Cross-border project aims to protect rights of migrant workers

Around two in ten EU immigrants working in Cyprus are Bulgarian. The results of the first ever survey of the working conditions of the country’s Bulgarian employees has revealed that a significant number are in low-paid jobs and they do not always have the conditions promised in their employment contracts. In 2013, workers’ organisations launched a project to improve cooperation between trade unions in defending the labour rights of Bulgarians working in Cyprus.

Study of immigrant workers' problems

More than 18.5% of legal EU immigrants in Cyprus are Bulgarians. In 2013, workers’ organisations launched the ‘Information Bridge – Bulgaria-Cyprus’ project, part of the Cooperation Framework Agreement concluded in February 2012 by the two trade union confederations, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (KNSB/CITUB) and the Cyprus Workers’ Confederation (SEC).

The aim is to defend the labour rights of Bulgarians working in Cyprus by improving cooperation between unions. The project establishes an ‘Information Bridge’ between unions so that they can share best practice, increase the awareness of Bulgarian workers about Cypriot labour legislation, train consultants and set up information bureaus in both Cyprus and Bulgaria.

At the end of September 2013, the Institute for Social and Trade Union Research at KNSB/CITUB and SEC carried out a study of the problems Bulgarian workers face in Cyprus, the first of its kind. It also examined the attitude of employers in Cyprus towards foreign workers, especially towards Bulgarians.

In December, representatives from the two confederations met to discuss the study’s results. The public presentation of the results, on 14 January 2014 in Sofia, was attended by representatives from the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Labour Inspectorate (GLIEA), the National Social Security Institute (NOI) and by journalists.

Results of the survey

The main survey results are split into two sections. The first covers the problems of Bulgarian workers in Cyprus, and the second details the views and opinions of Cypriot employers about the productivity of Bulgarian immigrants.

The survey sample included 228 employed and unemployed Bulgarian citizens from the towns of Cyprus-Nicosia, Limassol and Larnaca.

Problems of Bulgarian workers

The study’s authors reached the following conclusions.

  • The parameters agreed in individual contracts do not always correspond to reality. There is evidence of violations of working conditions: increases in working time are not regulated; overtime work is not properly compensated; work on holidays and official days is paid at the standard rate. More pronounced are violations of labour and social security legislation in small and micro companies, where there is widespread practice of grey employment.
  • A significant proportion of Bulgarian workers are in low-paid jobs. There is therefore scope for Bulgarian citizens to earn wages close to the minimum for the observed sectors.
  • Unionisation is shown to be an important tool to achieve better working conditions and to protect the rights and interests of Bulgarian workers. Irregular payment of salaries is more frequent among those who are not members of trade union (30.5%) than those who are (10.3%). Extension of working hours is a problem shared by nearly half of those who aren’t union members (49.5%) compared to 29.6% of union members.

Employers’ views

The main results from face-to-face interviews with managers employing immigrants were presented by Evangelos Evangelou, the SEC’s Trade Union School Officer.

Managers describe Bulgarian workers as being loyal, reliable and skilled in their work. They meet the expectations of their employers and are able to progress into and occupy high positions, now and in the future. The consensus is that, in general, Bulgarian workers do not create problems or conflicts.

The economic crisis in Cyprus has adversely affected Bulgarian migrants and in most cases has led to reduction in salaries and benefits, and in some cases job losses.

Government reaction

The Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Iankova Rosica, has said that freedom of movement and work is a basic right of every EU citizen. The law also guarantees EU workers equality of conditions and equal access to the social systems of the country they are working in. She said that the Information Bridge project represented good practice and could be used as a model for further joint work with trade unions in other countries.

Union concerns

KNSB/CITUB President Plamen Dimitrov expressed concern about growing unemployment in Cyprus (17%), which enhances the feeling of job insecurity for labour migrants. About 10% of Bulgarian citizens who have worked in Cyprus are returning to Bulgaria or have gone to other European countries.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and the unions believe there are also signs that Bulgarian citizens are being exploited by some employers who do not follow the regulations that govern payment, social security contributions and working hours.

This project is an attempt to find an effective way to protect the labour rights of Bulgarian citizens working in Cyprus.

Karydis Christakis, Director of the SEC’s Economic Department, said his confederation had appointed a Bulgarian expert to liaise with Bulgarian trade union members working in Cyprus. He said that union membership was one way to mitigate their social exclusion. The challenge, he added, was to find a way of protecting vulnerable workers in the informal sector, which is dominated by labour migrants whose rights cannot be defended successfully by local unions.

Commentary

The next task for the ‘Information Bridge – Bulgaria-Cyprus’ project is to open an Information Bureau in Cyprus for Bulgarian workers. It will give them information on existing labour legislation and regulations that could improve their pay and working conditions. It will offer leaflets more detailed written information about Cyprus’s labour and social security legislation and basic advice on what to do if their workers and social security rights are violated.

Violeta Ivanova, ISTUR

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