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A new RLS-sponsored handbook helps workers in Bulgaria better understand and utilize their rights

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Author

Philip Burov,

Vanya Grigorova presents A Guide to Workplace Protection to a group of workers in Gotse Delchev, Bulgaria. Photo: Philip Burov

Vanya Grigorova is a Bulgarian economist, trade unionist, and civil activist. She is also an economic advisor to one of the two major trade union confederations in the country, Podkrepa, and chairperson of the Solidary Bulgaria Association. She has written extensively on the impact of international financial institutions on Bulgaria’s socio-economic development, the effects of free trade agreements, the consequences of deregulating public services, the effectiveness of extraordinary economic measures during the COVID-19 crisis, and more. In 2019, a committee of workers nominated her to be an independent candidate for the European Parliament, campaigning on the slogan “People Before Profits”. She is also the driving force behind a series of initiatives and discussions to promote progressive policies, including measures to achieve tax justice and fight poverty.

Philip Burov is a journalist with Baricada specializing in international relations, conflict, macroeconomics, and finance. He is also working on a doctoral dissertation on issues of modern Bulgarian history.

Her latest project is a handbook on workers’ rights titled A Guide to Workplace Protection: Concrete Cases, Rights, and Unionization, published by the Collective for Social Interventions (KOI) with support from the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade. Though not the first handbook of its kind, Grigorova’s received considerable attention and seems to have made at least a small impact in the country. Together with activists from KOI and support from the Bulgarian left-wing portal Baricada, the author toured the country to present the handbook to its target audience: workers and labour organizers. One of the eight stops on the tour was Gotse Delchev, a relatively small town in the mountainous southwestern part of the country, which, however, is of great importance for Bulgaria’s garment industry as well as its trade union movement.

A Tradition of Struggle

In the summer of 2007, shortly before the global economic boom gave way to financial crisis and recession, workers at the Pirin Tex garment factory in Gotse Delchev staged a strike that remains one of the most impressive examples of organized labour action and workers’ solidarity in recent decades. About two-thirds of the company’s 2,400 employees went on strike for nearly a month, forcing the company’s owner, German investor Bertram Rollmann, to comply with a significant portion of their demands—most notably a collective bargaining agreement, a more dignified basic salary, overtime allowances, guaranteed vacations, and holidays.

Today, as the shadow of the next economic crisis hangs over Bulgaria and the world, some of the problems in Pirin Tex are the same: low pay, unbearable norms, a humiliating attitude and pressure from the owner who, like 13 years ago, threatens to close the factory and move his business elsewhere. However, other things have changed—the factory has less than half the employees it did back then, and although some of the organizers of the 2007 uprising are among them, it seems that there is not enough energy and confidence to repeat the struggle they pulled off last time. As a result, Rollmann refused to hold negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, although he is required by law to do so.

Some of these workers, as well as employees in other companies and services in Gotse Delchev, were among those present at the presentation of Vanya Grigorova’s Guide to Workplace Protection. She appealed to attendees to keep fighting: “I hear that in Pirin Tex many people are already leaving, many people are refusing to fight. Some workers say: I’m about to retire, now I will keep quiet here until retirement. But one thing must be known—your earnings from your last working year are very important in determining the amount of your pension. If your income is low in the last year, you will receive a low pension—that’s the formula. And this will be for the rest of your life—there is no way to correct it or compensate for it, unless at age 70 you start working again to somehow survive. And this after you have already worked for 40 years, so that you can reach retirement at all!”

According to her, the alternative is for the company’s employees to do what they did 13 years ago: “In Pirin Tex there were people who were not afraid, who went on strike, they fought to the last man and achieved a lot. Until a few years ago, Mr. Rollmann, the so-called ‘foreign investor’, did not refuse negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Now is the time when the workers need to come together, collect the necessary signatures, and block his business. Because when you burn a hole in his pocket, when he can’t complete his orders, then he will realize that he can’t continue to break the law. He can’t continue to neglect the demands and needs of workers. You are a key part of this process. The workers are as important as the machines”, she explained.

The Importance of Knowing Your Rights

A Guide to Workplace Protection, which was presented to groups of workers in cities and towns across Bulgaria, aims to provide clear information to workers about their basic rights and how they can use existing mechanisms to uphold them. Grigorova stressed the importance of people checking how much they lose from the widespread practice of insuring workers at lower amounts than their actual salary. “By continuing to agree to your social security rights being violated in this way, you are losing unemployment, maternity benefits, and sick pay, and getting lower pensions”, she explained.

Grigorova drew attention to Bulgaria’s National Revenue Agency data, according to which 58 percent of workers are not insured in line with their full salaries. “This is not a problem—this is a tragedy, because these 58 percent of Bulgarian workers, after finishing their working lives, will become some of the poorest retirees in Europe and probably in the world. They will not receive a normal pension, and some of them will not receive any pension, except possibly a social one, which is lower than the minimum”, she warned.

The trade unionist also reminded workers that it is in their interests to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer their accounts from private pension funds to the National Social Security Institute, which is currently allowed until up to five years before reaching retirement age. “We have been repeating for years that two pensions turn out to be less than one, as the state pension is reduced by the percentage of the contribution to the private fund. It is assumed that the private fund will supplement the pension to its full amount and even add something, but in practice this cannot happen due to the low return on investment of the funds.” She pointed out that during the 2008 crisis the funds lost 20 percent of their value. Before this decline could be compensated, the next crisis befell us. She recommended that anyone interested in the topic look into the work of Bulgarian finance professor Lyubomir Hristov.

She pointed out that the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates how hollow the mantras repeated for decades—namely that everything state-owned is bad and must be transferred over to market principles—really are. “The private sector, which constantly tells us that the state is bad, immediately went to the Council of Ministers to ask for money from the state budget. But if you don’t give, why should you be allowed to take?”

“We unions have also called for the rescue of private companies during the crisis so that they can retain their workers until they start operating again. However, their responsibility should at least be not to redistribute dividends and bonuses at the end of the year if they receive help. But when we proposed this idea to the ministers, they said ‘we have to think about that, first let’s save the companies’.” She drew attention to a newly published analysis of the effect of the government’s widely publicized “60 to 40” measures, which showed that there were many gaps and mistakes in the business support package adopted by the authorities—including ones related to the special treatment of businessmen and economic entities.

“The state only helped some of the employers, including those who could afford to pay salaries—an example of this is Mr. Domuschiev [a pro-government businessowner and head of a prominent business association]. After taking some money from ‘60 to 40’ and an ensuing public outcry, he said he did not need it and would donate it to the local community. This constitutes charity at our expense, while he donates our money to run a public relations campaign. Another example is a company in Sofia that produces gambling equipment. It is one of the wealthiest in the country, but still took that money instead of it going to companies that really can’t sustain jobs. The state was open-handed to some of the businesses but was like Uncle Scrooge to the vast majority of businesses and workers. This is something that should not have happened, especially in such a difficult situation.”

Another conclusion from the analysis of “60 to 40” is that one of the sectors with the most serious increase in unemployment is what the government calls “humanitarian health and social work”. “This includes doctors, nurses, and social workers—those who were crucial during the state of emergency. Those who have been working for years for almost minimum wages. Those who work without the necessary gloves, disinfectant, and medications. They are unable to fulfil their obligations”, Grigorova said, adding that in order to save some money, the Bulgarian state puts public health at risk.

…And Defending Them

Grigorova stressed that the current collective bargaining agreement in the health sector expires very soon, and due to the lack of organization among medical workers, in many places they do not receive even the minimum wage provided for in it. “But even at this moment, they do not gather and do not go on strike. There are more specific requirements in healthcare that must be met, but a strike can also be held there. And when they are left without doctors and nurses—but before these doctors and nurses have left Bulgaria, because this is their alternative—then they will remember to increase their salary by, say, 200 Bulgarian leva.”

Grigorova stressed that even after the coronavirus crisis is over, workers in Bulgaria will face the same problems if they do not begin actively defending their rights and interests. “We often think that if a saviour comes—a very good president, a very good prime minister—then we will flourish. It will not happen. When people have power, whether alone or under pressure from circles around them, they begin to make compromises that they would otherwise not make. If there is no one to correct this behaviour, they will simply continue to pursue policies that are not in the interests of the majority. The same goes for the workplace. There are things that force bosses, foremen, etc. to behave unlike workers, to behave like bosses. Therefore, there must be pressure from below for the opposite behaviour… If there is no one on the street, nothing will happen in the workers’ favour. If there are no people organizing in the factories, then the employer will never grant additional funds to the workers or reduce their working hours, nor start paying them a bonus for time served, or insurance matching their real wages. This is the normal struggle between capital and labour. The employer will never increase these costs at the expense of his profits. The point is to strike a balance so that both are satisfied. If there are not enough people who realize that they are really partners of the employer, not slaves, if there is no one to bang on the table and say: ‘No, we will not work this way’, and if there are not enough people to stand by them, then the employer can do whatever he wants.”

The trade unionist strongly emphasized the urgent need for organized resistance against planned changes to Bulgaria’s Labour Code, which will double the allowed overtime work and summary calculation of working hours. According to her, if the changes go through, the already drastic violations of overtime restrictions in the country will only increase, and the consequences could be fatal, as can be seen from the cases of accidents caused by overworked lorry drivers. Workers present at the meeting pointed to the lack of legal mechanisms for setting production norms. Some of them shared personal experiences of working in Germany, where the same job is not only paid much higher, but the workload is far more bearable.

Vanya Grigorova commented that this is just one of the aspects in which Bulgarian labour legislation differs from European standards. Another painful example is that, in Bulgaria, the summed calculation of working hours—i.e., the period in which overtime is worked but not paid as such—must be compensated by working less hours in the next six months, although a European directive limits the period to a maximum of four months. According to information the unions received from the government, the planned amendments to the Labour Code provide for nominal compliance with the directive, but will also contain exceptions that would allow for an extension of up to 12 months.

Fighting for a Better Tomorrow, Today

Grigorova closed her presentation by arguing that any new government must commit to adopting a proper strike law, which does not really exist at the moment. The current rules mandate collecting signatures from 50 percent of employees and other difficult requirements, which is why often even when workers at a company gather the courage to go on strike, it turns out to be illegal and they are punished by their employer. “Without easing these requirements, there can be no strikes at individual workplaces or sectoral strikes, let alone a national strike. But they must take place, because a number of key issues are not resolved at companies—what will the minimum wage be, what will the pension system be, not to mention insurance”, she remarked.

“Even for purely selfish reasons, we must fight for the rights of others. If there is no workers’ solidarity, there will be no civil solidarity. There is no one to be angry with if we do not want to fight for our rights ourselves… You do not have the opportunity to strike, but you have the right to protest. I know how difficult it is, but there is no one to replace the people in the squares. People need to understand that they are the ones driving the processes. They are the ones who, if they fight, can gain many things. The moment you tell an employer ‘there's already a union of 50 people here’, he freezes. The point is to make them hear us, not to be afraid and try to outwit us. They need to understand that without us there is no GDP, no profit, no yachts and limousines. If we have the opportunity to go on strike, to close the enterprises, and for all of us to take to central Sofia—then we’ll see if they refuse to comply. They are extremely afraid of you, you know. They are very afraid of you, there just need to be many of you”, Grigorova concluded.

Looking back on the tour, the activists of KOI, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s main project partner in Bulgaria, feel confident that the project was a success. Soon the group will be publishing a second print run of the Guide to Workplace Protection, as demand among trade unionists remains high. Looking forward, KOI plans to continue to focus on issues related to workers’ rights. Next year the group will conduct ethnographic research with essential workers on working conditions in the wake of the pandemic. It will also deepen its engagement with Podkrepa to help workers solve day-to-day problems and injustices at the workplace by offering free legal counselling online. In an attempt to reach a wider audience, KOI will also produce a series of videos to popularize the policy analysis and proposals it has already published on topics such as social welfare, progressive tax reform, and the benefits of unionization.