Bulgaria: New union for homeworkers
A new trade union aims to improve the pay, employment rights and access to social security benefits of homeworkers, most of whom are women. The driving force behind its creation is the Association of Homeworkers in Bulgaria, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that strives to address the problems and challenges faced by this vulnerable group.
The new Trade Union of Self-employed and Informal Workers was created in July 2014. The main driving force behind the formation of this independent organisation was the Association of Homeworkers in Bulgaria, which seeks to address the problems of this category of employees such as low wages, job insecurity and low quality of work in general. It also aims to help them out of the grey or informal economy.
According to data collected by the association, homeworkers in Bulgaria are highly vulnerable if they are unemployed because they do not benefit from the social security system.
The new trade union will work to:
- protect the rights of homeworkers;
- encourage them to contribute to the welfare system;
- improve the quality of work;
- collect statistical data about these workers;
- cooperate with the state institutions to improve the relevant legislation.
Homeworking and the grey economy
Homework is regulated under changes to the Labour Code made in 2011 (in Bulgarian) that deal with activities of distance and homework. There are no official statistical data on this type of work in Bulgaria. The Association of Homeworkers is making efforts to collect such information through surveys.
According to a 2012 survey carried out by the association, among 525 homeworkers in 10 regions, 78% are women, 53% are 35–55 years-old and 15% are of retirement age (in Bulgarian). Only 8% of homeworkers have formal labour contracts (in Bulgarian).
Only 2.8% of homeworkers have social insurance, according to the survey data. The remaining 97.2% have no pension and health insurance. The usual working time is 12 hours a day without days off. There is no special working place – homeworkers operate mostly in their kitchen. In more than 80% of cases, all the family members work. The wage rate of homework is below or around the national minimum wage (BGN 340 or €173 for 2014). Such income does not allow homeworkers to act as entrepreneurs and thus they should not be treated by the state as self-employed.
Violeta Zlateva, President of the Association of Homeworkers and Chair of the new union, claims the low wages are the main reason homeworkers are not contributing to and benefiting from the social insurance system:
We are forced to turn to private pension funds, which offer the self-employed lower packages for health and retirement benefits, to enable these people to receive a pension so that they are able to buy medicines and obtain healthcare.
According to survey data from the association, 450,000 Bulgarians in 2014 were self-employed and informal homeworkers, most of whom (92%) were part of the grey economy. Until 2007, 70% of homeworkers were employed by companies to produce goods at home, but because of the economic crisis many have lost their employment contracts and have been forced to become self-employed.
New union seeks new social dialogue
The Association of Homeworkers in Bulgaria is an NGO and publicises a wide variety of information about the challenges faced by homeworkers. Violeta Zlateva says the association has international importance 'as it is the only organisation created completely voluntarily by its coordinators'. The association was first registered in 2002 after two years of research among homeworkers in southwest and northeast Bulgaria. The initial idea was to operate as a commercial organisation selling the goods made by homeworkers. Speaking about the association's history, Violeta Zlateva said:
At that time, many foreign companies began to exploit homeworkers who needed someone to protect their interests and thus the NGO was born.
The association has 12 regional coordination centres throughout the country. In 2014, it had about 50,000 members.
Aims and tasks of new trade union
The initial commercial objectives of the Association of Homeworkers were not enough to solve homeworkers' problems. Violeta Zlateva said the decision was eventually reached that solutions could only be found by an effective trade union. The representation of informal workers began when the Association of Homeworkers became an associate member of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) in 2012. In July 2014, at its founding congress, the Trade Union for Self-employed and Informal Workers was registered as an independent social partner. Its aims include:
- active mediation in the process of job creation between home and informal workers and the state authorities and employers;
- legislative improvements and the integration of this kind of employment into the National Employment Plan;
- taking this category of workers out of the informal economy through their registration, taxation, organisation and representation, legal and social protection and financial support.
The trade union will work to extend state protection for informal workers. One of its main achievements so far has been its work with the Petrich municipality in southwest Bulgaria and employers in the locality to link businesses and homeworkers. A union representative participates in the municipal Tripartite Council meetings and, following several of these meetings, the employers have signed labour contracts with homeworkers.
The new trade union, with its origins as a commercial organisation and an NGO, is adding value to social dialogue in Bulgaria. Its ambitious goals, its lengthy experience with the informal sector and its active involvement at international level all provide a sound basis for its aim of representing informal workers and homeworkers and addressing their problems.