[Bulgaria] The pandemic as a class war against workers

November 25, 2020, Autonomous Confederation of Workers (ARK) – http://avtonomna.com/

The government has announced a second lockdown in the country, which will start on Friday the 27th of November. This is happening against the background of a complete collapse of our health system, mainly due to the lack of nurses and paramedics, uncontrolled spread of the virus, which put Bulgaria in first place in mortality across Europe and complete insecurity among the majority of working people about their income in the short and medium term.

How did we get here?

Let’s start with the collapse of our health system. The truth is that it was on the brink of precipice long before the pandemic, as medical experts have been warning for years. The pandemic only helped us take a decisive step forward. Now is the time to remember that for the past two years the nurses has been organising mass protests for adequate wages and humane working conditions to keep nurses, and our health care system, and to put an end to the rampant commercialisation in health care. They protested for months, organized tent camps and even occupied the parliament, in a desperate attempt to force the government to take measures to save Bulgarian healthcare. The government flatly refused to comply with even one of the demands of the nurses. The results are catastrophic, and today we all – both healthcare workers and patients – experience them on our backs.

Although they missed the opportunity to save the health care system from collapse, the government could at least mitigate the decline to the bottom by taking adequate measures after the start of the pandemic. Instead, since the spring, we have witnessed a criminal recklessness and the most brazen scheming that has added to the inevitable collapse of health care and a sense of despair and hopelessness. While governments across Europe rushed to increase the salaries of nurses, paramedics and doctors by leaps and bounds, Bulgaria remained the only country where, instead of salary increases, nurses received only bonuses, and not everyone. The insane measure of 1,000 Bulgarian Lev (500 Euros) in one-time bonus for first-line employees has thrown the nurses class into chaos, created tension over ambiguities – who should be considered front-line workers and who should not – and helped undermine much-needed cohesion and solidarity in times of crisis. Most of the workers never received anything. The measures planned for next year continue to dig the bottom, and the meagre increase in salaries will be TEMPORARY, only for 2021.

But this is just a drop in the ocean. The thousands of doctors, nurses and paramedics who are exhausted, packed in spacesuits, giving unbearable duty to compensate for the lack of staff, were not and still are not provided with even the most basic protective equipment – gloves, masks, aprons. While billions of leva are poured into the health care system each year, workers are forced to buy their own safety equipment, dozens of hospitals survive on aid and charity campaigns, others send desperate calls for volunteers, and patients die outside hospitals due to lack of staff. The government had months from spring to today to try to prepare our health system for the coming second wave of the virus. But to save money, they didn’t want to attack the business as usual in healthcare, they didn’t try to change the neoliberal model of health care, and they did nothing. And now health care is collapsing on our heads.

The government’s anti-epidemic measures

After seeing that the government has refused to take measures in health care, let’s take a look at the other anti-epidemic measures that have been taken since the spring. From the very beginning, they had and still have a strong class character. With the entry of the coronavirus into Bulgaria in early spring, the government announced a complete lockdown, although the spread of the infection was many times lower than we saw in early autumn, when the government refused to introduce even a partial lockdown. Behind these seemingly chaotic actions of the rulers, the economic interests of their class are clearly visible. Lockdown in the spring was dictated mostly by the small business owners that wanted to be able to save the summer touristic season and limit their financial losses from the expected ebb if the spread of the disease was limited to the end of May. And so it happened – with the start of the summer season, the spread was controlled and all bars, hotels and restaurants opened their doors, and anti-epidemic measures gave way to the business.

This, in turn, quite “unexpectedly” led to a sharp increase in the spread of the disease, which began in July, got out of control in October and continues to grow to this day. It was in October that the class character of crisis management was revealed in all its glory. At the notoriously (and comically) famous briefings of the country’s Minister of Health, people like Richard Alibegov – head of the Bulgarian restaurant owners association – started appearing next to the Minister and began to give instructions to the population. This made it clear in whose interest the crisis was being managed. Accordingly, the pubs remained open, the cases continued to rise, and the price was paid and continues to be paid primarily by the families of the workers who, unlike Alibegov, actually work in his pubs.

While bosses are content with their privilege of isolating themselves and holding online board meetings, workers are the ones who have to work on site – in pubs, offices and shops every day, despite the risk of infection, in order to be able to feed themselves and their families.

But the class nature of crisis management does not end there. It is evident in each of the measures taken since the beginning of the crisis. As the state melted away with empathy for long-suffering businessmen and the reduction of their invaluable profits, it was a strict stepmother to workers and the people at large. Caressing with a feather and sacrificially discussing every whim of business, the government viciously attacked the people, accusing them of the failure of their insane measures. Because it refused to introduce real measures to deal with the health crisis so as not to harm the profits of the business, to compensate and simulate liability – the state introduced a bunch of half-hearted, meaningless or downright harmful measures against ordinary people. The people had to wear masks in the strangest places, to follow the ever-changing schedules of green corridors and paths, and all sorts of other whims of the rulers. The work of the Government’s pandemic headquarters can be summarized in pointing fingers at the people and accusations of lack of discipline, stupidity and misunderstanding. Against this background, it is not surprising that many people just stopped caring about the government and the pandemic headquarters and the measures.

Social measures

The pandemic will pass, as any other similar pandemic in the history of mankind has passed. But it will have severe economic and social consequences. They began to appear from the very beginning, during the first lockdown in the spring, when thousands of workers lost their jobs or were forced into unpaid leave. The social measures of the state in this situation were not surprising having in mind the class interest it serves, as we have already seen in detail above. For the businessmen, support funds were immediately organized to cover most of their expenses for the period of the crisis, interest-free loans and a bunch of other benefits. Workers crowding in front of Labor Offices received nothing. In the current lockdown, thousands of workers face the same situation, but further aggravated by the fact that many of them have already spent their unemployment benefits during the lockdown in the spring and now remain literally without income in the middle of winter and with no prospect of easing the situation in the coming months. The government promised crisis assistance of 24 Lev (12, 25 Euros) per day for those sent on forced unpaid leave – of course not out of special concern for the workers, but mostly to help the companies to keep their staff. There is no money for the workers made redundant due to the lockdown, who are considered unnecessary for the business – and therefore unnecessary for the state!

The consequences of the class principle of distribution of the generosity of the state do not end with the social catastrophe in which the redundant workers are thrown. They destroy the very foundations of society. Today we see how the government’s refusal to provide income for parents forced to leave work to care for their children while schools and kindergartens are closed leads to an ugly confrontation between parents worried about their income and teachers worried about their lives. We can see these examples in other sectors as well. Through its anti-social policy, the state is on track to do more harm to society than the pandemic.

What can we do?

Regarding the health crisis, the match is over. Whatever measures are taken from now on, it is too late to talk about dealing with the situation. What can be done is to put pressure on the government to provide at least basic protection to workers in the sector so that they can continue to save lives with dignity. The other and even more important thing is to put strong pressure, not only from the medics, but from the whole society – the workers in the sector to be fairly compensated for their work during the pandemic, not through one-time or temporary bonuses, but through permanent and significant salary increase. This wage increase must also be the first step towards a radical reform of the sector, which will put an end to the commercialisation of healthcare and which today, more than ever, is a matter of life and death.

In terms of social measures, protests by workers in the most affected sectors have already erupted as we write this article. What needs to be done is to avoid the division of workers, which the rulers so well master and exercise whenever they have the opportunity. It must be insisted on guaranteeing the incomes of all – those on unpaid leave and redundancies, those in tourism and those in manufacturing. For the right of teachers to work remotely and the right of parents to be at home with their children without risking losing their income. Now is not the time for division by sectors, cities and professions, but the time for solidarity and unity.


[Bulgaria] Crackdown on striking health workers

June 02, 2020, ARK, https://www.facebook.com/avtonomnakonf/

At the end of May 2020, the grassroots union ARK reported fear and anger in the labour dispute at Pirogov Hospital, the country’s largest hospital. In the previous days, an unprecedented attack (even by Bulgarian standards…) of state repression against the “Union of Healthcare Professionals” (SBMS) had started.

Demonstrations and strikes in the health sector have been taking place there for over a year. The SBMS nurse’ Union is fighting for decent wages and working conditions, and an end to the commercialization of human health that everyone suffers from.

A few months ago, the local government tried to prevent the setting up of a SBMS union group in the city hospital and initiated disciplinary proceedings against the section president, Boyka Anastasova. These are bold but desperate attempts to destroy the rebel nurses. The police also took action against the main organizers, who were summoned to the central police station in Bucharest, the capital, for questioning.

The grassroot union “Autonomous Confederation of Workers” (ARK) declares its solidarity with the SBMS in its labour dispute, and calls for the immediate dismissal of the director responsible for the clinic, Professor Asen Baltov. All police officers who arbitrarily violated the constitution and the law during the operations should also be removed from their posts and an investigation should be opened. In addition, we urge unions in Europe and around the world to take a stand on this case of State attack on freedom of association and to protest against this suppression of healthcare professionals in Bulgaria

In the united struggle for the dignity of workers.

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