.

Workers could not remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Authorities provided no protection to employees in this situation.

Croatia

Executive Summary

The Republic of Croatia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy. Legislative authority is vested in the unicameral parliament (Sabor). The president serves as head of state and nominates the prime minister, who leads the government, based on majority support of parliament. The latest presidential election was held in 2015, and the president was elected by a majority of voters. Domestic and international observers stated that the presidential election and parliamentary elections held in 2016 were free and fair, and the State Election Commission reported no major irregularities during the May European Parliament elections.

The national police, under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, have primary responsibility for domestic security. The president is commander in chief of the Armed Forces. In times of disorder, the prime minister and the president may call upon the armed forces to provide security. The armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: intimidation and isolated instances of censorship of journalists; reports of acts of unjustified police violence targeting irregular migrants, some of whom may have been asylum seekers; corruption; and discrimination and violence towards members of ethnic minority groups, including Roma and Serbs.

The government took significant steps to prosecute and punish individuals who committed abuses of human rights.

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 the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined in most cases to promote freedom of expression, including for the press. NGOs reported, however, that the government did not adequately investigate or prosecute cases in which journalists or bloggers received threats, and the Croatian Journalists’ Association (CJA) reported that lawsuits against journalists and media outlets were used as a form of censorship.

Freedom of Expression: The law sanctions individuals who act “with the goal of spreading racial, religious, sexual, national, ethnic hatred, or hatred based on the color of skin or sexual orientation or other characteristics.” The law provides for six months’ to five years’ imprisonment for conviction of such “hate speech.” Conviction for internet hate speech is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment. Although the law and recent Constitutional Court decisions technically impose restrictions on symbolic speech considered “hate speech,” including the use of Nazi- and (the World War II regime) Ustasha-era symbols and slogans, NGOs and advocacy groups complained that enforcement of those provisions remained inadequate.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. Restrictions on material deemed hate speech apply to print and broadcast media. Many private newspapers and magazines were published without government interference. Observers said, however, that information regarding actual ownership of some local radio and television channels was not always publicly available, raising concerns about bias, censorship, and the vulnerability of audiences to malign influence.

Violence and Harassment: NGOs reported that intimidation and threats, especially online threats, against journalists had an increasingly chilling effect on media freedom and that the government insufficiently addressed this problem.

On March 7, Office of Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir expressed concern about a March 6 police visit to the online news portal Net.hr, ostensibly to verify the identity and home address of journalist Djurdjica Klancir. Ivo Zinic, the head of Sisak County and a member of the Croatian Democratic Union, had previously filed a private defamation lawsuit against Klancir, and Desir alleged the police visit was conducted to intimidate Klancir. Zinic denied having anything to do with the police incident.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported practicing self-censorship due to fear of online harassment, being sued, upsetting politically connected individuals, or losing their jobs for covering certain topics.

On September 16, Gordan Duhacek, a journalist for the online portal index.hr, was detained by police and later fined at Zagreb’s Misdemeanor Court for a July 2018 Twitter message that discussed police treatment of those arrested and contained an antipolice message. Duhacek also faced a court judgment for another tweet, a satirical rewrite of the lyrics of a patriotic song. The CJA labeled police treatment of Duhacek as intimidation. On September 17, OSCE representative Harlem Desir expressed concern about the case and stated, “Such treatment of journalists for their views is unacceptable. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and should be respected as such.” Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said the arrest and fine for Duhacek “amount to pure intimidation of the press” and called on authorities to protect media freedom and avoid undue pressure on journalists.

Libel/Slander Laws: The country’s public broadcaster, Croatian Radio Television (HRT), filed more than 30 lawsuits against its own and other journalists, including HRT journalist and CJA president Hrvoje Zovko, who complained of censorship at the HRT and was later dismissed from his position as HRT editor. On October 29, the Zagreb Labor Court found the HRT’s dismissal of Zovko illegal and ordered him reinstated. On March 2, several hundred journalists rallied in Zagreb against the curbing of media freedoms in the country. The CJA reported there were more than 1,000 ongoing lawsuits involving journalists or media outlets. The CJA viewed these lawsuits as attacks on the independence of the media. Responding to the CJA’s claims on February 6, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said, “Croatia is a free country with free media and free media ownership structure,” and “to say today that there is no media freedom in Croatia means that the person making this claim is neither reading the papers, listening to the radio, nor watching television.” On March 6, the OSCE’s Desir expressed his concern about the high number of lawsuits filed against journalists and outlets, claiming that defamation laws were being misused to intimidate journalists.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: International and domestic NGOs and international organizations outside of the country such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported police pushbacks of migrants, some of whom may have been asylum seekers, attempting to enter the country illegally, particularly on the country’s border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and alleged border police subjected migrants to degrading and abusive treatment, including theft and destruction of migrants’ property during pushbacks. Human Rights Watch claimed that reported police pushbacks of migrants into Bosnia and Herzegovina were illegal under international law. Amnesty International also reported police abuse of migrants and pushbacks. Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic denied reports of migrant abuse. According to Bozinovic, the Ministry of the Interior received more than 200 complaints of alleged illegal and violent pushbacks of migrants, but, following investigations, found no evidence to support the allegations.

In March the ombudsperson received an anonymous complaint by a border police officer alleging that illegal mistreatment of migrants was ordered by police superiors. The ombudsperson notified the State Attorney’s Office and requested an independent investigation. In the absence of a response from the State Attorney’s Office, in June she notified parliament. The Ministry of the Interior ultimately dismissed those claims as unsubstantiated and inaccurate.

In November there were reports of two separate shootings of migrants by police, both resulting in injuries. In the first incident, police reported an Afghan migrant was shot accidentally when a police officer fired a warning shot. The officer evacuated the migrant, who was in critical condition, to a hospital. In the second incident, police reported a migrant was accidentally shot while resisting arrest. The investigation into the first shooting was completed in December and it was found to have been an accident. There was no additional information on the status of the victim. The investigation into the second shooting was ongoing at year’s end.

Interior Minister Bozinovic said the country encouraged and promoted strengthening legal pathways for persons in need of international protection and carried out an EU resettlement program for Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The government in most cases cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee status and subsidiary protection status and the government has established a system for providing protection to asylum seekers. NGOs reported authorities at the borders between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina prevented some migrants from applying for international protection, although officials denied these reports.

Durable Solutions: During the year the government received 98 refugees and asylum seekers under the EU Resettlement Program, for a total of 250 refugees and asylum seekers since the program began in 2015. In accordance with decisions of the Council of the EU to relocate migrants from Italy and Greece, the government received an additional 81 asylum seekers and resettled 250 Syrian refugees from Turkey.

The government continued to participate in a joint regional housing program (RHP) with the governments of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia. The RHP aimed to contribute to the resolution of the protracted displacement situation of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced persons following the 1991-95 conflict. As of September, the RHP had provided housing to 289 families (674 individuals) in the country.

Temporary Protection: The Ministry of Interior reported that from January to December 11, the government provided asylum to 153 refugees who had a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to their home country. The country also has a mechanism for subsidiary protection for those who do not qualify for asylum and granted protection to one person during the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. State prosecutors continued to prosecute several major corruption cases involving mayors, politicians, and public figures, and the judiciary generally imposed statutory penalties in cases in which there was a conviction. High-profile convictions for corruption, however, were frequently overturned on appeal. Corruption remained a problem, and significant numbers of high-profile corruption cases were underway.

Corruption: Several corruption cases against former high-level government officials reported in previous years were still pending. On May 23, the Supreme Court increased the corruption sentence of former prime minister Ivo Sanader to six years’ imprisonment, after prosecutors appealed an earlier four-and-a-half-year sentence from a lower court. Sanader was found guilty of assisting former Croatian Democratic Union member of parliament Stjepan Fiolic in a 2009 real estate deal that provided Sanader 17 million kuna ($2.6 million) in proceeds. Separate trials continued against Sanader on other corruption-related charges. On December 30, in one of these, the Zagreb County Court sentenced Sanader to a first instance appealable ruling of six years’ imprisonment for accepting a bribe of approximately $11 million during 2009 negotiations with Hungarian energy firm Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company, which was seeking management control of Croatian energy firm Oil Company, Public Stock Company.

The Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime launched an investigation into former administration minister Lovro Kuscevic, who, while mayor of a municipality on Brac Island, was suspected of initiating an unlawful change in the municipality’s urban plan as well as enabling his brother-in-law to buy a government-subsidized flat. He resigned as minister in July and returned to parliament, which later stripped him of immunity from prosecution. The investigation covered three other officials suspected of abuse of office, incitement to abuse, and giving false depositions. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires that public officials declare their assets and income, and government officials generally complied with this requirement. This information was available to the public. Fines are the penalty for noncompliance. During the year the Commission for Dealing with the Conflict of Interest fined two members of parliament, Ivan Sincic and Anka Mrak Taritas, and one state secretary, Zeliko Uhlir, for irregularities in their financial disclosure forms.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups sometimes operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Domestic NGOs working on migrants’ rights issues, however, reported police pressure. Two NGOs claimed their contracts to provide refugee services in asylum seeker reception centers were terminated due to their public criticism of police for alleged violence against migrants (see section 2.f.). Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The country has an ombudsperson for human rights who investigated complaints of human rights abuses, as well as three additional ombudspersons for gender equality, disabled persons, and children. The law stipulates that parliament cannot dismiss the ombudsperson for human rights because of dissatisfaction with his or her annual report. Parliament may dismiss the other three if it does not accept their annual reports. Ombudspersons admitted that this limited their ability to do their jobs thoroughly and independently and imposed political influence over their work.

The law authorizes ombudspersons to initiate shortened procedures in cases where there is sufficient evidence of the violation of constitutional and legal rights.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form or join unions of their choice, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and allows unions to challenge firings in court. The law requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity.

Some limitations exist. There are restrictions on strikes and union activity for civilian employees of the military. Workers may strike only at the end of a contract or in specific circumstances cited in the contract, and only after completing mediation. Labor and management must jointly agree on a mediator if a dispute goes to mediation. If a strike is found to be illegal, any participant may be dismissed, and the union held liable for damages.

The government and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The government generally enforced laws effectively. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Judicial procedures were lengthy in the country overall and could hamper redress for antiunion discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Through July 31, the state prosecutor reported one case of criminal charges for forced labor, which remained pending at the end of the year.

Penalties for conviction of forced labor were sufficiently stringent to deter violations, if enforced, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. The government collaborated with several NGOs on public awareness programs.

There were isolated reports that Romani children were at risk of forced begging. 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 law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for the employment of children is 15, the age at which compulsory education ends for most children. Minors between ages 15 and 18 who have not completed compulsory education may work only with prior approval from the government labor inspectorate and only if they would not suffer physically or mentally from the work. Children younger than 15 may work only in special circumstances and with the approval of the ombudsperson for children. In 2017 (the last year for which data were available), there were 233 such requests, of which 183 were approved, usually for children to act in film or theatrical performances. The law prohibits workers younger than age 18 from working overtime, at night, or in dangerous conditions, including but not limited to construction, mining, and work with electricity. The Ministry of Labor and the Pension System, the ministry’s Office of the State Inspectorate, and the ombudsperson for children are responsible for enforcing this regulation and did so adequately.

There were isolated instances of violations of child labor legislation. Labor inspectors identified 34 violations involving 21 minors in 2017. Violations involved minors working overtime or past curfew and occurred mainly in the hospitality, retail, services, food service, and tourism sectors. Some children were reportedly subject to early marriage that could result in domestic servitude. The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations (see also section 7.b.).

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation. Nonetheless, sporadic discrimination in employment or occupation occurred on the bases of gender, disability, sexual orientation, HIV-positive status, and ethnicity, particularly for Roma. According to the ombudsperson for gender equality, women experienced discrimination in employment, including in pay and promotion to managerial and executive positions. Women generally held lower-paying positions in the workforce. A World Bank Group report in February stated that, overall, the country made progress on promoting gender equality into its policy agenda. Eurostat reported the wage gap was higher among older employees. The government did not effectively enforce the law and the penalties for discrimination were not sufficient to deter violations.

According to the 2018 annual report of the ombudsperson for disabilities, legislative changes strengthened the system for professional rehabilitation to facilitate employment of those with disabilities. The ombudsperson for disabilities noted progress in 2018 in the employment of persons with disabilities but said the government should take additional steps to reduce workplace discrimination and barriers to employment. NGOs noted discrimination and harassment against LGBTI employees in the workplace, particularly in the health and hospitality sectors. According to the NGO Freedom House, although legislation protects LGBTI employees against discrimination at the workplace, employers did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to provide protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. NGOs reported LGBTI persons sometimes refrained from publicly expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity because they were vulnerable to termination of employment or demotion.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government effectively enforced wage laws, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The minimum wage was slightly above the official poverty income level. The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week and 180 hours annually.

Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts and not the worker.

Some employees worked in the informal sector without labor protections. There were instances of nonpayment of wages, as well as nonpayment for overtime and holidays. The law allows employees to sue employers for wage nonpayment and provides a penalty sufficient to deter violations, although the law exempts employers who fail to pay wages due to economic duress. Workers may sue employers who do not issue pay slips to their employees to bypass mandatory employer contributions to social insurance programs. During 2018 inspectors filed 122 reports (down 14 percent from 2017) seeking criminal proceedings against employers for nonpayment of wages or for not registering employees properly with state health and pension insurance.

Hungary

Executive Summary

Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy. The unicameral National Assembly (parliament) exercises legislative authority. It elects the president (the head of state) every five years. The president appoints a prime minister from the majority party or coalition in parliament following national elections every four years. In parliamentary elections in April 2018, the Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) alliance led by Fidesz party leader Viktor Orban won a two-thirds majority in parliament. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observation mission found that “fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate.” Specifically, it characterized certain elements of the election as “at odds with OSCE commitments” and noted that “the widespread government information campaign was largely indistinguishable from Fidesz campaigning, giving it a clear advantage.” Orban has been prime minister since 2010.

The National Police Headquarters, under the direction of the minister of interior, is responsible for maintaining order nationwide. The Counterterrorism Center (known by its Hungarian acronym “TEK”) is responsible for protecting the president and the prime minister and for preventing, uncovering, and detecting terrorist acts. It is directly subordinate to the minister of interior. The Hungarian Defense Forces are subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security as well as aspects of domestic security and disaster response. Since 2015, under a declared state of emergency prompted by mass migration, defense forces may assist law enforcement forces in border protection and handling mass migration situations. This state of emergency was most recently renewed in September for another six months. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included reports of political intimidation of and legal restrictions on civil society organizations, including criminal and financial penalties for migration-related work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); allegations of corrupt use of state power to grant privileges to certain economic actors; criminal penalties for libel (although court decisions limited their impact); and trafficking in persons.

The government took some steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses. Impunity for human rights abuses was not widespread.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press, and the media were active and expressed a wide range of views. There were some formal restrictions on content related to “hate speech.” At the end of 2018, allies of the ruling Fidesz party consolidated what experts estimated to be between 80 and 90 percent of all media outlets into the hands of the nonprofit Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), established and managed by Fidesz allies.

Freedom of Expression: Criminal law provides that any person who publicly incites hatred against any national, ethnic, racial, religious, or certain other designated groups of the population may be prosecuted and convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years. The constitution includes hate speech provisions to “protect the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial, or religious community.” The law prohibits the public denial of, expression of doubt about, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes of the National Socialist (Nazi) and communist regimes; such crimes are punishable by up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits as a misdemeanor the wearing, exhibiting, or promoting of the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, the symbols of the Arrow Cross, the hammer and sickle, or the five-pointed red star in a way that harms human dignity or the memory of the victims of dictatorships. Judicial remedies exist for damage to individuals and communities that results from hate speech. The media law, which was amended in June and entered into force on August 1, also prohibits media content intended to incite hatred or violence against specific minority or majority communities and their members. The new law includes the provision that media content must not have the potential to instigate an act of terrorism.

A law approved in July 2018 imposes a 25 percent tax on civil entities that aid or promote illegal immigration, including groups that support media campaigns deemed to aid or promote immigration. Several NGOs sharply criticized the law, noting that it penalizes the public expression of opinions different from that of the government (see also section 5). At year’s end no entity had paid any tax under the law, and no known Tax Office investigation or audit had been conducted to that effect.

In December 2018 the ECHR unanimously ruled in favor of the publisher of a large domestic independent news site in a 2013 case. The site had previously been found guilty of disseminating defamatory information by including a hyperlink to a YouTube video that featured inaccurate allegations against the Jobbik party. While the Supreme Court found that the website was at fault, the ECHR stated “…objective liability for using a hyperlink could undermine the flow of information on the Internet, dissuading article authors and publishers from using such links if they could not control the information they led to. That could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression on the Internet.”

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without formal restriction. Media consolidation resulted in further expansion of government-friendly enterprises and reduction in other media voices, primarily in print and broadcast media. Mertek Media Monitor and other independent organizations estimated that KESMA controlled between 80 and 90 percent of the country’s media outlets. An August 2018 report by the Center for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom and commissioned by the European Commission concluded that KESMA “poses a risk to the diversity of the Hungarian press, as one type of editorial position characterizes a large number of outlets.” The reports also found that some progovernment outlets relied almost completely on government advertising for their revenues. According to Freedom House, the government “…avoids censorship, force, or outright intimidation of journalists, and instead… resorts to tools designed to co-opt the media.” These tools include “legal, extralegal, and economic strategies for applying pressure to critical outlets, and supporting friendly ones.”

The new media law that entered into force on August 1 allows individual broadcasters to operate an unlimited number of radio stations in the same city. The law provides that radio frequencies will be awarded for 10 instead of seven years and that licenses be extendable without a bid for an additional seven years, as opposed to the earlier five. According to independent analysts, these changes further consolidate media, benefiting progovernment outlets and hindering media independence. Independent and opposition media were often excluded from government-organized events and press conferences.

The National Media and Info-Communications Authority (NMHH), subordinate to parliament, is the central state administrative body for regulating the media. The authority of the NMHH includes overseeing the operation of broadcast and media markets as well as “contributing to the execution of the government’s policy in the areas of frequency management and telecommunications.” The NMHH president serves as the chair of the five-member Media Council, the decision-making body of the NMHH that supervises broadcast, cable, online, and print media content and spectrum management. The NMHH consists exclusively of persons named by the governing parties.

The state news agency, MTI, which offers its services free of charge, is mandated by law to provide balanced, objective, nonpartisan coverage. Media watchdogs and independent outlets criticized the state media for concealing facts and opinions unfavorable to the government. Opposition politicians complained that they rarely were able to appear on state-run broadcasts and noted that state media outlets underreported large antigovernment protests that took place in Budapest in December 2018.

Violence and Harassment: There were no reports of violence against journalists or of physical or legal harassment. Nevertheless, government officials and government-aligned media continued to refer to some independent journalists or media as the “Soros media” or “foreign agents.” At the end of November 2018, an investigative reporter for an independent news website was admonished in a summary procedure before a district court in Budapest for alleged abuse of personally identifiable information for using publicly available information in an article on a person who criticized Sweden’s migration policy. The reporter demanded a full trial. On September 4, another court notified the reporter of its nonbinding resolution exonerating him, since the person in question was a public figure who must tolerate in-depth scrutiny in the public interest.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law provides content regulations and standards for journalistic rights, ethics, and norms that are applicable to all media, including news portals and online publications. It prohibits inciting hatred against nations; communities; ethnic, linguistic, or other minorities; majority groups; and churches or religious groups. It provides for maintaining the confidentiality of sources with respect to procedures conducted by courts or authorities.

The law mandates that every media service provider that delivers news to the public must report in a balanced manner, and that public service media providers should pursue balanced, accurate, detailed, objective, and responsible news and information services. These requirements were widely disregarded, including by the public media. A former reporter at the M1 public news station stated in an August interview that public broadcaster reporters were informally instructed by their superiors to interview only government-friendly public figures and to portray the political opposition as ridiculous.

The Media Council may impose fines for violations of content regulations, including on media services that violate prohibitions on inciting hatred or violating human dignity or regulations governing the protection of minors. The Council may impose fines of up to 200 million forints ($666,000), depending on the nature of the infringement, type of media service, and audience size. It may also suspend the right to broadcast for up to one week. Defendants may appeal Media Council decisions but must appeal separately to prevent the implementation of fines while the parties litigate the substantive appeal.

As of September 1, the Media Council had issued 101 resolutions concerning various alleged violations of the media law, imposing fines totaling nearly 28.4 million forints ($94,600) on 68 media service providers. The most common citations were for unlawful advertising methods, breaching broadcasting regulations, and violating the dignity of a person or group. In a prominent case, the Media Council concluded in July that a government-friendly commercial television station had violated the obligation to provide balanced reporting in a segment shown in September 2018. The Media Council made that decision only after being compelled to do so by two binding court rulings and imposed no fine. Instead, the station was instructed either to make the Media Council resolution public or allow the plaintiff, an opposition member of the European Parliament, to present his views in the same program.

Libel/Slander Laws: Journalists reporting on an event may be judged criminally responsible for making or reporting false statements. Both individuals and media outlets may be sued for libel for their published statements or for publicizing libelous statements made by others. Plaintiffs may litigate in both civil and criminal courts.

Public officials and other public figures continued to use libel and defamation laws in response to criticism from citizens and journalists. Courts tended to pass verdicts that protected private individuals from libel or slander by government-affiliated media and their reporters. In a milestone ruling in July, the Constitutional Court rejected the complaint of a high-profile informal advisor to the prime minister, who had sued an independent news website for publishing compromising photographs taken during his vacation, which he alleged violated his privacy rights. The Constitutional Court ruled that the advisor was a public figure and declared that “without the freedom and diversity of public debate there is no free public opinion and there is no rule of law.” In another prominent case, the Supreme Court ruled in January that a pundit working for a government-affiliated outlet had to apologize and pay 300,000 forints ($1,000) in compensation to an opposition politician for calling him a degrading name in public.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Human rights advocates, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the European Commission criticized the government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers. Specifically, these organizations reported that migrants and asylum seekers were pushed back to the Serbian side of the Serbia-Hungary border fence, even if they had not entered Hungary through Serbia. In September 2018 the CPT published a report on the treatment and conditions of detention of foreigners in transit zones at the border and other establishments with irregular migrants, based on its 2017 visit to the country. The report noted that many detainees alleged police officers had physically mistreated them during their “push-back” to Serbia, and several displayed recent traumatic injuries as a result of alleged police mistreatment.

During the year domestic and international human rights organizations reported receiving fewer complaints of excessive use of police force and abuse against refugees and migrants, as the number of asylum seekers decreased from previous years. Human rights organizations asserted, however, that in most cases, the government did not take formal action against alleged police perpetrators and noted that few victims were willing to lodge formal complaints.

Refoulement: On May 8, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi issued a statement calling the forced expulsion of two Afghan asylum-seeking families from the country deeply shocking and a flagrant violation of international and EU law.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for asylum and establishes a procedure for persons in the country to apply for it, but often authorities afforded little or no opportunity to apply. In 2017 and 2018, asylum and border management laws underwent significant legal modifications that limited access to the country’s territory and asylum procedures and deterred asylum seekers from applying for protection. Police are allowed to push back to the Serbian side of the border any migrants who cannot prove their right to stay in the country, regardless of whether or not they entered the country from Serbia. According to UNHCR observations published in November 2018, these legislative amendments failed to draw the necessary distinction between the situation of refugees and asylum seekers and that of other aliens.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The government issued lists of “safe countries of origin” and “safe third countries.” Both lists included Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. UNHCR repeatedly objected to the government’s designation of Serbia as a safe third country on the grounds that it does not have effective asylum procedures. In 2018 parliament modified the constitution to state that persons arriving in the country “through a country where he or she was not exposed to persecution or a direct risk of persecution should not be entitled to asylum.” Parliament also amended the asylum law and restricted the right to asylum to only those persons who arrived in Hungary directly from a place where their life or freedom were at risk. Since asylum applications can only be filed in either of the two transit zones at the Hungary-Serbia border, anyone who wants to submit an asylum claim can do so only by entering a transit zone from Serbia. Because Hungary considers Serbia as a safe third country, the new inadmissibility provision triggered the automatic rejection of any asylum claim. Since the new rules entered into force in 2018, NGOs were aware of only three positive decisions concerning asylum applications filed after July 2018 by asylum seekers passing through Serbia. The immigration authority declared all other applications inadmissible.

Freedom of Movement: The asylum law requires mandatory placement of all asylum seekers other than unaccompanied minors younger than 14 in two guarded transit zones (Roszke and Tompa) on the Serbia-Hungary border, which they may leave only by entering Serbia. If the asylum seekers leave the zones, they forfeit their asylum claims.

The law permits the detention of rejected asylum seekers for a maximum of 12 months (30 days in cases of families with children). Immigration detention generally took place in immigration detention centers. Since July 2018 rejected asylum seekers were placed under alien policing procedure (no longer the asylum procedure), and the designated compulsory place of stay was the transit zone.

In April 2018 the ECHR’s Grand Chamber heard the case of two Bangladeshi asylum seekers, Ilias and Ali Ahmed, who in 2015 filed a lawsuit against the government seeking their release from a transit zone and a stay of their deportation to Serbia. The chamber found the applicants’ confinement in the Roszke border zone violated their rights because it had amounted to detention without formal, reasoned decision and without appropriate judicial review. The chamber also found their deportation to Serbia was unlawful. Authorities kept the men in the transit zone for more than three weeks before sending them back to Serbia. Following the government’s appeal, the chamber on November 21 ruled that Hungary had violated the ECHR prohibition of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment by expelling them without assessing the risks of not having proper access to asylum procedures in Serbia or being subjected to chain refoulement, but that their stay in the transit zone was not deprivation of liberty because they had entered it on their own initiative and in practice were able to return to Serbia.

Access to Basic Services: Services for persons under an alien policing procedure included only basic health care but not the provision of food, with the exception of children younger than 18 and pregnant or nursing mothers. As of August 1, the immigration authority had declined in a total of 17 cases to provide food to 27 individuals detained in the transit zones after August 2018. In each case the Hungarian Helsinki Committee successfully requested interim measures from the ECHR ordering Hungarian authorities to immediately start providing food to the individuals concerned. On July 25, the European Commission launched an infringement procedure against the country for the nonprovision of food to persons awaiting deportation who were detained in a transit zone.

In 2016 parliament amended the law to reduce benefits and assistance to persons given international protection on the grounds they should not have more advantages than Hungarian citizens. Authorities do not provide housing allowances, educational allowances, or monthly cash allowances to asylum seekers or beneficiaries of subsidiary protection. The two transit zones for asylum seekers provided clothes, soap, meals, water, and shelter. Charities provided some educational and social activities in English or Hungarian as well as supplemental nutrition for children. The government also provided basic medical assistance on site. The authorities hired a psychologist and a psychiatrist who visited the transit zones once per week for four hours per zone. Officials denied transit zone access to certain NGOs and a UNHCR contractor, which prevented several asylum seekers arriving to Hungary from war-affected countries who had previously suffered torture and posttraumatic stress disorder from receiving specialized care.

The government provided UNHCR and the International Federation of the Red Cross access to refugees and asylum seekers, with the exception of those held in the alien policing sectors in the transit zones. A few domestic charities were allowed access to the transit zones; attorneys contracted by an NGO were allowed access only when asylum seekers specifically requested their assistance.

On October 8, the ECHR ruled that refusing a journalist access to a reception center for asylum seekers in order to report on living conditions there was a violation of freedom of expression and may discourage the sharing of accurate information that is in the public interest, particularly regarding the situation of vulnerable groups. The case involved a local journalist who requested access to the Debrecen Reception Center to conduct interviews but was rejected on the grounds that press coverage would interfere with the private lives of persons accommodated there.

On July 17, after an official visit to the Hungary-Serbia border, UN Rapporteur Felipe Gonzalez Morales described prison-like conditions in the transit zones, with asylum seekers chained to hospital beds. Morales stated general hygiene conditions were acceptable but that medical care was insufficient. He added that doctors were available for only a couple of hours a day, and there were no gynecologists or pediatricians, even though the majority of asylum seekers were women and children. Interpreters were scarce and communication with doctors could be difficult.

On July 25, the European Commission referred Hungary to the ECJ, stating the legislation that criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country curtailed the asylum seekers’ right to communicate with and be assisted by national, international, and nongovernmental organizations (see section 2.b.).

Durable Solutions: Refugees are allowed to naturalize, but according to civil society organizations the applications of refugees and stateless persons were approved at a lower rate than those of other naturalization seekers. The Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the procedural framework for naturalization, noting decisions were not explained to applicants and no appeal of rejections were allowed. There were no reported cases of onward refugee resettlement from the country to other states. Domestic media reported at the beginning of the year that since 2018, the country had admitted approximately 300 individuals with Hungarian ancestry from Venezuela under a special government program involving a local charity that is different from the standard asylum procedures.

Temporary Protection: The law provides for a specific temporary protection status for situations of mass influx, but organizations working on the problem reported that it was not used in practice. Under the law all forms of international protection (refugee status, subsidiary protection, tolerated stay, stateless status, etc.) are temporary by nature, with periodic review of the entitlement to protection.

On July 29, the ECJ ruled that judges may grant international protection status to asylum seekers if an administrative body has overruled their decision without establishing new elements in the case. A 2015 regulation had stripped the courts of the right to overrule immigration authorities on asylum applications.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

While the law provides criminal penalties for corruption by public officials, few such cases were lodged or prosecuted during the year. The European Commission and NGOs contended that the government did not implement or apply these laws effectively and that officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Anticorruption NGOs alleged government corruption and favoritism in the distribution of EU funds. The Corruption Research Center Budapest identified several cases of bid rigging and other corruption risk indicators in public tenders with EU funding. The Research Center concluded that companies with close links to the government faced significantly less competition and were able to obtain higher prices when bidding for EU-funded projects.

In its annual report released on September 3, the European Antifraud Office reported investigating nine cases related to the use of EU funds in the country and recommended local authorities open criminal investigations into seven of them. The Antifraud Office also recommended that the country repay 3.8 percent of the funds it received from the EU between 2014 and 2018.

On July 22, domestic and international media reported that Microsoft Hungary (a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corporation) and Microsoft Corporation agreed to pay approximately $26 million in fines. The case involved Microsoft Hungary employees who requested discounts on software licenses from Microsoft headquarters that they claimed were necessary to secure the software sales to government agencies, although they knew the agencies had already agreed to pay full price. The inflated margins reportedly funded a corrupt payment scheme to bribe government officials and secure software deals. Microsoft and its Hungarian subsidiary cooperated with the investigation and took remedial measures. Microsoft Hungary dismissed four employees and cancelled contracts with many of its vendors. After Microsoft Hungary dismissed CEO Istvan Papp in 2016, the government appointed Papp as vice president of the Hungarian Investment Promotion Agency, a position he held for eight months. Similarly, the government appointed Microsoft Hungary’s former government relations director Viktor Sagyibo as a ministerial commissioner in the Prime Minister’s Office until August 2018. Authorities had closed the investigation into Microsoft Hungary in 2018, declaring they had found no evidence of criminal activity. In August, however, the Prosecutor General’s Office stated it would reopen the investigation.

In February the European Commission’s European Semester report on the country noted that corruption remained an important concern. Although the commission had noted minimal improvement during the previous year, it stated further steps were necessary to strengthen transparency and competition in public procurement. The report also called for the Prosecutor General’s Office to pursue corruption cases more effectively and determined that “action by Hungarian authorities to prosecute high-level corruption was lacking.”

Financial Disclosure: The law requires members of parliament, senior government officials, the president of the Supreme Court and his deputies, and the prosecutor general to publish asset declarations on a regular basis. NGOs claimed that public officials circumvented the required disclosures by placing assets in the names of spouses, who are not required to file asset declarations. The vast majority of public-sector employees, including law enforcement and army officers, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, and public servants, were also obliged to submit asset declarations, which are not publicly accessible. NGOs noted there were no criminal or administrative sanctions for submitting inaccurate asset declarations and asserted there was no effective method to detect violators.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

In 2018 the Constitutional Court postponed its proceedings on a legal challenge to the NGO law which requires NGOs that receive more than 7.2 million forints ($24,000) per year in funding from abroad to register as foreign-funded organizations. The court stated it would wait for the ruling of the ECJ on an infringement procedure brought by the European Commission. The commission asserted the law unduly interfered with freedom of association. The lawsuit remained pending at year’s end. In 2017 a Venice Commission opinion stated the NGO law would cause disproportionate and unnecessary interference with the freedoms of association and expression, right to privacy, and the prohibition of discrimination.

In December 2018 the OSCE and the Venice Commission concluded jointly that a 2018 law introducing an additional 25 percent tax on activities “providing material support for the operation of NGOs whose activities support immigration” violated freedom of expression and association as guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights and other international legal norms and should be repealed.

The law contains a provision, adopted in 2018, that mandates criminal penalties, including imprisonment for up to a year, for “facilitating illegal migration.” The law also criminalizes providing assistance to asylum seekers who were not subject to persecution in their home country or who had already transited a safe country to submit asylum claims; conducting human-rights-focused border monitoring activities; or issuing or distributing information leaflets about asylum procedures. On February 28, the Constitutional Court ruled the law was constitutional but could not be applied “if the purpose of the action is only to reduce the suffering of those in need and treat them humanely.” The court emphasized that the new criminal action can only be committed deliberately and that the perpetrator must know that he or she is helping someone who is not subject to persecution or whose fear of direct persecution is not well founded.

Local authorities sometimes took administrative actions that harassed or interfered with the legitimate work of NGOs. In March, for example, the Budapest municipal authorities forced the Aurora NGO Center, which provided office space for several smaller human rights organizations, to close its bar at 10 p.m., citing complaints from local citizens. In August it ordered Aurora to close the bar completely, depriving Aurora of a significant source of revenue. In September far-right activists disrupted an event at Aurora, and in October a group of neo-Nazis vandalized the center and burned the pride flag that was hanging outside (see also section 6 on violence based on sexual orientation). In November the newly elected (as of October) mayor of the district in which Aurora is located declared the center could remain open and that “Aurora can count on the partnership and protection of the municipality.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution and law establish a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsman has two deputies, one responsible for the rights of national minorities and one for the interests of “future generations” (environmental protection). The ombudsman is nominated by the president and elected by a two-thirds majority of parliament. He is solely accountable to parliament and has the authority to initiate proceedings to defend the rights of citizens from abuse by authorities and entities providing public services. The constitution provides that the ombudsman may request that the Constitutional Court review laws. The ombudsman is also responsible for collecting electronically submitted reports of public benefit, e.g., whistleblower reports on public corruption, and operated the national preventive mechanism against torture. Ombudsman recommendations are not binding. The office was viewed as independent and effective within the scope of its responsibilities.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The labor code provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions without previous authorization and conduct their activities without interference, although unions alleged requirements for trade union registration were excessive. The labor code prohibits any worker conduct that may jeopardize the employer’s reputation or legitimate economic and organizational interests and explicitly provides for the possibility of restricting the workers’ personal rights in this regard, including their right to express an opinion during or outside of working hours. Violations of this law could result in a fine to compensate for damages in case the employer turns to court, although this labor code provision was rarely implemented and there were no reported instances during the year. With the exception of law enforcement and military personnel, prison guards, border guards, health-care workers, and firefighters, workers have the right to strike. In other spheres of the public sector, including education or government services, minimum service must be maintained. The law permits military and police unions to seek resolution of grievances in court. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Workers performing activities that authorities determine to be essential to the public interest, such as schools, public transport, telecommunications, water, and power, may not strike unless an agreement has been reached on provision of “sufficient services” during a strike. Courts determine the definition of sufficient services. National trade unions opposed the law on the basis that the courts lacked the expertise to rule on minimum service levels and generally refused to rule on such cases, essentially inhibiting the right to strike.

The government effectively enforced laws providing for freedom of association and collective bargaining. Penalties were generally adequate to deter violations. In the public sector, administrative and judicial procedures to determine adequate services were sometimes subject to lengthy delays and appeals.

Authorities and employers generally respected freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Trade unions alleged that national prosecutors restricted trade union activities and in some cases reported antiunion dismissals and union busting by employers. There were also reports of unilateral termination of collective agreements. Unions reported the government continued to attempt to influence their independent operation.

While the law provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, court proceedings on unfair dismissal cases sometimes took more than a year to complete, and authorities did not always enforce court decisions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

While the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, observers asserted the government failed to enforce it effectively. Penalties for forced labor were comparable to penalties for other serious crimes.

Groups vulnerable to forced labor included those in extreme poverty, undereducated young adults, Roma, and homeless men and women. Hungarian men and women were subjected to forced labor domestically and abroad, and labor trafficking of Hungarian men in Western Europe occurred in agriculture, construction, and factories. The government increased law enforcement efforts and sustained its prevention efforts.

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 constitution generally prohibits child labor. The law prohibits children younger than 16 from working, except that children who are 15 or 16 may work under certain circumstances as temporary workers during school vacations or may be employed to perform in cultural, artistic, sports, or advertising activities with parental consent. Children may not work night shifts or overtime or perform hard physical labor. The government performed spot-checks and effectively enforced applicable laws; penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

Through the end of 2017, the employment authority reported four cases, involving four children, of child labor younger than 15. The employment authority also reported 10 cases involving 12 children between the ages of 15 and 16 who were employed without the consent of their parents or legal representatives during the school year, as well as 15 cases involving 23 children between the ages of 16 and 18 who were employed without the consent of their parents or legal representatives. The employment authority noted the increase result of tighter legislation, which requires presentation of parental permission during an inspection.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation and gender identity, infection with HIV or other communicable diseases, or social status. The labor code provides for the principles of equal treatment. The government failed to enforce these regulations effectively. Penalties were generally inadequate to deter violations.

Observers asserted that discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to Roma, women, and persons with disabilities. According to NGOs, there was economic discrimination against women in the workplace, particularly against job seekers older than 50 and those who were pregnant or had returned from maternity leave. A government decree requires companies with more than 25 employees to reserve 5 percent of their work positions for persons with physical or mental disabilities. While the decree provides fines for noncompliance, many employers generally paid the fines rather than employ persons with disabilities. The National Tax and Customs Authority issued “rehabilitation cards” to persons with disabilities, which granted tax benefits for employers employing such individuals.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In 2018 the net national minimum monthly wage for full-time employment of unskilled workers and the special minimum monthly wage for skilled workers exceeded the poverty level.

The law sets the official workday at eight hours, although it may vary depending on industry. A 48-hour rest period is required during any seven-day period. The regular workweek is 40 hours with premium pay for overtime. On January 1, amendments to the labor code became effective that increased the limit on maximum overtime from 250 to 400 hours per year. The code also provides for 10 paid annual national holidays. Under the new code, overtime is to be calculated based on a three-year time period, i.e., employees have a right to overtime pay only if, over a three-year period, they have worked an average of more than 40 hours per week. Observers noted the provision could allow employers to avoid paying overtime for work in one year by requiring employees to work less than full time during both or one of the two other years if it lowered their average workweek over the entire three-year period to 40 hours or less. The changes to the labor code led to a series of worker demonstrations in late 2018 and early 2019, following which most employers agreed not to take advantage of the overtime calculation provision of the new labor code and continue paying overtime in the following pay period.

The government set occupational safety and health standards, which were up to date and appropriate for the main industries. Workers have the right to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in such situations. Labor inspectors regularly provide consultations to employers and employees on safety and health standards. Labor laws also apply to foreign workers with work permits. Labor standards were not enforced in the informal economy.

The employment authority and the labor inspectorate units of government offices monitored and enforced occupational safety and health standards and labor code regulations. According to the Labor Protection Directorate of the Finance Ministry, 23,738 injuries occurred at workplaces, most of them in the mechanical engineering and manufacturing industries in 2018. There were 79 workplace fatalities, most of which took place in the manufacturing, processing, transport and warehousing, education and administration, retail, and construction sectors.

Kosovo

Executive Summary

Kosovo is a parliamentary democracy. The constitution and laws provide for an elected unicameral parliament (the Assembly), which in turn elects a president, whose choice of prime minister must be approved by the Assembly. The prime minister resigned on July 19, and on August 22, the Assembly voted to dissolve itself. As decreed by President Hashim Thaci, who was elected by the Assembly to a five-year term as president in 2016, parliamentary elections were held on October 6. The outgoing government continues to serve in a caretaker role until a new government is formed, which was not complete at year’s end. The parliamentary elections were considered free and fair.

Security forces included the Kosovo Police (KP) and the Kosovo Security Force (KSF), which report, respectively, to the Kosovo Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. During the year the government began the process of gradually transitioning the KSF into a territorial defense force, in accordance with a 10-year plan. Border Police, a subgroup of the KP, are responsible for security at the border. Police maintain internal security with assistance from EULEX, the European Union rule-of-law mission in the country, as a second responder for incidents of unrest, and the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR), an international peacekeeping force, as a third responder. KFOR is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment and ensuring freedom of movement in the country. As of August the mission had 3,526 troops from 28 countries. Civilian authorities maintained effective control of Kosovo security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: undue restrictions on the press, including violence or threats of violence against journalists; government corruption and impunity; and attacks against members of ethnic minorities or other marginalized communities, including by the KP.

Many in the government, the opposition, civil society, and the media reported instances of senior officials engaging in corruption and acting with impunity. The government and justice sector sometimes took steps to prosecute and punish those officials who committed past abuses, offenses, and crimes, but many continued to occupy public sector positions. The Police Inspectorate of Kosovo (PIK) took steps to investigate abuses and prosecute those responsible. Security forces have also participated in training to increase respect for human rights.

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 the press. While the government generally respected this right, credible reports persisted some public officials, politicians, businesses, and radical religious groups sought to intimidate media representatives. The media also encountered difficulties in obtaining information from the government and public institutions as provided by law and struggled to secure funding to remain independent. The Independent Media Commission regulates broadcast frequencies, issues licenses to public and private broadcasters, and establishes broadcasting policies.

Press and Media Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, generally without restriction. Nevertheless, reports persisted government officials, some political parties, businesses connected to the government, religious groups, and disgruntled individuals exerted pressure on media owners, individual editors, and reporters not to publish certain stories or materials. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security.

Financial difficulties of media outlets put the editorial independence of all media at risk. While some self-sufficient media outlets adopted editorial and broadcast policies independent of political and business interests, those with fewer resources sometimes accepted financial support in exchange for positive coverage or for refraining from publishing negative stories harmful to funders’ interests. According to some editors, funding was limited in part because of government reluctance to advertise its programs in media outlets that published material critical of it.

Violence and Harassment: As of September the Association of Journalists of Kosovo (AGK) and media outlets reported 17 instances of government officials, business interests, community groups, or radical religious groups violating press freedom by physically assaulting or verbally threatening journalists. In one example a journalist reporting on the demolition of an unlicensed shopping center faced violence from mall security and civilians who snatched his equipment, slapped him in the face, and prevented his reporting on the story.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were no reports of direct censorship of print or broadcast media, although journalists claimed pressure from politicians and organized criminal groups frequently resulted in self-censorship. Some journalists refrained from critical investigative reporting due to fear for their physical or job security. Journalists occasionally received offers of financial benefits in exchange for positive reporting or for abandoning an investigation.

According to the AGK, government officials as well as suspected criminals verbally threatened journalists for perceived negative reporting. According to some editors, government agencies and corporations withdrew advertising from newspapers that published material critical of them. In August the AGK denounced a Kosovo Democratic Party (PDK) statement denigrating the daily newspaper Gazeta Express as “fake.” AGK stated this PDK claim is consistent with previous statements targeting media and represents interference with the media. The AGK reported that in May, PDK chief and former Kosovo Assembly speaker Kadri Veseli called the editor in chief of Gazeta Express, Leonard Kerquki, in an attempt to influence the daily’s policies.

Journalists complained media owners and managers prevented them from publishing or broadcasting stories critical of the government, political parties, or particular officials. In some cases owners reportedly threatened to dismiss journalists if they produced critical reports. Journalists also complained that owners prevented them from reporting on high-level government corruption.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

The government did not consider Serbian-issued personal documents bearing Kosovo town names to be valid travel documents, making it difficult for many members of the Kosovo-Serb community to travel freely to and from the country, unless using the two border crossings with Serbia located in the Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities in the north. Improvements at the civil registry in 2018 greatly expanded Kosovo-Serb access to identity documents, and the number of Kosovo Serbs with these documents increased tremendously during the year.

In-country Movement: The primary bridge connecting Mitrovica/e North and South remained closed for vehicular traffic but was fully open to pedestrians. Other bridges connecting the two cities were fully open.

Exile: The return to the country by Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptian, and Romani refugees from the war remained a problem. Parliamentary representatives of these three communities reported social prejudice prevented the return of nearly 400 Ashkali, Balkan-Egyptians, and Roma who were formerly resident in the country and have informed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they were ready to return from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: On June 24, the Assembly adopted the final report of its investigative committee into the March 2018 refoulement of six Turkish citizens legally residing in Kosovo. The committee’s report highlighted serious rule of law violations including the refoulement of one man who was not identified in the extradition request. The Assembly published its report despite months of political intimidation and interference.

While the Special Prosecution (SPRK) has not concluded its investigation, the Police Inspectorate of Kosovo (PIK) in August filed a criminal report against 22 police officers involved in the operation for criminal violations. The Turkish government had accused the Turkish citizens of alleged ties to the so-called Fethullah Terror Organization.

In September the Appellate Court affirmed a Basic Court of Pristina ruling the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ rationale for rescinding residence permits for the expelled Turkish nationals was baseless.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status with subsidiary protection, a system for providing protection to refugees, and temporary admission of asylum seekers while their cases are adjudicated.

Reception facilities at the asylum center can host children, but the facility lacked standard operating procedures for the treatment of unaccompanied children seeking asylum and for determination of their eligibility for asylum. Although asylum cases have continued to increase, Kosovo is largely a transit country and those seeking asylum typically left the country and did not attend their hearings. The increasing number of asylum seekers has not yet overwhelmed the country’s capacity. Those seeking asylum in the country are housed at the asylum center throughout the year.

Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported asylum seekers received accommodations, regular meals, and clothing, while UNHCR partner organizations provided psychological assessments, counseling services, and legal aid. The lack of interpretation services for several official languages at both central and local levels remained a problem. UNHCR claimed health care and psychological treatment were still inadequate.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection, called subsidiary protection, to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. Through June the government provided subsidiary protection to one person.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage.

The Serbian government continued to operate some illegal parallel government structures in Kosovo-Serb majority municipalities and in areas primarily inhabited by the Kosovo-Gorani community. These structures are often believed to be used by the Serbian government to influence Kosovo-Serb and Kosovo-Gorani communities and political representatives.

Some Kosovo-Serb community members claimed retaliation from political opponents, alleging Serbian government influence and intimidation of potential political opponents to the primary Kosovo-Serb political party (Srpska List) ahead of the country’s October 6 elections.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. A lack of effective judicial oversight and general weakness in the rule of law contributed to the problem. Corruption cases were routinely subject to repeated appeal, and the judicial system often allowed statutes of limitation to expire without trying cases.

Corruption: The Anticorruption Agency (ACA) and the National Audits Office shared responsibility for combating government corruption. As of September the SPRK filed 10 corruption-related indictments in cases referred by the ACA. Convictions on corruption charges continued to represent a small proportion of those investigated and charged.

NGOs and international organizations identified numerous alleged failures by the judicial system to prosecute corruption, noting that very few cases brought against senior officials resulted in indictments. Sentencing of high-level officials convicted of corruption was often lenient. NGOs reported indictments often failed because prosecutors filed incorrect charges or made procedural errors.

As of September the state prosecutor had received 174 criminal reports involving 366 persons, leading to 81 indictments involving 126 persons. These resulted in 52 convictions for corruption, with 21 persons receiving prison sentences, 21 receiving fines, and 10 receiving suspended or other types of sentences.

In December the former minister of agriculture, Nenad Rikalo, and six other officials from the Ministry of Agriculture were charged with abuse of power for reportedly sidestepping legal safeguards and manipulating the ministry’s grant process to award millions of dollars to companies owned by political associates.

During the year, in at least four high-profile corruption cases, the Supreme Court found that lower courts had violated the criminal code to the benefit of defendants. The Prosecution Office used extraordinary legal remedies to request the Supreme Court evaluate the decisions rendered by lower courts in these cases. Under the criminal procedure code, the Supreme Court is able only to confirm the violations; it can take no punitive actions against the defendants.

A report from the nongovernmental Kosovo Law Institute (KLI) criticized the SPRK’s handling of a 2018 case in which the prosecutor allegedly used administrative machinations to avoid filing corruption indictments against high-level officials who enabled 19,060 individuals to illegitimately claim war veteran status and obtain state financial benefits. A March report on impunity, corruption, and monitoring of corruption cases from 2016-18 to 2020 found that courts handed down 59 indictments against 68 high-ranking officials, of which courts dismissed indictments against nine officials, acquitted 16, and rejected five. Courts imposed sentences against 11 of the 68 high-ranking officials, of whom eight received suspended imprisonment and one a fine. Proceedings against 27 high-ranking officials were ongoing.

The government assembled a parliamentary investigative committee to look into the procedural details of the March 2018 forcible repatriation, at the request of the Turkish government, of six Turkish citizens legally residing in Kosovo. The investigation experienced many difficulties completing its work. Initially, some MPs did not participate at the committee meetings in order to prevent quorum. The Assembly subsequently delayed extension of the committee’s term and acted only after the international community criticized the delay. On April 26, President Thaci presented himself to testify at a committee meeting after having declined three prior invitations. Instead of testifying, however, Thaci questioned the legality of the body’s decision to hire a foreigner as the legal expert who compiled the draft report. Thaci also claimed the expert had shared information with others, including countries that did not recognize Kosovo’s independence. In May, 52 international human rights professors and advocates, from institutions such as Harvard University, the American Bar Association, and Human Rights Watch, addressed a letter to Xhelal Svecla, head of the parliamentary Inquiry Committee, expressing their concerns over “irresponsible and reckless accusations” made by Kosovo officials.

Financial Disclosure: The law obliges all senior public officials and their family members to declare their property and the origins of their property annually. Senior officials must also report changes in their property holdings when assuming or terminating public service. The ACA administers the data, verifies disclosures, and publishes them on its website. Authorities may fine officials charged with minor breaches of the requirement or prohibit them from exercising public functions for up to one year. The ACA referred all charges against those who had not filed to prosecutors.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated, generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The government was cooperative and sometimes responsive to their views.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ombudsperson Institution has authority to investigate allegations of human rights violations and abuse of government authority and acts as the national preventive mechanism against torture. The institution is the primary agency responsible for monitoring detention facilities. Based on powers granted by the Assembly, the Ombudsperson Institution can file amicus curiae briefs with basic courts on human rights-related cases. It can also make recommendations on the compatibility of laws and other sublegal or administrative acts, guidelines, and practices.

In 2018 the government established a preparatory team to draft terms of reference for a future truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). During the year a preparatory team met and drafted the rules and procedures for a TRC and submitted the document for parliamentary approval. The government established a Missing Persons Commission, which signed procedures on handing over remains of wartime victims with Serbia in November 2018.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and the violation of any individual’s labor rights due to his or her union activities. The law requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity, including in essential services. The law applies equally to all individuals working in the public and private sectors, including documented migrants and domestic servants.

Authorities did not effectively enforce the labor law, which includes regulations and administrative instructions that govern employment relations, including rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. According to the Association of Independent Labor Unions in Kosovo (BSPK), resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties insufficient. As of May the Ministry of Labor and Social Work’s Labor Inspectorate had issued 99 fines during the year. These fines were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were circuitous and subject to lengthy delays or appeals.

According to the BSPK, the government and private employers generally respected the right to form and join unions in both the public and private sectors. Political party interference in trade union organizations and individual worker rights remained a problem. According to union officials, workers in the public sector commonly faced mistreatment, including sexual harassment and the loss of employment, based on their political party affiliation. Employers did not always respect the rights of worker organizations to bargain collectively, particularly in the private sector. The BSPK reported many private-sector employers essentially ignored labor laws. The BSPK reported continued difficulty in establishing unions due to employer interference in workers’ associations and unions, particularly in the banking, construction, and hotel sectors.

Representatives from these sectors told the BSPK anonymously employers used intimidation to prevent the establishment of unions. The Labor Inspectorate reported receiving no formal complaints of discrimination against employees who tried to join unions during the year. The inspectorate was not fully functional due to budgetary and staffing shortfalls.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Law on Child Protection adopted in June prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but forced child labor occurred during the year (see section 7.c.).

Government resources, including remediation, were insufficient to bring about compliance, identify and protect victims, and investigate claims of forced or compulsory labor. There were limited investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of forced labor due, according to the Labor Inspectorate, to inadequate resources. Penalties, although stringent compared with those for other serious crimes, were insufficient to prevent forced labor. As of July authorities had not identified any victims of forced labor.

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 law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for contractual employment is 15, provided the employment is not harmful or prejudicial to school attendance. If the work is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of a young person, the legal minimum age is 18. Regulations forbid exploitation of children in the workplace, including forced or compulsory labor. The government maintained a National Authority against Trafficking in Persons that investigated cases of child labor trafficking.

On June 27, the Assembly adopted its first Law on Child Protection, key child labor protection legislation that unifies all the other legal and sublegal documents on the topic. The law provides additional measures and penalties for employers of children that are sufficient to deter violations, but citations do not address the problem adequately as it does not affect occurrences in the informal economy. The law permits authorities to remove a child from the home if that is determined to be in the best interests of the child.

The law enforcement agency effectively enforced the law. Inspectors immediately notified employers when minors were exploited or found engaged in hazardous labor conditions. As of May the NGO Terres Des Hommes reported the cases of 116 minors (105 Kosovo citizens and 11 minors from Albania) working in hazardous conditions. Of these, 73 were children engaged in begging, 13 in street work, and 14 in mining. According to the Ministry of Labor, 73 individuals received Social Work Center counseling on issues related to child labor.

The Coalition of NGOs for Protection of Children (KOMF) reported children working in agriculture encountered hazards associated with operating farm equipment. KOMF reported child labor in farming persisted as a traditional activity. Government-run social work centers reported children engaged in farming were not prevented from attending school. While children were rarely their families’ main wage earners, child labor contributed substantially to some family incomes.

Urban children often worked in a variety of unofficial construction and retail jobs, such as selling newspapers, cigarettes, food, and telephone cards on the street. Some children, especially those from families receiving social assistance and ethnic minorities, also engaged in physical labor, such as transportation of goods and in picking through trash piles for items to sell.

See 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

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across sectors with respect to sex, gender identity, disability, religion, political affiliation, and minority status (see section 6). During the year the BSPK received reports from labor unions and individuals also claiming discrimination based on union membership, age, and family status. The BSPK and union officials noted employment, particularly in the public sector, often depended on the employee’s political status and affiliation. Union officials reported other mistreatment, including sexual harassment, based on political party affiliation. The BSPK also reported instances of employers discriminating against female candidates in employment interviews and illegally firing women for being pregnant or requesting maternity leave.

International observers reported discrimination in university employment against individuals wearing hijabs or other symbols of Islam. Universities sometimes rejected candidates on this basis, justifying the practice as a counterradicalization effort.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government-set minimum wage was higher than the official poverty income line.

The law provides for a standard 40-hour workweek, requires rest periods, limits the number of regular hours worked to 12 per day, limits overtime to 20 hours per week and 40 hours per month, requires payment of a premium for overtime work, and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law provides for 20 days’ paid leave per year for employees and 12 months of partially paid maternity leave. The labor law sets appropriate health and safety standards for workplaces and governs all industries in the country.

Ministry of Labor inspectors were responsible for enforcing all labor standards, including those pertaining to wages, hours, and occupational safety and health. The fines were not sufficient to deter violations. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations in both the formal and informal sectors.

According to the Labor Inspectorate and the BSPK, the labor code is comprehensive and its provisions on work hours are adequate for the equal protection of public and private sector workers. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The BSPK reported lack of enforcement by the government and citing resource and capacity limitations within the Labor Inspectorate.

According to the BSPK, employers failed to abide by official labor standards that provided equal standards of protection to public and private sector workers. The BSPK reported a lack of government oversight and enforcement, particularly of the standard workweek and compulsory and unpaid overtime. Many individuals worked long hours in the private sector as “at-will” employees, without employment contracts, regular pay, or contributions to their pensions. The BSPK reported employers fired workers without cause in violation of the law and refused to respect worker holidays. As of June the Labor Inspectorate received 1,519 formal complaints of violations of workers’ rights in the public and private sectors and issued 99 formal complaints against violators. Women’s rights organizations reported sexual abuse and harassment occurred on the job but went unreported due to fear of dismissal or retaliation.

While the law provides for the protection of employees’ health and working conditions, private and public institutions failed at times to comply. The Labor Inspectorate and BSPK officials reported difficulties in obtaining accurate information about compliance, because workers rarely disclosed the problems due to fear of losing their jobs.

No law specifically permits employees to remove themselves from a dangerous work situation, but the law requires every employer to provide adequate work conditions for all employees based upon job requirements. According to the Labor Ministry, informal employer-employee arrangements may address when and whether employees may remove themselves from work due to dangerous work situations. The country’s institutions did not track these arrangements. According to experts, violations of wage, overtime, and occupational health and safety standards were common for men and women, as well as foreign migrant workers, particularly those who faced hazardous or exploitative working conditions.

Montenegro

Executive Summary

Montenegro is a mixed parliamentary and presidential republic with a multiparty political system. Voters choose both the president and the unicameral parliament through popular elections. The president nominates, and the parliament approves, the prime minister. An observation mission of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) stated the 2016 parliamentary elections were conducted in a competitive environment and that fundamental freedoms were generally respected. The opposition coalition did not accept the election results and began a continuing boycott of parliament, although all but two parties have since returned. In April 2018 Milo Djukanovic, president of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), was elected president, winning approximately 54 percent of the vote in the first round for his second term as president. He had already served six terms as prime minister. Observers from the OSCE/ODIHR, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly noted the election proceeded in an orderly manner but had a few minor irregularities that did not affect the outcome. Despite opposition protests, elections were generally considered free and fair.

The National Police Force, which includes Border Police, is responsible for maintaining internal security. They are organized under the Ministry of Interior and report to the police director and, through him, to the prime minister. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: unsolved attacks on journalists and pressure on the press including violence or threats of violence; corruption; trafficking in persons; and crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons.

Impunity remained a problem, since the government did not investigate or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

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, and the government generally respected these rights. Unsolved attacks against journalists, political interference with the public broadcaster, smear campaigns carried out by progovernment tabloids, and unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies against independent and pro-opposition media remained a significant problem.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media generally expressed a wide variety of political and social views, including through articles and programs critical of the authorities. The NGO Center for Civic Education warned in each of its annual reports since 2012, however, that selective and nontransparent public funding through the purchase of advertising continued to exert undue influence on the media market. According to the NGO, such funding was provided to reward media outlets favorable to the government and withheld from media that questioned official policies or practices.

The independent television station and newspaper Vijesti continued to attribute its difficulties making regular tax payments to unfair media conditions, economic pressure from the government, and selective prosecution. It complained of large government subsidies to the national public broadcaster, favoring progovernment media when distributing public funds through advertising and project tenders, and a favorable disposition towards foreign-based media compared with local outlets; it also alleged the judiciary practiced selective efficiency and application of defamation laws when independent media are involved. On April 17, an appellate court overturned a 2018 Commercial Court ruling that rejected a 2014 lawsuit brought by Vijestis parent company, Daily Press, against the progovernment tabloid Pink M Television for allegedly defaming and discrediting Vijesti. The appellate court returned the case to the Commercial Court for a readjudication, which continued at year’s end.

Violence and Harassment: Unsolved attacks from previous years and an atmosphere of intimidation against media critical of the government continued to be a serious problem.

On February 19, police announced that the May 2018 shooting of Vijesti reporter Olivera Lakic in front of her home in Podgorica had been solved and named a known criminal and his gang as the perpetrators. Police arrested nine individuals for the attack on Lakic, but independent media questioned police findings because prosecutors had not yet brought formal indictments against the suspects. Lakic, whose investigative reporting covered crime and corruption in the country, was previously attacked in 2012. Government officials, political parties, and international and multilateral organizations condemned the 2018 attack.

On October 14, the High Court of Bijelo Polje fined Nova M, the company that acquired Pink M in 2018, 2,000 euros ($2,200) for defaming Vijestis owners Zeljko Ivanovic and Miodrag Perovic. The basic court had originally ordered a fine of 5,000 euros ($5,500). Ivanovic and Perovic sued Pink M for its misleading reporting connecting them to a former Vijesti journalist suspected of collecting and distributing child pornography on the internet. Separately, 20 journalists from Vijesti individually sued Pink M for similarly attacking their reputations by misleadingly linking them to the accused. As of November, first instance courts had ruled in favor of 19 of the journalists, ordering Nova M to pay fines ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 euros ($1,100 to $5,500), with higher courts subsequently lowering the fines to 800 to 2,000 euros ($880 to $2,200). Vijesti welcomed the court decisions but criticized state institutions for being inefficient in preventing progovernment tabloids from waging smear campaigns against independent media.

On December 3, journalist Vladimir Otasevic, who worked for the independent daily newspaper Dan, was assaulted while photographing controversial Montenegrin businessman Zoran Becirovic, whom the special prosecutor had previously brought in for questioning regarding an alleged attempt to intimidate a witness in the company of high state prosecutor Milos Soskic, in a shopping mall in Podgorica. According to media reports, Becirovic’s bodyguard Mladen Mijatovic grabbed Otasevic by the back of the neck, used his shoulder to hit him, and verbally threatened him. The assault reportedly occurred in the presence of Soskic, who according to media reports “remained silent” and did nothing to stop the incident. The incident received additional attention as Mijatovic is employed by the Ministry of Interior and did not have permission to work as a private bodyguard. The Ombudsman’s Office, media outlets, NGOs, and opposition political parties condemned the attack and urged the authorities to investigate the role of the state prosecutor and the Interior Ministry’s employee in this incident.

Media outlets reported that more than two-thirds of the 85 attacks on journalists since 2004 remained unsolved or did not result in sentences. Observers also noted that the vast majority of the attacks targeted independent or pro-opposition journalists and media professionals.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent and pro-opposition media complained about unfair treatment and economic pressure from government ministries and agencies. The Center for Civic Education claimed that selective and nontransparent distribution of public funds to media outlets created an unfair media environment and constituted “soft censorship.”

On December 4, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court in Podgorica’s June 1 ruling making it final that the managing council of the public broadcaster Radio and Television Montenegro (RTCG) illegally dismissed RTCG’s director general, Andrijana Kadija, in 2018. Of the nine-member council, six representatives affiliated with the ruling DPS voted for Kadija’s dismissal. Kadija maintained she was dismissed because of her professional and politically unbiased managing of RTCG. The EU and the OSCE sharply criticized the dismissal.

Independent journalists, civil society activists, and opposition politicians asserted that Kadija’s dismissal was the final step in DPS’s campaign to regain control of the public broadcaster. That campaign, they claimed, began late in 2017 when parliament dismissed two RTCG council members, film director Nikola Vukcevic and NGO activist Goran Djurovic, allegedly over conflicts of interest. On February 28 and in December 2018, in separate rulings, the basic courts in Podgorica and Niksic, respectively, ruled that parliament’s dismissals of Djurovic and Vukcevic were illegal and annulled the parliament’s decisions on the dismissals. Parliament contested the court’s ability to adjudicate parliamentary decisions on appointments and dismissals and order reinstatement, and it did not comply with the decision. On June 27, the Supreme Court issued a nonbinding but advisory general legal opinion stating that courts cannot challenge parliamentary decisions on elections, appointments, and dismissals of public officials and force reappointments via injunctive relief.

On October 25, in a retrial, the basic court in Podgorica reversed its February ruling and dismissed Djurovic’s lawsuit against the parliament. The NGO Human Rights Action warned that the reversal, influenced by the Supreme Court’s earlier opinion, showed there is no effective legal protection against the parliamentary majority’s illegal decisions. Nonetheless, actions for monetary damages for illegal dismissals remained available.

On September 24, the Supreme Court upheld the High Court in Podgorica’s February 7 ruling that RTCG director general Bozidar Sundic, who replaced Kadija, illegally dismissed Kadija’s first associate, RTCG’s Television Section director Vladan Micunovic. Commenting on the verdict, Micunovic described the decision on his replacement, as well as the replacements of Kadija, Vukcevic, and Djurovic as a “totalitarian purge and a mockery of the law, profession, and common sense.”

On September 24, the High Court in Podgorica ordered the state government and the former editor-in-chief of the daily Pobjeda, Srdjan Kusovac, to pay a total of 10,000 euros ($12,000) to journalists of the independent weekly newspaper Monitor, Milka Tadic Mijovic and Milena Perovic, for damaging their “reputation and honor.” Kusovac, the incumbent head of the Montenegrin government’s public relations bureau, and the state government were also ordered to pay an additional fine of nearly 4,000 euros ($4,400) for court expenses. The formerly state-owned daily Pobjeda, under Kusovac’s leadership, published a series of articles in 2011-2012 attempting to discredit the two independent journalists and strong government critics.

In its 2019 Report on Montenegro, published on May 29, the European Commission (EC) noted the country made no progress in advancing freedom of expression since April 2018. The EC specifically warned that “recent political interference in the national public broadcaster council and the Agency for Electronic Media are a matter of serious concern.”

Some media outlets continued to demonstrate a willingness to criticize the government. A lack of training and unprofessional journalistic behavior, combined with low salaries and political pressure, contributed to self-censorship and what could be deemed biased coverage.

Libel/Slander Laws: There is no criminal libel law, but media outlets faced libel charges in civil proceedings.

According to a February report of the NGO Center for Civic Education, more than 60 percent of all complaints filed with the Agency for Electronic Media (AEM) in 2015-18 were against Pink M, usually related to unprofessional and unethical reporting aimed at discrediting media and civil society figures critical of the government. In 39 of the cases, the AEM found that Pink M had violated the agency’s program principles and standards. The AEM took no disciplinary actions against Pink M during the year since the broadcaster sold its national frequency and moved to cable transmission in the second half of 2018, significantly reducing its reach and Montenegro-related content.

On July 18, the Constitutional Court overturned the 2015 Podgorica Supreme Court and the High Court decisions to fine independent weekly newspaper Monitor 5,000 euros ($5,500) for the alleged defamation of President Milo Djukanovic’s sister, Ana Kolarevic, in the weekly’s 2012 reports about Kolarevic’s alleged role in the controversial privatization of the national telecommunication company, Telekom Crna Gora. The Constitutional Court found that the lower instance courts had violated Monitors constitutional right to freedom of expression and returned the case for a retrial.

On September 12, an appellate court overturned, the High Court of Podgorica’s January 15 ruling to sentence investigative journalist Jovo Martinovic to 18 months in prison for allegedly being part of an international drug smuggling chain. Martinovic denies the charges of drug trafficking and criminal association, claiming that his contact with convicted criminals was solely in the context of his work as a journalist. The appellate decision sent the case back to the High Court for a retrial.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

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

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of refugee or subsidiary protection status, and the government established a system for providing protection to refugees. Authorities did not employ methods for managing mixed migration movements effectively, such as prioritization or accelerated procedures. Observers noted that attention and readiness to address the increased mixed flow of migrants remained focused on border control aspects, as evidenced by the sharp rise in the number of migrants pushed back from the Montenegro border during the year.

Access to Basic Services: Once the asylum procedure is initiated, asylum seekers are granted access to free health care and education for minor applicants in line with international standards, although barriers to access, including language and cultural differences, sometimes limited practical access. For example, M.F. from Iran was not able to find a job because of poor command of the local language although he is officially registered with Employment Agency. F.K. from Ghana was not able to find a job because of language requirements. Many IDPs have difficulties obtaining documents, and thus accessing services such as healthcare, due to language barriers.

Durable Solutions: A path to citizenship is available but requires evidence that the applicant had renounced citizenship in his or her country of origin. The government provided support for the voluntary return or reintegration of DPs from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed access to the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services and naturalization in the country, but they did not have the right to vote.

Temporary Protection: The government also provided subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees and provided it to approximately five persons. By law persons granted subsidiary protection are entitled to a facilitated integration plan for three years after receiving status. The integration plan is tailored to the individual’s particular needs and includes support in accessing education, Montenegrin language classes, seeking employment, and the provision of accommodation for up to two years. Beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status may appeal a decision relating to their entitlements before the Administrative Court.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively, and corruption remained a problem. Some government officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The public viewed corruption in hiring practices based on personal relationships or political affiliation as endemic in the government and elsewhere in the public sector at both local and national levels. This was particularly the case in the areas of health, higher education, the judiciary, customs, political parties, police, urban planning, the construction industry, and employment. The Agency for the Prevention of Corruption continued to operate, but NGOs and the EC stated that “challenges related to the independence, credibility, and priority-setting of the agency are yet to be addressed.”

Agencies tasked with fighting corruption acknowledged that cooperation and information sharing among them was inadequate; their capacity improved but remained limited. Politicization, poor salaries, and lack of motivation and training of public servants provided fertile ground for corruption.

Corruption: Most citizen reports of corruption to the Agency for Prevention of Corruption involved public administration, the private sector, and the judiciary. After the Special Prosecutor’s Office issued an indictment against controversial businessman Dusko Knezevic for heading a criminal group that organized and executed the laundering of 500 million euros ($550 million) through Atlas Banka, which Knezevic owns, a video surfaced allegedly showing him providing bribes and illegal election financing to a top DPS official. The video, locally dubbed as “the envelope affair,” was followed by several large protests in February demanding the resignation of the president, the supreme state prosecutor, and the chief prosecutor for organized crime. Knezevic’s alleged criminal organization purportedly planned for several legal entities from the country partially to avoid paying taxes by utilizing falsified invoices for goods and services to launder funds. During the year Knezevic was reportedly living in the United Kingdom, where he was undergoing extradition proceedings. Knezevic previously had close ties with many officials from the country’s ruling party, the DPS. For his part Knezevic claimed that the charges were arranged by the highest government officials close to President Milo Djukanovic with the goal of taking over his businesses.

In May the Podgorica High Court confirmed the Special Prosecution’s indictment against 24 individuals in a massive cigarette smuggling case. Such excise tax avoidance operations were a key source of funds for organized crime groups in the country. The criminal organization included employees of the country’s customs service, and their operations resulted in an estimated 44-million-euro ($48.4 million) loss to the state.

In August the Special Prosecution in cooperation with the Special Police continued to make arrests in operation “Klap,” a nationwide anticorruption campaign against tax officials, private companies, and individuals. During the year authorities arrested 30 government officials, including four tax inspectors, and their partners in private companies. Several of those charged cooperated with authorities and negotiated plea bargains. Through their illegal activities, the suspects were estimated to have damaged the state budget by approximately five million euros ($5.5 million). Charges were also filed against nine companies involved in the scheme.

Police corruption and inappropriate government influence on police behavior remained problems. Impunity remained a problem in the security forces, according to the NGOs Human Rights Action. NGOs cited corruption, lack of transparency, and the ruling political parties’ influence over prosecutors and officials of the Ministry of Interior as obstacles to greater effectiveness. They noted there was no clear mechanism to investigate instances of impunity. There was also a widespread view that personal connections influenced the enforcement of laws. Low salaries sometimes contributed to corruption and unprofessional behavior by police officers.

Human rights observers continued to express concern over the low number of prosecutions of security force personnel accused of human rights abuses. Police did not provide information about the number of human rights complaints against security forces, or investigations into complaints. The prosecutor’s office, which is responsible for investigating such abuses, seldom challenged a police finding that its use of force was reasonable. Human rights observers claimed citizens were reluctant to report police misconduct due to fear of reprisals. Watchdog groups alleged that the continuing police practice of filing countercharges against individuals who reported police abuse discouraged citizens from reporting and influenced other police officers to cover up responsibility for violations. An external police oversight body, the Council for Civilian Control of Police Operations, stated that identification of police officers who committed alleged abuses was problematic because officers wore masks and were not willing to admit personal responsibility. Although part of their uniform, the masks contributed to a de facto impunity because police officers who perpetrated abuses could not be identified, and their units and commanders were unwilling to identify one of their members.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires government officials to report any increases in value of personal property of more than 5,000 euros ($5,500) or any gift exceeding 50 euros ($55) to the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption (APC). Violations of the obligation to file and disclose are subject to administrative or misdemeanor sanctions. Most officials complied with the requirements in a timely fashion. In the first six months of the year, however, the agency filed 179 requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings against public officials who did not submit regular annual reports on income and assets or for breaking campaign finance laws; 40 of these proceedings resulted in fines that amounted to 8,745 euros total ($9,600).

NGOs urged the APC to pursue charges against President Djukanovic after indicted businessman Dusko Knezevic submitted documentation showing he had paid 16,000 euros ($17,600) of debt on the president’s credit card. The APC determined, however, that settling a public official’s debt on a credit card could not be considered as a gift.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Several domestic and international human rights groups operated, generally without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were usually cooperative and responsive to the views of international groups, but some domestic NGOs assessed this cooperation as uneven. In its 2019 Progress Report on Montenegro, the EC identified as “matters of serious concern” the practice of “controversial dismissals of prominent nongovernmental organizations’ representatives from key institutions and bodies” and a growing trend among public institutions of responding to requests for information by declaring it to be classified.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman served within the Office of the Protector of Human Rights to prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment as well as discrimination. The Office of the Protector of Human Rights may investigate alleged government human rights violations and inspect such institutions as prisons and pretrial detention centers without prior notification. It may access all documents, irrespective of their level of secrecy, relating to detainees or convicts and talk to prisoners or detainees without the presence of officials. The office may not act upon complaints about judicial proceedings in process, except when the complaint involves delays, obvious procedural violations, or failure to carry out court decisions. The ombudsman may propose new laws, ask the Constitutional Court to determine whether a law violates the constitution or treaty obligations, evaluate particular human rights problems upon request of a competent body, address general problems important for the protection and promotion of human rights and freedoms, and cooperate with other organizations and institutions dealing with human rights and freedoms. Upon finding a violation of human rights by a government agency, the ombudsman may request remedial measures, including dismissal of the violator, and evaluate how well the agency implemented the remedial measures. Failure to comply with the ombudsman’s request for corrective action within a defined period is punishable by fines of 500 to 2,500 euros ($550 to $2,750). The government and courts generally implemented the ombudsman’s recommendations, although often with delays. The ombudsman operated without government or party interference and enjoyed cooperation from NGOs.

Parliament has a six-member Standing Committee for Human Rights and Freedoms. Many observers continued to perceive its contribution as insignificant and criticized its apparent sole focus on how international and European institutions assessed the country.

Some NGOs and international organizations criticized the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights for passivity stating that its capacity remained limited and needed further strengthening.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers, including members of the armed forces, to form and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. In order to represent workers in collective bargaining at the enterprise level, a union must count at least 20 percent of the workforce in the enterprise as members. To act as a worker representative in a sector, group, or branch of industry, a trade union must include at least 15 percent of the total workforce in that sector, group, or branch. The law prohibits discrimination against union members or those seeking to organize a union and requires the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity.

The government generally enforced the law. Penalties were sufficient to deter most violations.

While the government generally respected freedom of association, employers often intimidated workers engaged in union activity. Workers exercised their right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining, although not always without employer interference.

Although allowed by law, collective bargaining remained rare. The government continued to be party to collective negotiations at the national level. Only the union with the largest registered membership at any given level was entitled to bargain, negotiate settlements of collective labor disputes, and participate in other government bodies.

The right to strike is restricted for public servants whose absence from work would jeopardize public interests, national security, the safety of persons and property, or the functioning of the government. International observers noted that the range of professions in which strikes are proscribed exceeds international standards. Employers may unilaterally establish minimum service requirements if negotiations with trade unions fail to lead to an agreement.

Management and local authorities often blocked attempts to organize strikes by declaring them illegal, citing lack of legally required advance notice, which ranges from two to 10 days, depending on circumstances. There were reports from employees in both the private and public sectors that employers threatened or otherwise intimidated workers who engaged in union organizing or in other legal union activities. In some cases, private employers reduced workers’ salaries or dismissed them because of their union activities.

Workers in privatized or bankrupt companies had outstanding claims for back pay and severance. In some cases workers were not able to collect on their claims, despite valid court decisions in their favor. Several local governments failed to pay their staff for months at a time. Unpaid wages, factory closures, and growing poverty led to some protests in older industrial cities such as Berane and Niksic, as well as the capital, Podgorica, where the workers of the long-closed Radoje Dakic factory again protested for unpaid wages nearly two decades after the factory’s closure. Trade unions claimed workers were largely unaware of their rights and afraid of retaliation if they initiated complaints.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and authorities made efforts to investigate or identify victims of forced labor in the formal economy. Penalties under the law for offenses related to forced labor were sufficiently stringent to deter violations compared to penalties for other serious crimes.

There were reports of Romani girls forced into domestic servitude and of children forced to beg, mostly by their families (see section 7.c.). There were no prosecutions or convictions.

Also see the State Department’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 law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The official minimum age for employment is 15. Children younger than 18 may not engage in jobs that require difficult physical labor; overtime; work at night, underground, or underwater work; or work that “may have a harmful effect or involve increased risk to their health and lives,” although the law allows employees between the ages of 15 and 18 to work at night in certain circumstances. The government generally enforced these restrictions in the formal, but not the informal, economy.

Penalties under the law were sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Inspectorate investigated compliance with the child labor law only as part of a general labor inspection regime. The government did not collect data specifically on child labor.

Many parents and relatives forced Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children to work at an early age to contribute to their family’s income. They engaged in begging at busy intersections, on street corners, door to door, and in restaurants and cafes or in sifting through trashcans. While many working children were from the country, a large percentage of those between the ages of seven and 16 were from nearby countries, mainly Kosovo and Serbia. Police generally returned the children they apprehended to their families.

In villages, children usually worked in family businesses and agriculture. Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children worked chiefly during the summer, typically washing car windows, loading trucks, collecting items such as scrap metal, selling old newspapers and car accessories, or working alongside their parents as day laborers. Many internally displaced Romani, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian children were forced to engage in begging or manual labor. Police asserted that begging was a family practice rather than an organized, large-scale activity, but this claim was disputed by several NGOs. Begging was readily observable, particularly in Podgorica and the coastal areas during the summer. Police seldom pressed charges against the adult perpetrators. Authorities placed victims of forced child labor who did not have guardians in the children’s correctional facility in Ljubovic. After leaving the facility, most children returned to forced begging. Romani NGOs tried to raise awareness of the problem and suggested the government did not provide sufficient resources to rehabilitate children begging and living on the street.

Children were subjected to commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children, and section 7.b.).

Also see 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 law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion or other affiliation, national origin, citizenship, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, language, pregnancy, marital status, social status or origin, membership in political and trade union organizations, or health conditions, including HIV-positive status and other communicable diseases. The government did not enforce antidiscrimination laws and regulations effectively, and there were instances of discrimination on these bases. Persons with disabilities faced significant discrimination in employment despite affirmative action programs that provided significant financial incentives to employers to hire persons with disabilities. According to the state employment agency, less than 2 percent of persons with disabilities were employed. Advocates noted there were too few training programs for persons with disabilities to contribute significantly to their economic integration. Neither governmental entities nor private employers hired many persons with disabilities. NGOs reported employers often chose to pay fines rather than employ a person with a disability.

Women were, at times, subject to discrimination based on their marital status, pregnancy, or physical appearance. Employers did not respect all of their legal obligations to pregnant women and sometimes reduced their responsibilities or fired them after they returned from maternity leave. A disproportionate share of women held jobs with lower levels of responsibility than men. Employers promoted women less frequently than men. Some job announcements for women explicitly included discriminatory employment criteria, such as age and physical appearance. Employers at times violated women’s entitlement to a 40-hour workweek, overtime, paid leave, and maternity leave. Societal expectations regarding women’s obligations to the family reduced their opportunities to obtain jobs and advance in the workplace. Nevertheless, an increasing number of women served in professional fields, such as law, science, and medicine. Women accounted for less than 9 percent of personnel in the armed forces and National Police Force.

Bosniaks, who accounted for 9 percent of the country’s population, constituted 6 percent of the government workforce. Roma, displaced persons, refugees, and migrant workers faced employment discrimination. Migrant workers usually came from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, or Albania to work on construction sites and in agriculture. There were also instances of discrimination against unregistered domestic and foreign workers.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

According to the National Statistics Office, the national monthly minimum wage, was slightly above the government’s absolute poverty line. Significant portions of the workforce–particularly in rural areas and in the informal sector–earned less than the minimum wage.

The law limits overtime to 10 hours per week, but seasonal workers often worked much longer.

Many workers, particularly women employed in the commercial, catering, and service industries, worked unpaid overtime, and employers sometimes forced them to work on religious holidays without additional compensation or to forgo their rights to weekly and annual leave. Employers sometimes failed to pay the minimum wage, other employee benefits, or mandatory contributions to pension funds. Employees often did not report such violations due to fear of retaliation. The practice of only formally paying a worker the minimum wage, thus being responsible for lower mandatory contributions, and giving the employee cash payments as a supplement was common. Also common was the practice of signing short-term work contracts or having lengthy “trial” periods for workers instead of signing them on to permanent contracts as prescribed by law.

Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals, sometimes taking years. This led to an increase in the number of persons seeking recourse through alternative dispute resolution. Most disputes reviewed by the Agency for Peaceful Resolution of Labor Disputes involved accusations of government institutions violating laws on overtime, night work, holidays, social insurance contribution requirements, and other administrative regulations.

The government set occupational health and safety standards that were current and appropriate for the main industries. Regulations require employers and supervisors to supply and enforce the use of safety equipment, conduct risk assessment analysis, and report any workplace deaths or serious injuries within 24 hours.

The Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing wage, hour, and occupational health and safety laws. The number of labor inspectors was sufficient to enforce compliance in the formal economy. Resources, remediation efforts, and investigations were not adequate to successfully identify, enforce, or prevent violations in the informal economy. Penalties for violation of wage and hour rules were insufficient to deter violations. Penalties for violations of occupational health and safety standards were generally a sufficient deterrent in the formal sector. Labor inspectors have the legal authority to close an establishment until it corrects violations or to fine owners who commit repeated violations, although they rarely exercised this right in practice.

Employment in the construction, energy, wood-processing, transportation, and heavy industries presented the highest risk of injury. The most frequent reasons cited for unsafe working conditions were the lenient fines for violations of safety rules, failure to use safety equipment, lack of work-related information and training, inadequate medical care for workers, and old or inadequately maintained equipment.

North Macedonia

Executive Summary

The Republic of North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy. A popularly elected president is head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The unicameral parliament exercises legislative authority. Parliamentary elections were last held in 2016 and presidential elections during the year. In its final report on the parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) observed the elections were transparent, well administered, and orderly but took place “in an environment characterized by a lack of public trust in institutions and the political establishment” and failed to meet some important OSCE commitments for a democratic electoral process. The OSCE/ODIHR’s final report on the 2019 presidential elections noted the environment during the campaign was calm and peaceful and fundamental freedoms of assembly and expression were respected.

The national police maintain internal security, including migration and border enforcement, and report to the Ministry of the Interior. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: high-level corruption and violence against LGBTI individuals.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. The ombudsman believed police impunity continued to be a problem.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press. The government made progress in respecting media freedom and freedom of expression, but problems remained, including weak media independence, and violence toward and intimidation of journalists.

The May 29 EC report on the country noted the “overall situation and political climate for media continued to improve.” The report cited increased government efforts to support media through changes to legislation and financial subsidies for print media. The report also highlighted that professional organizations acknowledged the open dialogue and increased transparency of institutions.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report stated that “while the media and civil society are active, journalists and activists face pressure and intimidation.” The report noted the media landscape was “deeply polarized along political lines, and private media outlets were often tied to political or business interests that influenced their content. Some critical and independent outlets operated and were found mainly online.”

As of September the government had not taken measures to address a July 2018 open letter from media stakeholders expressing concern the legal changes to the electoral code, introduced the same month, would permit taxpayer money to be used for political campaigning in commercial media.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits speech that incites national, religious, or ethnic hatred and provides penalties for violations. Individuals may criticize the government publicly or privately.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: While outlets and reporting continued to be largely divided along political lines, the number of independent media voices actively expressing a variety of views without overt restriction continued to increase. Laws that restrict speech inciting national, religious, or ethnic hatred also cover print and broadcast media, publication of books, and online newspapers and journals.

A National Network against Hate Speech in Media was launched in January, led by the Media Ethics Council and supported by the OSCE. The network is comprised of 17 entities, including media and journalist associations, civil society, government, and other relevant stakeholders. In February an awareness campaign was launched under the motto, “Respect, Do Not Hate.” The government accepted these organizations and did not limit or restrict their activities.

In December 2018 and in February, the government amended its Law on Audio and Audiovisual Media Services (AAVMS). The May EC report noted implementing the law would require “strong political commitment to guarantee professionalism, respect for the principles of transparency, merit-based appointments and equitable representation.” OSCE representative on freedom of the media Harlem Desir welcomed the adoption of the amended law, saying it “is now in general accordance with European and international standards on audiovisual media.”

Government advertising on commercial channels is banned. The May EC report noted concerns the legal changes that permitted public funding of the September 2018 referendum campaign with commercial ad buys risked politicization of editorial policies.

The EC report also noted “further self-regulation efforts are required to improve professional standards and the quality of journalism.” The Media Ethics Council reported that as of August, 78 percent of complaints received were for unethical reports or fake news in online portals.

The Skopje Criminal Court issued a reprimand May 5 against 1TV for violating Electoral Code ad campaign regulations during the first round of presidential elections in April by continuing with political advertising beyond the legal deadline. On July 12, the Skopje Appeals Court upheld the first-instance verdict reprimanding 1TV for the violation.

Violence and Harassment: There were several cases of alleged threats and harassment against journalists during the year.

The head of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, Mladen Chadikovski, told the Global Conference for Media Freedom on July 10-11 in London that impunity for cases of attacks on journalists remained a major problem and impeded freedom of expression. According to the Association of Journalists, the Ministry of Interior completed all 12 pending investigations of attacks on journalists since 2017, but no further action was taken except in one case. On May 17, Skopje’s Basic Court sentenced VMRO-DPMNE member Toni Mihajlovski to three-months’ probation for his June 2017 threats against journalist Branko Trickovski. The EC report noted the country should “continue paying attention to the swift and effective follow-up by law enforcement and judicial authorities of all instances of physical and verbal attacks against journalists.”

As of August 31, no progress was reported regarding the Basic Prosecution Office investigation into former head of the AJM Naser Selmani’s March 2018 complaint he received threats against his and his family’s lives from an individual affiliated with the Democratic Union for Integration party.

On April 16, journalists reporting on poor infrastructure in the village of Aracinovo said they received threats and verbal attacks from individuals reportedly linked to Mayor Milikije Halimi. The journalists alleged individuals forcibly escorted them to the municipality building after they refused to delete their recorded interviews. In a press release April 18, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Desir condemned the intimidation, calling it a “blatant attack on freedom of the media.” Additionally, the Association of Journalists and the Audiovisual Media Services Agency condemned the attack. Police did not open an investigation because, according to them, the journalists did not officially report the case to police. The prosecution also did not open an investigation.

On June 4, the AJM and the Media Ethics Council (CMEM) strongly condemned the “explicit hate speech” against ethnic Albanians during the June 3-4 celebration in Skopje of Handball Club Vardar’s European Cup victory. AJM and CMEM expressed concern media failed to condemn the hate speech calling for violence and intolerance. The Helsinki Committee, NGO CIVIL, and ethnic Albanian political parties condemned the inflammatory speech, calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: There were some reports the government pressured journalists into self-censorship. In its May 29 report on the country, the EC noted, “There was no progress on improving the labor and social rights of journalists whose working conditions are very poor. Consequently, journalists still practice self-censorship. Lengthy negotiations led by the independent union of journalists and media workers did not result in any collective union agreement with any media outlet.”

Libel/Slander Laws: Persons found guilty of defamation, libel, and slander were subject to fines according to a schedule based on nonmaterial damage. The EC noted “preliminary steps have been taken to reduce fines for defamation to a symbolic amount which is expected to improve the sense of balance between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani of DUI announced January 29 his party would file slander charges against journalists and media for alleging some DUI officials had abused state pension funds. AJM reacted January 30, urging politicians to refrain from filing slander charges against journalists. On February 7, EC spokesperson Maja Kocijancic noted “threats of legal consequences for media for their reporting,” by political actors, reiterating the EC 2018 recommendation the country should demonstrate “zero tolerance for physical and verbal harassment, and threats against journalists.”

Government General Secretary Dragi Rashkovski announced July 2 slander charges against journalists and media portals for spreading fake news by alleging that he had been illegally involved in a bid for the purchase of an air navigation system. The AJM criticized Rashkovski’s “direct threats” against journalists as “pressure that may result in ‘self-censorship’.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

A “state of crisis” has been in force for border areas adjacent to Greece and Serbia since 2015. It has been extended by the government every six months, including through year’s end. The state of crisis allows government authorities to regulate the entry and transit of migrants. Since the closure of the “Western Balkans Route” in 2016, migrants apprehended in these areas were regularly placed in contained temporary transit centers, near the border, and pushed back to the prior transit country within days. No freedom of movement was ensured for migrants while in the transit centers or the reception center for smuggled foreigners, nor was a formal removal or readmission procedure established.

In-Country Movement: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that approximately 25,000 persons transited the country from January 1 to August 31, but neither UNHCR nor the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registered any hate crimes against them. UNHCR did not note any in-country movement restrictions for internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, or stateless persons.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Authorities undertook significant measures to combat and detect cases of migrant smuggling. During the year the government established a task force comprised of representatives from the Ministry of Interior and prosecutors from the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime and Corruption. The May EC report noted the problem of smuggling needed to be continuously addressed, as the country continued to be under severe pressure due to its geographic location.

The 2018 Helsinki Committee for Human Rights Annual Report stated, “The provision limiting the freedom of movement of asylum seekers was retained. Namely, Article 63 prescribes that freedom of movement shall be restricted in extraordinary circumstances, in order to determine the identity and citizenship, and establish the facts and circumstances of the asylum requests, particularly if a risk for escape has been determined, in order to protect the order and national security or when a foreigner is retained for the purposes of initiating a procedure for his return or removal.”

The IOM stressed the movement of migrants through the Western Balkans route was facilitated by smuggling networks, which exposed the migrants to significant risks of abuse and exploitative practices, including trafficking in human beings.

A multisector system and standard operating procedures (SOPs) were in place to ensure protection of the victims of gender-based violence. UNHCR considered the system needed strengthening and a systemic application of SOPs, especially regarding case identification.

Refoulement: UNHCR assessed access to asylum practices had consistently improved since 2016, and that previous concerns regarding the arbitrary practice of denying access to asylum had been addressed. During the year there were no instances of forceful returns of asylum seekers or refugees to unsafe countries recorded, or inappropriate pressure by any countries to return them to their country of origin.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system to provide protection to refugees. UNHCR reported, however, that the mechanism for adjudicating refugee status failed to provide basic procedural guarantees and proper determinations as prescribed in the law. It reported that 252 migrants applied for asylum in the first eight months of the year. No person was granted refugee status or a subsidiary form of protection.

In April 2018 parliament adopted a new Law on International and Temporary Protection. The Macedonian Young Lawyers Association (MYLA) stated the new law addressed some of the shortcomings of the old law pertaining to the right to family reunification and access to asylum, but it unduly limited asylum seekers’ freedom of movement. The IOM expressed similar concerns regarding the new law. On September 14, the Constitutional Court dismissed MYLA’s May 2018 petition challenging articles 63 and 65 of the law.

The government issued identity documents to recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection, but authorities frequently delayed or failed to issue identification documents to new asylum seekers.

Migrant populations detained in the Transit Center for Foreigners were impeded from accessing asylum. An asylum application by a person held in the Reception Center for Foreigners (a closed-type facility in Gazi Baba) would only be possible after the person gave a statement before the court, in criminal proceedings, against their smugglers. During the year approximately 50 percent of all asylum requests registered in the country were processed through the Reception Center for Foreigners.

During the year the Administrative and the Higher Administrative Courts continued to avoid ruling on the merit of asylum applications, despite having the requisite authority, according to MYLA. They routinely returned the cases to the Ministry of Interior for further review.

Freedom of Movement: According to UNHCR, authorities detained some individuals intercepted while being smuggled. The grounds for detention decisions are arbitrary. As a rule, persons are supposed to be detained until their identity can be established. They were routinely detained after identification, however, to prevent them from escaping the country prior to providing testimony in court against smugglers. In addition, the majority of asylum seekers who were previously detained reported they were not issued detention decisions, or if they did receive such decisions it was in a language they could not understand, impeding them from exercising their right to judicial review.

MYLA also noted the practice of detaining illegal migrants and asylum seekers to secure their testimony in criminal proceedings continued during the year. Detention orders did not specify the legal grounds for detention, and there was no effective judicial review of the detention decisions. According to MYLA, as of August 28, at least 126 persons were detained as illegal migrants.

The average detention period during the year was 15 days, with the longest period being 45 days and the shortest period one day.

Some improvement was noted compared to previous years, as women, children, or families were generally not detained; alternatives to detention were employed instead. A Safe House, run by an NGO, was rented for these individuals, with international donor funding, so they were not placed in prison or in detention facilities. The individuals were monitored, however, and needed to report to authorities on a weekly basis.

The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection introduced the possibility of detaining asylum seekers, referred to in the law as “limitation of freedom of movement.” Under this provision, three asylum seekers were detained in the Reception Center for Foreigners, a closed facility. The law stipulates the “use of limitation of freedom of movement” should be a last resort. The law does not provide for adequate alternatives to detention. Through September 24, unaccompanied children and three women were held in detention.

Employment: There are no restrictions on refugees’ ability to work, and the law allows asylum seekers whose asylum procedure is not completed within nine months to apply for a work permit.

The 2018 Law on International and Temporary Protection also provides the right to work for persons granted subsidiary protection, as well as for asylum seekers, whose asylum request is not completed within nine months. Recognized refugees and persons under subsidiary protection with work permits were able to access the active labor market. Nevertheless, asylum seekers faced restrictions because of conflicting laws. By law, a foreigner needs to have a unique identification number assigned in order to be issued a work permit. Although an asylum seeker has the legal right to apply for a work permit after nine months in procedure, s/he has no right to be assigned a unique identification number, which by the same law is issued once a positive decision is granted. Consequently, an asylum seeker is granted the right to work but is unable to exercise it, a serious gap considering some procedures last for two to three years, including instances of judicial review.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, prior to a final decision on their asylum applications, had the right to basic health services, in accordance with the regulations on health insurance. The same applied to the right to education. To date, however, there were no cases of children coming from outside the region enrolled in state-run educational facilities. Upon recognition of status, persons with refugee status have the right to full health care provided under the same conditions as it is to citizens.

Durable Solutions: According to UNHCR none of the 394 individuals from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo who remained in the country returned to Kosovo during the year. No cases of resettlement were registered.

The law provides for naturalization of refugees residing in the country under preferred conditions, while persons under subsidiary protection may naturalize as any other foreigners do who stay legally in the country for a minimum of eight years. During the year one refugee and one person under subsidiary protection were naturalized.

Under the law the MLSP, in cooperation with the Interior Ministry and UNHCR, should facilitate the voluntary return of asylum seekers to their homes. There were no cases of assisted voluntary repatriation during the year.

UNHCR continued to assist rejected asylum seekers from Kosovo, whom the government allowed to stay in the country. The government issued them provisional identification documents to secure their access to services. The MLSP provided integrated, durable solutions with the support of UNHCR for approximately 274 refugees who had applied for integration into the country. The ministry provided social assistance, housing assistance, and access to education, health care, and the labor market.

Temporary Protection: The government could provide subsidiary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, but there were no such protections granted during the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. The government generally implemented the law, but there were reports officials engaged in corruption. NGOs stated the government’s dominant role in the economy created opportunities for corruption. The government was the country’s largest employer; some analysts estimated it employed as many as 180,000 persons, despite official statistics showing public sector employment of approximately 128,000 persons.

Corruption: In its May 29 report, the EC noted the country has “some level of preparation,” and “good progress has been made through further consolidating a track record of investigating, prosecuting and trying high-level corruption cases, and changes to the legislative framework.” The report specifically noted the February 8 appointment of the new State Commission for Prevention of Corruption (SCPC) was more transparent than before and highlighted steps taken by the commission to proactively fight corruption. The commission also acknowledged, however, prevalent corruption in many areas remained a concern.

As of August 26, the SCPC received 465 citizen and 12 whistleblower complaints, the majority dealing with misuse of public funds, failure to exercise due diligence, and other nonethical conduct. In addition, the commission received 81 conflict of interest complaints. The SCPC opened at its own initiative 21 cases involving allegations of corruption, and another 65 nepotism cases. The commission also published 68 decisions that resulted in public reprimands against public officials, the recommendation of disciplinary action against four public officials, and a proposal to dismiss another official.

On August 21, the Skopje Criminal Court issued a 30-day detention order for Chief Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva for “abuse of official position” in relation to the “Racketeering” case. Her detention followed the July 15 Skopje Criminal Court detention order against 1TV Manager Bojan Jovanovski (aka “Boki 13”) and businessman Zoran Milevski in the same case. The Prosecutors’ Council dismissed Janeva on September 15 upon parliament’s recommendation. The trial was scheduled to begin December 3.

On September 13, the chief public prosecutor assumed authority over the SPO cases and announced he would assign the cases to the appropriate prosecution offices based on their competencies.

On March 8, the Skopje Criminal Court convicted and sentenced former UBK director Saso Mijalkov to a three-year prison sentence in the SPO “Titanic 2” case, on charges of illegal gain resulting from unlawful influence trading to commit election fraud in connection with the 2013 local elections in Strumica. The court also sentenced Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) leader Menduh Thaci to three years in prison; former VMRO-DPMNE State Election Commission members Sasho Srcev, Aneta Stefanovska, and Vlatko Sajkovski to three years in prison each; and DPA member Bedredin Ibraimi to four years and six months in prison for misuse of official authority. Defense appeals were pending before the Skopje Appeals Court as of September 10.

Police arrested and brought to prison SPO “Trust” convict Sead Kocan on August 1 to serve his four-year-and-eight-months sentence for public procurement fraud. On March 11, the Skopje Appellate Court upheld convictions of Sead Kocan and Vasilije Avirovic in the case. The court also upheld an order to confiscate €17.3 million, ($19.03 million), the largest amount ever confiscated by courts in North Macedonia.

A Hungarian court denied on June 27 North Macedonia’s request to extradite former prime minister Gruevski, who fled to Hungary November 2018 after the court rejected his appeal and ordered him to report to prison to start serving a two-year sentence in the “Tank” case involving the fraudulent procurement of a 600,000-euro ($660,000) armored Mercedes Benz in 2012. Hungary granted him asylum. Additionally, the Ministry of Justice shared October 7 it had received notification from Hungarian authorities on August 5 that Hungary’s Supreme Court had denied North Macedonia’s request to extradite Gruevski in the case against the organizers of the April 27, 2017 parliament violence. Previously, on June 27, a Hungarian court denied Gruevski’s extradition in relation to the SPO “Tank” case. Also, November 13, Skopje Criminal Court dropped charges against Gruevski in the SPO “Trajectory” case due to that statute of limitations taking effect.

Financial Disclosure: The anticorruption law requires appointed and elected officials and their close family members to disclose their income and assets and provides penalties for noncompliance. The public may view disclosure declarations on the SCPC’s website. The commission routinely received and checked conflict of interest statements submitted by public officials. In a prominent case, the SCPC found a conflict of interest involving Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Kocho Angjushev and businesses in which he had an interest.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often willing to listen to these groups but were also sometimes unresponsive to their views. During the year a number of ministries established working groups that included members of civil society, and civil society representatives were invited to participate in parliamentary debates.

In 2016 tax authorities under the previous government opened inspections of 20 civil society organizations, and the Public Revenue Office targeted NGOs that had been critical of the VMRO-DPMNE-led government’s policies. In 2018 the interior minister informed representatives of the civil society organizations that the Ministry of Interior had requested the prosecutor to close the investigations for lack of evidence, which was done in April.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The ombudsman worked to protect citizens from infringement of their rights by public institutions, reduce discrimination against minority communities and persons with disabilities, promote equitable representation in public life, and address children’s rights.

The May 22 Law on Prevention of Discrimination terminated the incumbent Commission for Prevention of Discrimination effective August 21. The appointment of the new commission remained pending at year’s end.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Trade unions are based on voluntary membership, and activities are financed by membership dues. Approximately 22 percent of employees are union members.

Union representatives, with the exception of a few branch unions, claimed they were generally not free from the influence of government officials, political parties, and employers.

The law requires federated unions to register with the MLSP and with the State Central Registry.

A court of general jurisdiction may terminate trade union activities at the request of the registrar or competent court when those activities are deemed to be “against the constitution and law.” There are no nationality restrictions on membership in trade unions, although foreign nationals must have a valid work permit and be employed by the company or government body listed on the permit. Although legally permitted, no unions operate in the free economic zones.

The government and employers did not always respect freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to collective bargaining. Unions maintained the law’s “exclusionary” provision, which allowed employers to terminate up to 2 percent of workers from collective bargaining negotiations during a strike. Collective bargaining is restricted to trade unions that represent at least 20 percent of the employees and employers’ associations that represent at least 10 percent of the employers at the level at which the agreement is concluded (company, sector, or country). Government enforcement resources and remediation were inadequate. Penalties for violations of the law were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were generally subject to lengthy delays.

The MLSP received three complaints in the period 2018-19 about violations of the right to union organization and freedom of association. The complaints were forwarded to the State Labor Inspectorate and are currently pending action.

The president of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions (KSS), Blagoja Ralpovski, claimed he was fired from the State Cadaster Agency due to his union activities. He filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination, with court action pending at year’s end.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government largely enforced applicable laws. The law prescribes imprisonment, which applies to violations of forced labor laws or for the destruction or removal of identification documents, passports, or other travel documents. Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations. There were instances in which women and children were subjected to forced labor, such as peddling small items in restaurants and bars, and sexual exploitation. Some Romani children were subject to forced begging, often by relatives (see section 7.c.).

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

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The government has established laws and regulations related to child labor, including prohibiting the worst forms of child labor. The government made efforts to enforce the law in the formal economy but did not do so effectively in the informal economy. Gaps exist in the country’s legal framework to protect children adequately from labor abuses, including the worst forms of child labor, and the minimum age for work. The minimum age for employment is 15. Children may begin work at 14 as apprentices or as participants in official vocational education programs, cultural, artistic, sports, and advertising events. The law prohibits employing minors under the age of 18 in work that is detrimental to their physical or psychological health, safety, or morality. It also prohibits minors from working at night or more than 40 hours per week.

The MLSP’s Labor Inspectorate is responsible for enforcing laws regulating the employment of children. Police and the ministry, through centers for social work, shared responsibility for enforcing laws on child trafficking, including forced begging. Due to lack of enforcement, stringent penalties are insufficient to deter violations.

There were no reports of children under 18 unlawfully engaged in the formal economy. During inspections at some family-run businesses, the State Labor Inspectorate noted minor children assisting in the work, most commonly in family run handicrafts and retail businesses, as well as on farms.

Some children in the country engaged in forced begging, cleaning windshields; scavenging, or selling cigarettes or other small items in open markets, on the street, or in bars and restaurants at night. Although the necessary laws were in place, government efforts to eliminate forced begging by children were largely ineffective. Children involved in these activities were primarily Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptian and most often worked for their parents or other family members. Despite enforcing legal remedies, such as temporary removal of parental rights, criminal charges, and revoking parental rights of repetitive offenders, officials were largely ineffective in preventing this continuous practice, and Romani children remained vulnerable to exploitation and forced labor.

The MLSP runs a call-center where child abuse can be reported, and most reports referred to cases of street begging. The ministry also funded two day centers that provided education, medical, and psychological services to children who were forced to beg on the street.

Also see 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 and regulations generally prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, health status, political opinion, religion, age, national origin, language, or social status. The law does not specifically address discrimination based on HIV or other communicable disease status but does refer to the health status of employees. The government did not always enforce the laws effectively, and penalties were not always sufficient to deter violations. The Commission for Protection against Discrimination received a total of 136 complaints related to workplace discrimination, of which most referred to gender and age discrimination.

Despite government efforts and legal changes for mandatory inclusion in primary and high school education, Roma continued to live in segregated groups without proper health and social protection, mostly due to lack of registration documents. Data from the State Employment Office showed that due to low participation in the education system, particularly higher education, Roma generally had difficulties finding jobs in the formal economy. Women’s wages lagged behind those of men, and few women occupied management positions. The government made efforts to prevent discrimination in hiring and access to the workplace for persons with disabilities.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage, as of October 15, was below the poverty threshold for a family of four, but the average monthly wage was significantly higher. The State Statistical Office estimated that 22.9 percent of the population lived at or below the poverty line.

Although the government set occupational safety and health standards for employers, those standards were not enforced in the informal sector.

The total number of labor inspectors was considered adequate to investigate violations of labor law and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Inspections were not adequate, though, to ensure compliance, due, in part, to an inadequate regional distribution of inspectors.

The law establishes a 40-hour workweek with a minimum 24-hour rest period, paid vacation of 20 to 26 workdays, and sick leave benefits. Employees may not legally work more than an average of eight hours of overtime per week over a three-month period or 190 hours per year. According to the collective agreement for the private sector between employers and unions, employees in the private sector have a right to overtime pay at 135 percent of their regular rate. In addition, the law entitles employees who work more than 150 hours of overtime per year to a bonus of one month’s salary.

During the year the MLSP labor inspectorate filed complaints against several businesses for forcing employees to work long hours without the rest breaks required by law; nonpayment of salaries, benefits, and overtime; and cutting employees’ vacation. Violations in wage and overtime were most common in the textiles, construction, railroads, and retail sectors.

Minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational safety and health standards were not effectively enforced. Many employers hired workers without complying with the law, and small retail businesses often required employees to work well beyond legal hourly limits. During the year the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health was not fully functional and played only an advisory role. While workers have the legal right to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their future employment, employers did not always respect this right, reportedly due to the high unemployment rate.

According to data from the Macedonian Occupational Safety Association, there were 33 workplace fatalities in 2018 and 124 workplace injuries. Most of the casualties occurred in the category of Household Activities, which included farming and use of agriculture equipment, followed by the construction sector.

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) in 2016 and presidential elections in 2017. International observers stated that the elections were mostly free but that campaigning during both periods benefited progovernment candidates. In 2017 Aleksandar Vucic, president of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was elected president, winning approximately 55 percent of the vote in the first round.

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.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by police; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression and the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; numerous acts of government corruption; and crimes, including violence, targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals.

The government took steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses (and punish them, if convicted), 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, and other abuses went unreported and unpunished.

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. Independent observers claimed the trend of decreased media freedom continued, and Reporters without Borders rated the country’s media environment unsafe early in the year, noting it “has become a place where practicing journalism is neither safe nor supported by the state.” During the year Freedom House downgraded its assessment of the country’s media environment from free to partially free. 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.

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 2,000 registered outlets, many of which were not profitable. The government accounted for between one-third and one-half of the country’s annual media revenues of 420 million euros ($460 million), the majority of this through collection of a service tax and funding of the public broadcasters, according to a foreign development aid agency’s analysis. According to a 2018 study by Reporters without Borders, government ministries and state-owned enterprises were collectively the biggest advertisers in the country, allowing the government to use its purchasing power to support progovernment editorial content and stifle critical viewpoints. Media association representatives claimed the government’s role was far larger than the numbers indicated because private firms that purchased advertising patronized outlets that published progovernment content to appease the government. Watchdog organizations believed the media market was too saturated for outlets to be financially viable without government support or access to government advertising contracts.

Television was the most influential media format due to concentration of viewership and popularity. There were five national terrestrial television-broadcasting licenses in Serbia. 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. 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.

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 these stories defamed political leaders of opposition parties. These stories were often presented in a false or misleading headline on the cover page. A report published on August 15 by the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) indicated the progovernment tabloid Informer published 150 fake, unfounded, or unverifiable news items from January through June. Another tabloid, Alo, published 115 such stories, while Srpski Telegraf printed 94 and Kurir printed 60. In addition to fabricating stories, the same papers showed a clear progovernment bias. The report noted that these four publications routinely reported negatively on opposition parties, antigovernment protests, and neighboring countries.

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. Between January and August, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia reported 85 cases in which journalists had been attacked, threatened, or exposed to political pressure. The attacks included vandalism, intimidation, and physical assaults. In one example, in December 2018 two assailants ignited the home of Milan Jovanovic while he and his spouse slept inside. The couple narrowly escaped the blaze 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, mayor of Grocka and an official of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was indicted for ordering the arson attack. The trial was underway as of October; hearings were delayed three times due to defense attorneys not appearing before the court with the defendant.

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. On August 28, a television crew and correspondent covering the placement of a Yugoslav-era military tank outside a soccer stadium were attacked by a mob who reportedly tried to break their equipment and called them “spies,” “thieves,” and “American mercenaries.”

Harassment by government officials was often targeted at news organizations. The law provides for punishment of defamation against individuals but not against organizations or groups. N1 television was a frequent target of government criticism; staff reported receiving death threats at N1’s studio. Cable provider Serbia Broadband (SBB) was subject to intense criticism from government officials. Belgrade deputy mayor Goran Vesic engaged in a prolonged spat with SBB in which he repeatedly claimed that its cable equipment was incorrectly installed. SBB insisted that it had licensing agreements for all of its equipment. SBB reported a deluge of threats of vandalism of its installed equipment in response to Vesic’s comments. Harassment of individual journalists often intensified following publication of stories that embarrassed ruling party officials. After Balkan Insight (BIRN) published photographs of President Vucic’s brother meeting with a suspected organized crime figure, a video of BIRN editor Slobodan Georgiev called “How to Recognize a Traitor” was published on social media. Progovernment media outlets also published content critical of independent media outlets. In late 2018, for example, the weekly Ilustrovana Politika published an issue with an image of a growling guard dog in front of the covers of three of the leading opposition-leaning newspapers titled “The Hounds Have Been Released,” in an image that was widely interpreted as inciting attacks on the outlets.

Watchdog organizations also noted that past killings of several journalists were yet to be resolved, including those of Dada Vujasinovic (1994) and Milan Pantic (2001). In April, 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. Media watchdogs welcomed the verdict but remained concerned that no high-level officials had been indicted for ordering the assassination and that the series of delays that led to a 20-year delay in justice had not been addressed.

A 2018 study by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, Media Freedoms and Control: Journalists Testimonies, found that 74 percent of the country’s journalists believed “there [were] serious obstacles to exercising media freedoms” or that they had no media freedom at all. Nearly two-thirds of journalists interviewed believed the political establishment had the strongest influence over the media community.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: 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.

Direct funding to media outlets by the state was distributed in an opaque manner that appeared to support media outlets loyal to the ruling party rather than to bolster independent journalism. According to a 2018 report from the Center of Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the progovernment tabloids Srpski Telegraf and Informer were granted approximately 23.05 million dinars ($222,000) by the government, notwithstanding their frequent breach of the country’s Code of Journalism. Meanwhile, the daily newspaper Danas, the weekly news agency Beta, the weekly Novi Magazin, and the Media Center of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia–none of which had ever received even a sanction or warning from the press council–did not receive state funding. The report concluded, “The situation is completely clear: progovernment media obtain money at state-run contests.” Public funds were also directed to profitable private media outlets that regularly published progovernment content. The Center for Investigative Journalism Serbia reported that Pink International, TV Pink’s corporate parent, received loans in excess of 10 million euros ($11 million) from the Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency in 2014, plus assurances of another 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million). In 2017 it reportedly received another loan of 3.2 million euros ($3.5 million) from the same agency.

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 this law. Opposition leaders and civil society activists contended that 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, 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. In 2018 a representative of the Security Intelligence Agency speaking at a conference explained that one of the most intense threats to the country came from foreign agents in opposition political parties, civil society, and some parts of the media. The Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS) was a frequent target of verbal attacks by convicted war criminal and Member of Parliament Vojislav Seselj. Following these remarks, CEAS claimed to have received written threats calling organization members “traitors, bastards, and degenerates” and telling them to leave the country. 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.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government limited these rights in some cases.

In March, CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists, added the country to its watchlist of countries where civic freedoms were under serious threat. In April, 20 NGOs signed the platform “Three Freedoms for Preserving the Space for Civil Society in Serbia” in order to protect and promote freedom of assembly, association, and information. The platform registered 19 separate cases of alleged violations of freedom of assembly and 18 of freedom of association between March and July.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: Humanitarian organizations noted the government lacked the resources and expertise to provide sufficient protection against refoulement. Various press and humanitarian reports indicated that authorities pushed back irregular migrants without screening them to see if they were seeking asylum. In the first half of year, according to reports provided by UNHCR field staff and partners, 1,022 persons were apprehended and prevented from entering the country’s territory across land borders (48 percent occurred at the border with North Macedonia and 38 percent at the border with Bulgaria). This represented a 350 percent increase in apprehensions, compared to 2018. In addition, according to information attributed to the Ministry of Interior, 1,186 denials occurred at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, representing a significant increase, compared with 2018 (771 denials). There were unconfirmed reports that potential asylum seekers arriving at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, for instance Kurds from Turkey, may be sent back on the next flight. Concerns regarding the practice of the border authorities at the Belgrade International Airport were also expressed in the report of the UN special rapporteur on torture, who noted a number of problems regarding access to the asylum procedure and the conduct of the border authorities at the airport.

The government’s Mixed Migration Group was inactive during the year and did not deliberate on any of the issues in its portfolio or communicate the number of illegal entries prevented.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for giving protection to refugees. The Asylum Office within the Ministry of Interior is responsible for implementing the system but lacked the capacity, resources, and trained staff to do so effectively.

The law provides procedural guarantees to asylum seekers and outlines procedures pertaining to refugee children. It recognizes a range of grounds for granting international protection, including gender-based violence and sexual orientation.

According to UNHCR, the law does not meet international standards by providing for judicial review early in the asylum proceedings or containing safe third country and safe country of origin provisions that align with international standards. Provision of free legal aid to asylum seekers and interpretation services (as basic procedural guarantees) in the asylum procedures was dependent on international funding.

The intention to seek asylum was expressed by 1,061 children, 355 of whom were unaccompanied by their parents or guardians. UNHCR estimated that most of the unaccompanied children did not have adequate protection services due to the government’s lack of capacity. The country lacked quality guardianship protection and appropriate models of alternative child care. The Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veterans, and Social Policy was responsible for three institutions for unaccompanied migrant children with a total capacity of 45 beds, and two additional institutions run by NGOs had a total capacity of 30. Most unaccompanied minors were accommodated in the asylum center Krnjaca in Belgrade and Sjenica in inadequate conditions and without adequate guardian care.

The government had the capacity to accommodate approximately 6,000 persons in the 18 state-run asylum and reception centers, three of which were closed in 2018 due to a decline in asylum seekers from 2017. In January, 4,200 migrants were living in reception and asylum centers in the country; by August the number had fallen to 2,500.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: Since the adoption of the new asylum law in 2018, the first country of asylum and safe third country concepts had not been applied by the Asylum Office. According to UNHCR, authorities assessed each case on its individual merits but did not automatically apply these provisions.

In one example, the Asylum Office issued a positive decision in May for an Afghan citizen who applied for asylum in March. Rather than apply the safe country of origin or transit concept, the Asylum Office found the applicant, who transited Bulgaria, was at risk of persecution in his country of origin based on his ethnicity and membership in a social group. The asylum seeker had been a target of the Taliban’s verbal and physical assaults because he worked in various ministries in Kabul and because he was an ethnic Tajik. In addition, before arriving in Serbia, the asylum seeker was in Bulgaria, which the Asylum Office considered a “safe country of transit.” The Asylum Office accepted his claims that he could not apply for asylum there because he was under constant surveillance by a group of smugglers, who controlled his movements and prevented him from approaching Bulgarian asylum officials. Since he could not contact the relevant Bulgarian authorities, the Asylum Office decided to review the facts of relevance to his asylum application, rather than apply the safe third country concept.

Employment: Asylum seekers have the right to work nine months after an asylum application is submitted. Employment is also available once an applicant is recognized as a refugee at the end of the country’s refugee determination process.

Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers, migrants, and refugees have the right to access health and education services, although barriers including language and cultural differences limited access.

Durable Solutions: The government provided support for the voluntary return and reintegration of refugees from other countries of the former Yugoslavia. Those who chose the option of integration in Serbia rather than return to their country of origin enjoyed the same rights as citizens, including access to basic services such as health care and education, and had access to simplified naturalization in the country; they did not have the right to vote unless their naturalization process was complete.

Together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro, the country participated in the Regional Housing Program to provide housing for vulnerable refugee families who had decided to integrate into their countries of residence. During the year, 1,303 housing units were provided in Serbia.

For refugees who originated from countries outside the former Yugoslavia, refugee status did not provide a pathway to citizenship. The government provided integration assistance that included financial assistance for accommodation for a period of one year and obligatory Serbian language courses. Despite harmonization of by-laws providing for individualized integration plans, which UNHCR considered a good model, coordination between relevant line ministries remained insufficient.

Temporary Protection: The government made no decisions on temporary protection during the year.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. There was a widespread public perception that the law was not being implemented consistently and systematically and that some high-level officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The EC’s Serbia 2019 Report stated the country made limited progress in its fight against corruption. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government reported an increase in low- to mid-level corruption cases, money laundering, and economic crimes cases, largely through the use of authorities permitted under the law and based on technical assistance and training provided by international donors. Even so, corruption was prevalent in many areas and remained an issue of concern.

While the legal framework for fighting corruption was broadly in place, anticorruption entities typically lacked adequate personnel and were not integrated with other judicial entities, which inhibited information and evidence sharing with the prosecution service. Freedom House’s 2019 report on the country noted the work of the Anticorruption Agency (ACA) was undermined in part by the ambiguous division of responsibilities among other entities tasked with combating corruption. In May parliament adopted a revised Law on the Prevention of Corruption, primarily concerning the ACA, which was scheduled to become effective in September 2020. The law provides some improvements over the previous version, such as clarifying the ACA’s competencies and broadening preventive measures. Freedom House downgraded the country’s political pluralism and participation score in part based on the credible reports that the ACA did not thoroughly investigate dubious political campaign contributions, including the use of thousands of proxy donors to bypass legal limits on individual campaign donations and disguise the true source of funding.

EU experts noted continuing problems with the overuse of the vague “abuse of office” charge for alleged private-sector corruption schemes. Despite the government’s publicly stated commitment to fight corruption, both the country’s Anticorruption Council and the NGO Transparency Serbia continued to point to a lack of governmental transparency.

Corruption: There were numerous cases of corruption during the year. Between March 2018 and May 2019, the Republic Public Prosecutor’s Office reported 255 corruption-related convictions through trial and 530 convictions based on plea agreements. The number of cases proceeding through the courts indicated the anticorruption prosecutorial departments made progress in working with other government agencies, investigating malfeasance, and indicting suspects.

The newly formed Anticorruption Department within the Ministry of Interior was created to investigate corruption and economic crimes. In the first eight months of the year, the department filed numerous charges on low- to mid-level government officials, including customs officials, police, and municipal officials. The Police Service for Combating Organized Crime filed two charges for high-level corruption.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires income and asset disclosure by appointed or elected officials. The ACA is designed to be an independent institution that monitors financial disclosures of public officials, political party financing, and conflicts of interest. The ACA oversees the filing of disclosures and verifies their completeness and accuracy. Declarations are publicly available on the ACA website and upon request. Failure to file or to disclose income and assets fully is subject to administrative and criminal sanctions. Significant changes to assets or income must be reported annually. Officials also must file a disclosure form immediately after leaving office and must inform the ACA of any significant changes to their assets for two years after leaving office.

The ACA continued to initiate administrative and criminal proceedings against several former and current government officials who failed to file or incorrectly filed asset disclosure forms. Between January 1 and June 30, the ACA filed two criminal reports for the failure to disclose assets and six reports for other criminal offenses (prosecuted ex officio) with the competent prosecutor’s offices or other authorities. The ACA received 141 trial judgments from the misdemeanor courts, which resulted from requests to initiate misdemeanor proceedings filed in the previous period. These cases were related to untimely disclosure of assets, conflict of interest, or violations of political financing laws. Most of these resulted in fines.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of independent domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases without overt resistance from the government. While government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to their questions, at times government bodies selectively ignored freedom of information requests. Civil society groups were subject to criticism, harassment, and threats from nongovernmental actors, including progovernment media outlets and a number of suspected government-organized NGOs that vocally participated in government consultations with civil society. Actions likely to draw this response included expressing views critical of the government, contrary to nationalist views regarding Kosovo, or in support of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Threats, vandalism, and attacks aimed against civil society organizations did occur and were rarely investigated thoroughly or prosecuted. The new Law on Free Legal Aid potentially limits these organizations’ ability to provide free legal aid in some traditionally important areas for human right protection, such as defamation suits and misdemeanor offenses.

In September human rights activist Dobrica Veselinovic received a prison summons for failure to pay a fine he received for organizing a 2016 “Let’s not Drown Belgrade” protest in response to the illegal demolition of residential and commercial buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala neighborhood, despite having a receipt showing the fine had been paid. Civil society organizations claimed that the 30 cases underway surrounding these protests and the summons Veselinovic received were part of a government campaign to pressure and silence activists and NGOs.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government bodies dedicated to the protection of human rights included the Office of the Ombudsman, Office of the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, and Office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. All three bodies were active during the year and issued reports for parliament’s review, but parliament did not review their annual reports in plenary sessions in accordance with the law.

The Office of the Ombudsman was responsible for identifying problems within state institutions and making recommendations on remedies. The ombudsman continued to operate branch offices in three municipalities with significant ethnic Albanian populations. The ombudsman facilitated citizen complaints regarding violations of the human rights of members of national minorities, children, persons with disabilities, persons deprived of their liberty, and persons experiencing discrimination based on gender by state administrative bodies or any other entity entrusted with public authority. Vojvodina Province had its own ombudsman, who operated independently during the year.

The commissioner for the protection of equality has legal authority to bring civil lawsuits against businesses and government institutions for violations of the antidiscrimination law. The commissioner’s office reported a 20 percent increase in complaints in 2018, the most common being on the application of a law on financial support to families with children and complaints about accessibility by persons with disabilities.

The commissioner for information and personal data’s term expired in December 2018; outgoing Commissioner Rodoljub Sabic’s final report criticized the government, stating, “By refusing to cooperate, the competent or supervised authorities often made it difficult, even impossible, for the commissioner to either undertake legal measures or these measures had no effect.” A new commissioner, Milan Marinovic, was confirmed by parliament in July, but opposition parties did not participate in this process due to their continuing boycott of parliament.

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

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 can 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 generally sufficient to deter violations. 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 sometimes allegations of antiunion dismissals and discrimination. Labor NGOs worked to increase awareness regarding workers’ rights and to improve the conditions of women, persons with disabilities, and other groups facing discrimination in employment or occupation.

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 generally sufficient to deter violations.

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. In 2018 parliament adopted the Law on Simplified Hiring of Seasonal Labor in Certain Economic Areas, which 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 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 2018 inspectors did not register any labor complaints involving children under the age of 15. Inspectors registered 39 cases, however, 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, car washing, car repair, bakeries, construction, retail and groceries, and various personal services. Inspectors issued 16 decisions ordering employers either to terminate employment contracts or to obtain the required parental permission and approval from the authorized health institution and submit applications for the social security contributions. Misdemeanor proceedings were initiated in 15 cases, and a criminal charge was filed in one case.

The government has established institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of laws and regulations on child labor. Gaps existed, however, within the operations of the Ministry of Labor, Employment, Veteran, 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 sufficient to deter violations of the law in either the formal or informal sectors. 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 sufficient to deter violations.

Discrimination in employment and occupation reportedly occurred with respect to race, sex, disability, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, and HIV-positive status. In 2018 labor inspectors issued 16 decisions regarding discrimination at work and seven related to gender equality. In the labor force, women experienced discrimination in hiring, underrepresentation in management, and lower compensation than their male colleagues.

In one example, in August, 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 of 26,000 dinars ($244) was less than the contributions of 30,000 dinars ($282) her employer was forcing her to make. Her employer invoked the voluntary termination option when her case appeared in the media. The commissioner for the protection of equality agreed to take the case and represent Pesovic in a lawsuit against her employer.

The commissioner for the protection of equality’s 2018 annual report identified 197 discrimination complaints in the area of labor and employment, which accounted for 20.8 percent of the total 947 complaints received in 2018. 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 2019 Report identified Roma, LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS, and other vulnerable individuals as the groups most subject to discrimination. 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.

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 17.1 percent of total employment in the first quarter of the year, 1.5 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. One 30-minute break is required during an eight-hour workday. 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 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 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. In 2018 the Labor Inspectorate completed 26,515 safety and health at work inspections involving more than 304,000 employees. Inspectors issued 5,773 decisions on deficiencies in safety and health conditions in the workplace, including 823 decisions barring an employee from continuing to work due to a hazardous condition that endangered their health or safety, a 55 percent increase from 2017. In addition, 40 criminal charges and 1,471 requests for misdemeanor proceedings were filed against individuals for failure to provide a safe workplace for employees. The Labor Inspectorate employed inspectors and was responsible for worker safety and health, but they were insufficient to enforce compliance.

The government protected employees with varying degrees of effectiveness. In 2018, for inspections outside the scope of occupational safety and health, the Labor Inspectorate completed 42,688 labor inspections involving more than 325,000 employees and uncovered 17,026 informal employment arrangements within legal entities. Following the inspections, formalized employment contracts were granted to 13,869 (82 percent) workers. 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. The inspectorate recorded 53 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.

Slovenia

Executive Summary

Slovenia is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional republic. Power is shared among a directly elected president (head of state), a prime minister (head of government), and a bicameral parliament composed of the National Assembly (lower house) and the National Council (upper house). In June 2018 the country held parliamentary elections. Observers considered the elections free and fair.

The national police maintain internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Police report to the Ministry of Interior and the army reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included societal violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons.

The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government, and there were no cases of impunity involving security forces during the year.

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 the press, and the government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits the incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance based on nationality, race, religion, gender, skin color, social status, political or other beliefs, sexual orientation, and disability in a way that could threaten or disrupt public order, typically requiring violence to occur for the prosecution of such incitement.

The Supreme Court set a legal precedent in August in a case of alleged incitement to hatred, violence, and intolerance against Roma. The court ruled that in cases in which an act is committed by means of a threat, abusive language, or insult, with other legal indications of a crime, it does not necessarily need to jeopardize public order and peace to be treated as a crime.

The penal code also prohibits the expression of ideas of racial superiority and denial of the Holocaust.

In October the Union of European Football Associations imposed a 50,000-euro ($55,000) fine on the Slovenian soccer club Olimpija Ljubljana for alleged racial abuse. During a soccer match in August, Olimpija Ljubljana supporters shouted racial insults at a Beninese national who played on the opposing team. The hotline Spletno oko (Web Eye) received several hundred reports concerning potential cases of hate speech, but there were no reported prosecutions or convictions for online hate speech. In 2018, Spletno oko received a slight increase in potential cases of online hate speech compared to 2017.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. The print and broadcast media, like online newspapers and journals, as well as book publishers, are subject to the laws prohibiting hate speech, libel, and slander.

A prior case brought by the same journalist against the leader of a major political party for labeling her a “prostitute” in a 2016 tweet also resulted in a suspended sentence; a retrial ordered by a higher court was pending as of December.

Violence and Harassment: In August 2018 an individual attempted to drive over the camera operator of a crew of the national broadcaster TV Slovenia in Nova Gorica. The assailant did not injure anyone in the attempted attack. The perpetrator fled to Italy, where police arrested him several days later. During a court hearing, the assailant commented he was not opposed to media, but wanted to be left alone. In November local courts sentenced the assailant to a six-month suspended sentence with two years of probation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Two high-profile incidents involving attempts by governments in neighboring states to assert pressure on the Slovenian press made headlines and resulted in strong official pushback and public outrage. The first involved a diplomatic note from the Hungarian embassy protesting a cartoon on the cover of a prominent Slovenian political magazine depicting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban giving a Nazi salute. The second incident involved allegations the Croatian government tried to discourage a commercial television station from reporting on the rumored involvement of Croatian intelligence in a 2015 wiretap scandal related to Permanent Court of Arbitration proceedings on a Slovenia-Croatia border dispute. In both cases the government strongly condemned foreign interference in the local press and asserted that any pressure on media outlets was contrary to fundamental principles of democracy.

While instances of overt political pressure on the press remained isolated, the Slovenian Association of Journalists and media analysts observed that standards of journalistic integrity suffered because of economic pressure, nonstandard forms of employment such as freelance or student status, and reduced protections for journalists, leading some to practice self-censorship to maintain steady employment.

Journalists and media representatives stated existing media legislation does not address the problem of excessive concentration of ownership in media, which could limit the diversity of views expressed. The announced merger in July of the country’s second and third largest daily newspapers (Dnevnik and Vecer) reflected a broader trend toward consolidation in a saturated and highly competitive media market. Most observers expected minimal immediate impact on media diversity as a result of the merger, given the newspapers’ similar editorial stance.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution and law provide for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

Local courts lifted a ban imposed in 2017 on a concert by Croatian musician Marko Perkovic. In 2017 authorities cancelled the concert at the request of local police, who assessed the concert could result in violence, hate speech, or other criminal acts. Media outlets reported that Perkovic had previously been accused of expressing extremist nationalist views.

c. Freedom of Religion

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

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

Citizenship: Based on a 2012 decision by the ECHR, in 2013 the government introduced a system for providing just satisfaction (i.e., restitution for damages) for the “erased” citizens of other former Yugoslav republics denied the right to reside legally in the country in the 1990s. To date more than 10,300 “erased” individuals have regularized their legal status in the country. An additional 3,000 were presumed deceased, and approximately 12,000 were believed to be living abroad with no intention of returning to the country.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.

NGOs alleged that border authorities continued to reject without due process most individuals seeking asylum and send them back to Croatia. NGOs reported that asylum seekers returned to Croatia have no legal remedies to challenge Slovenian border police decisions.

The Government Office for the Care and Integration of Migrants is responsible for ensuring the country meets its international commitments to provide services and protection to refugees, migrants, and displaced persons by coordinating the efforts of national authorities, NGOs, and other organizations. The office provided material support and accommodation to assist refugees through its asylum center and branches, managed reception and assistance programs, and engaged with NGOs and international organizations to provide services and resettlement options to migrants. It offered medical services and psychological counseling, oversaw integration services for refugees and immigrants, cooperated with legal representatives of unaccompanied minors, and assisted police in deportation proceedings for those whose asylum claims were denied.

Asylum seekers outside of EU resettlement and relocation programs often waited six or more months for their cases to be adjudicated and were barred from working during the initial nine months of this period, although many reportedly worked illegally. Local NGOs criticized this restriction, asserting it made asylum seekers vulnerable to labor exploitation due to their illegal status, lack of knowledge of local labor laws, and language barriers.

Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The Dublin III regulation obligates the country, as a member state of the EU, to consider all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. Under the regulation, the government may return an asylum seeker entering from another EU country to the country in which the person first entered the EU. Pursuant to a decision by the ECHR, however, the government did not return asylum seekers to Greece.

Local NGOs criticized as inappropriate the government’s housing of unaccompanied minor asylum seekers alongside adults in the police-managed Foreigners Home in Postojna. Determining the age of unaccompanied asylum seekers remained a problem.

In January the government approved a plan to accept five asylum seekers who arrived in Malta after having been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea. As of December the country had accepted two of the five asylum seekers.

Individuals granted refugee status are eligible for naturalization once they have fulfilled the necessary legal conditions.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal and civil penalties for corruption, conflicts of interest, and illegal lobbying by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption, and the public viewed official corruption as a problem.

On the initiative of the principal opposition party, the parliament in 2018 established several commissions to monitor and combat corruption in the public sector. One commission uncovered evidence suggesting that prices for public procurement of medical equipment far exceeded market prices. No indictments or convictions resulted from these findings. In August 2018 authorities indicted 15 individuals for alleged involvement in a scheme whereby medical professionals received kickbacks from medical equipment suppliers for purchasing their products. The investigation remained pending.

Civil society groups and NGOs expressed frustration regarding what they described as the ineffectiveness of the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption (CPC). In its 2018 report, the National Assembly’s parliamentary justice committee criticized the CPC for alleged inactivity. The CPC asserted that inadequate funding and ineffective legislation complicated its work to combat corruption.

Financial Disclosure: The highest-level officials in the government, the parliament, and the judiciary, representing approximately 5,000 of the country’s 170,000 public employees, are subject to financial disclosure laws. There are administrative sanctions for failing to respect these provisions. The government did not publicize cases in which these provisions were violated, but they may become part of the public record in other procedures (e.g., criminal or tax cases). The CPC may issue advisory opinions regarding prosecution.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.

Local NGO contacts reported increased pressure on NGOs that advocated for refugees and migrants. In May an opposition party president and parliamentarian filed a criminal report against the director of a local NGO, accusing the director of enabling migrants to enter the country illegally and instructing them how to act upon arrival. At a June parliamentary session, Interior Minister Bostjan Poklukar stated the director’s actions were not criminal, and the relevant state prosecutor offices confirmed the assessment.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution provides for an independent human rights ombudsman to monitor violations of human rights. Individuals may file complaints with the independent ombudsman to seek administrative relief in the case of a human rights violation by the government. The human rights ombudsman was effective, adequately resourced, reported to parliament annually on the human rights situation, and provided recommendations to the government. The Office of the Advocate of the Principle of Equality, established in 2017 to raise awareness and help prevent all types of discrimination, reported that a lack of resources and personnel limited its effectiveness.

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

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. In 2016, in the first ruling of its kind, a court ruled to protect the right of workers to unionize. NGOs reported that in practice employers have informally pressured employees to refrain from organizing or to deunionize, particularly workers in the metal industry and transport sector.

The law requires unionization of at least 10 percent of workers in a sector before the sector may engage in collective bargaining. The law restricts the right to strike for police, members of the military, and some other public employees, providing for arbitration instead. Local NGOs assessed that although penalties for violations were sufficient, a shortage of labor inspectors impeded the government’s ability to effectively prevent, monitor, and deter violations. Judicial and administrative procedures were not subject to lengthy delays or appeals.

The government respected freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

While the law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and the government generally enforced the law, forced labor occurred and was most prevalent in the metal and wood industry, construction, hospitality, and transport sectors. Local NGOs assessed that while penalties for violations were sufficient, a shortage of inspectors impeded the government’s ability to effectively prevent and monitor violations.

There were reports men, women, and children were subjected to forced labor in the construction sector and forced begging. A government report found minors and migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to forced labor or trafficking conditions, while fraudulent employment and recruitment of migrant workers remained a problem.

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 law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum legal age of employment is 15. The law limits hours, mandates rest periods, prohibits working in hazardous locations, and specifies adult supervision for workers younger than age 18. While no specific occupations are restricted, hazardous work locations specified by the law include those that are underground and underwater and those involving harmful exposure to radiation, toxic or carcinogenic agents, extreme cold, heat, noise, or vibrations. Penalties for labor law violations related to child labor violations range from a fine to one year in prison and were sufficient to deter violations. The government generally enforced child labor and minimum age laws effectively. Nevertheless, children younger than 15 in rural areas often worked during the harvest season and performed farm chores. Some children were also subjected to sex trafficking and trafficking for forced labor, including forced begging.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law establishes a general framework for equal treatment and prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race or ethnic origin, sex, color, religion, age, citizenship, disability, or sexual orientation. The law specifically prohibits discrimination based on language or HIV-positive status. The government effectively enforced these laws. Penalties for violations range widely, depending on the type and size of the employing organization, and were sufficient to deter violations. Women’s earnings were approximately 68 percent those of men, while in comparable positions, women’s earnings were approximately 97 percent those of men.

There were few formal complaints of discrimination, although there were some reports of employment discrimination based on gender, age, and nationality. In certain sectors foreign workers are required to remain employed with their initial employer for a minimum of one year. Local NGOs assessed this requirement enabled labor exploitation through lower salaries, poor living conditions, and longer working hours. Migrant workers enjoyed the same labor rights as citizens, but they faced discrimination. Many migrants worked in the hospitality sector or in physically demanding jobs. Some migrant workers were not aware of local labor laws regarding minimum wage, overtime, health care, and other benefits, a problem compounded by language barriers.

In October the Office of the Advocate of the Principle of Equality filed a lawsuit against the Slovenian Association of Cycling Commissaries over alleged employment discrimination based on age. Association of Cycling Commissaries bylaws do not permit individuals older than age 70 to work, and the Association automatically dismissed one of its employees upon reaching 70 years of age. The Office of the Advocate of the Principle of Equality filed the lawsuit on behalf of the individual, and the case remained pending.

One NGO estimated only 2 percent of Roma in the southeastern part of the country worked in the formal economy. Employment in informal sectors made Roma vulnerable to labor law violations, particularly in terms of benefits and procedures for termination of employment. Employment discrimination against Roma was not limited to a specific sector. The government attempted to address problems experienced by Roma (see also section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national monthly gross minimum wage exceeded the poverty line. The official poverty line is set at 662 euros ($730) per month for single-member households. The Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities monitors minimum wage compliance and has inspection authority. According to NGOs and advocacy groups, authorities generally enforced the laws effectively, except in some cases involving migrant workers and asylum seekers, who faced conditions of exploitation. Penalties for violations were sufficient to deter violations.

Collective agreements determined whether workers received premium pay for overtime. The law limits overtime to eight hours per week, 20 hours per month, and 170 hours per year.

The European Trade Union Confederation reported five cases of potential labor exploitation of Slovenian nationals temporarily working in other EU countries to the European Labor Authority. A local trade union confederation expressed concern that Slovenian authorities issued temporary work permits for its nationals to work in other EU countries based on false pretenses and without adequately monitoring the posted employees or checking for potential violations. The trade union confederation urged the government to adopt measures to prevent and combat such violations. Common examples of such exploitation included pay discrepancies between local and posted Slovenian workers and companies neglecting to pay social security contributions or grant paid holidays and sick leave.

Special commissions under the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities set occupational health and safety standards for workers that are appropriate for the main industries in the country. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in this situation. Workers facing hazardous working conditions included professional divers, mountain rescuers, sailors, construction workers, and miners. Workers facing exploitative working conditions included those employed in construction, the transport sector, the wood industry, and exotic dancers.

The law requires employers to protect workers injured on the job. If incapacitated, such workers may perform other work corresponding to their abilities, obtain part-time work, and receive occupational rehabilitation and wage compensation.

The Ministry of Labor, Family, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities monitors labor practices and has inspection authority; police are responsible for investigating violations of the law. According to NGOs and advocacy groups, authorities enforced the laws effectively, except in some cases involving migrant workers and asylum seekers who faced conditions of exploitation. The International Labor Organization’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) observed that conflicts between laws governing inspection could lead to uncertainty regarding whether inspectors have a right of access to work sites. The law requires employers to make social security payments for all workers. The Free Legal Aid Society reported that employers of migrant workers usually did not deduct social security from paychecks, leaving those workers without a future pension or access to social services. The number of inspectors was insufficient to monitor potential labor contract, occupation safety, and health violations; the CEACR and NGOs reported an urgent need to increase the number of inspectors to keep up with the workload. Labor inspectors carried out labor contract and occupational safety and health inspections, found violations, and issued penalties. In both fields the majority of violations took place in the wood-processing industry, the metal industry, construction, and bars and restaurants.

There were no major industrial accidents during the year in which workers were injured.