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(Post)pandemic struggles in social reproduction: Women’s labour before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bulgaria

Assistance to Bulgaria for diagnostics of COVID-19. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Note from the LeftEast editors: The present text, which we co-publish together with TSS, is part of a series of publications and webinars on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labor, and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. The video from the webinar (Post)pandemic struggles in social reproduction, where this text was first presented, can be seen here(in Bulgarian). The aim of the series is to raise awareness about struggles for labor, reproduction, and migrant rights, as well as about the condition of women in society, and how these have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The publications and webinars are coordinated in cooperation between the Bulgarian Left feminist collective LevFem and the platform Transnational Social Strike, and are sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – Bulgaria. Most of the participants in the series are part of the newly emergent network EAST (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational), which unites activists and workers in/from East-Central Europe. For more information about the network you can contact them at essentialstruggles [at] Reposting articles from this series is allowed with the condition of referring to the original publication source.

The coronavirus pandemic brought pressure on working people all over the world, and especially the more vulnerable – people with disabilities, mothers of young children, low-wage and cash-in-hand workers. Women, too, belong to this more vulnerable category. Female workers and public servants had to be at the centre of government policies during the state of emergency and the ‘emergency epidemic situation’ that replaced it. In countries such as Romania, for example, a special law was passed to support parents who could not work because they had to take care of their children. In Bulgaria, a similar measure was passed only months later, and in such a way that only a handful of parents could sign up for it due to the impossible accessibility criteria.

In keeping with tradition

Thanks to the inclusion of women in production during the socialist period, employment differences between men and women in Bulgaria are less than in the EU as a whole. Indeed, this is one of the very few socioeconomic indices where the country does not rank at the very the bottom of the European community. For example, employment statistics show that the participation rate of women in Bulgaria is almost three percentage points above the EU average. [1]


[1] Employment rate of women and men in the EU, Eurostat

Source: Eurostat

Still, gender differences are visible. The participation rate of male employees is a full 8 percentage points higher than their female counterparts. The chart shows data from 2019, when the economy was booming and there weren’t any serious global challenges. Therefore, we can consider this as the ‘normal’ picture.

However, when serious challenges emerge, the most vulnerable turn out to be … men. A series of studies show a considerably higher resilience of women during the global recession in 2008, for example. Their employment was also affected, but much less than that of men. The decrease of women’s employment in 2010 was 3.6%, while men’s one was 5.4%. So in 2012 the difference between male and female employment fell to just 5% in Bulgaria, compared to 11% EU-wide. The situation ‘normalized’ only after the stabilization of the economy in 2013, when men’s employment rose faster than women’s. This was also a consequence of the fact that men take the collapse harder on a psychological level, they are prone to depression, and that they hardly put up with less prestigious jobs and/or lower wages.

When it comes to payment, the picture is similar. The pay gap in Bulgaria is smaller than the EU average. However, as the following chart shows, the situation has worsened over the last decade: political statements, development strategies, and largely declarative European priorities have not managed to counter the growing wage disparities in the country.

Source: Eurostat, online data code: SDG_05_20 

Two out of 20 priorities of the European Pillar of Social Rights are aimed at women: ‘Gender equality’ and ‘Work-Life Balance’. The wording is fair, but the policies behind it are empty. The Directive on work-life balance for parents and carers was developed as a continuation of the declarations of the Social Pillar. The document recommended greater flexibility at the workplace, work at home, and other opportunities for employers to continue using the labour of parents but without the obligation of states or companies to provide places in kindergartens and nurseries for free so that people can actually work. Of course, it is precisely women who are the most affected by the difficulty of maintaining a work-life balance. The main obstacle to the employment of mothers of young children is the work hours: whenever women are unable to get their children to and from kindergarten or school, they don’t have the physical ability to receive an income from working. And in case they find a normal work time, resting is not exactly ‘private life’ – paid work during the day passes into unpaid domestic labour and taking care of the children in the evening.

There are systemic reasons for the lower remuneration of women. In most cases, the salary of women is frozen during the two years of paid maternity leave, while everybody else’s increases. Often, the lag is not compensated upon returning to the workplace. As a result, in recent years the public service sector adopted a mechanism for a one-off update of remuneration following maternity leave. In the private sector, however, this solely depends on the benevolence of the employer.

Mothers – the unwanted workers

Asking young women at job interviews whether they have young children or plan to get pregnant soon is a widespread practice in Bulgaria. Under the pretext that labor law forbids employers to force some categories of workers to work night shifts, they force their prospective female employees to sign a declaration to certify that:

  • they are not mothers of children under 6;
  • they are not pregnant;
  • they are not in the final stages of artificial insemination.

The declaration is signed before signing the work contract. In case the woman is in one of those groups, a contract is not signed at all, on the grounds that she would not be up to par. And, from the point of view of the management and the owner, it is precisely like that – there are legal obstacles to “use” this employee whenever and however they see fit. Of course, the applicant can fill in false information. According to criminal lawyers, however, later on the employer can sue her for that.

Even if she gets to the workplace she yearns for, the young woman can become a mother later. The declaration is only valid for the moment that it was signed in, but it also gives the employer an opportunity to exercise psychological pressure on the employee who got pregnant or has a young child. 

I will describe a real case. A female worker from the retail chain Fantastico who went back to work from maternity leave pro-term received less remuneration than what she was given before. The child, under 2, had just started going to a nursery. It is very common for children to get sick often during the transition from home environments into childcare facilities. In this case, the mother was forced to take a sick leave. This meant that every time this happened the company had to pay three days’ wages for an employee who was not working, and in addition, to look for an employee to replace the missing one. The Labour code is unequivocal – the salary cannot be lowered unilaterally by the employer. However, a common practice in Bulgaria is for employers to pay more than half of the salary in the form of a bonus that depends on the will of the employer. In this case, the will was aimed at discouraging the employee, thus forcing her to quit. The other mechanism that was applied in this case was making last-minute schedule changes. The single mother found a friend who could pick up her child from the nursery while she was at work. But this friend was also working and depended on their own working time that could not be changed in a matter of hours. Thus, it became impossible for the mother to take care of her young child: while the Labour code protects her from getting officially fired, in most cases she is forced to leave by herself.

A Covid-19 parental crisis

The economic difficulties that emerged as a result of the pandemic and the emergency increased the ‘innate’ vulnerability of working women. Even as early as March 13, at a meeting between the minister of labour and the social partners, the trade union I work for brought up the issue of mothers who will have to stop working because their children cannot go to school or kindergarten. We proposed that these parents received vouchers to use for babysitters. This was not accepted and neither was our demand for an additional parental leave. The chaotic governing decisions and the refusal to adopt measures supporting people (mainly women) who had to stay at home forced many female workers to bring their children to work, compromising the safety measures, while neither being able to work properly nor to take care of the children. The only measure that found its way in the Emergency law almost two weeks after the state of emergency began, was the possibility of those workers to get a paid or unpaid leave without an employer permission.

A measure to pay out a one-time benefit of 375 lv (€192) for such cases was only adopted a month later. The conditions, however, were extremely restrictive: a woman had to have used up her full paid leave and to have been on unpaid leave for at least 20 days, while the family income was to be under 610 lv (€312). First, it is almost impossible that the full paid leave is used up at the beginning of the year. Second, an income of 610 lv does not allow for a babysitter to be hired. Third, there were mothers who managed to arrange their time together with other members of the family in order to stay at work (an inaccessible choice for a large part of women who raise their children alone), but working part-time, therefore with their income decreased. Fourth, this is a one-time, not a monthly benefit. The criteria were such that few could comply with, which is why some mothers who were hit by the crisis and were left without an income decided to attack the measure in the Commission against discrimination.

The pandemic was used by employers to pressure female employees they had labour disputes with. The telecommunications company A1, for example, has demanded for years that its workers signed a declaration that allowed the employer to apply deductions from their salaries. This practice continues, although the Labour Inspectorate has deemed it illegal. One of the few workers A1 who refused to sign it was tasked with looking for clients on the streets and in elderly homes – where visitations were banned following the coronavirus outbreak. As the woman is a single mother, she sent her child to her parents, who lived in the countryside. She asked for a paid leave for the first day of school so that she can bring her child to its school in the capital. The request was vehemently denied by the employer and she was told that after the end of the mission she would be sent back to work outside of Sofia again, as a punishment. Put in a position that makes it impossible for her to raise her child risk, the worker was forced to quit and lose her income.

Unemployment in the feminized sectors

The socioeconomic measures had to be aimed at preserving the employment rate and workers’ income. The most popular of these was the ‘60/40’ scheme. Since the start of its implementation, the government and their supporters insisted that it has saved 200-300 thousand workplaces. This was refutedlater, but the government never publicly conceded the point. Unemployment rose at breakneck speed. Most talked about and assisted were the tourism, accommodation and restaurant sectors. Indeed, thousands who were employed in those were left jobless. However, a careful examination of the data by sector demonstrates that actually the largest increase of newly registered unemployed people in the critical month of April was in the sector of healthcare and social work.

Data: National Employment Agency, monthly bulletins 

According to the International Labour Organization, between 71 and 80% of those employed in healthcare and social work in Bulgaria in 2020 are women. The increased need for medical and social workers suggests that they have not quit their jobs on their employer’s initiative. The only explanation could be the fact that those are some of the most underappreciated professionals in Bulgaria. The threat of infection combined with the low wages is probably the main reason why workers quit.

This claim was supported by a participant in a webinar on working conditions of women during the pandemic, organized by LevFem with the support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in the beginning of October 2020. A nurse quit after she was not provided with the necessary protective equipment and she decided that it was not worth risking her own health and the health of her infant child for 700 lv (€358) per month. During the second wave of the pandemic in Bulgaria, against the obvious shortage of medical specialists, these people were denounced as deserters. It is true that soldiers do not flee, but at least they are armed. In contrast, doctors and nurses were even left without masks while governmental officials pressured hospital directors to deny that they lack basic personal protective equipment.

Critical workers with nominal wages

When many European countries closed their borders in March 2020, the European Commission suggested that national governments should not hinder movement of the so-called critical workers. Those, according to the Commission, are medical workers, child carers, elderly carers and … seasonal workers. What they have in common is that most of them come from Eastern Europe and are very poorly paid in their own countries. That means they cannot afford to stay in their homeland, even when travelling equals infection, and sometimes death. The trade union I work for published an open letter to the Bulgarian Government demanding that those people are provided with an income that allows them to stay in the country and prevent the further spread of the disease. The open letter was taken up by the media in Bulgaria and some foreign countries, but the government chose to ignore it. These professionals were key for the European Union but not important in their own country.

Data: ILO

An article entitled “The coronavirus is not gender-blind, nor should we be”notes the pandemic’s key repercussions on women and children. The authors quote ILO data that show women working on the forefront of the pandemic at significantly greater rates than men. These include precisely the critical workers that the European Commission insists should continue travel on the risk of their health and lives.

Women are still the primary caretackers of children and the elderly. This means a more continuous absence from work due to maternity leave or sick leaves. It means longer periods without a paid job due to the lack of accessible specialised institutions such as hospices for example. Caring for others, however, leads to lower pay that reflects calamitously on pensions size later on. The pandemic further increased the pressure on working women, and the government chose not to alleviate it with adequate social measures. While allegedly stimulating birth rates. Or so they say.

Vanya Grigorova is an economist, an adviser to the president of the Podkrepa Labour Confederation, and a chairperson of Solidarna Bulgaria association. She is an author of studies on the impact of international finance institutions on the socioeconomic development of Bulgaria, the effects of free-trade treaties, the consequences of the deregulation of public services. She graduated from the National Trade and Banking High School, holds a master degree from the UNWE (University of National and World Economy, Sofia), and is currently pursuing a doctorate in the Department of Human Resources and Social Protection at UNWE.