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Нови Леви Перспективи
"По-лесно е да си представяш края на света, отколкото края на капитализма." Фредрик Джеймисън
First published in Bilten


Reforms or looting?

Against popular opinion that the concept of reform means conversion into a better form, when I hear its utterance an image of a siege comes to my mind. What delineates this image, more precisely, is that very moment right before the offensive attack is being staged; the final stage of the investment. This moment captures an extreme fatigue; where the soldiers outside the city gates are fanaticized by the anticipation to attack and the population under siege is driven to death by hunger, disease and thirst. This is precisely the formula followed by capital in Bulgaria.

On June 12, 2015, amendments to the Labor Code were passed during first reading in the Bulgarian Parliament. It is expected that the new Code will take force in August of this year.  The so-called labor reform was introduced by a commission headed by Petar Kanev, a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). The amendments follow the previous political line of the party. They are “business friendly” and as such, consensus marked the vote.

Earlier this year, the talks concerning the so-called flexible employment intensified. The “business” complained that non-flexible employment hurts the economy. Bozhidar Danev, Executive Chairman of the Bulgarian Industrial Association (BIA) promoted flexibility as the only possible solution to the growing importance of the “grey economy.” BSP and capital united to fight irregular work and the grey sector. Their rationale, however, is a harum-scarum.

According to a report published by the BIA, the economy in Bulgaria is (still) characterized by severe deindustrialization, which results in high unemployment and a subsequent increase in the making of micro- and family-businesses as the only means of survival.  Such micro- and family businesses are detrimental to the Bulgarian economy, according to Danev, as they possess the potential to enter the grey sector and suck on public money. He adds that too many people lack “[management] necessary” education and qualification, which drives them to low paid grey economy jobs as the difference between the minimum salary and social benefits is negligible.  The problem, Danev believes, is both civilizational and (grey) economic. His proposition is to counter the former with forced education in boarding agricultural schools and the latter with flexible labor contracts (to be applied to the agricultural sector at first). Danev is obviously in the making of the Bulgarian agricultural proletariat and he now enjoys the legislative basis for it.

In their nature the adjustments to the Code from June 12th, concern the additional flexibilization of labor. Let me cite a few examples. As of now, each case of a disciplinary dismissal of certain categories of workers, for example, has to take place with the approval of the Labor Inspectorate. Not anymore. The alterations in the Code provides for the dropping out of such protection and gives full liberty in the hands of the employers to send away such workers. Furthermore, the (micro) employers[1] will be spared the obligation to develop and approve internal rules to ensure health and safety work conditions. Such provisions, Kanev’s gang claims, are anyway part of the Social Security Code and the Law on Health Insurance. We have learned our lesson however: once a change takes place for a certain category of labor, the rest will follow. These changes come after a steady increase in the number and frequency of fatal labor incidents[2] and lay the basis for an unprecedented deprivation of basic rights. The “business” is spared the unpleasant task of even thinking about potential risks and the workers are deprived of one of the major pillars of the canonical model. In the pocket created between under- and unemployment, continuous emigration and lack of labor movement, the balance of powers does not look good.

 

The labor contract for a day

Perhaps the most controversial adjustment to the Labor Code is the creation of Paragraph 114a, which settles “labor contracts for short-term seasonal agricultural work.” 114a allows for the signing of a contract between registered farmers and workers for only one day.

The most celebrated part of the new 114a is the possibility given to the workers to continue collecting unemployment benefits despite their “one day” employment. To be able to collect unemployment and simultaneously work for a wage sounds attractive indeed. The “generosity” of the law will affect, obviously, those who do collect unemployment already and who have the right to unemployment in the first place.[3] As Vanya Grigorova from Solidary Bulgaria rightly observes, the seasonal workers are for the most part permanently unemployed, which automatically prevents them from claiming such benefits. If we are to take BSP’s word that for the most part these agricultural laborers are irregular, then, unemployment for them is not an option.

This type of contracts will be possible for only 90 work days within the calendar year, i.e. approximately four and a half months. They will not count as work experience. Work experience, however, is required when one claims her right to vacation and paid sick days[4]. As such, these contracts will be especially detrimental for the first-time-employed. These workers can kiss the above two rights goodbye for at least the first two years of their employment. Additional means of income will be a must. 

It is exclusively written in Kanev’s proposition to the Parliament that “these workers [to be] insured only in the funds ‘Pensions’ and ‘Work-related accident and occupational disease.’” The law exclusively stipulates that in order for one to gain the right to unemployment benefits, she must be insured in the fund “Unemployment.”[5] The Bulgarian Socialist Party fights unemployment with employment that does not guarantee benefits in case of unemployment. What this demonstrates is a potential process, where the agricultural laborer will develop from being a wage laborer who collects unemployment to an unemployed with no possibility to claim unemployment. Soon enough, all of us. It is estimated that around 100 000 workers will be subjected to such contracts.  Of course, if the ‘reform’ is to work – i.e. to improve the conditions for the business – more sectors will follow, we are promised by Kanev.

Danev on the other hand has a dream: “the employer to be given the opportunity to test the newly hired worker in an active environment, even if for just a short period of time.” BSP made sure Danev’s dream came true. The new 114a takes away the employers’ responsibility to develop and integrate a job characteristic for the one-day workers. Again, this is too much paperwork for the employer, claims Kanev. This simply means that there will be no written contract that stipulates the character of the work to be done and will effectively extend the boundaries of Danev’s “test in an active environment.”

As usual, those who will be paying for the deindustrialization in Bulgaria, the high unemployment rates, the loss of labor rights to safety and healt labor conditions, are the liquidated workers themselves. Flexible labor contracts are not unknown to Europe and North America. Such are for example the infamous British zero-hour contracts and the North American temp jobs, which have resulted in a severe insecurity among workers and have intensified precarization of life in all its aspects. They create a pool of labor that is available at all times. There is a permanent volatility between the work time/spare time boundaries. Fatigue, irregular working hours, acute stress, loss of skills, are just some of the immediate effects that come about under the ethos of flexibility and versatility of labor.

The industry has declared a war on “irregular” labor. Danev, and the entire Parliament as represented by the steady coalition between Liberals, Socialists and Patriots, want to tackle irregular labor by regularizing it. Limiting themselves to the regular/irregular duality, such are often the demands that come from liberal leftists as well. One frequently hears that the antidote to irregularity is regularity and labor has to be regularized and defined as such by all means possible in order to be protected. As if capital makes a difference. The latter exploits labor in a two-fold fashion: both in its regular and irregular status. Liberal leftists should rethink their demands.

 

Will the siege continue?

Two additional reforms are on their way so as to complete the siege on the Bulgarian workers: the health and the pension ones. They work harmoniously with the changes provisioned in the Labor Code. The health care reform will have dare consequences for the poorest. One of the amendments, for example increases the due payment for people who have lost their right to health insurance. Until recently, they had to pay their contributions for three years back but this coming January, 2016, they will have to cover 5 years back. This is simply impossible for the poor who have fallen off the system. Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s PM is optimistic. He has shown his support for the reform and believes Bulgarians will be healthier and live longer in no time. That’s why the country can afford to increase the pension age. According to the current proposition, the workers employed in the most dangerous professions, the so-called first-category-labor, the miners for example, will be able to enjoy pension when they reach 55 and not ~53 (men) and ~48 (women) as it is now (in some cases even 45 if the premature retirement is due to industrial liquidation).

With more and more reforms that are being pinned in favor of capital, it seems we have long surrendered to the constancy and the steadiness with which they take place. The unions are silent. One hears a barely spoken criticism here and there but there is no indication that the “representatives of the working class” intend to show their fist to capital. Only a radical gesture will turn the plates around.

 


[1] So far there is no legal definition of a “micro employer.”

[2] Some of the major ones include: the mine collapse in Simitli; the explosion in Gorni Lom; the collapsing of a construction site in Varna; among many others.

[3] The minimum right is 4 months unemployment for under 3 years of employment + insurance in fund Unemployment and 12 months unemployment for above 25 years employment + insurance in fund Unemployment. 

[4] One needs eight months of work experience to acquire the right to paid vacation and six months for sick days.

[5] At least 9 months in the past 15 months before the termination of the insurance

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