Organising Home-Based Workers in Bulgaria – Dave Spooner (2013)

Organising Home-Based Workers in Bulgaria
The Home-Based Workers’ Association in Bulgaria has built an impressive national organisation, winning substantial gains for home-based workers, and is beginning to assist the development of home-based workers’ organisation throughout South-East Europe.
There is a great deal of interest to know how the Bulgarian home-based workers achieved this, especially as it is apparently financially self-reliant, and built from the bottom up by the voluntary effort of its members. In particular, the national and regional HomeNets in Asia were very interested to know more about how the Association is organised, how they undertake collective bargaining, and how they relate to the Bulgarian trade union movement.
A subsequent programme of meetings and conversations was undertaken against a dramatic back-drop of political upheaval in Bulgaria. In early February 2013, sudden electricity price rises provoked a national wave of popular protest, which quickly grew into a broader uprising against growing poverty, unemployment, and political corruption. The protests took place largely independently of traditional political parties and (for the first few weeks, at least) the trade union federations. Led from the streets and social media, it found its voice through a broad coalition of civil society groups. It was in effect a revolt against the entire Bulgarian political class.
As soon as the protests started, the Association called meetings in each province to discuss what should be done, and it was agreed to issue an open letter in support. The demonstrations were supported by the local Associations and their allies. Many home-based workers had been among the first to join the protests on the streets.
Home-Based Work in Bulgaria
There are an estimated 500,000 home-based workers in Bulgaria , both own-account and industrial outworkers.
Own-account workers are self-employed home-based workers who do not hire others but may have unpaid family members working with them. In Bulgaria, these include many thousands of mostly women workers, providing services (hairdressing, private tuition, translation, IT etc) or making a variety of products for sale in markets, by street vendors, or in shops – some operated by the Association (see below).
Many of the own-account workers supply the tourist market, and Bulgarians looking for goods produced using traditional Bulgarian craft skills – embroidery, wood-carving, iconography, macramé, martenitsi etc.
Many also have factory-based jobs, or work as migrant workers – particularly in agriculture in Spain or Italy. In the Pleven province, for example, 40,000 people, some 30-40% of the working population, work seasonally in Italy and Spain every year – mostly in agriculture and construction. There is a custom of taking souvenirs with them every summer when they leave Bulgaria, which is a good market for the home-based workers’ products. The membership figures for the local Association fluctuate with the seasons, as home-based workers come and go from abroad. One of the Association’s most successful artists – a tapestry weaver – when the writer was in Bulgaria was at the time working as a cleaner in a Greek tennis club, for example.
Industrial outworkers (“homeworkers” as defined by the ILO) are those home-based workers who carry out paid work for firms/businesses or their intermediaries, usually on a piece-rate basis. In Bulgaria, the work typically includes hand-stitched shoes, beadwork and embroidery, packing spare buttons in plastic bags that are provided with new suits, packing sets of socks, producing laminated paper bags for retailers, sewing buttons onto cuffs etc.
The pay is extraordinarily low. The women sewing buttons onto shirt cuffs, for example, earn BGN 20 (US$13.00) for every 400 pieces. A team of five workers make 10,000 laminated bags per week – folding and gluing laminated printed sheets provided by an employer’s agent (other homeworkers add the string to the bags). They earn BGN 10 (US$6.50) for every 300 bags produced, plus BGN 2 contribution to the workers’ health insurance (administered by the Association).
Many home-based workers do both own-account and out-sourced work, often on a seasonal basis. Out-sourced workers in winter are often own-account workers in the summer, particularly as agricultural small-holders or in small-scale market gardening.
The Association
The Home-Based Workers’ Association in Bulgaria, formed in 2002, has 35,000 members – defined to be all those who have paid a membership fee at some point. There are 8,000 members who pay on a regular basis. It has members in 22 of Bulgaria’s 28 provinces, and in 56 of the 264 municipalities – including many groups in villages within the municipalities. It is particularly well organised in the south-west and north-east of the country, and less developed in the towns and cities of the Black Sea coast.
In 1999-2000 Violeta Zlateva, the current National Coordinator was employed by a Clean Clothes Campaign project to undertake a survey of factory garment workers in south-west and north-east Bulgaria. In interviews with garment workers, she learned that in winter, many of the factory workers worked at home, and that many companies out-sourced to home-based workers. In Petrich, a local representative of the Podkrepa trade union federation knew some of these workers, and introduced them to Violeta.
The workers explained that cars deliver semi-completed garment pieces, and then they are paid in cash for completed work – totally informally. Violeta then began to explore other forms of home-based work in the local Petrich economy, and was introduced to Rozalina Ivanova, then (as now) producing laminated paper bags for a Greek company. At the time, there were 3,500 home-based workers making these paper bags in Petrich (by 2013, this had reduced to 1,200, after the employer switched production to a town with a predominantly Muslim population where the Association finds it very difficult to organise the workers).
Violeta questioned why these workers were not organised. The Podkrepa official explained that the national centre had decided not to attempt to organise home-based workers, as a matter of policy. So Violeta decided to do it herself.
Violeta subsequently met Jane Tate, from the UK-based NGO Homeworkers Worldwide (HWW) , who showed a lot of interest in research and mapping of home-based workers in Bulgaria. Violeta agreed to be involved – but as a first step in organising, rather than simply a research exercise. The “Association for Development and Spiritual Renewal”, a Bulgarian NGO with links to HWW, channelled US$ 90,000 of project funds into a mapping project in four areas – Ruse, Petrich, Sandanski, and Gotse Delcher. Each area hired paid coordinators.
Within two months, the Home-Based Workers’ Association was launched (April 2002). Within three months, each coordinator had organised groups of more than 50 women.
In Pleven in 2002. Svetla Ilieva, now the Associations’s local coordinator for that area, came across a big article about home-based workers and an interview with Violeta and Rozalina – with their contact phone numbers. She phoned to ask whether she could form a local group, and was immediately invited to a meeting on the Black Sea. Two days later she returned to Pleven and started meetings every Saturday in her own home. Previously the owner of a number of small businesses (bars and restaurants), Svetla has been working solely for the Association since 2008, surviving on a small pension, supplemented by puppet-making. The Ruse Association started as a loose social network of craft-workers and artists looking for outlets to sell their products. They started organising exhibitions, which in turn attracted others to join the group. They then became aware of the national Association, made contact, and joined.
According to Violeta, HWW became nervous at the speed and unplanned scale of organising, and thought that the coordinators were “getting ahead of themselves”, rather than concentrating only on the mapping exercise. In February 2003, the project was closed after one year, even though there was a further year to go.
Subsequently HWW, working directly with Rozalina, started working together with Australian donor funding to launch a local rival association in Petrich – ‘Kaloyan’ – which was invited to international meetings in Europe, Turkey and India, claiming to represent the Bulgarian movement, much to the anger of the national Association, until the HWW funds were switched elsewhere (reportedly to an NGO in Serbia).
The differences were not reconciled until 2010, when Kaloyan collectively re-joined the Home-Based Workers’ Association.
The Association is governed by the Annual General Assembly, composed of around 150 elected delegates: one delegate per 20 members. The Assembly elects a Board and National Coordinator for a five-year period, currently Violeta Zlateva. Between the meetings of the Annual General Assembly, there are generally quarterly meetings of a national Coordinators’ Council.
In each province the Association has voluntary elected committees and coordinators, elected every four years at Annual General Meetings. Every town and village group regularly reports to their respective provincial committees.
According to Violeta, all decision-making power rests with the local organisations. Each year, the local organisations send proposals for activity to the Coordinator. These are then integrated into a draft national plan, which is then sent back to the local groups for ratification or further proposed changes. During each year, the plan may be amended or extended locally, with the local groups informing the Coordinator of each change, or any other decisions taken.
All the policies and activities of the national Association are determined by local decision-making: the national leadership cannot sign a document or reach agreement with external organisations without the agreement of the local organisations. The Coordinators’ Council is in effect a federal structure and, says Violeta, the Coordinator has a “24-hour relationship” with local leaders.
Locally, Association activists generally meet monthly, or more frequently. In the town of Veliko Tarnovo for example, the activists meet once or twice per week, and there are monthly general meetings, attended by perhaps fifty members. The agenda for the meetings is typically dominated by discussion on how to increase sales at their shop, marketing ideas, plans for exhibitions, and sometimes the need to provide support to members in personal crisis. In Pleven they meet weekly by craft or occupation (meetings for embroiderers for example) with monthly general meetings.
Each local Coordinator is elected every three years, along with a treasurer, although the General Assembly has the power to change Coordinator at any time by a simple majority. If the Coordinator breaks national rules of the Association, s/he can be replaced by the national body. The treasurer is responsible for sending monthly financial reports to the National Coordinator.
So far, the democratic processes have been successfully maintained in all the provinces – with the exception of Ruse, where the National Coordinator had to intervene. The coordinator in Ruse was discovered to have been misusing the shop’s income and membership fees for her own benefit. The local group did not have the necessary organisational experience, and the treasurer was not effective in overseeing the finances. The coordinator was subsequently removed from her post. As a result, the Association introduced tighter rules, with members having more direct oversight over the accounts, and training provided for local treasurers.
The Association prides itself on financial self-reliance and transparency, based on membership fees. Each province has its own treasurer, who reports to provincial assemblies of the members. In 2012 the total income for the Association was approximately BGN 120,000 (US$ 75,000) including membership fees and shop income. All income from membership dues remains in the local organisations, and they are responsible for their own costs, including the costs of travel and accommodation to attend national meetings.
Membership fees are generally collected from house to house, as many home-based workers cannot afford to take time off work to attend frequent meetings. Each city has a meeting room, where members gather every three months or so, varying from local organisation to organisation. Between meetings, the local leaders are in frequent contact with the members, especially those facing problems.
The national Association receives some project income, ranging from US$ 15,000 to US$35,000 – primarily for their work in building a network of home-based workers’ organisations in the Balkan region and beyond in Eastern Europe. The Association also receives grants to assist employment opportunities for unemployed members, totalling around US$ 75,000 per year, providing about 25 temporary jobs.
Generally, members pay fees when they are in work, or earning. In Petrich and the surrounding area, for example, the Association is growing, and currently has more than 8,000 members. But at any given time, only approximately 4,000 pay the membership fee of 1% of the minimum wage, or BGN 1.00 (US$0.65) for pensioners, disabled workers or the unemployed, producing an income for the local Association of up to US$2,000 per month. From time to time, members voluntarily pay more, to support other members in financial difficulties.
In Velika Tarnovo, the Association has about 2,000 members, all of whom are own-account workers serving the tourist market for crafts and artefacts, of which 300 members regularly pay a monthly fee of BGN 3 (US$ 2.00). In effect, it works as a collective of artists and artisans, primarily for the tourist market through its own shop selling the members’ products – which also serves as the Association’s office and meeting place. (Veliko Tarnovo is a major tourist destination, famous as the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire). Emelia Ivanova, the local coordinator, estimates that 80% of the members depend on home-based work for their livelihoods, but few are able to make a decent living – these are the most active in the Association.
In Ruse, in the north-eastern part of the country on the River Danube border with Romania, the Association has around 1,000 members, although the numbers fluctuate, of whom 900 pay membership fees of about 1% of the minimum wage – about BGN 3 – with disabled members or pensioners paying less. They are all own-account workers, making a variety of products, including Martenitsi, hand-made lacework (based on a 16th Century Bulgarian technique), jewellery, woollen ponchos, and children’s clothes.
The Pleven Association has approximately 5,000 members, of whom 2,000 pay membership fees varying between BGN 0.5 and BGN 2 (US$ 0.33 and US$ 1.32) per month, which covers the costs of office rent and materials. The Pleven group used to get donations from local businesses – especially the cooperatives – but with the decline in industry, they now only receive donations in kind. Given the high unemployment, most of the donated goods are given to the Association’s members in greatest need. 60% of the members are own-account workers, and 40% out-source workers to Greek and Italian companies for bead-work or hand-finishing of garments and shoes. Out-source workers tend to turn towards own-account work when there is no out-sourcing available. Some of the members are involved purely as a hobby. The Association includes a small number of men working on their own account, producing wood carvings, paintings, decorative candles, glassware and so on.
Own-Account Workers: Markets, Trade & Traditional Skills
In common with most own-account workers around the world, the priorities for the own-account home-based workers in Bulgaria are to expand or find new markets for their products and services, and to improve their quality. The Association helps in several ways: providing shops in major urban areas for sales of home-based workers’ products directly to the consumer; exploring possibilities of trade within Bulgaria, and between Bulgaria and the wealthier markets of western Europe and elsewhere; organising national and international festivals to publicise and market their goods; and to promote and pass on traditional craft skills.
The Association’s Shops
The statutes of the Association do not permit commercial activity, so a company – the ‘Society for Development & Home-Based Production’ – was registered under commercial law to operate a network of shops selling goods produced by the Association’s ‘own-account’ members. The company is a limited liability partnership, owned collectively by the coordinators (including the National Coordinator), and is a member of one of the six nationally represented employers’ organisations, the Confederation of the Employers and Industrialists in Bulgaria (KRIB).
The Company earned BGN 36,000 (US$23,000) in 2011, but more since then as the number of shops has expanded. 80% of this income is paid to the workers, the remainder transferred to the Association. The workers supplying the shops have contracts, and pay social security contributions, tax etc. All the bookkeeping is done locally, then audited annually to the national centre. The National Coordinator receives the daily cash register records of all the Association’s shops, and all the receipts of membership fees.
The Ruse Association acquired a shop around 2010, but it was barely viable after paying rent, wages to a shop manager and other bills. In the winter, there was practically no income. More recently, a local businessman– a supporter and benefactor of the Association – gave them the use of a small three-story building, with a new shop on the ground floor. More than 70% of Association members, particularly the artists, depend on the shop to make an income, from which the shop takes 20% of the stated price towards the Association’s costs. Generally, incomes in Ruse are low – it was suggested to be an average of BGN 400 (US$ 250) per month, but home-based workers may have to survive on half that amount.
The Pleven Association has a well-located shop, for which they have to pay a rent of BGN 800 per month. It generates a monthly income of BGN 500-1,200 (US$ 300-800). In Veliko Tarnovo, the “Made By Two Hands” shop manager is paid, with support from an EU youth employment project. Everyone else working in the shop is a volunteer from the Association. The shop is rented, and it is difficult to financially break even, especially in the winter when there are very few tourists. In 2012, the shop had net sales income of about BGN 2,000 (US$ 1,320), but the rent alone was BGN 3,600 (US$ 2,376), so it relies on subsidy from the Association’s income from membership fees.
New Markets? New Products?
It is evident by visiting the shops that there is a very limited market for most of the goods produced by the own-account workers – mostly hand-made clothes, soft furnishings, children’s toys, handicrafts and art-work. Depending on the shop location, customers tend to be mostly Bulgarian or Greek tourists, or local consumers interested in folk traditional artisan skills. The quality is variable, and sometimes poor, yet the prices have to reflect the long hours of work by hand required to produce the goods, and are easily undercut by cheap imports – notably from China.
Some in the Association believe it is only a question of expanding or finding new local markets for the goods, through better located, well-managed and well publicised shops. Others ???
Recently, the Association has been setting up an “e-shop” to promote and sell their products. This is a new national initiative launched in January 2013, supported by an EU project, to develop a new web site enabling direct sales to consumers. The old site had received small orders from the UK for leather bracelets, and from Italy for knitted hats. If the new e-shop can generate large orders, the Association can distribute the work.
There is a major interest in finding new international markets for the home-based workers’ products, especially in the richer countries, and they have plans to establish permanent craft centres in Western Europe, perhaps “Made With Two Hands International”, and an interest to make contact with the Sabah network in South Asia.
The Provincial coordinators of the Association are undertaking local, national and international market research, enabling members to switch production to meet demand – this was to be a key theme in a regional conference to be held in Sofia later in 2013. The Association is keen to identify employers to engage in this process. At a national level, they are being assisted by the Sofia club of Zonta International, the US-based international NGO network of executives in business and the professions “advancing the status of women worldwide” .
There is however a consensus that it would be better to be out-sourced workers than own-account, or to somehow find a way of combining out-sourced work with traditional craft skills.
The Ruse mayor is campaigning for the city to be the 2019 European Capital for Culture, and is keen to develop joint projects with the Association, such as the festival.
Some of the Petrich members are own-account workers, particularly seasonal market garden work on small-holdings when out-sourced work is not available. The Association is attempting to form a cooperative to market fresh organic vegetables and to provide germinated seedlings . It started with ten members, and has grown to thirty-five, but they’re finding it difficult. Vegetable buyers attempt to split the cooperative, playing members off against one another for cheaper prices.
In Ruse, Mr Obreshkov, a local businessman, restaurant-owner and supporter of the Association was helping them look for a city-centre shop with 30-40 square metres of space to become “a centre for trans-border cooperation” with Romania. He was a Social Democrat, and met the Association through political and trade union connections – his mother was a home-based seamstress. He had helped the Association attract donors from local businesses, and organised more than 1,000 garment workers through cooperatives and self-help groups. He would have liked to develop a craft training centre, maintain the craft traditions, and was keen to explore the formation of a cooperative of beekeepers, to exploit lucrative markets for honey in the Middle East, and very interested in developing a small farmers cooperative capable of reaching international markets with organic produce. Sadly, Mr Obreshkov died in June 2013.
Traditional craft and culture
Some own-account members of the Association also teach craft skills. The Association works in a number of local schools, introducing children to traditional handicrafts. This brings in a small amount of income but, more importantly, builds the Association’s links with the local community. Thus home-based workers also work as teachers/ trainers in craft skills.
The Pleven Association cooperates with Kindergartens – demonstrating craft skills such as weaving and garment-making with young children to maintain cultural traditions. They are currently trying to raise money for a professional standard weaving loom. The Association also works closely with all the ‘cultural centres’ in the 120 villages in the province, demonstrating crafts (bread-making etc) at local fairs, festivals and public celebrations. These centres are remnants of the former regime – large meeting halls, social clubs and offices built in each village during the 1960s and 70s, now very neglected, but still playing an important function in village communities. The Association has representatives in every village, forming a province-wide network. There is a revival of folklore groups, traditional choirs, dancing, and rural folk festivals, which match the Association’s craft products very well, and provides a good market for sales at festivals. The resurgence of interest in dancing and the fashion for traditional dress at weddings fuel demand for traditional costumes made by Association members.
Quality Control
There is a common problem that faces many own-account workers in Bulgaria (and elsewhere): poor design of products, poor quality of work, and unrealistic pricing. Many of the goods produced are simply not good enough to be sold, despite the frequently long hours required to make them. Despite using traditional hand-craft methods, many of the products are indistinguishable from imported goods (from China and elsewhere) available in local markets at a fraction of the price.
The Petrich Association, which runs a shop provided by the Municipality in the local covered market, recognises that they cannot simply tell the workers that their products are not good enough. Instead, they have a rule – if an article on display in the shop is not sold within three months, it is withdrawn, and the worker is offered help and guidance from the Association’s ‘creative council’. In Ruse the Association elects an‘artistic council’, given the job of approving and ensuring quality control of products to be sold in the shop.
Out-sourced workers: Bargaining the Rate for the Job
The Association has an estimated 12,000 members working as out-sourced home-based workers, undertaking work in their own homes for companies, predominantly in garment and shoe sectors, but also in many other industries where labour-intensive work by hand is required as part of the production process. The Association’s out-sourced workers are most successfully organised in Petrich, a town in the south-west of Bulgaria, close to the borders with Greece and Macedonia, which has large numbers of homeworkers – both in the town itself, and in surrounding villages. The Petrich Association has built considerable skill and experience in collective bargaining with employers and agents to improve the livelihoods, respect and status of out-sourced workers.
The essential focus of the organising effort is simply directed at improving the rate of pay for the job. Out-sourced workers are almost all paid on a piece-rate. It is rare for the employer (often based overseas) to be directly involved in distributing the work to the homeworkers, determining the rate of pay or setting the deadlines for completion of orders. This is mostly done through agents, or local companies working on sub-contract. Foreign companies often open a small factory or workshop (directly, or indirectly through a Bulgarian-registered company) in Petrich, which is formally registered, accountable to Bulgarian law, and open to inspection. But they then contract the bulk of the work to homeworkers, which is invisible and unaccountable to the state.
Naturally, the agents and employers prefer that negotiations on price, if they are to take place at all, are held individually with the workers, or perhaps with each village. Like any trade union organising the workers into an effective negotiating group, the employers can be forced to improve terms and conditions of employment, but it is far from easy, and the nature of home-based work requires the Petrich Association to develop their own innovative means of establishing a system of collective bargaining.
When the workers first approach an employer – a local factory or trading company for example – there is no negotiation. The employer sets the price. The Association asks the members how much they are being paid, and if they realise that the price is low, they do some research, perhaps finding the comparative rates elsewhere. The Association then approaches the employer and requests a raise in the rate paid. This is (initially at least) very polite and with a “positive attitude” – it is essential to ensure that the members do not lose the work. If, as normally the case, the employer refuses to meet the Association, they will try three or four times – sometimes attempting to negotiate with armed security guards through the chain-link fence surrounding the factory.
If all fails, the Association organises a strike, carefully timed to coincide with a tight deadline for orders, or when a complicated order has to be completed. The Association always remains patient, not immediately getting into conflict, but waiting for the right moment to call a strike. If the employer subsequently agrees to increase the wages, the Association then ensures that the deadline for the order is met. In 2012, the Association organised five strikes – four of which were successful.
There have been many other cases where the Association has taken collective action. There have been a number of examples of Greek-owned unregistered garment sweatshops, whose owners have simply attempted to disappear without paying the workers. The Association has organised picket lines to prevent the owners removing the machinery.
The Association is now well prepared when new products or designs are ordered. For hand-stitched shoes, for example, they can work out precisely how much work is required, i.e. how many stitches are required per piece, and can negotiate a reasonable price.
The Petrich Coordinator, Rozalina Ivanova, described a current dispute with a Greek employer that had out-sourced the production of laminated carrier bags for retail chains. The Association managed to make direct contact with the Sofia-based contractor, cutting out the local agent, gaining a 40-50% better price for the workers, and access to health coverage. Rozalina was accused of “stealing my workers” by the agent and creating competition.
Obviously, this all makes the Association highly unpopular with some people. Rozalina frequently receives phone threats, and the livestock in her village have been attacked.
It is always very painful when they lose a strike. In some cases, particularly the larger companies, they can simply shift production to another town where the Association is unable to organise – for example, to the town 60km away, with a predominantly Muslim population, and where the women “don’t defend themselves”.
Recognition and support from the municipality
The Association in Petrich receives considerable assistance from the local municipality. The Mayor has known Rozalina for many years. He recognised the importance of Rozalina’s work with the home-based workers, and felt “obliged to help” as home-based work affects everyone – especially the women . The Association did most of the work in gaining the recognition of the employers, but the Municipality did much to help.
The Municipality asked the local Podkrepa officials to cooperate with the Association, and organised meetings between the homeworkers and local employers. One employer now has formal employment contracts with forty homeworkers.
Petrich is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else. If for example an employer delays payments to the workers, but refuses to meet the Association, the Mayor provides legitimacy, and vouches for the integrity and rights of the Association to represent the workers. The Mayor can call the employer to a meeting, and explain that the interests of the Association should be upheld and protected.
When employers refused to negotiate, they were sometimes able to get the Municipality to intervene. Now, they are able to go to the Municipality after the employer’s first refusal.
In 2012, the Petrich Municipality established a local tripartite council (unions, employers and local government) for economic and social cooperation. The council meets twice a year to discuss industrial relations, threats to the labour market, factory closures, new investment etc. The Association was included from the start – Rozalina is now a member of the local tripartite committee. Local union officials were resistant, and the Mayor had to insist that the Association was to be included. Maybe, he thinks, the unions were jealous of an organisation representing 8,000 workers.
The Mayor explains that he has learned much from the Association. He knew nothing about the laws affecting home-based workers, for example, until he started working with them. Now Petrich is frequently referred to in the media concerning home-based work, other municipalities contact him, and he passes on the contacts to the Association. At the close of the interview for this article, the Mayor offered to initiate a meeting between the national Home-Based Workers’ Association and the Director of the national association of local municipalities.
Nowhere else in Bulgaria has the Association yet built such negotiating strength for out-sourced workers. The Pleven Association attempts to collectively bargain with the agents and middlemen of the out-sourced work, but they claim that they have no power to improve the terms of their contracts, and it is normally very difficult to identify the real employer. Very rarely, the agents will approach the Association to provide labour.
Some of the workers have been working for the same employer for ten years or more, and in general, there is a fairly stable out-sourced workforce in Pleven. But there are several ‘semi-legal’ unregistered companies. The agents work from their cars or apartments, with lists of workers on their mobile phones, or advertisements in local papers and networks of friends and relatives. There are no labels, and no idea of where the products go.
If the Association is unable to negotiate better wages and conditions, why do the out-sourced workers join? From time to time, the Association receives orders for work, which can be distributed among the members. In addition, the Association can help sell their own-account products, provide some skills training, and provide a social function.
It would be good to have the CB written as a story – i.e. descriptions of the actual individual incidents/events. At the moment it is more general on what they do but not a specific case. Perhaps this is too difficult to record?
“Space and Patience” – Organising in Villages
“The fundamental principle is one of space and patience, never telling workers what to do, but listen, and provide advice and help when requested. We do not organise. We listen, we advise, we help, and then the workers want to join. We work to change consciousness: help yourself, by organising. It can be explained economically: by working together, you reduce costs and become more productive”. Rozalina Ivanova, Petrich Coordinator.
Many of the out-sourced workers in the Petrich Association live in the 58 local villages within the Petrich municipality.
A team of seven activists have responsibility for organising, each keeping contact with the home-based workers in a cluster of villages, visiting each village three or four times a month. They voluntarily collect membership fees, provide training and give support and help. Sometimes, when a particular village is facing a tight deadline, the order will be divided up with neighbouring villages. The Association operates as a self-help group – organising support for members facing ill-health, weddings, funerals, expensive electricity bills etc.
They have good contacts in the neighbouring town of Sandanski – about 30km away on the road to the Greek border. Sandanski is a spa town, popular with tourists, with many Greeks owning second homes. Research undertaken by the Association revealed that some employers distribute work to home-based workers in both towns. In 2012, local Petrich employers were temporarily without work, so the Association covered the transport costs for workers to collect work and materials from Sandanski, where there was more work than the local members could handle.
Sometimes the contractors or agents give work directly to the workers, sometimes the work is delivered to and distributed by the Association, and sometimes the work is collected from the employer for distribution.
There is generally a better price for the work in the town than in the villages, so the Association negotiates and organises the work in the town, then distributes it to the villages – thus cutting out the village agents and increasing the pay of the village workers.
How has the Association managed to build the organisation in villages throughout the municipality? Rozalina described an example of the organising process.
Starting from scratch – organising tactics
In 2003, after organising in Petrich for a couple of years, the Association heard that one of the shoe companies in Petrich was now distributing work to three villages 20km from Petrich: Gabrene, Kluch and Skrud . After discussion at meetings, they decided to visit the villages to determine what was happening.
Rozalina caught a bus to Kluch to get some first impressions. She went into a café, ordered a coffee. Villagers started looking at this stranger, and wondered who she was, and what she was doing there (“peasants are naturally curious people”). The café owner started asking questions about what she was doing in the village. She made up a story about waiting for her relatives to arrive. She noticed that there were younger people in the village, and asked what they did for a living. She was told that they did agricultural work, but Rozalina thought this was unlikely. After a while, she got the bus back to Petrich.
She reported back to the Association in Petrich that the villagers were polite, but wary of strangers. After discussion, they realised that they needed someone to help make introductions to the villagers – someone that they would trust – perhaps the Mayor, a priest, a doctor, the owner of the cafe? Cafe-owners have a crucial role in villages.
The second time, two other members (Soltana and Vasca) visited Kluch and went to the café. They explained to the café-owner’s wife that they wanted to buy seeds for peppers. The wife was not helpful. Again, they drank their coffee and caught the next bus back to Petrich.
They then contacted the doctor responsible for the Petrich hospital – he was an old schoolfriend of one of the activists, and was supportive of the Association – who oversaw the doctor in Kluch. He agreed that when the Kluch doctor next visited Petrich, he would arrange a meeting.
Some weeks later, the meeting was arranged. The Petrich doctor explained that the shoe factory in Petrich had closed, and that there were now many home-based workers in Petrich and the surrounding villages. Would the Kluch doctor help them make contact with the workers in the village? He agreed, and introduced them to “Auntie Maria”. Rozalina immediately recognised Maria from the old big Petrich shoe factory – which was closed, not privatised, shortly after the collapse of the old regime.
Maria started introducing the group to the Kluch home-based workers and they socialised together. The Association activists visited the village frequently, and quietly began collecting information – how many home-based workers were there? How many hours were they working? What rates were they paid? Who were the employers?
All of this took four months, during which time news and gossip of the conversations started to spread into the other two villages, Gabrene and Skrud. They discovered that there were fifty workers in Kluch, thirty in Gabrene and seventy in Skrud – 150 workers in total. Raw materials were being delivered to the villages twice per week.
Eventually, they decided to take a risk, and reveal their true intentions to two of the women who they had identified to be potential leaders in the village. They explained the work of the Association in Petrich, showed them documentation, describing what they had achieved. They showed them that the rate for the same work was higher in Petrich, and that they should unite – that the Petrich workers could help the villagers get higher wages.
At first, the two women in Kluch were terrified. “No! Impossible! My brother-in-law gave us the contract. We will lose their jobs!” The women didn’t believe the difference in rates of pay, so the Association paid their bus fare to Petrich, and introduced them to the members doing the same work. The Kluch workers were astonished to discover that in Petrich, the company paid the women BGN 0.60 to stitch each pair of shoes. In Kluch, they were paid BGN 0.40. The women returned to the village, and explained to the other workers how they were being exploited.
“We gave them space and time to think”, explained Rozalina.
After a month, one of the women from Kluch travelled to Petrich, and visited Rozalina in her home. “What do we have to do to get the same price as you?” she asked. “Tell the agent that you want the same rate”, replied Rozalina. “But he’s a relative. He will lose his job! It will cause trouble in the village!”
Despite the fears, the women in Kluch decided to gather together and tell the agent (whose job was simply to distribute the work within the village) “We want the same rate as the women in Petrich, or we refuse to take the work”.
The agent refused to increase the rate, arguing that he’s not responsible for the decision. He thought the village workers were bluffing. “What will you eat? You will come back begging to take the work.”
The women refused to take the work. In effect, they were on strike. Meanwhile, the employer started putting pressure on the agent. “Where are the shoes? How are you going to meet the deadlines?”
Stitching shoes is skilled work, and it is impossible to replace so many workers in the time available. More than 1,000 pairs of shoes per day of production were being lost. The employer was facing the payment of substantial damages to Bruno Magli, the Italian shoe company, if they did not meet the order by the specified deadline.
If necessary, the Petrich workers were prepared to take strike action in solidarity with the village workers. After two weeks, the employer caved in. The agent told the workers in the village to call the Petrich Association and explain that they would now offer the full rate to everyone. The workers re-started the work immediately. In total, the new full rate benefited workers from eight villages.
“The fundamental principle is one of space and patience, never telling workers what to do, but listen, and provide advice and help when requested. We do not organise. We listen, we advise, we help, and then the workers want to join. We work to change consciousness: help yourself, by organising. It can be explained economically: by working together, you reduce costs and become more productive”. Rozalina Ivanova, Petrich Coordinator.
Relationships with the Trade Union Movement
The Home-Based Workers’ Association in Bulgaria is not registered as a trade union, but as an association. Nevertheless it has fee-paying members and a democratic constitution; engages in collective bargaining, represents workers to government and other authorities, and campaigns for workers’ rights. In other words, it behaves, looks and operates as a trade union.
With a membership of 35,000, were it to be formally recognised to be a trade union, it would be among the largest in Bulgaria. What is its relationship with the trade union movement?
There are two main union confederations in Bulgaria. These are KNSB (often known by its initials in English as CITUB – the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria) and Podkrepa. KNSB emerged in 1990 with a reformed structure from the official trade union confederation of the communist period. Podkrepa was established in February 1989, as part of the opposition movement to the then communist government. In the years that followed the fall of the communist government in November 1989 the two confederations played a major role promoting reforms in the Bulgarian economy and society as a whole.
KNSB has always been larger than Podkrepa and figures compiled for the most recent trade union census in 2007 show 328,000 members for KNSB and 91,000 for Podkrepa. Of the KNSB members, 80,000 are teachers and 35,000 are civil servants. There are very few in private sector light industry, perhaps only 3,000 in total.
The issue of membership numbers is important, as it is one of the factors in deciding whether or not a union confederation is ‘representative’. Representative confederations have seats on a range of tripartite bodies – made up of the unions, employers and the government – which have both an advisory role and administer parts of the social security system. These tripartite bodies exist at local as well as national level. Representative unions also have specific rights in the area of collective bargaining.
In order to be represented at national level, the Bulgarian labour code states that an organisation must fulfil a number of conditions. As well as having had the appropriate legal status – that of a non-profit association – for at least two years, a representative union confederation must have at least 50,000 members; it must have at least 50 local trade union organisations, each with at least five members affiliated to it and these must be in more than half of Bulgaria’s industries; it must also have legal bodies in at least half of Bulgaria’s municipalities and a national executive. At present only KNSB and Podkrepa have the status of representative unions confederations at national level.
In effect, this means that the Association is excluded from the formal national tripartite structures, and cannot be formally recognised as the democratic representative voice of home-based workers.
Moreover, according to the rules of both KNSB and Podkrepa, only out-sourced home-based workers can join a union – or only those with employment contracts. Therefore the self-employed are excluded from collective bargaining arrangements with the government.
Up until 2013, the Association has been an ‘associate affiliate’ of KNSB, and the KNSB leadership has expressed public support. In reality, in common with many national trade union movements in the former communist countries, the Bulgarian unions are weak, dependant on national agreements with government, and with very little experience of a ‘bottom-up’ organising approach. Some national leaders, particularly those with international experience, are attempting to introduce strategic organising approaches in an attempt to rebuild the unions from below, but this is very difficult when many local leaders have little experience or skill in organising. The culture of some unions has changed little since 1989.
By contrast, the Home-Based Workers’ Association has built an effective national organisation from scratch, with few resources other than the voluntary effort of its members. For some in the trade union leadership, the Association poses an interesting model of democratic member-led trade unionism that could be an important component in union renewal.
Krasimir Mitov, one of the speakers at the opening of the HomeNet South-Eastern Europe conference in March 2013, argued that the model of unionism in Bulgaria has to change. He argued that the established trade unions act as if they represent the majority of workers, but this is not the case, and it is necessary to renew the trade union movement in Bulgaria.
Mitov is the President of Zashtita (“Workers’ Defence”), in effect a third national trade union centre, although not yet recognised as such by the Bulgarian state (or by KNSB and Podkrepa), as it fails to meet current legal restrictions (minimum numbers of workers and organised sectors etc). Zashtita was founded in 2005 as a break-away from Podkrepa. Several years ago, they have started to organize in the informal economy (free-lance workers, agricultural workers and small holders), but most of their members are in traditional sectors, such as the metal industry, engineering and construction. They also organise some teachers and nurses.
In June 2013, the Association’s Coordinators’ Council decided not to renew the associate membership of KNSB, but to work together with Zashtita, and the ‘Association of Democratic Trade Unions’ to create a new organisation, but ensuring that each organisation will retain their legal independence.
The Future?
Irrespective of the outcome of discussions on trade union identity and status, the immediate objectives for the Association in 2013 are to campaign for new legislation, recognition and protection for own-account home-based workers, and organise direct negotiations with the employers (both Bulgarian and foreign) of out-sourced workers , cutting out the middlemen and agents. In addition, the Association plans a new project on labour law – education, a help-line and awareness-raising on workers’ rights in the informal economy as a whole.
Most immediately, the Association faces a fight with the government on the recognition of rights for self-employed workers. Meetings with the Minister of Labour and Social Policy in June 2013 were evidence that the government is very hostile to the inclusion of self-employed workers within the scope of employment legislation. The Association is also campaigning for the inclusion of industrial outworkers in government training programmes, and their recognition within the National Employment Plan.
The Association is also leading the development of home-based workers’ organisations in neighbouring countries in the Balkan region, through ‘HomeNet East Europe’, registered as an independent organisation in 2012.
Dave Spooner, Global Labour Institute
Consultant to WIEGO’s Organisation & Representation Programme
With additional reporting from Karin Pape, WIEGO.
This article is based on interviews, conversations and meetings with members and leaders of the Home-Based Workers’ Association in Bulgaria, between 22 February and 2 March 2013, and subsequent correspondence. This included discussions with Violeta Zlateva, National Coordinator, and visits to Provincial Coordinators and Association members in the towns of Veliko Tarnovo, Ruse, Pleven, Petrich, as well as the capital city of Sofia. WIEGO is most grateful for the invaluable assistance and interpretation skills of Delyan Mihaylov.