Amid the economic crisis, governments have been removing benefits, allowances and lowering wages of policemen in the region, spurring a wave of discontent.
By Tzvetina Borisova for Southeast European Times in Sofia -- 25/09/12
Police officers in Bulgaria are demanding a pay increase of 25 percent. [Tzvetina Borisova/SETimes]
More than 1,000 police officers attended a peaceful protest in downtown Sofia on Sunday (September 23rd), demanding a 25 percent hike in pay, accurate compensation for their extra work and the right to have a second job.
Their action, organised by the Trade Union Federation of Interior Ministry Employees (TUFIME), was supported by many local and over 11 international police professional organisations, including in Romania, Serbia and Greece.
According to trade union representatives, the average salary of police officers in Bulgaria currently stands at around 300 euros a month versus the 350-euro average salary for workers in the country in the first quarter of this year. It is among the lowest in the region.
TUFIME Chairman Valentin Popov said that only in Moldova salaries in the sector are lower.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro for example, monthly pay in the sector stands at around 400 euros. According to an analysis of the Slovenia-based think tank Makroekonomija.org, the average salary in the countries of Former Yugoslavia in general stands at 550 euros.
In the end of last year, 1,500 police officers in Serbia also staged protests demanding higher wages, payment of overdue salaries and travel expenses. In August this year, hundreds of police officers in Greece held a similar protest against planned pay cuts and special allowances removal as part of the country's austerity measures.
Governments have been trying to limit their budget costs amid the ongoing economic crisis using a variety of measures, including cutting benefits and lowering wages in the public sector. In Bulgaria, one of the measures was to reduce the number of paid extra-hours that police work to no more than 50 hours over three months.
"The law limits the possibility to pay for the extra hours worked, but does not limit working extra hours. We are forced to work such hours, but under the law, there is no way we can get paid. Thus, we are being deprived of around one gross salary a year," Dobromir Dobrev, deputy chairman of TUFIME, told SETimes.
"We realise we are living in a time of global economic and financial crisis. Therefore, if the government is unable to find money to meet our demands, we suggest the option of allowing us to work a second job," Dobrev said, explaining that "the salary we get from the state simply is not enough to cover our expenses."
The law bans police officers from having labour contracts different than their official one.
Shortly after the fall of communism, an attempt was made to change that and police were allowed to have a second job, but many began working as security guards for questionable figures, and the amendment was cancelled.
Critics fear that if allowed now, some police officers would find similar occupations. The trade union members, however, insist this is not what they want and agree to negotiate on a limited set of professions they could practice.
Interior Minister Tzvetan Tzvetanov called the protests "cynical," and said the protestors' demands were excessive. According to him, the maximum increase in wages that is possible in the current economic situation of the state is around 5 percent to 7 percent.
Trade union members said they are decided to continue with their protests until their demands are met and pointed out they are open for dialogue with the authorities.
"We have no choice, we are continuing our protests," Popov told SETimes. "I am pleasantly surprised by the public support we have been getting. People slowly begin to realise what this is all about. They understand that by wanting to work extra, we don't want to go guard a criminal. We just want to be able to do what we can to fill up our family budget."