Health and safety under debate

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Late 2004 saw renewed discussion among the Bulgarian social partners of health and safety regulations, in the light of requirements to comply with EU law in this area. The key issues include the current system of compensation for workers with hazardous working conditions, and incentives for employers to invest in improving health and safety.

Bulgaria's Health and Safety Law (HSL) came into force on 1 January 1998, representing the first stage of a reform of labour and social insurance legislation undertaken by the government of the time. This law sought to complete transposition of the EU 'framework' health and safety Directive (89/391/EEC) and to transpose the Directives on minimum requirements for: the provision of health and/or safety signs at work (92/58/EEC); the manual handling of loads (90/269/EEC); and safety and health at the workplace (89/654/EEC). The next year saw implementation of the requirements of the EU Directives concerning the minimum safety and health requirements for the use of work equipment by workers at work (89/655/EEC) and work with display screen equipment (90/270/EEC). Bulgaria also started implementing a national strategy for providing health and safety at work. The reform of health and safety legislation was launched on the basis of consensus among the social partners.

In late 2004, in the midst of public anticipation about setting the final date for signing Bulgaria's EU accession treaty, there was a new round of discussions regarding the application of EU health and safety standards. Several employers’ associations presented estimates about the costs businesses would face in order to implement the requirements of the HSL, and there is a consensus that most Bulgarian firms will have difficulties to fulfil in the near future the requirements of new legislation on working conditions.

Discussion on health and safety, and the legislation on the issue, has continued since the new law was adopted in 1997. Issues that are currently topical include:

  • the necessary investments for improving working conditions in Bulgaria, based on the EU standards;
  • compensation for workers with hazardous working conditions (BG0411101N);
  • a lack of measures encouraging employers to improve working conditions; and
  • the condition of enterprises' internal rules on labour safety.

The present discussion focuses on the cost of harmonising the Bulgarian health and safety legislation with EU norms and disputes about the time necessary for companies to comply with the requirements of the HSL. Monitoring conducted by the Executive Agency General Labour Inspectorate (EA GLI) up until the end of 2003 found that the major health and safety problem for employers was compliance with the HSL provisions, especially in terms of technology. The 1998 law stipulated a 'period of grace' for companies to comply with its provisions. The deadline was 27 December 2003, when representative employers' organisations and the Minister of Labour signed an agreement on the expiry of the period of grace.

In 2003, some employers’ associations, such as the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) (BG0310103F) called for an extension of the deadline. On 3 September, BCCI requested an extension of the period for two or three more years. Its main argument was that about 85% of companies in Bulgaria did not yet meet the HSL's requirements. Representatives of EA GLI put pressure on the employers, systematically emphasising that the issue of working conditions should not be perceived merely as 'making investments that do not lead to direct profits. It is of significant importance to comply with the risk assessment requirements and adopt a programme to minimise such risk, provide services through labour medicine units, [and ensure] good functioning of the committees and groups on working conditions'. EA GLI also emphasised that, while performing its control activities, it will 'rely to a maximum extent to the views and opinions of the trade union organisations in the enterprises and at the same time use all capabilities of the bipartite principle to manage the health and safety at work activities introduced by the HSL in enterprises'.

Key issues

A conference was held on 18 October 2004 in Sofia to discuss compensation for hazardous working conditions, attended by Bulgarian and international participants. Bulgarian law provides for a system of financial compensation for workers who have hazardous or unhealthy working conditions. The first official forum at which this issue had been discussed was a workshop organised with the support of the European Commission on 12 September 2000. Comparing the views expressed during discussions at these two events indicates neither significant change in the opinions of the partners, nor any major progress in resolving the situation.

In 2000, it became clear that the harmonisation of Bulgarian legislation with EU norms prevents employers from gaining an 'indulgence' for poor working conditions by paying compensation to the workers involved. On the other hand, the social partners are aware that such compensation has for a long time formed an integral part of these workers' wages. At that time, the government's main concern was only to repeal the compensation system without decreasing workers' income. The trade unions (BG0307204F) were extremely sceptical towards the repeal of compensation, arguing that the technological condition of Bulgarian enterprises does not allow for the fast and radical improvement of working conditions and that it will be the workers who have to make sacrifices. The employers’ view, expressed by the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA), focused on the inability to improve working conditions rapidly in those industries paying the most compensation - mining, metalworking and chemicals.

BIA started a four-year dialogue in which the employers tried to convince the government to implement the HSL and its tax breaks for companies taking action to improve health and safety. Over 2000-4, governments did nothing to comply with this requirement of the HSL. After it became clear that there would be no zero rate for businesses' health and safety investments, the Union for Private Economic Enterprise (UPEE) made several formal proposals for the introduction of a zero tax rate for at least some costs incurred in improving working conditions. All such proposals were rejected. Employers still pay tax on the interest on their loans taken out for this purpose. BCCI’s view is similar to that of UPEE. In a September 2003 letter to the Minister of Labour, it requested an extension of the deadline for implementation of the HSL, and the introduction of a system of measures including, first of all: 'stimuli for the employers that have created conditions with a low rate of labour injuries, by letting them pay lower workplace accident insurance contributions; introducing other economic incentives related to limiting workplace injuries, concerning for example the customs duties, fees and VAT on goods imported to provide health and safety at work'.

According to the Bulgarian Union of Private Entrepreneurs Vuzrazdane (BUPE Vuzrazdane) there is a paradox: on the one hand is a certain job complies with the health and safety legislation, the employer cannot be penalised; and on the other, according to the legislation, the employers should pay in addition to the wage an allowance for bad working conditions. According to BUPE Vuzrazdane, the regulations concerning health and safety should be updated as soon as possible and many of them should be repealed after Bulgaria joins the EU. There was also a brief proposal concerning the regulations on reduced working hours, which should 'be reviewed, updated or replaced with new ones'.

The discussion on the repeal of compensation for hazardous working conditions and incentives for investments in health and safety has followed the same path since 1998. At the end of 2004, the BCCI’s view on the compensation issue was entirely in the spirit of that upheld by BIA at the forum in September 2000. With regard to the EU requirement that Bulgaria repeal the system of compensation, BCCI told participants at the conference in October 2004 that such compensation is in contradiction not only with European practice but also with the requirements of the HSL. The compensation 'legalises' work under hazardous conditions and demotivates employers to take measures to improve working conditions, including preventive measures. However, with a view to protecting the life, health and working capacity of people, and given the extremely slow and expensive process of improving working conditions in the enterprises, BCCI is of the opinion that a general approach to the problem would be irrelevant. BCCI proposes establishing a group of social partner representatives to examine the possibility of gradual repeal of compensation, while using an individual approach in enterprises.

Trade unions have pointed to the fact that some countries that have already joined the EU still provide for the payment of similar compensation in various forms. At the conference in October 2004, Victor Kempa of the Brussels-based European Trade Union Technical Bureau for Health and Safety (TUTB) presented in detail the various benefits for work in hazardous and dangerous conditions that exist in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania. He underlined that reduced working hours, additional annual leave, and extra payments and food for work in hazardous and dangerous conditions and night work are still a practice in the new EU Member States. Trade union leaders maintain the position that 'the repeal of payments for work in hazardous and dangerous conditions may only occur when the working conditions are not dangerous for the health and life of workers'.

The views of the employers represented by BIA have not changed either, with this organisation stating that 'it is possible to transform these compensations when forming wages'.

Commentary

Significant success was achieved in the field of health and safety in the period 1998-2004. For example, with the help of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and with good cooperation among the social partners a methodology was approved for the differentiation of social insurance contributions to the Labour Accident and Occupational Disease Fund. Even though there were some critical remarks about it - especially from BUPE Vuzrazdane, which insisted on adopting a 'bonus-malus' principle - the social partners and government succeeded in finalising the introduction of differentiated contributions to the public social insurance scheme for accidents at work.

As far as the issues discussed above are concerned, the problems cannot be solved in a radical manner. The Labour Inspectorate's control bodies understand the sensitivity of the issue and prefer to penalise a lack of action in areas that do not require major investments and to be relatively tolerant to problems related to large investments.

The core of the new legislation that regulates the health and safety at work issues - the HSL - was drafted and adopted in 1997 on the basis of consensus among the social partners. The parties involved in the reform of this legislation clearly did not realise all the difficulties they would face. The role of the government, which still delays the fulfilment of its obligations under the HSL, has been problematic. Conscientious employers meet obstacles when attempting to improve working conditions, while unscrupulous employers find a reason to claim that their hands are tied.

Debate on the issue of compensation for hazardous work is still in the sphere of the general declarations, similar to the opinion expressed at the conference on October 2004 that 'the transformation of the compensation for hazardous and dangerous working conditions will create conditions and mechanisms for guaranteeing the present income of employees and its future growth'.

Some employers’ associations, such as UPEE and to some extend BUPE Vuzrazdane, are inclined to sign with the trade unions a 'gentlemen’s agreement' that the compensation for dangerous work will be negotiated only within the process of collective bargaining at sector and company level. Although the Labour Code does not provide for a national collective agreement of this sort, it does not prohibit it either. A representative of UPEE have even suggested discussing the possibility of signing a specific national collective agreement on compensation for hazardous conditions and length-of-service allowances. The Employers Association of Bulgaria (BG0412102F) is receptive to a 'gentlemen’s agreement' on the compensation issue, but does not want it to be linked to sector-level collective agreements.

The leaders of representative trade union organisations remain highly sceptical towards such suggestions. The issue of working conditions and the application of the legislation on this issue remains one of the most difficult points for the social dialogue in Bulgaria. (Teodor Detchev, vice-president of UPEE)

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