Mr. Partheniotis, The Federation Construction, Industry and Water Supply – Podkrepa in collaboration with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber hosted a round table to present the results of the project Support for enhancement of employees’ and enterprise adaptability to changing economic conditions. What were the main topics you discussed during the meeting?
This is a project that the Podkrepa Labor Confederation implemented under the Operational Programme Human Resource Development 2014 – 2020 (OPHRD). It covers 10 industrial economic sectors, construction being among them. The total project budget is a little over BGN 2.3 million, and the implementation period is 29 months. It started in February 2020 and we expect it to end in June 2022. The project is divided into three modules, the first of which aims to examine the status quo of social dialogue and cooperation. Based on it, conclusions and recommendations are made. On the basis of these conclusions a second module is implemented, which is targeted at developing the so-called social standards and models to be further implemented in enterprises.
At the round table we had the opportunity to present the developments and consequently to hear the employers’ feedback in order to understand how efficient and useful the recommendations are for the employees, and for all participants in the production process. We would like to know whether they can be implemented. The third module will be their implementation in enterprises.
During the event you also presented a report of your Federation Construction, Industry and Water Supply. Tell us about it.
It is about the so-called green models that can help improve the development of human resources and the working environment and respectively the introduction of new processes for safe working conditions.
One possibility is to create a new institution – the Reconciliation Commission and Voluntary Labour Arbitration, which would be managed by the social partners in the Construction sector. On the part of the employers it is BCC, and on the part of the trade unions – Podkrepa Labour Confederation and the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB). This new institution will act as an additional tool for finding a compromise where there are problems in negotiation or labor disputes. The desire is to find a reasonable balance of interests between workers and the employer.
The second proposal is in the field of new tools for human resources development. In cooperation with a team from the Institute of Sociology of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, we have developed a conceptual framework, strictly individual for each company, since it is based on the very structure of the company, and therefore the policies that the company will pursue.
You said that the project must also meet the criteria for new processes for safe working conditions.
That is why we offer two models. The first one is in the form of providing first aid in the workplace. It is targeted at both prevention and reduction of damages from occupational injuries. Towards this goal, some years ago we developed a Handbook of first aid in the workplace. We held consultations with the Bulgarian Red Cross, we also coordinated it with the Ministry of Health. Now we want to update this development, and for this purpose a week ago we signed a cooperation agreement with the Chairman of the Bulgarian Red Cross Acad. Hristo Grigorov. They accepted to update the document and, respectively, we will start in-company training of groups of workers to upgrade their health culture. As we know, construction is among the industries with the highest rate of accidents at the workplace.
The second tool we offer as a new procedure is a conceptual framework for an Anti-Stress Program. It was also developed in cooperation with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.
So, during the forum we presented these two tools which I hope will be interesting and important for employers. Here I cannot help but express my joy that many representatives of construction companies came, which means that for them the topic is relevant. Thanks also to the management of the Bulgarian Construction Chamber, who hosted the event.
You also took part in the two-day international seminar on Digitalization and digital skills in the framework of the social dialogue, part of the SuSodCo project. Tell us more about this event.
SuSodCo is an initiative that demonstrates the good interaction between employers and trade unions. It is aimed at improving the quality of the social dialogue in the construction industry. It is important to note that the project is a continuation of the SоDiCo project implemented almost 10 years ago.
In the SuSodCo project we once again work together with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber. The following countries are involved: Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Bulgaria, as well as the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW) and the Romanian Construction Syndicate.
What do you think will be the impact of digitalization on the construction process?
Digitalization, or the so-called fourth industrial revolution, quite rapidly entered the social life around the world. First of all, digitalization has an effect on the production processes. Alongside digitalization we see robotization of certain activities, and implementation of new technologies in the production of materials. Certainly, all this has an impact on employment in the construction industry. It also results in the need to teach and learn new skills, i.e. further qualification or retraining will be needed.
Construction is changing; more and more new technologies are being implemented, no one draws on paper anymore, rather computer 3D models are being made. Unfortunately, in the course of time, it will get more and more difficult for people with low or secondary education to find jobs. My call to companies and educational institutions is to focus on and further develop the potential of these people, so that they do not lose their employability on the labor market.
You are vice-president of Podkrepa Labor Confederation and chairman of the Construction, Industry and Water Supply Federation. What are the topics on the agenda of Podkrepa Labour Confederation and CIWS Federation – Podkrepa?
One of the main issues on the agenda of the Podkrepa Labor Confederation is how to continue with the policy of overcoming the of COVID-19 consequences. Each government implements different measures to support both businesses on the one hand, and employees on the other. The damage caused by the pandemic was enormous.
Perhaps the biggest problem Bulgaria faces right now is the future of the energy sector. As you know, it has a direct impact on the entire economy of our country. When the European Commission announced the so-called Green deal, it became clear that we need to reduce carbon emissions. In any case, this very seriously endangers our energy sector. More than 40% of the energy balance of our country is produced by the Maritsa basin powerplants. Thirty years ago Bulgaria was an energy center in the Balkans and an exporter of electrical energy, however, now we have fears that the time when we will have to import energy is not that far off. The big question is, are there free production capacities, and if yes at what price? Things do not look optimistic at all.
Europe’s vision to become a green continent with zero carbon emissions has been known in Bulgaria for more than 15 years, but not much has been done. This is the question we are currently trying to find the right answer to, and time is pressing hard on us. Our political elite did not follow the good practices of Poland or Germany. Those two countries managed to negotiate with the EU grace periods until 2038 and 2040, respectively, in order to try to find a solution to this equation, which has so many variables. I strongly hope that Bulgaria will manage to successfully cope with this case.
Regarding the priorities of the Construction, Industry and Water Supply Federation – Podkrepa, I wish that the Federation continues to be a predictable social partner. I am glad that we have signed a number of collective labor agreements, one of which is with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber. We would like to update the sectoral contracts through annexes, so that they include our commitment to the creation of the new institution, which I spoke about earlier. We also want to raise the health culture so that more companies can provide first medical aid to their employees.
What lies ahead for the Federation by the end of 2021?
First of all, let’s wish ourselves a long and healthy life, since that is the most important thing. Among our priorities is the preparation of the draft sectoral collective labor agreements. We expect to sign one with the Road Infrastructure Agency soon, because expiration date of the current one is October 18, 2021, but it stipulates that 3 months before that date, a draft agreement must be submitted by the trade unions. We actively cooperate with our partners and hope to successfully complete all projects we are a part of.
There is one more thing that I really hope to develop, and that is the youth organization of Podkrepa Labour Confederation. Our desire is to fully deploy its potential. The truth is that only young people can truly attract their peers. We can give wise advice, but if we want them to become trade union members, we should leave the communication to their generation.
The Construction sector is perhaps among the most affected by labour force shortage, construction site managers and qualified professionals. How can you promote an interest in the building profession and make it more attractive?
In order to create an appealing look of the profession, it is very important to first start at high-school level. Perhaps the approach of employers and trade unions should also be changed. We should try to present the career opportunities in the construction industry to people who are at the threshold of the labor market. It could be a good idea to start working with young people in high school, where we explain to them what the opportunities for their future in the construction business are. We could perhaps consider setting up the so-called training centers or providing student scholarships. We should make use of the possibility for introducing new curricula, including more interesting and up-to-date teaching materials which meet the needs of the contemporary building sector.
What is the position of the trade union regarding the European Green Deal – do you see problems or opportunities in it?
There is one indisputable fact and it is that Bulgaria produces carbon emissions, which is why it pays eco-taxes, but at the same time we are one of the countries in Europe that pollute the least. In this sense, I believe that our country should be incentivized, rather than sanctioned. We are tiny, and unfortunately the big ones tell us what to do. Europe’s ambitions to become the cleanest continent will not have much effect if China, Russia, America and India do not commit themselves to such positions, because they are the main polluters.
If I have to say in a few words the position of Podkrepa LC, it is that we want to live and consume eco and have clean air and water, but at the same time we need to find the right balance for the development of other economic sector, so that things do not become disastrous.
You are also chairman of the Board of directors of Water Supply and Sewerage – Burgas. There has been a talk going on for years about reforms in the water sector. What are your observations, what needs to change?
The reform in the water supply and sewerage sector began more than 10 years ago, when the so-called Development strategy was created by a large team of experts under the auspices of the World Bank. Subsequently, it was adopted by the Bulgarian government. This is the book that needs to be taken into account to move forward, to advance. Unfortunately, the process of implementation of the concept, which has been set in the strategy, is either moving at a slow pace, or is not happening at all. A brand-new Water Supply and Sewerage Act needs to be drafted. Currently, the water supply and sewerage services are defined in the Water Act in a single article with dozens of paragraphs. The curent case is that the companies functioning in the sector are obliged to follow the policy of every single current government. And what happens in practice is quite an interesting model, in which the water supply and sewerage operators produce water, and at the same time several other institutions determine the levels at which the production costs should be calculated. Thus, the problem affects the quality of services. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria the water supply and sewerage system is extremely depreciated, and about BGN 13-14 billion are needed to fix things up. Operational Program Environment 2014 – 2020 provided about BGN 2.5 billion, but in order to absorb this money, you need to have co-financing of about BGN 0.5 billion, and there are not many water supply and sewerage operators who can provide the necessary co-financing.
Are you worried about the delays in the implementation of water projects? What can be done to speed up their launch?
It worries me as much as the bad condition of the water supply and sewerage network has a very bad effect on the people working in the sector. We cannot expect good results when we have WS&S operators where the average salary of 70-80% of their employees is at the minimum level for the country. The highly skilled and capable people flee and do not see their future in the sector, i.e. there is a lack of professional capacity. One such enterprise is WS&S – Vidin, and the situation in Haskovo, Kyustendil, Razgrad, Silistra, Dobrich is similar. If there is something worse than a state monopoly, it is only the private monopoly. Therefore, the state must make considerable and sufficient efforts to stabilize the WS&S companies. This will help a lot for the implementation of the operational program.
How would you evaluate your cooperation with the BCC? Where do you see a potential for its extension?
My colleague and President of Podkrepa LC, Dimitar Manolov, and I are among the doyens in the field of social dialogue. I am glad that we have had excellent contacts with the Bulgarian Construction Chamber for so many years now.
It is maybe worth mentioning that at the very beginning of the changes that took place after 1989, Decree No 129 was adopted by the Council of Ministers. It regulated collective labour agreements. With the amendments to the Labor Code of 1992, this subject matter was included in it. Based on the decree, we signed the first collective labor agreement with the predecessor of BCC. It was between our trade union, the Chamber and the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, which was then called the Ministry of Territorial Development, Housing Policy and Construction. Ever since, we have always had a contract signed with the BCC, which shows that the relationship, the trust we have in each other as social partners, is not just words, but a real fact. As a Chairman of the Construction, Industry and Water Supply Federation – Podkrepa for the last 27 years, I have worked with various teams of many sectoral structures. The fact that we get along quire well with all these people shows that we are able to find a reasonable compromise and balance between us.
On the occasion of its 12th anniversary, the Stroitel newspaper prepared a special which is a collection of the newspaper’s iconic interviews. One of them is yours together with the president of Podkrepa LC Dimitar Manolov. You were a guest at the official presentation of the book. What do you think of it? And what would you wish the newspaper for its birthday?
I witnessed the Stroitel newspaper’s birth 12 years ago, and frankly speaking it gradually evolved into a professionally written newspaper. It reports the major innovations in construction. It also announces the good practices that individual companies or institutions apply. The newspaper makes its readers aware of what happens municipality level, it also covers the actions of the state regarding the building sector, thus providing companies with the necessary information to make their own development programs. My respectful admiration for your team of exceptional professionals. I especially want to congratulate the procurator and editor-in-chief of Stroitel newspaper Reneta Nikolova, since she is the person behind the scenes of the newspaper. The book is just another proof of the successful evolution of the newspaper. So, be healthy and happy! The sky is the only limit!