Main features of industrial relations examined

The Bulgarian industrial relations system has developed rapidly since the end of communist rule in 1989. This article outlines the development and situation as of 2003 of: trade unions; employers' organisations; social partnership; collective bargaining; and employee participation.

This article provides a brief overview of the industrial relations system that has emerged in Bulgaria since the period of economic and political transition began in 1989.

Trade unions

Unions under the communist regime

Over the period of communist rule between 1948 and 1989, the Bulgarian trade union movement changed its official title several times – from Common Trade Union (1948-51), to Central Council of Trade Unions (1951-7), Central Council of Bulgarian Trade Unions (1957) and finally Bulgarian Trade Unions (BTU) - but the principles of mass participation, communist party loyalty, obligatory membership and centralised control remained constant. Bulgarian unions were similar to those in the Soviet Union, acting as a 'transmission belt' for the policy of the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) and totalitarian state ideas. They gave priority to production and economic functions (acting as an 'assistant', rather than an opponent or partner of management), while the basic protective functions of trade unionism were reduced to a minimum.

A first major task of trade unions during this period was to ensure employees’ participation in the ruling party's various economic programmes - the five-year plan, the 'workers’ control' movement, the 'socialist competition' movement, the 'communist labour' movement, the 'rationalisation and innovation' movement, the 'scientific-technical progress' movement etc. The unions' second task was to take part in plant and factory councils, health and safety councils, economic councils etc. Third, they had an educational role, by organising trade union schools and training courses and spreading economic knowledge. Last, but not least, they managed recreation for their members through a system of recreational centres and sanatoria.

Though having almost 100% membership (with 4 million members) and financial independence, and regardless of various alterations in their goals and objectives (such as the introduction of a 'principle of delegation' and a right of trade union organisations to autonomy), the influence of trade unions, and workers' confidence in them, had largely fallen away by the late 1980s. Months before the fall of the communist regime in spring 1989, the chair of BTU proposed a project - entitled 'Guidelines for further reorganisation'– for approved by the central committee of the BCP. The proposal was for unions to be independent, organised on a voluntary basis, and oriented towards labour representation, living standards and social security. The idea of reorganisation proposed was close to the 'perestroika' approach of the late 1980s in the Soviet Union, which was taken up by the Zhivkov regime in Bulgaria, but remained far behind revolutionary change of the Polish 'Solidarity' type (PL0208105F).

Reinstating pluralism and free trade unions

After the democratic changes in the central and eastern European countries in 1989, trade unions were among the first organisations to undergo rapid change and they became one of the main driving force of the process of change. Their role in this process was quite prominent in Bulgaria.

At present, the trade union movement is made up of two large confederations recognised as representative at national level and several smaller trade unions which are not recognised as representative. The two main confederations are:

  • the Confederation of Labour Podkrepa (Support), which was established in 1989 before Bulgaria's socio-political changes as a semi-legal opposition organisation. Its initial purpose was to protect employees’ civil rights and especially the rights of the country's Turkish minority. Nowadays, the confederation is Bulgaria's second-largest trade union structure. Podkrepa is a voluntary union built on the principles of the free confederation of trade union organisations established at regional level (of which there are 34) and national sectoral level (of which there are 24). The president of Podkrepa since its foundation has been Konstantin Trenchev; and
  • the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB). At the end of 1989, BTU undertook a radical reorganisation in the direction of organisational and political independence, making the protection of employees’ interests its main objective. In February 1990, an extraordinary congress of BTU developed into the constituent congress of CITUB. Since then, CITUB has made considerable progress, managing to transform itself, strengthen its positions and win recognition as the largest trade union organization in the country with a special place and role. Nowadays it has about 400,000 members, organised in nearly 7,000 organisations which are members of 35 branch federations. The president of CITUB since 1997 has been Jeliazhko Hristov

Both CITUB and Podkrepa are members of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy's 1998 census: CITUB had 607,883 members; Podkrepa 154,894 members; Promyana (Change) 7,802 members; the Community of Bulgarian Free Trade unions (OSSOB) 4,011 members; the Association of the Democratic Trade Unions (ADS) 2,098 members; the General Central of the Branch Trade Unions in Bulgaria (GCBSB) 357 members; the Independent Trade Union (NPS) 118 members; and Edinstvo 113 members.

The establishment of trade union pluralism in Bulgaria is seen as having contributed to the recognition of unions' key place in the process of reforms, especially in the years of preparing and initiating tripartite cooperation and collective bargaining (see below). A policy of support for reforms at an acceptable 'social price' and a new consensual culture of labour relations based on social dialogue also, in the view of commentators, strengthened the unions' prestige and made it possible for them to play a leading role in the creation of Bulgaria's new system of industrial relations.

Employers' organisations

There are currently four employers’ organisations in Bulgaria that are recognised as representative at national level:

  • the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA). The membership of BIA is made up of more than 14,000 industrial, trade and service companies from the private, public, cooperative and municipal sectors, as well as banks, universities, economic and scientific bodies, insurance and leasing companies, pension and health insurance funds and other organisations and establishments. BIA incorporates 27 regional organisations, corresponding to the administrative divisions of Bulgaria, and 58 branch/sector organisations (known as 'chambers') representing all sectors of the Bulgarian economy. BIA is a member of Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe (UNICE), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) and the World Environment Center (WEC). Its president is Bojidar Danev;
  • the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI). BCCI has 42,888 members and 70 sectoral organisations. It is a member of ICC, Eurochambres, the Association of the Balkan Chambers of Commerce, the Association of the Black Sea Zone Chambers of Commerce and Industry, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) Business Council, the International Council on Cooperation of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Economic Chambers of CIS Countries, Baltic, Eastern and Central Europe Countries, the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA), and the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI). Its president is Bozhidar Bozhnov;
  • the Union of Private Bulgarian Entrepreneurs Vazrazhdane (UPBE). UPBE was established in December 1989. It has local (based on municipalities) and sector/branch organisations and is a member of the World Association for Small and Middle Enterprises (WASME) and the European Confederation of Associations of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CEA-PME). The chair of UPBE's managing council is Dobromir Gushterov; and
  • the Union for Private Economic Enterprise (UPEE). Established in December 1989, UPEE has almost 4,000 member companies and 50 regional and branch offices. In 1996, it was recognised as a member of IOE through the Association of the Organisations of Bulgarian Employers. Since 1993, UPEE has been a member of the European Council for Small Business (ECSB), and since 1994 a member of the International Council for Small Business (ICSB). The chair of UPEE's managing council is is Borislav Borisov.

Social partnership

The main body for national-level social partnership is the National Council for Tripartite Partnership (NCTP), established in 1993, which has standing commissions on a number of issues. The NCTP is a body for cooperation and consultation over labour, social security and living standards issues. It includes representatives of the government and of the trade union and employers' organisations recognised as representative at national level

During the past few years, the range of the social partnership has been broadened. New mechanisms have developed, such as: participation of the social partners in the work of parliament through a special commission; and the establishment of special working groups on the preparation of new labour and social laws, involving the social partners in preparing legislation and in the EU accession process. The social partners are also involved in the management and monitoring of numerous institutions with a tripartite structure.

Collective bargaining

The Bulgarian system of collective bargaining is organised on three levels:

  • at branch/sector level, 'branch councils for social cooperation', made up of the representative branch/sector employers' and trade union organisations, conduct bargaining;
  • at municipal level, 'municipal councils for social cooperation' provide the forum for negotiations between unions and representatives of the municipal authorities on activities falling within the latter's area of budgetary responsibility (education, healthcare, culture and administration); and
  • at enterprise/company level, joint trade union bargaining delegations and individual employers participate in negotiations within 'joint commissions for social partnership'.

In 2002, collective bargaining and the conclusion of collective agreements entered a new stage of development, brought about by amendments and supplements to the Labour Code which came into force in 2001. These changes were the result of 10 years' experience of collective bargaining and of the need to harmonise Bulgarian labour and social laws with those in the EU. Very important changes made to collective bargaining procedures included the following:

  • the introduction of a clear definition of the levels of collective bargaining – enterprise, branch, sector and municipality;
  • the creation of legislative provisions related to branch and sector collective bargaining. A new procedure provides for the extension of agreements' provisions to all enterprises in the branch/sector concerned, similar to the practice which exists in many EU Member States (TN0212102S);
  • the introduction of a new option, whereby the parameters for branch/sector bargaining may be determined by a framework agreement between national trade union and employer organisations; and
  • a stipulation that, if not otherwise specified, collective agreements have a duration of at least one year but not longer than two years.

As a result of the more intensive social dialogue and negotiations in 2002, a number of new sector and branch collective agreements were concluded by representatives of trade union and employers' organisations. For example, eight new agreements were signed at sector level and 32 at branch level, while 12 agreements were signed at the level of national agencies and companies.

After lengthy negotiations, representative trade union and employers' organisations have drawn up a national framework agreement on sector- and branch-level collective bargaining procedures and mechanisms. However, a number of employers' organisations have refused to sign it.

Employee participation

Bulgaria still has no legislation or practice on the establishment of work councils. During the past few years, there have been several pilot projects on this issue, but the results have not been evaluated yet. The 1997 Health and Safety Working Conditions Law makes it obligatory to establish working conditions committees, or working conditions groups in small enterprises. The representatives of employees in these bodies are elected by a general assembly of employees. According to the Labour Code, trade union organisations have information and consultation rights on: the collective bargaining process; changes in the employment situation; collective redundancies; and the extension and allocation of working hours.

Commentary

In the transitional period, the Bulgarian industrial relations system underwent considerable development. Social partnership is now well institutionalised, but it ebbs and flows and depends largely on the attitude of the government of the time. In recent years, the established mechanisms of social partnership have not been used effectively in achieving a balance between the social and economic dimension of reforms and ensuring that these reforms occur at a bearable cost. A formal attitude to social dialogue has become more visible, with a number of laws amended so as to restrict the involvement of the social partners. A tendency to limit the scope of the work of the National Council for Tripartite Partnership, replacing cooperation with consultations, has continued. Despite the adoption of laws in this area, there has been a delay in the establishment of structures and mechanisms characteristic of the social dialogue in the EU, such as an Economic and Social Council. These developments are in conflict with EU standards promoting the role of social dialogue. (Nadezhda Daskalova, Institute for Social and Trade Union Research)

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