Henrik in Bulgaria

This week, verification coordinator Henrik Lindholm was in Bulgaria, where he looked in on an audit.This is what he wrote.

In the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains in the town of Kardzali lies a big factory from the communist era. During the high times of this factory more than 1000 persons worked here. Now the factory is privatised and the workforce has shrunk to around 270. But although the factory has deteriorated over the years, production for some well known luxury brands is being done here, as well as for one FWF affiliate.

As the audit team starts its walk through of the factory they soon see that the building needs a lot of maintenance work. Pieces of the facade have fallen of, some toilets are not working properly and water has leaked out on the floor in one place. The factory management is well aware of what needs doing, they point out many of the problems themselves. But in this region many factories have closed down lately and the management don’t know how much they can afford to invest when the future is so uncertain.

The state of the factory building differs strikingly from the general working conditions. All workers have proper employment contracts and most of them earn more than the local minimum wage in a normal working week. At the factory there is also a trade union that has signed a collective bargaining agreement. The offsite interviews done by a local organisation confirmed that workers have few complaints about the general situation at the factory.

The audit team invites the chairperson of the factory union to join the introduction and exit meetings during the audit. Recently the worry that her union has raised has been the financial situation of the factory; will we have jobs the next weeks, will the factory be able to afford to pay our wages?

Lately wages have had to be paid in instalments over the month and some of the workers have been asked to take out their paid annual holiday because of lack of work (a request that is legal in Bulgaria). In this way the factory hopes to make it through this tough period without having to lay off any workers.

This is also the general problem raised by the chairperson of one of the two national trade union confederations that I met up with the day before the audit. Several factories in Bulgaria have closed down during the last year, and at some of them the management disappeared without paying workers their wages. He says that one of the best things a multistakeholder initiative like FWF can do is to make sure that the local trade unions have access to the factories so they can inform workers about their rights and about freedom of association.

As the audit team start to sum up the findings for the exit meeting, it becomes clear that the factory is not as bad as one would expect when arriving here. This factory, in a region where the garment industry is on the retreat, is an interesting contrast to some of the factories in south east Asia that I have visited. There I have often seen brand new factories, clean and well organised, but where employees have to work 12 hours a day and for that not even receive legally correct compensation.

Garment factories are competitors on a global market. Although this factory is doing its best to survive, its ability to do so will to some extent depend on factors over which it cannot decide. Seeing how we can develop and improve supplier factories under these conditions is one of the challenges FWF and its affiliates face.

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