Bulgarian trade unionists face harassment in fight for collective bargaining

Efforts to establish collective bargaining and trade union organisation in Bulgarian workplaces – many of them run by European companies – are being thwarted by harassment and victimisation of union members.

According to the ETUC’s Bulgarian affiliate CITUB (Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria), subsidiaries of German, Belgian and Austrian companies are among those refusing to negotiate on fair wages and conditions.

At the Sofia plant of the Voestalpine group, based in Linz, Austria, and active in more than 50 countries worldwide, the head of the production department was sacked after his election as leader of the CITUB branch. His wife, who also worked for the company and was chair of the union’s Audit Committee, was also dismissed. “With the termination of his labour relation, and that of his wife, a whole family has been left to the fate of fortune, without income and clarity about the future,” says CITUB, which insists the couple lost their jobs because of their union activities.

Viohalco is a Belgium-based holding company of metal-processing businesses across Europe, originally set up in Greece. At its Etem Bulgaria plant, specialising in aluminium products, workers set up a trade union branch in response to persistent non-compliance with labour laws. Since then, the management has refused to take part in collective bargaining or to provide the facilities for trade union representatives that should be obligatory under Bulgarian law. It has penalised individual trade unionists, for example by cutting bonuses and shifting them to new locations, says CITUB.

At Viohalco’s Sofia Med subsidiary, management has threatened trade union members with dismissal, and accused them of “terrorist” activities, adds the union.
At the Khan Asparuh factory in Isperih, which manufactures ceramic products and is part of the multinational Kai group, the local trade union branch submitted a draft collective agreement back in 2016, but management has rejected requests for negotiations.

Another case concerns the German-based retail company Kaufland, in Pleven, where trade union leaders have been harassed since the branch was established five years ago. After CITUB approached the local labour inspection service and the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, in 2014, the local union leader was sacked.

Victimisation of trade unionists is found not only in Europe-based subsidiaries, but also American firms, says CITUB. Last January, the chair of the trade union branch at US-based company Cargill in Bulgaria, who is also a European Works Council representative, was summoned at short notice to a meeting with management and given instant, disciplinary dismissal. “He was not told what exactly he was guilty of,” protests CITUB. “Neither the fact that he is a trade union leader nor a representative of the EWC were taken into consideration.”