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Économie mondialisée et identités de genre

Fenneke Reysoo

Théories et pratiques

Some Aspects of the Impact of Globalization on Gender Issues in Bulgaria

Genoveva Tisheva

Texte intégral

“… Countries undergoing transition have a unique political opportunity to improve the situation of women as an integral part of the successful transition to democracy and a true market economy. They can thereby avoid the entrenchment of structural discrimination and the need for further fundamental changes in the future …”
from the Concluding Observations of the Committee
on Elimination of Discrimination against Women
to the Bulgarian government, February 1998

1Did the Bulgarian government take this opportunity of market liberalization and increasing economic globalization? Or were the alarming trends confirmed?

2The hardships of market liberalization and European Union membership exacerbate the need for social safeguards. The Bulgarian government must try to create a competitive environment while protecting its citizens from the potential harms of free markets. In the last ten years of transition and structural reforms the Bulgarian government did not manage to counter the negative effects of globalization, specifically on women and the most vulnerable groups, through enhancing regulatory capacity and strengthening the safety nets. Reforms regarding privatization, employment conditions, social policy, migration, access to new technologies had a disproportionate negative effect on women. We will illustrate some of the aspects of the influence of globalization.

Economic context

3Prior to the democratic reforms the Bulgarian economy was characterized by a central planning system forcing development of heavy industry to the detriment of the consumer-led production and of the service sector; monopoly of state property and prohibition of private ownership of the means of production; state monopoly on foreign trade; specialization of the Bulgarian industry within the comecon market.

4The “emancipated woman” model was imposed through a variety of economic, legal and social mechanisms. Two parallel processes soon emerged: the development of legal underpinnings of gender equality and women’s massive and equal inclusion in the labour force. For example the share of women in the labour force in Bulgaria in 1985 was 49,5%.

5After the political upheaval in 1989, Bulgaria launched radical economic reforms aimed at introducing market mechanisms. These reforms comprise the following main components: transition from centrally planned to market economy; adoption of a market oriented fiscal and monetary policy; restitution of the confiscated private property; privatization; agrarian reform; aspiration to integration into the European Union, NATO and the international economic community as a whole; promotion of foreign investments. The political changes in early 1997 were aimed at overcoming the economic crisis and at speeding the structural reform and the integration of Bulgaria into the European structures. The accession to the EU became a real obsession for the government. In view of the monetary stabilization of the country, in July 1997 a Currency Board was created.

6The price of this policy was a restrictive taxation and social policy which caused a serious decrease in the income of the population. The economic environment seriously affects the labour force as unemployment, wage cuts, mass redundancies, violations of social-economic rights are widespread.

7This is especially true for women who are disproportionately affected by the economic restructuring. Because of the inherited segregation of labour, lower opportunities and access to training and retraining, their heavy social burden – the care for the children and the family – as well as the social benefits related to their reproductive roles, women are less competitive in the labour market.

The impact of privatization

8Privatization is both one of the central economic policies of the Bulgarian government and a component of globalization. With the opening of the country to the EU – since 1995 Bulgaria has the status of an associated country and started negotiations with the EU in March 2000 – and to the foreign investments and markets – Bulgaria joined the WTO in 1996 –, the country is entering the global economy. The Bulgarian government was commanded by the international financial institutions for its strict implementation of structural reform and for the financial stabilization of the country. The privatization process, however, was notoriously corrupt and non-transparent. About 70% of the state assets (including banking) have been privatized. Because of corruption and inconsistent government economic policies, privatization has not strengthened the economy.

9In the 1998-1999 period the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation conducted a sociological and legal research on the specific impact of privatization on the socio-economic rights of women. Here are some of the findings:

  • Privatization affects the labour and social rights of citizens and of certain groups of women in particular. The privatization and restructuring processes are connected with negative attitudes of citizens because of the economic insecurity and the danger of job reductions and unemployment for those working in the state-owned sector, the need for readjusting to work in the private sector, the risk of non-respect of social and labor rights, especially in the private sector. Work without a labour contract or any contract at all is a widely spread phenomenon, which is also a violation of the right to social security and to unemployment benefits. The amounts of the social security allowances (especially during maternity leave) and unemployment benefits are low and they can not constitute a real guarantee, especially for certain vulnerable social groups, including women. They are more vulnerable in the dynamic of the labour process – in seeking jobs, redundancies, long-term unemployment. The rights of workers and women above the age of 35-40, for whom it is extremely difficult to find professional realization after dismissal from the state sector, are threatened. Foreign investors in Bulgaria require state restriction of guarantees for labour and social rights in the transition to market economy, which as well endangers women and their so-called “privileges” such as extended maternity and child care leave. Some foreign investors, especially from Greece and Turkey who are at the end of the subcontracting chains in the garment industry take advantage of the cheap labour force and lowered labour standards.

  • In addition state control for violations of labour and social rights have decreased. The trust in trade unions as defenders of the workers in the process of privatization has dropped. The Labor Inspection and trade unions have the power to, but do not sufficiently protect labour rights. It is established that they are not effective in monitoring discriminatory practices and providing defense for women.

  • Women, especially young women, women during and after maternity leave, women with small children and women over 40, are disproportionately affected by the privatization and restructuring reforms. The research revealed the existence of discriminatory practices in the recruitment process – women are very often asked additional questions not connected with their professional qualification: about their availability, their family and personal obligations. On top of all this sexual harassment in the workplace emerged as a serious problem.

  • There is a lack of adequate state policy for women in the process of economic restructuring and in the labour market. There is a lack of public affirmative action ensuring equal participation of women as a work force and as active participants, namely in entrepreneurship. In the 2000-2001 period under the pressure of the European union, of women’s NGOs and of the Beijing + 5 process, the Ministry of Labour and Social policy elaborated a draft Equal Opportunities Act. Although elaborated with a large consensus between government and civil society, the Act was rejected by the parliament last fall. Thus, the institutions openly declared their unwillingness to regulate the area of gender discrimination in the labour market.

Social context

10Evidence of the contradictions between declared successful economic development and low social standards multiplied in Bulgaria in 2000 and 2001. In mid-2001 the discrepancy between promises and reality led to changes in the parliament and the government. A new political force, led by former King Simeon of Bulgaria, acceded to power with new social promises. What was the situation?

  • 1 World Bank figures.
  • 2 Ministry of Finance.

11Despite a registered growth in GDP of 4% in 2000 (compared with-7% in 1997, 3.5% in 1998 and 2.4% in 19991) Bulgaria’s average GDP currently is only 22% of EU countries. With a per capita GDP of US $1,500 and average income of US $120 in 2000, Bulgaria lags far behind EU countries, which have per capita GDPs above US $22,000. It also lags behind the more advanced former socialist countries with per capita GDPs of US $3,5002. An additional problem is Bulgaria’s foreign debt, which amounts to more than 80% of its GDP. The discrepancy between economic growth and living standards in Bulgaria was aggravated by US $80 million extra losses and damages resulting from the Kosovo crisis. The enduring tension in the region continue to challenge and jeopardize a successful and rapid accession to the EU.

  • 3 UNDP’s 2000 Country Assessment Report for Bulgaria.
  • 4 There is still no officially set poverty line in Bulgaria. This line should be defined as soon as p (...)

12After 10 years of economic restructuring, it has become clear that Bulgarian governments cannot cope with the problem of poverty. The poverty coefficient in Bulgaria (percentage of people living on less than US $1/day) was 12.1% for 1999, slightly lower than the 1998 13.1%3. The poverty coefficient as percentage of households living below the unofficial poverty line of less than US $23/person/month in 1999 was still as high as 16.53%4. The majority of retired people are socially excluded, with an average pension of less than US $33/month in 2000.

13A guaranteed minimum salary is fixed in Bulgaria by the Council of Ministers. It is currently about US $50/month, far below the subsistence minimum.

  • 5 National Employment Office.

14By the end of 2000, one of the major social development indicators, unemployment, stood at 18%5! This represents a considerable increase and continuation of a steady trend from previous years – 11% in 1995, 12.3% in 1996, 12% in 1998, etc. A more realistic rate of 27% is obtained by adding the estimated percentage of unregistered unemployment. Registered unemployment rates of 30-35% in some regions are far higher than in Sofia, where the rate is 4.47%. Women prevail among the unemployed (52.6% by the end of 2000). Because of strict requirements for entitlement and a short period of coverage, only 28% of the registered unemployed persons receive unemployment benefits.

15The new government is strongly committed to curbing unemployment, the official rate being already above 19% at the end of 2001 – one of the highest rates, if not the highest, in the Central and Eastern Europe countries.

16Despite these intentions, the first measures aimed at boosting employment brought to serious cuts in the unemployment benefits. Employees contribution to social security in Bulgaria are the highest in Eastern Europe, reaching 39.2% of gross income for most workers. This places a heavy burden on workers, impedes employment and creates inequalities. Poverty and unemployment push people into the informal economy. Although no official data are available, it is estimated at about one-third of the economy. Women are here again disproportionately affected: they bear the “burden” of the social benefits related to maternity and child care, and they have to cope with hardship in the family and take any job.

The role of the Bretton Woods institutions

17A draft memorandum was approved in December 2001 for a two-year stand-by agreement worth US$ 300 million between Bulgaria and the International Monetary Fund. It is the latest in a series of agreements with the IMF in the last decade, purportedly aimed at stabilizing the country’s economy. The recent agreement focuses on key policies the Bulgarian government should follow: reduce the vulnerability of the state in respect to current and future changes in the world economy; keep the Currency Board agreement stable; and reduce the foreign debt/GDP ratio. These goals are to be achieved through further liberalization, especially in the energy sector. The IMF required the setting of a long-term pricing policy, privatization of energy distribution and market liberalization by early 2002. The agreement requires not only financial stabilization, but also boosting the competitiveness of the Bulgarian economy and solving social problems.

18Although the concrete parameters of the final memorandum will not be made public until the first quarter of 2002 and despite the lack of opportunities for public participation in the negotiating process, it is obvious that the government has had to make many concessions. Many positive social promises made in the pre-election and post-election periods (national elections were held in June 2001 and the new government came into office in July) were blown down by the conditions imposed by the IMF. The declared “people-centred” governmental programme is about to fail. A striking example of the eagerness of the government to please the IMF was the decision to increase by 10% the consumer price of electrical power and heat starting in October 2001. The decision was made in violation of the law, without consulting the trade unions, and was recently reversed by a decision of the Supreme Administrative Court. This tough measure, still deemed necessary despite the court decision, obviously impacts the already low living standard of the population as a whole. It obviously affects women disproportionately, since they are the first to feel the effect of increasing consumer prices, and as there are many single mothers heads of families.

19Another result of the interference of the international financial institutions is the lack of a consistent social policy by the government. Family policy, for example, is a key feature of democratic governments and a major indicator of a good standard of living. The recently approved targeted family allowances system illustrates the Bulgarian reality. The already extremely poor allowance of less than US$ 5 per child per month – one of the lowest among Central and Eastern European countries – was doubled, but from January 2002 it will be allocated only to families with incomes of slightly above US$ 70 per capita. According to the estimates, three times fewer children will benefit from the allowances than before, yet this measure will be assessed as effective for poverty alleviation in Bulgaria. This change, strongly recommended by the World Bank as a condition for receiving loans for poverty alleviation, has been pending for more than two years. Yet there has been no real public debate on this issue. This recent decision will again have a more negative impact on women.

20This is only an illustration of the targeted approach endorsed by the international financial institutions and imposed on governmental social policy as a whole. It is not accidental that the whole social programme of the Bulgarian government, full of good intentions, is deprived of real, consistent and long-term elements, the focus being put on social assistance only. This, not surprisingly, is in compliance with the draft Country Assistance Strategy (CAS) of the World Bank. Although the proposed CAS is open for national discussion, it contains core directions that must be followed regardless of what comes out of the consultation process. Here again the main theme is the targeted approach; without taking pervasive poverty into account, the measures are focused on specific groups of the population only and the proposed solutions are based on redistribution. It is shocking that poverty in Bulgaria is still widespread: according to the most recent data from trade unions, about 38% of the population receive less than BGL 100 (US$ 50) per month.

21The appeal of the international financial institutions was to speed up privatization, and it was implemented, though at the price of widespread corruption. The restructuring of the health and education systems, performed with loans from the World Bank, illustrates the adverse effect of the assistance of the financial institutions on the social sphere and the human resources in these sectors. These sectors, although in need of improvement and modernization, were subjected to fundamental changes that practically liquidated the positive and competitive elements they possessed. Furthermore, dramatic shifts occurred in the related labour force, which was 70-80% female. In this case, as in other instances of restructuring and privatization, the reforms had gender implications, if not a clearly disproportionate gender impact. The human side of the reforms have not been taken into account by the international institutions or considered sufficiently by the government, despite the recommendation of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in December 1999 that the Bulgarian government “in the course of the negotiations with the international financial institutions… bear in mind its obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the rights set forth in the Covenant.”

22In the meantime, with an average monthly salary of US$ 115 (according to the most recent data of the World Bank), Bulgaria lags behind other EU candidate countries from the Central Eastern European region (US$ 270 in Latvia and Lithuania and US$ 151 in Romania). In the last report of the European Commission on the progress of Bulgaria towards accession, the country was found once again not in compliance with the EU economic criteria. After years of negotiations with the Bretton Woods institutions for economic liberalization, the EU did not find a functioning market economy in Bulgaria! The slogan “financial stability” has only brought about more poverty.

23If Bulgaria is to emerge from endless economic transition, the government should take a position on national economic development independent of reforms imposed by international institutions. The process of the EU accession should be used for improving the social standards. This requires from the government more transparency in all internal and external economic decision-making and increased access for civil society in the decision-making process. Women and women’s organizations should be important participants in this process.


1 World Bank figures.

2 Ministry of Finance.

3 UNDP’s 2000 Country Assessment Report for Bulgaria.

4 There is still no officially set poverty line in Bulgaria. This line should be defined as soon as possible since strategies for poverty alleviation with the UNDP and the World Bank are already under way.

5 National Employment Office.


Director of the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation; lawyer involved in protection of human rights and women’s rights, more specifically.


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