Valentin Nikiforov

SOFIA, Bulgaria (WOMENSENEWS)–Six days a week Bogdana stands alongside seven other women making sandwiches for a small catering company in a lower-middle class neighborhood here in this overcrowded capital city where grey Soviet-era block apartment buildings overshadow architectural gems from the Roman and Ottoman empires.

Every sandwich she makes is written down and she must prepare at least 250 sandwiches per eight-hour shift to earn her 200 leva (about $126) monthly salary.

The company’s two dozen employees–all women except for the manager and one truck driver–are allowed no sick days. There is neither heating nor cooling in the one-room preparation area. Workers are expected to work as much overtime as necessary to complete orders without extra pay.

“The salary is only enough for one thing: either to pay the bills or fill the fridge, not both,” says Bogdana, who doesn’t want her last name used for fear of losing her job. “Every month employees have a meeting with the manager to get our schedules and every month we complain about conditions, but for the last year there has been no change.”

Yet the 37-year-old single mother of two teens wouldn’t dream of quitting. Bogdana, a high school graduate, previously worked as a cleaning lady and inside a shoe factory glue department, but the catering company is located in walking distance to her home and there are no chemicals on site.

“You have financial responsibilities that don’t go away if you can’t find work,” says Bogdana. “There just aren’t very many choices for jobs so you have to take what you can get.”

Two Sisters Died in Shoe Factory

Working conditions in Bulgaria catapulted to front page news in January when two sisters, Pavlina Lyubenova and Raina Yoncheva, collapsed and died within 11 days of each other at an Italian-owned shoe-making factory, Euroshoes, outside the capital.

Neither sister had previously exhibited any symptoms of illness and preliminary results indicated 37-year-old Lyubenova died of heart failure while her 49-year-old sister Yoncheva suffered a brain hemorrhage. Investigations are still underway, but Bulgarian officials lost little time in publicly denouncing conditions at the Euroshoes factory, operated by Rome-based Linea Moda.

Women all across the Bulgarian work force are being exposed to harsh–and in some cases deadly–working conditions for extremely meager salaries in this Balkan nation of 7.4 million, according to reports from Human Rights Watch, the European Union and the Bulgarian media. Bogdana’s monthly wage of $120, for example, falls far short of Bulgaria’s national median income of $200 a month, and big-city wages can creep up toward $450 a month, still low enough to attract foreign investors.

In 2005, Bulgaria’s National Labor Inspectorate reported 200,000 workplace violations in 35,000 Bulgarian and foreign companies, mainly in the construction, clothing and food industries where women outnumber men 9-to-1.

Labor rights campaigners hope Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union, tentatively scheduled for January 2007, will push the government to step up enforcement and review of workplace safety legislation.

“I try not to think about what awaits my children when they grow up if things don’t change,” Bogdana says. “Instead I keep telling myself the situation has to get better, it has to.”

Women in Labor Force

During the country’s Soviet years from 1944 to 1989, Bulgarian women were heavily represented in the workplace, making up half of the country’s entire work force.

Today, amid spreading poverty, rising prices and rampant unemployment–as high as 40 percent in some Bulgarian towns and hovering around 15 percent nationwide–not working is simply not an option for Bulgarian women who can mange to find a job. The country estimates its work force at 3.3 million, with female workers numbering around 1.5 million.

“The government is working on improvements, but, there is quite a bit of work to be done,” admits Totyu Mladenov, director of the National Labor Inspectorate. “Both employees and employers are largely ignorant of legal requirements and controls for safety conditions are not enforced . . . All this needs to change.”

To align itself more with EU directives, Bulgaria has passed some labor reform measures over the last couple of years. The reforms include outlawing sexual discrimination in the hiring of workers and guaranteeing more flexible working hours and unpaid parental leave. A law that took effect Jan 1, 2004, provides legal definitions of sexual harassment, unequal treatment and non-sexual harassment and established a commission to monitor implementation and compliance.

Critics, however, believe implementation of these reform laws is a pipe dream because economic problems combined with corruption and greed have led to a culture of impunity where companies have little impetus to respect the legal rights of desperate workers, such as Bogdana.

“You have cities and towns where the huge Soviet-era socialist factories employed the whole population yet no longer exist,” says Valentin Nikiforov, deputy leader of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria. “People are desperate for work, for money to survive, so they will work under any conditions and live in fear of losing their jobs if they complain too much.”

Some industries, such as information technology, are thriving in Bulgaria’s cities. But the post-Soviet economy, as a whole, has been struggling since 1996 when a hyperinflationary period caused prices to skyrocket to 311 percent and the local currency–the lev–lost virtually all its value.

100 Complaints a Day

Nikiforov says a hotline operated by his organization since 1998 for employees’ anonymous work-related complaints receives an average of 100 calls a day.

Critics say fines associated with violations–between $160 and $640–are too light.

“Pocket change, that’s what it is,” says Nikiforov, the trade union leader. “Even if a company posts 10 violations in a year, it just pays the small fines and continues the practices that caused the penalties in the first place.”

The labor confederation has been pushing government officials to improve enforcement of existing laws, more than double the minimum penalty amounts, and criminalize repeat offenses. The confederation also places advertisements in local media, prepares a bi-annual black book naming the worst offending companies and sends letters to the governments of foreign companies doing business in Bulgaria advocating for better working conditions.

Earlier this week, the Parliament’s social affairs committee voted to consider further amendments to the Labor Code that would increase workplace safety penalties to a minimum of $937 and maximum of $3,125.

Over 300,000 Bulgarians are working in conditions that present an imminent personal threat, primarily in textile and footwear factories where women constitute 90 percent of employees, according to a recently completed countrywide survey of large factories by Nikiforov’s group. The goods are predominantly headed for markets in the EU and the United States.

Tens of thousands more face long-term threats to their health from extensive exposure to chemicals, heavy lifting, sub-standard equipment and lack of safety regulation enforcement, according to the report.

“The abuse constitutes an epidemic,” says Nikiforov.

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.

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For more information:

Open Society Institute–
Equal Opportunities for Women and Men:

Research on Garment Industry Subcontracting Chains in Nine Countries

“Why Unemployment Remains so High in Central and Eastern Europe”

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