Trade unions call for working time reductions

In September 2003, during a meeting between the Bulgarian social partners and Minister of Labour and Social Policy, trade unions launched a demand for a gradual reduction of the duration of normal weekly working time from 40 to 35 hours. The initial response of all employers’ organisations was negative, while the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy does not want to intervene, preferring to leave debate on the issue to the social partners.

In early September 2003, during the first meeting of representative trade unions and employers' organisations with the new Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Hristina Hristova, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) - the country's largest trade union organisation (BG0307204F) - demanded a gradual reduction of the duration of working time from 40 to 35 hours a week.

Trade union arguments

The proposal from CITUB, supported by the second largest union organisation, Confederation of Labour Podkrepa (Support) (CLP), is to reduce gradually the normal working week from the current maximum of 40 hours to 35 hours over several years. According to the unions, this should be implemented through a special framework law, providing tax and social security incentives for employers that reduce the working week while at the same time creating new jobs to fill the time freed. This cut in working time should not result in a reduction in pay, with workers continuing to receive their current wages for a 40-hour week. In support of their idea, the unions point to the results of studies they have conducted which suggest that reduction of the working day by one hour would not reduce productivity. According to CITUB, the main causes of low levels of productivity in companies are: poor facilities and lack of investments in their improvement; poor management, causing bad work organisation; and poor levels of qualification among workers.

Trade unions insist that reduction of working time should not cause a cut in pay. They claim that Eurostat data show that, over the period 1992-2001, the average labour productivity of Bulgarian companies grew by around 48%, while real pay, net of taxes and social insurance, fell by 38%. At the same time, they point out that for the last five or six years there has been a continuous growth in GDP in Bulgaria. According to the unions, their proposed approach to working time reduction will have several positive effects:

  • hourly pay will increase;
  • there will be less use of overtime work;
  • new jobs will be created; and
  • the use of flexible employment forms will increase.

Employers' opposition

Employers' organisations oppose the trade unions' proposal, which they regard as premature and likely to endanger the competitiveness of Bulgarian enterprises. The combination of the obsolete equipment and technologies that they use with a reduction of working time would place most businesses in a 'vicious circle', which would deprive them of funds for new investments. According to the main employers’ association, the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA), the current situation forces companies to use larger quantities of labour. It believes that a reduction of the working week would mean Bulgaria lagging even further behind the productivity levels of current EU Member States.

Another reason why Bulgarian employers refuse to accept working time reductions is that over the coming years, by the time Bulgaria joins the EU (planned for 2007), they will face major expenditure in order to improve working conditions, comply with EU environmental requirements etc. These costs cannot be avoided by producers that wish to be competitive on the EU market. If working time reductions occur during this period, this will further hinder employers in making the necessary investments. The employers also reject the unions' arguments on hourly pay increases and job creation, and state that 'labour intensity' in Bulgarian companies lags behind EU levels.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Policy (MLSP) has insisted that debate over possible working time reductions be held between the employers and trade unions, and for the time being is reluctant to assume the role of arbitrator.

Commentary

The need for an accelerated increase in the hourly pay of Bulgarian workers is emphasised by trade unions as one of the main reasons for their proposal on working time cuts. The unions have been encouraged in their initiative by the practice in several EU Member States - mainly Germany and the Netherlands - while the employers have stressed what they regard as the negative experience of France in support of their opposition to working time reduction. Even though the debate is at an early stage, the discussions so far have highlighted a number of points:

  • although the trade unions are the initiators of the idea, they have made no specific proposal for a timetable for the proposed working time reduction;
  • the unions have not supported their proposal with a broad survey of employees’ attitude to the idea;
  • the impact of the proposed working time reduction should be assessed, not only on large and medium-sized enterprises but also on micro-enterprises, which are most likely to breach maximum working time restrictions; and
  • the employers' automatic resistance to a working time cut is not backed up by consistent efforts to introduce a better organisation of working time. A significant proportion of Bulgarian businesses seek to increase efficiency by expanding working hours (most frequently through overtime work), and not by introducing new technologies.

(Nelly Stonova, Balkan Institute for Labour and Social Policy)

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