Bulgaria: Latest developments in working life Q1 2019
The European Commission’s latest country report on Bulgaria, proposed amendments to the Labour Code and protests by nurses over pay and working conditions are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Bulgaria in the first quarter of 2019.
European Commission presents Bulgaria report
Bulgaria has been included in the list of countries where macroeconomic imbalances are observed. The country’s performance in relation to the indicators of the European Pillar of Social Rights is also still poor.
In the framework of the European Semester exercise, the European Commission presented the main results of the Bulgarian country report on 28 March. This took the form of two panel discussions attended by representatives of the government, trade unions, employer organisations and other non-government organisations. Although the panellists agreed that the national report was objective, a disagreement arose over some of the Commission’s positions. According to Zornitsa Rusinova, Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Policy, the government is prioritising labour market entry over improving the social assistance system. Vanja Grigorova, an economic adviser from the Confederation of Labour Podkrepa, pointed out that pay rises are not the greatest and most significant factor contributing to the decline of the Bulgarian economy’s competitiveness. Nikola Zikatanov, Vice-Chairman of the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association, believes that the Commission should take the poor performance of the National Healthcare System into consideration before recommending that its structures receive higher levels of funding.
The Executive Committee of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB) adopted an official position on the Commission’s country report. CITUB accepts the Commission’s assessments of the economic situation in the country, but highlights that the report does not promote closer connections between the observed rapid economic growth, strong fiscal governance and better tax collection, and the improvement of the relevant social indicators.
Social partners disagree on Labour Code changes
A tripartite working group at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy was set up at the beginning of 2019 in order to present and discuss amendments to the Labour Code.  In order to achieve greater flexibility within the changing labour market context, the employer organisations submitted the following proposals:
- an increase in the maximum permissible overtime per year (from 150 hours to 300 hours per year)
- the adoption of zero-hours contracts
- the abolition of additional pay based on length of service (seniority pay)
- the inclusion of more options for employers that wish to unilaterally terminate contracts
- the inclusion of a rule that an employee is only entitled to unemployment benefits when their contract has been unilaterally terminated by their employer
The trade unions refused to negotiate the adoption of zero-hours contracts. According to Biser Petkov, Minister of Labour and Social Policy, the discussion on these contracts will continue after the adoption of the Directive on transparent and predictable working conditions. 
The trade unions’ proposals with regard to employment relations included the following:
- the abolition of overtime work within the 40-hour working week
- the provision of stricter protection against dismissals
- the abolition of the rule allowing employers to pay 60% of labour remunerations when they encounter financial difficulties
- the restoration of additional pay based on length of service (seniority pay) within the government administration
A national survey by the AFIS Agency for Social & Marketing Surveys, conducted between 9 and 15 March 2019, revealed public opinion regarding three of the proposed Labour Code amendments: 
- The abolition of additional pay based on length of service was accepted by 10% of respondents, while 76% rejected it and 14% held no opinion on the issue.
- The adoption of zero-hours contracts was supported by 28% of respondents, while 55% opposed it and 17% had no opinion.
- The increase in the maximum permissible overtime per year was approved by 27% of respondents, while 54% opposed it and 19% expressed no opinion.
The survey’s authors announced that opposition to the three Labour Code amendments was distributed comparatively equally between respondents from different localities, age groups, ethnicities and occupations. However, employers and tenant farmers were more likely to accept the aforementioned amendments.
Nurses protest over wages and working conditions
A new collective agreement for the healthcare sector  was concluded in November 2018 and entered into force from 1 January 2019. According to the agreement, the minimum wage for nurses is set at BGN 900 (€460 as at 24 March 2019). However, there are still many hospitals that cannot apply the agreement and its remuneration provisions due to insufficient funding and the absence of wage-setting mechanisms.
On 1 March, nurses organised protests across the country against low wages, poor working conditions and increased workloads. Minister of Health Kiril Ananiev met with the protestors and promised to assess the financial performance of municipal and regional hospitals, to allocate an additional BGN 30 million (€15.3 million) to the hospitals, and to develop a uniform mechanism for setting wages.
Despite this, protests are still ongoing. The nurses are insisting on a basic salary level that equals twice the national minimum wage (the national minimum wage is set at BGN 560 or €286 in 2019). Their protests are supported by medical auxiliaries, rehabilitation therapists and physiotherapists.