Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent labor unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination, provides that workers may receive up to six months’ salary as compensation for illegal dismissal, and provides for the right of the employee to demand reinstatement for such dismissal. Workers alleging discrimination based on union affiliation can file complaints with the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, which received three such complaints as of October.
There are some limitations on these rights. When employers and labor unions reach a collective agreement at the sector level, they must obtain the agreement of the minister of labor to extend it to cover all enterprises in the sector. The law prohibits most public servants from engaging in collective bargaining. The law also prohibits employees of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, the State Agency for Intelligence, the National Protection Service, the courts, and prosecutorial and investigative authorities from striking. Those employees are able to take the government to court to provide due process in protecting their rights.
The law gives the right to strike to other public service employees, with the exception of senior public servants, such as directors and chief secretaries. The law also limits transport workers’ ability to organize their administrative activities and formulate their programs. Labor unions stated that the legal limitations on the right to strike and the lack of criminal liability for employers who delay salary payments are contrary to the constitution.
Authorities did not always respect freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively. Labor unions continued to report cases of employer obstruction, harassment, and pressure on employees, including relocation, firing, and demotion of union leaders and members. Labor unions also alleged that some employers failed to bargain in good faith or to adhere to agreements. In July three physicians from Plovdiv filed a lawsuit against the local polyclinic management claiming that they had been fired for establishing a labor union. They also alleged they had been receiving below-minimum salaries whereas, per the collective bargain agreement, they should have been paid twice the minimum salary. The polyclinic management responded that it had decided to cut the physicians’ positions long before they established the union organization.
Union leaders said that the government did not effectively enforce the labor law. They complained that fines of 250 to 2,000 levs ($143 to $1,140) in discrimination cases and compensation of up to six months’ gross remuneration for cases of unlawful dismissal were not strong deterrents to antiunion discrimination, especially for large or highly profitable enterprises. They also claimed the law does not effectively protect against interference by employers in labor union activities. In its annual labor rights report issued in June, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria saw an increase in antiunion activity by senior national and local government officials.
Judicial and administrative procedures were adequate in settling claims. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that employers broke the law and eroded the value of collective bargaining by letting nonunion members take advantage of the provisions in the collective agreement.
In April amendments to the law gave the General Labor Inspectorate, an executive agency under the minister of labor and social policy, the authority to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against employers who owed more than two months’ wages to at least one-third of their employees for three years. As a result, as of September approximately 80 companies started paying regular remuneration to avoid the risk of bankruptcy.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not enforce it effectively. Penalties for violations ranging from two to 15 years in prison were not sufficiently stringent to deter violations. The government lacked sufficient resources to cope with the growing number of cases of international labor trafficking, while labor inspectors lacked the legal authority and sufficient training to identify and pursue cases of forced labor. According to the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, the country’s institutions focused exclusively on human trafficking cases and failed to identify and prosecute cases of severe labor exploitation unless it fell under trafficking. The government, through its central and local antitrafficking commissions, held forced labor prevention campaigns and training sessions for magistrates, law enforcement officers, and volunteers. Law enforcement officials did not have adequate capacity to investigate forced labor cases, and investigations took a long time.
There were some reports of families or criminal organizations subjecting children to forced work (see section 7.c.). According to the Agency for Fundamental Rights, “children and adults with disabilities are forced into street begging and petty theft.” As of July the prosecution service reported 42 cases of trafficking in persons for the purpose of labor exploitation, noting a significant increase from 2017. NGOs claimed government mechanisms for identifying victims among at-risk groups, such as asylum seekers, were not sufficiently robust.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
Employment of children without a work permit is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of 1,000 to 8,000 levs ($570 to $4,560). Penalties were generally sufficient to deter violations, but children living in vulnerable situations, particularly Romani children, were exposed to harmful and exploitative work in the informal economy, mainly in agriculture, tourism, retail, and domestic work.
The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 and the minimum age for dangerous work at 18. The government considered occupations hazardous for children if they are beyond their physical or psychological abilities; expose them to harmful agents or radiation; have a harmful effect on their health; take place in conditions of extreme temperature, noise, or vibration; or expose children to hazards that they cannot comprehend or avoid due to their incomplete physical or psychological development. To employ children younger than age 18, employers must obtain a work permit from the government’s General Labor Inspectorate. Employers can hire children younger than 16 with special permits for light work that is not risky or harmful to the child’s development and does not interfere with the child’s education or training. The General Labor Inspectorate was generally effective in inspecting working conditions at companies seeking and holding child work permits and applying sanctions regarding child labor in the formal sector.
The General Labor Inspectorate reported a 15 percent increase in child employment, mainly due to a lack of better-qualified workers and an increase in job openings in the tourist industry. As of November the inspectorate granted 7,529 requests to employ children who were 16 or 17, and 193 requests to employ children younger than age 16. In 2017 the inspectorate uncovered 95 cases of child employment without prior permission and referred six of them to the prosecution service.
The government continued programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, mounted educational campaigns, and intervened to protect, withdraw, rehabilitate, and reintegrate children engaged in the worst forms of child labor.
NGOs continued to report the exploitation of children in certain industries (particularly small family-owned shops, textile production, restaurants, construction businesses, and periodical sales) and by organized crime (notably for prostitution, pickpocketing, and the distribution of narcotics).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation with regard to nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, race, color, age, social origin, language, political and religious beliefs, membership in labor unions and civil society organizations, family and marital status, and mental or physical disabilities. Although the government usually effectively enforced these laws, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred across all sectors of the economy with respect to gender, sexual orientation, disability, and minority status. According to the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, the majority of discrimination complaints received during the year related to employment, predominantly concerning persons with disabilities.
The government funded programs to encourage employers to overcome stereotypes and prejudice when hiring members of disadvantaged groups such as persons with disabilities.
The law requires equal pay for equal work. In April the Commission for Protection against Discrimination reported that men received 15.4 percent more pay than women for work in the same position, and there were twice as many men as women with well paid jobs. According to the same report, women were more frequently subjected to workplace discrimination than men. As a result of the gender pay gap, according to the National Statistical Institute, women received 38 percent lower pensions.
Workplace discrimination against minorities continued to be a problem. Locating work was more difficult for Roma due to general public mistrust, coupled with the Roma’s low average level of education. According to the National Statistical Institute, 44 percent of Roma with a high-school education lived in poverty, compared with 21 percent of Turks and 7 percent of ethnic Bulgarians.
The law requires the Interior Ministry, the State Agency for National Security, and the State Agency for Technical Operations to allot 1 percent of their public administration positions to persons with disabilities. Enforcement was poor, however, and the agencies were not motivated to hire persons with disabilities, citing inaccessible infrastructure, lack of sufficient funding for modifying workplaces, and poor qualifications of the applicants. NGOs criticized the system of evaluating persons with disabilities based on the degree of their lost ability to work, which effectively prevented many persons with disabilities who are able to work from having a job.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national minimum wage was lower than the government’s official poverty line. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria reported that 31 percent of citizens lived under the poverty line.
The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The law prohibits overtime work for children younger than age 18 and for pregnant women. Persons with disabilities, women with children younger than six, and persons undertaking continuing education may work overtime at the employer’s request if the employee provides written consent. The Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria criticized the law’s provision for calculating accumulated working time, noting that it gave employers a way to abuse overtime requirements and thus to hire fewer workers.
A national labor safety program, with standards established by law, provides employees the right to healthy and nonhazardous working conditions.
The Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is responsible for enforcing both the minimum wage and the standard workweek. The law penalizes labor violations with fines ranging from 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), which, according to labor unions, failed to act as a deterrent. In addition to fines, penalties may include administrative provisions, such as suspending operations and terminating the employment of those responsible for the violation. As of November the General Labor Inspectorate conducted nearly 37,000 inspections of companies covering more than 1.5 million employees, identifying more than 135,000 violations and imposing various sanctions, including collecting nearly 12 million levs ($6.84 million) in fines.
Each year the government adopts a program that outlines its goals and priorities for occupational safety and health. The General Labor Inspectorate, which had 28 regional offices, is responsible for monitoring and enforcing occupational safety and health requirements. Persons who violate safety and health regulations are subject to a fine of 100 to 500 levs ($57 to $285), employers to a fine of 1,500 to 15,000 levs ($855 to $8,550), and employing officials to a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 levs ($570 to $5,700). Of the violations identified by the inspectorate, nearly 50 percent involved safety and health requirements. According to the labor inspectorate, its activity over the past several years had increased compliance, with 98 percent of inspected companies in compliance with occupational safety and health requirements.
Legal protections and government inspections did not cover informal workers in the grey-market economy, which accounted for more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. In July the Bulgarian Industrial Capital Association stated that the grey economy had shrunk significantly over the past three years. In September the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria stated that benefits for employees in the informal economy worth between one and two billion levs ($570 million to $1.14 billion) per year remained unpaid, and called for stricter enforcement of the law and punishment of the offending employers.
Conditions in sectors such as construction, mining, chemicals, and transportation continued to pose risks for workers. The number of work-related accidents registered in the first six months of the year decreased slightly. Equipment and technology safety violations were the most common causes of occupational accidents. The government strictly enforced the law requiring companies to conduct occupational health and safety risk assessments and to adopt measures to eliminate or reduce any identified risks. Some 94 percent of the companies inspected in 2017 had such risk assessments, and 98 percent of them had programs for elimination of the identified risks.
As of October there were 60 work-related deaths, mainly in the construction and transportation sectors.