Now Hiring: Bulgaria’s Quest for Foreign Workers

Bulgarian businesses need more help from foreign workers. As challenges persist, how can Bulgaria fix its labor shortages?

High angle shot of two businessmen shaking hands in an office
Photo: iStock.com / PeopleImages

The latest Eurobarometer study on labor mobility revealed a somewhat surprising number. In the 2022 study, in Bulgaria, a country that traditionally has been seeing a large outflux of workers, as many as 75% of respondents said they are not planning to move abroad in pursuit of better wages. And yet, despite more Bulgarians determined to stay and work at home, an increasing number of industries in the country are dealing with the same problem: lack of personnel.

In pursuit of employees

As businesses struggle to find employees at home, more foreign workers are slowly trying their luck in Bulgaria. And it’s not easy, not only because the monthly minimum wage in Bulgaria is below 400 EUR, being one of the lowest in the EU. Over the past five years, workers hailing mostly from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine have arrived in Bulgaria. According to data from Bulgaria’s Employment Agency, some 5,000-6,000 foreign workers work in factories and hotels across the country. A recent article in the Capital weekly in Bulgaria put the number of needed foreign workers at around 20,000.

How is this going to happen? Both foreign workers and their employers point to the complicated procedure of obtaining a work permit, which can take up to three months. Between January and October of 2022, some 830 such permits went mostly to citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Workers from these countries are sought after because of the ease of communication.

Many of them speak Russian, which makes understanding Bulgarian, another Slavic language, easier for them. Besides that, with the average salary in Uzbekistan hovering around 120 EUR, even Bulgaria seems attractive enough, as it can offer up to five times that.

Deteriorating demographics and foreign workers

Mekalit Bulgaria, a company in southern Bulgaria specializing in the production and trading of plastics, technical tools and appliances, has recently welcomed eight new workers from Uzbekistan. “They have a different mentality. Coming from Muslim countries, a key element of their culture is respect for the employer and their work. They are much more disciplined, and our Bulgarian workers are happy to be working with them,” Krasen Krastev, manager at Mekalit, tells 3Seas Europe.

The numbers are clear: What seems like a relatively new process in Bulgaria is only going to intensify given deteriorating demographics, continuing emigration of the working-age population, and the increasing qualification of Bulgarians seeking other types of employment. For now, industries relying on low-skilled labor are leading the way. Currently, 30 recruitment agencies offer unskilled and low-skilled workers from abroad.

In 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, as many as 11,400 foreigners worked in Bulgaria. Registered as seasonal workers, they were mostly employed in the country’s tourism industry. As economies are recovering from the effects of the pandemic (and still in a pre-recession mode), the demand for foreign workers in Bulgaria has grown significantly. Will Bulgaria see more foreigners joining its labor market?

Turkish workers in Bulgaria

Across businesses in Bulgaria, workers from Sri Lanka and Moldova are also filling vacancies. Bulgaria’s Employment Agency and the Migration Directorate of the Ministry of Interior issue the necessary residence permits. But there’s a catch, as it is not unheard of for the Employment Agency to approve an applicant only for the same candidate to be rejected by the Ministry of Interior’s Migration Directorate.

According to data from Bulgaria’s Employment Agency, some 5,000-6,000 foreign workers work in factories and hotels across the country. A recent article in the Capital weekly in Bulgaria put the number of needed foreign workers at around 20,000

Also this year, there has been a surge in the number of Turkish nationals looking for employment opportunities in Bulgaria. The recruitment agencies have been fast to meet their requirements as Turkish workers are coping with the depreciation of the Turkish lira and historical inflation, a staggering 85% recorded in October 2022. As a neighboring country, Bulgaria can be one of the solutions. A survey by the Employment Agency shows that Turkish workers and Moldovan nationals are preferred, especially in the construction industry.

The search for foreign workers is carried out mostly by companies in towns far from Bulgaria’s biggest cities, particularly in the country’s northwest. It happens to be the same area that is seeing the most acute effects of Bulgaria’s rapidly declining population. According to the last census, conducted in 2021, Bulgaria’s population has declined by some 840,000 people, or 11%, in the last decade. On top of that, some 34,000 Bulgarians still migrate every year, joining labor markets of much wealthier EU economies. Businesses in Bulgaria need help. Now.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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