The national seminar was part of an EU-funded project under the title “Strengthening the capacity of trade unions in South-East Europe to improve wages and working conditions in the garment and footwear sectors”, carried out in cooperation between IndustriALL Global Union and industriAll Europe. The project targets seven countries in the region: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia.
In Bulgaria, there are around 100,000 workers in the textile, garment, leather and footwear industries. The sector is characterised by low wages and poor image, which has led to a shortage of workforce. Hundreds of thousands of young people have rather moved abroad in search for a better life. Bulgaria has the lowest minimum wage in the European Union, 260 euros (US$297) per month.
Union density is under 5 per cent and there are few company-level collective agreements. Ten years ago, the employers announced that they no longer wanted to have a branch agreement. Today things sound different.
“Collective bargaining has to be done at sectoral level. We also need higher qualifications, productivity, living wages and getting rid of the grey economy”, said Bertram Rollmann, General Manager of Pirin-Tex, one of the biggest textile companies in Bulgaria.
Deputy Minister of Economy, Alexander Manolev, promised the support of the government for developing social dialogue with the employers and unions.
“We want this industry to have a future with decent wages,” assured Manolev.
The textile union leaders agreed. FOSIL-CITUB President Tsvetelina Milchalieva reminded that the unions needed a counterpart for sectoral collective bargaining. Two industry associations BAATPE and BIA attended the seminar, but their representativity had to be improved. Rositsa Marinova, President of Podkrepa´s light industry federation, added that the unions wanted to part of the solution and a common strategy.
Christina Hajagos-Clausen, IndustriALL Global Union´s Textile and Garment Director, introduced the ground-breaking cooperation between brands and unions which started with the Bangladesh Accord, and continued with global framework agreements (GFAs) and the ACT initiative to achieve living wages for workers through industry-wide collective bargaining linked to the brands’ purchasing practices and freedom of association. A day earlier she carried out a training for national, regional and local level union representatives on how to use GFAs for organizing workers into unions.
Representatives from GFA partner brands H&M, Inditex and ASOS, also members of ACT, explained how they in cooperation with unions solve problems when they occur and promote social dialogue and collective bargaining. GFA coordinators from Swedish IF Metall and Spanish Industria CCOO and FICA-UGT were present at the seminar.
IndustriALL Global Union Assistant General Secretary Kemal Özkan said:
“Government and employers’ representatives are committed to engaging with unions to discuss the future of the garment and footwear industries, and improving wages and working conditions. We welcome this important step forward. But there can’t be genuine social dialogue without strong and representative trade unions. Workers should be able to freely join or set up a union without fear of reprisals. We will continue to assist our Bulgarian textile affiliates in their efforts to develop strength and build bargaining power for the benefit of all in those industries.”
IndustriAll Europe´s General Secretary, Luc Triangle, in his concluding remarks, thanked everybody for a spirit of cooperation and reminded that everybody needed to do their share.
“Government should facilitate rebuilding industry-level collective bargaining in cooperation with the industry associations, companies and unions. The brands need to enable living wages with their purchasing practices. IndustriAll Europe and IndustriALL Global Union will continue to support the unions in their action to organise workers and reach more collective agreements,” concluded Triangle.
The project will continue with national seminars in other South-East European countries, with a focus on capacity building, putting together organising plans, and interaction with the brands, employer associations and governments.