Thousands of students across Bulgaria were without their teachers last week, after a third day of strike action called by educators countrywide. The dispute highlights a growing problem with income gaps in the country, as public workers press for raises.
The strike was initiated by the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB), which includes the Bulgarian Teachers Union (BTU). It was called in response to an impasse between the government and the union over education funding and wages.
"We just want enough to live on in a very modest way," BTU representative Kounka Daminova told OBG on December 14. "Even 15% is not enough, but it is a good start."
About 2000 schools and 500 kindergartens across the country are estimated to be involved in the strike.
Monthly wages for Bulgarian teachers currently average about Lv300 (€153) per month. A 15% increase would amount to an additional Lv45 (€23) per month. Any agreement that is reached would take effect in 2006. In negotiations earlier in December, the government offered a 3% increase in pay, while union representatives requested a 15% raise - fully five times the government proposal.
In response to the ongoing strike, the cabinet on Wednesday offered a new proposal for a 10% increase in wages. The increases would be implemented in three incremental stages. An initial raise of 4% would take effect on January 1, 2006, the second 6% hike on July 1, 2006, and a final increase in the next autumn in accordance with budget fulfilment.
In addition to higher wages for educators, the budget was increased for education infrastructure, including Sofia University and the Bulgarian Academy of Science (BAS).
The chairman of the education commission, Lyutvi Mestan, explained that the increase in wages would be tied to reforms in the Bulgarian education system.
At the same time, during the negotiations, Finance Minister Plamen Oresharski stated that wages could only be increased by three means: rearranging the priorities of the budget, introducing a purposeful additional tax on income, or closing down undersized classes, which would cause job cuts among teachers.
Both the IMF and World Bank have advocated reforms in the education system to accompany any raise in salaries.
The Bulgarian News Network reported that Hans Flickenshield, leader of the IMF mission in Bulgaria, said recently that the country should reduce the number of schools and teachers and reform the educational system before increasing the wages of teachers.
Flickenshield, who has discussed the issue with Minister of Labour and Social Policy Emilia Maslarova, indicated that the country had too many schools and teachers in comparison to other European countries.
These policies are in line with previous IMF recommendations that Bulgaria should retain a budget surplus, rather than increase expenditures and maintain a balanced budget.
Meanwhile, different elements within the coalition government composed of the National Movement for Simeon II (NMSII), Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) have expressed differing viewpoints at different times concerning the funding requirements of the education system.
The Sofia News Agency reported on December 11 that President Georgi Parvanov had said that the education system needed reform and that it was imperative to find funds for the teachers' pay rise even if it meant mobilising internal education resources.
Parvanov organised a meeting in early December with the teachers' union leaders, along with the education, finance, and labour ministers, in order to facilitate an agreement between the parties, but achieved no results.
On November 28, Dnevnik news agency reported that NMSII Deputy Party Chairman Milen Velchev had expressed his party's desire to earmark additional funds in the budget for education and health care expenditures. Velchev indicated that the NMSII believed that the structural reforms of the educational system would require an additional Lv56.5m. The draft of the 2006 budget envisages Lv1.9bn for the education system.
While the strike has drawn the attention of the government and the public, problems of low wages and standards of living amidst rising costs of living are not confined only to the education system.
Daminova also thought that the plight of the teachers was indicative of a larger trend in Bulgaria.
"Everybody must fight for higher salaries in the country," commented Daminova.
Recently, the flurry of investment and development has been pushing up the costs of even basic necessities. Prices of essential goods such as electricity, gas and food have all increased significantly over the past few years.
But for now, the education system remains in limbo, with the strike set to continue well into the new year.