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According to the National Employment Agency, Bulgaria's official unemployment rate is 9.6 percent. Eurostat, however, has produced different data, stating that in June 2011 the unemployment rate was 11.4 percent, compared to 10 percent a year earlier. This is a particularly worrying situation for the summer as, due to seasonal jobs at Black Sea resorts, unemployment usually goes down.
The only country where the number of jobless is rising faster than in Bulgaria is Greece.
It's not all about dry statistics. Today every Bulgarian – not only those who get by on the minimum wage, but also middle-income households and even a certain number of highly paid executives – can tell a story about a close friend, relative or colleague who has spent months without work.
The troubles in the job market do not only concern those with Bulgarian IDs – they are also a problem for the foreigners living in the country.
Citizens of the European Economic Area, or EEA, and Switzerland have the best chance of finding employment. Bulgaria opened its job market completely after it acceded to the EU in 2007 and EEA and Swiss citizens can work in Bulgaria without a work permit. They also have the same social rights as Bulgarians, can register with the National Employment Agency (www.az.government.bg) and use it in their search for work or to improve their qualifications.
The situation is different for foreigners outside this category, the main difference being their status.
Foreigners who are long-term residents – that is, who have the right to reside in Bulgaria for up to five years – and foreigners who are permanent residents may apply for a job and be hired according to the same criteria that apply for Bulgarians. Refugees can start working without applying for a work permit and they can all register with the National Employment Agency and avail of its services.
A simplified procedure is also applied in cases where a foreigner is an expert assisting Bulgarian state institutions or is a member of the board of directors of a corporation.
Foreigners who are resident in Bulgaria for a short term (up to 90 days) or for a longer term (up to 12 months) may work in the country in two situations. The first one is if they are running their own company which is operational and employs no fewer than 10 people who are Bulgarian citizens. The second case is if they have a special work permit. This is issued by the National Employment Agency and is valid for a year, for a specific position with a specific employer. This permit can be issued only if an employer applies for it.
Foreign students are entitled to a special short-term work permit. It is issued only when they plan to work for a couple of months in a position that is directly related to the course they are studying in Bulgaria.
Several provisions in the 2011 Enhancement of Employment Act impose stringent rules on the hiring of foreign workers. Those from outside the EEA and Switzerland may account for no more than 10 percent of a company's staff. To hire a foreigner, an employer must pay a 600 leva fee.
Employers are prohibited from hiring foreigners who reside in Bulgaria illegally.
A Council of Ministers ordinance requires that, before hiring foreign workers, employers must prove that they have actively and unsuccessfully tried to recruit local staff. "Actively" in this case means posting job ads in the National Employment Bureau and in nationally distributed media. Foreigners cannot be hired unless they have the necessary qualifications.
The Enhancing Employment Act protects foreign workers. They may not be paid less than Bulgarians for the same job and may not be required to work in worse conditions.
The latest amendments to the act introduced the scenario in which highly qualified foreigners may start working in Bulgaria if they have been issued with the so-called Blue European Labour Card, or BELC.
Workers who want to use this option should apply to the National Employment Agency, which coordinates issuing permits with the Interior Ministry. BELC guarantees foreigners all the rights to social and other types of insurance, public services, health care and education and diploma recognition, and includes the right to be a member of professional organisations and trade unions.
BELC holders can change their employers, but only after a consultation with the National Employment Agency. If they leave Bulgaria and start working in another country, their Bulgarian work permits are revoked and must be substituted with a BELC issued in the new EU member state. To a hire a BELC holder, a Bulgarian employer must pay a 400 leva fee.
Obviously, there are lots of methods in use for years now for dodging the legal restrictions on hiring a foreigner.
One of the most widespread ways of regulating a foreigner's status and accessing the Bulgarian labour market is a real or fake marriage with a Bulgarian citizen. This practice is popular among immigrants from Asia and Africa.
Another way is to work illegally, and this is especially popular among illegal migrants.
The grey economy is only one of Bulgaria's problems and is not limited only to foreigners – this summer the Finance Ministry announced that the grey economy accounted for some 20 percent of GDP for the period 2000-2009. The usual way for Bulgarians to evade taxes is to announce an official salary, while the rest is paid in cash. Foreigners receive their entire wages in cash, which puts them entirely at the mercy of their employer, although Bulgarian legislation does provide for foreigners to seek redress for unpaid wages in court.
WORKFORCE IN NUMBERS
In 2010 the National Employment Agency issued 797 work permits for foreigners from countries outside the EEA and Switzerland, 304 of them to first-time applicants. 370 were granted to Turkish citizens working in the energy sector and road construction. The next largest group were 71 Russians working mainly as engineers, and then 54 Americans, chiefly sportsmen and teachers.
From 1 January until 30 June 2011 the agency issued 323 work permits, a decrease of 216 compared with the same period in 2010. Turkish citizens remain the majority (57) of legally employed foreigners from third countries, followed by citizens of Uzbekistan (53), Russia (29) and Ukraine (28).
Most of the applications and the permits granted are for jobs in large infrastructure projects undertaken by foreign subcontractors.