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Podcast Labour Relationships summary

Collocutors Professor Margarita Karamihova, professor emeritus of University of Veliko Tarnovo and Dr. Ildiko Otova, New Bulgarian University.

Why many people performing seasonal agricultural labour prefer work abroad?

Above all we should keep in mind that those are not poor people who cannot orientate in the modern society but people who have accumulated certain means for the purpose. Next, one must be open to a foreign sound environment and a foreign culture to be able to integrate and meet different standards and requirements of the employers. And then also it needs sufficient drive to achieve the goal of getting a decent income, with a focus on decent.

Indeed labour migration is not only a choice but also a possibility, meaning to cross the border and that needs some resource, financial and other. It is often a matter of investment for the entire family. I believe there are several levels and this is the lowest one. Earning a living abroad has existed in the Bulgarian culture for many generations. Especially for those settlements where there is severe shortage of employment. And there is also the idealized image of “the foreign”.

Most studies show that the outburst of labour mobility is not exactly a matter of survival but of preserving some standard of living and hopefully increasing it. What we observe is a solid increase in the level of education of children of workers abroad because they invest in it.

Factors of difficulties in the communication between employers and wage workers in agriculture

One factor is prejudice, and I am convinced it is vested with the employers. They are not familiar with the cultural specificities of workers and are unwilling to adapt to them and be flexible in what they offer.  Apparently, this happens abroad to a much lesser extent. I would not say discrimination does not exist there and they are not being exploited, far from that. We all know how heavy and close to exploitation the fruit pickers’ labour is. Here the economic incentive comes in – work can be accepted if it pays well versus working in Bulgaria where the economic incentive is missing. Not to mention some other incentives like that would allow these people to raise their children in a normal environment.

We must consider two things when talking about agrarian wage workers: first, the seasonal and highly risky character of this labour no matter whether the employer has insured the yield or not. I mean full-time regular employment cannot even be expected so we are talking about work cycles. I know from both research and practice that the bulk of it is in the grey sector. Very few employers pay any social insurance to their workers. So we are talking about seasonal, hired and insecure labour and cannot really have any high expectations. Most workers plan well when and where they will perform such work.

The majority of those workers belong to the Turkish or Roma ethnic communities. Are there any ethno-cultural specifics employers should be aware of?

There most certainly are. Here is an emblematic example: ask anyone about a Roma busker performing in the street and the huge majority of the people will define him as a beggar while in his eyes he is working. Even this cultural difference matters. What is more, people are not robots and cannot be perceived in isolation from their social world. People need more than work and that is inevitable.

I wish to focus on one serious methodological problem of modern work migration research and that is the researchers’ excessive attention to certain social groups or layers and forgetting the whole in the process. There is this young researcher from Sofia University who studied young men living in villages not having regular employment, performing occasional work in the grey sector and being dependent on their parents’ pensions. They are not much different from the two ethnic groups we discussed. No matter their age, people employed in agriculture have their financial strategies, they want to earn money in exchange of their labour. Once again, this sector is not much regulated, be it in Bulgaria, Spain or France. So what employers should know about these groups is that they must be honest with them and remunerate them according to their efforts and the labour market realities. Not everything in the agricultural production can be mechanized.

How to overcomes the difficulties?

Employers should change their way of thinking as a first step. I understand this is seasonal employment but employers should be flexible and not think about mechanisms to create some kind of employment during the rest of the months, provide the necessary living and social conditions to help their workers. Agricultural workers are both men and women and women are always less privileged. I mean employers should develop a certain level of social sensitivity because it will bring returns to their business in the face of motivated workers.

It is time to turn our backs to the cliches, especially those related to ethno-cultural groups. One of them is the public image. People are dynamic and respond to incentives that help them improve their strategies. People in today’s world can change their entire mentality and the way they perceive work, investments of time and resources. Therefore, employers must forget the cliches.

Does work migration have added value for the Bulgarian employers, does it bring something over?

Here is my perspective: the self-confidence of people who feel equal on the labour market abroad and will demand that to be respected back home. The big bonus is the new attitude to their human dignity regardless of whether they work on a small farm or in the IT sector. The problem is that back home they see both a different employer attitude and different equipment, as well as oftentimes a different attitude to farming as a whole.

It is my hope that seasonal agricultural workers will above all bring over the ability to defend their rights.