Monday, 27 July 2015

Taking a nap: Water privatisation and extended retirement age in practice

A sleeping guard. Photo: Ivo Mirchev
Ivo Mirchev, a fellow-blogger and friend, posted today this photo of a sleeping elderly security guard in the client relations office of Sofia's water supply company. In brief, Ivo observed that the man on the photo is apparently not doing what he is paid for.

I have little sympathy for Sofiyska Voda, the private concessioner of Sofia's water supply and drainage network. Back in the late 1990s the company took over the existing infrastructure and facilities and has been operating them as a monopolist since then without any major investment. Leakages and patching repairs are an everyday reality.

What is worse, the water that is collected from the nearby Rila and Vitosha mountains and is originally excellent in quality and taste, arrives in nearly undrinkable condition to most of Sofia's over 1.2 million inhabitants due to the appalling quality and age of the pipework. Some of them date back from before World War 2 and as I have learned accidentally, the concessioner is not fully aware of the water supply roots, let alone being able to properly maintain and replace them.

In addition to all that, Sofiyska Voda did not bother to even improve client relations significantly. It maintains very few client-relations offices and its phone and internet-based services leave clients with just as rusty a taste in the mouth, as the water delivered from some of their unrepaired 70 years' old pipelines. In my view it clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of the dominant ideological dogma which dictates privatisation of public works without ensuring neither actual market competition, nor improved product quality and client satisfaction.

Sofia's privatised water suuply client service leaves just as rusty a taste in the mouth, as the water from its unrepaired 70 years' old pipelines. 

With all this background in mind, I originally took Ivo Mirchev's photo as yet another anecdote of inefficiency and bad management by yet another corporate monopolist. But a comment made by Petya Ivanova drew my mind to an aspect I had missed: the man on the photo was seemingly in retirement age, or close to it. Indeed, it is the same dogma that dictates also that retirement age should be raised indefinitely, making sure that people are obliged to work literally until they die. So we'd better get used to seeing more and more elderly people trying to do their job and not always being able to cope with it, I commented.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Foreign skilled construction workers needed... in Bulgaria

Local home contractors' market calls for improvement.
Bulgaria may soon need capable home builders and repairers from abroad to meed the expanding needs of foreign home owners in tourist and recreation areas. Could market forces achieve what national politics could not and enable foreign and migrant skilled construction workers and craftsmen to make a living in EU's furthereast member state? A brief online exchange with a former friend and co-student from our master studies in Budapest led me to this surprising question.

Скажи, пожалуйста, у тебя есть знакомые специалисты по ремонту домов? Мои родители живут в Черноморце, им нужно отремонтировать дом.

In brief, my friend Alexander inquired in Russian if I knew any specialists in home repair who could be of help to his parents who moved to live in Tchernomorets, a small town in the southern coast of Bulgaria. The conversation soon switched to English - the language that we used during our studies at the Central European University in the late 1990s. Alexander has since then pursued an academic career in the UK.

Alexander's message fully replicated my own experience owning and attempting to renovate and maintain a vacation property near Bulgaria's Black Sea coast. Ever since 2003 when aided by my mother I obtained a practically abandoned village house in Goritsa, near the town of Byala, I realised that it was generally a pain to find capable workers who provide quality home repairs. Things got harder since 2009 when tens of thousands of buyers from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus replaced the Brits as primary foreign second home owners in Bulgaria. While many capable local contractors were moving West in search for higher pays and better lifestyles, the few remaining local ones started getting many new orders from relatively less demanding foreign owners. We saw prices go up, while quality and availability of contractors went steadily down.

Alexander confirmed that this is precisely what his parents had experienced: "we already have tried a number of guys but the the quality of their work was just appalling. And once they learn that my parents actually live there and not just visiting for a couple of months their enthusiasm drops sharply."

I was helpless to recommend a solution. One strategy that has worked to an extent in my case was contracting a company which would supposedly have various specialists at hand and guarantee some quality, rather than try to hire separate contractors individually. But unfortunately I had no idea of such companies down south at Chernomorets, and could hardly testify of the quality of their performance - as the company I once hired in Byala was far from perfect: I had to literally stay and observe everything they did and even then major problems occurred after work was completed.

Alexander then wrote me that he was even thinking about bringing up a couple of guys from the Baltics "They generally do a good job here in the UK," he said. It stroke me that the same idea had crossed my mind earlier this year while visiting a friend in Belgium. She then told me that contractors of Bulgarian Turkish descent had renovated her house in the outskirts of Brussels, and that they were going home for the summer and might be available to do some work.

So it seems that many of Bulgaria's own capable workers have moved away. Bringing them back and hiring them might be one possibility. But with the prices for construction and maintenance work growing Bulgaria is in a position to attract skilled workforce from other countries. In the context of the current severe migration pressure from the Middle East, craftsmen, builders, plumbers and electricians from Syria or Iraq might soon be on the market. In spite of nationalism-prone local politics and wide spreading racism, Bulgarians have traditional respect for the skills and quality of work of contractors from the country's own Turkish minority. And foreign home owners will have even less reservations contracting a legal migrant to perform what the local marked does not offer I suppose. 

So perhaps if you bring foreign workforce I should also hire them, I wrote to Alexander. And that was not really a joke.