Norwegian and Bulgarian trade unions cooperate for better health and safety at work

In late 2009, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria held training seminars for employee representatives in working conditions committees in the transport, metalworking and healthcare sectors. The seminars were part of a joint project with the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. The project aims to strengthen social dialogue and capacity building of employee representatives in working conditions committees in six pilot sectors.

Background

In May 2009, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (Конфедерация на независимите синдикати в България, CITUB) and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) began the first ever joint two-year project ‘Health, safety and environment in the workplace’. It is supported by a grant from Norway through the Norwegian Cooperation Programme. Partners to the project include the:

  • Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (Министерство на труда и социалната политика, MLSP);
  • Bulgarian General Labour Inspectorate Executive Agency (Изпълнителна Агенция Главна инспекция по труда, GLI-EA);
  • Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (Институт за социални и синдикални изследвания, ISTUR) in Bulgaria;
  • Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research (Fafo Institutt for arbeidslivs- og velferdsforskning, Fafo) in Norway.

Main objectives of joint project

The project aims to strengthen and develop the capacity of working conditions committees in organisations and enterprises. In so doing, it should contribute to the enhancement of social dialogue in the workplace. The expected results include:

  • innovative measures for the improvement and monitoring of working conditions, based on the exchange of good practice with Norwegian trade unions and the establishment of a network of working conditions committees in six pilot branches of economic activity;
  • a contribution to the effective implementation of the Law on health and safety at work in Bulgaria.

Launch of project

First meetings of partners

In June 2009, an LO delegation – led by its President Roar Flåthen – visited Bulgaria and had meetings with the leadership of the trade union federations in the six pilot sectors. The delegation also visited some Bulgarian companies. Anne Lise Rognlidalen from the Sofia office of Innovation Norway, which administers the Norwegian Cooperation Programme, also attended the meetings. In August, the Bulgarian delegation – comprising trade union officials from the first three pilot branches of economic activity – participated in a study visit to Norway and met with representatives of trade unions, employers, the labour inspectorate and research institutes. The delegation also visited the brewery Ringnes and the construction services company PEAB. Meanwhile, a special project website was launched.

Training seminars in first three pilot sectors

Between mid November and late December 2009, CITUB held three training seminars in the transport, metalworking and healthcare sectors, following a common programme. The seminars were attended by more than 80 employee health and safety representatives in working conditions committees. The Project Director in Bulgaria, Yuliya Simeonova, chaired the opening sessions and presented the main activities planned in the framework of the project. President of CITUB, Zheliasko Hristov, welcomed the participants and underlined the significance of the project for the development and strengthening of cooperation with Norwegian trade unions and for the improvement of social dialogue through capacity building of employee health and safety representatives. Mr Hristov expressed his confidence that the project would help to face the challenges of promoting employees’ rights to safe and healthy workplaces, and would help to deepen the links between social dialogue and working conditions in Bulgarian companies.

The LO representatives who attended the seminars presented the Norwegian model of health, safety and environment, as well as the experience of health and safety representation in the sectoral branches participating in the project. Thus, at the first seminar, Øyvind Rognevær presented the general framework of health, safety and environment in Norway, while the National Secretary of the Norwegian Transport Workers’ Union (Norsk Transportarbiderforbund, NTF), Geir Kvam, presented health and safety issues and practices in the transport sector. LO Project Coordinator, Hans Øyvind Nilsen, and representatives Andre Nerheim and Torgny Hasås also participated in the discussions. Ms Rognlidalen from Innovation Norway presented the programme and expressed the Norwegian government’s expectation of a successful project implementation, which should support the Bulgarian-Norwegian partnership for sustainable development and social cohesion in the country.

At the metalworking seminar, Kjell Erik Bogen of the Norwegian United Federation of Trade Unions (Fellesforbundet), affiliated to LO, presented the Norwegian system of health, safety and environment, as well as the specific experience of health and safety representatives in metalworking.

In addition, Signe Hananger of the LO-affiliated Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (Fagforbundet) gave a presentation on the practice of employee representation in healthcare. She advised the participants to use a step by step approach in health and safety improvements, which proved to be a successful strategy in Norway. Ms Hananger described the experience of the social partners in healthcare in Norway in introducing the European social partners’ framework agreement on the prevention of injuries from sharp objects (59Kb PDF); this agreement is to be introduced in Bulgarian health establishments.

At the seminar, representatives of the participating branch federations outlined their specific activities in the field, some good practices and the challenges that working conditions committees face, especially during the current economic crisis.

Survey findings

At all three seminars, researchers from ISTUR presented key findings from the survey ‘Health and safety committees and groups: Composition, activities and problems’, which was carried out in the transport (277Kb PDF), metalworking and healthcare sectors in September and October 2009. The survey covered a wide range of topics, including:

  • the establishment, composition, mandate and activities of the working conditions committee;
  • an assessment of the employer’s occupational safety and health (OSH) policy;
  • the main occupational hazards at the workplace;
  • the conditions provided by the employer for the rights, functions and activities of the working conditions committee;
  • the main obstacles and supporting factors;
  • a profile of the employee representation.

The results outline some deficiencies in the work of OHS committees and the main areas for improvement, including the need for training, information and the exchange of good practices and institutional support. Among the principal difficulties that the worker representatives face are that both the employees and the employer underestimate the scale of the working conditions committee’s activity, as well as a lack of time and resources.

The most important factors contributing to the improvement of the working conditions committee’s activity would be the provision of as much training as possible, overcoming the formal nature of the committee’s activity, better implementation and enforcement of the legislation and better opportunities for voicing the workers’ interests.

Despite such deficiencies, the respondents emphasised the significant effect that these bodies have, especially with regard to quickly resolving problems related to OSH issues and improving working conditions. Moreover, the committees reduce the number of disputes related to OSH, ensure better compliance of employers’ policy with the legislation and enable better observation of workers’ labour rights.

Discussions and lessons learnt

The participants in the training seminars underlined the relevance of the implementation of this project. The need for training and exchange of experience in different areas of health and safety was clearly expressed. Furthermore, the establishment of a network of working conditions committees is also strongly supported by the survey participants and the branch trade union leadership. Such a network is an opportunity for awareness raising and for expanding knowledge and skills. Ultimately, it should increase the efficiency of the employee representatives in the working conditions committee and improve working conditions in the companies. The project is expected to add value in the field of health and safety at work for the employees and employers, and for the national economy as a whole.

The presentations and discussions at the seminars showed the striking differences between the two countries. Disparities were found not only in economic, technological and social areas, but also in the development of social dialogue and the efficiency of employee representation and participation at the workplace. The participants highlighted the comprehensive and well-functioning system of industrial relations in Norwegian companies based on cooperation and shared responsibilities of trade unions and employers, which guarantees the protection of worker rights as well as a stable and predictable environment for the companies. Those attending the seminars also emphasised the importance of Norwegian expertise for improving social dialogue on OSH issues in Bulgarian companies and especially for the activities of the working conditions committees. The participants agreed that improved activity of worker health and safety representatives is more important than ever in times of economic crisis, when Bulgarian employers are trying to cut costs on health and safety.

Commentary

The Norwegian and Bulgarian partners will jointly implement all further activities planned in the framework of the project, including a comparative analysis of legislation and social dialogue in the OSH field, the development of sectoral action plans and training materials, the dissemination of activities and the establishment of the working conditions committee network. The Norwegian experience will contribute to enhanced social dialogue and better functioning of the health and safety committees in Bulgarian enterprises. Implementation of the project will also generate increased cooperation and links between LO and CITUB and their branch affiliates.

Nadezhda Daskalova, Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR)

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