Dealing Effectively with Labor Shortages – How to Work with People from Third Countries?

Just a few weeks ago, on 19 January this year, the Bulgarian Parliament adopted legislative changes to facilitate the process of applying for a Blue Card. The whole admission procedure was shortened and the applicant can now also be assessed on the basis of professional experience and not only on the basis of a university degree, as was the case before. In light of these changes, we invited our experts from the “International Mobility” team, Ivelina Petkova and Petar Todorov, to comment on the new conditions for businesses and analyze how they can effectively help address labor shortages in certain sectors.

Learn about the different cultural and organizational specifics of working with third-party people and what best practices to apply when taking such a step in expanding your team.

To what extent is the business in Bulgaria ready to employ people from third countries?

Businesses in our country have been aware of the possibility to hire third-country nationals since 2017, when the first relief for seasonal workers for up to 90 days was introduced. The current list was approved by Order RD-01-47/17.01.2017 of the Minister of Labor and Social Policy, and it includes two sectors: hotels and restaurants. These sectors were the most prepared to accept foreigners for this period of time, because they more easily fulfilled the condition of providing housing, which they anyway provided for applicants from the country within the season (summer or winter respectively). After 2017, the trend for a shortage of people began to be observed not only in the hotel and restaurant industry, but also in a number of other industries, and has been noticeably felt in the last 3 years in the manufacturing sector. For this reason companies there have turned their eyes to opportunities for year-round employment of talents from third countries.

Most organizations are interested in this alternative and continually want to receive updates to assess what and how applicable this would be to their needs. However, there are still only a few who already have experience and have hired long-term employees from third countries in the last two years. The skepticism of others is caused by language barriers, adaptation to culture, and the admission of people requires changes in the organizations themselves, such as writing bilingual employment contracts, job descriptions, safety data sheets, description of the work process in a more accessible form for foreigners, internal regulations, briefing books. The biggest challenge they face is preparing to welcome the workers. They must reorganize their work environment in such a way that new workers from abroad can quickly integrate into the work process.

We could deal even more effectively with the shortage of talent for the various industries in our country requiring a Blue Card. This year’s legislative changes to make the application process easier include:

  • both employer and employee to apply online
  • the Blue Card is extended to 5 years
  • an employee can now be promoted or change employers without the need for a new Blue Card placard
  • refugees and migrants are now eligible to apply for a Blue Card and holders are insured by the NHIF as Bulgarian employees.

In conclusion, this achievement is proof that unity and persistence are the keys to nurturing the business environment and we therefore acknowledge the efforts of all stakeholders.

Which are the main industries and professions for which there are already foreigners working in the country?

Currently, workers from Uzbekistan, India, Kirkizstan, Nepal, Bangladesh are in the manufacturing sector where low-skilled personnel perform operator or unskilled labor. The industries that are already successfully receiving support from these workers are electrical engineering, warehousing and logistics centers, and sub-suppliers in the automotive industry are also showing interest. The labor shortage in the country is increasingly felt and is becoming especially difficult in companies that have located their production facilities outside the big cities. In the industries listed, people with specific qualifications are often needed – for example welders, CNC operators, electricians, mechanics and others with good technical skills. Such people are not trained in technical schools as they used to be, and the listed professions are not among the preferred ones by young people who would rather like to develop themselves and see greater prospects in sectors such as information technology, marketing, digital design, etc. For this reason, people from third countries have been working very effectively in the manufacturing sector in this country for a year now. Employers give feedback of good quality of work, high diligence, good discipline and work habits, high productivity, and respectful treatment of local workers. What needs to be put in place when introducing them into a production environment is adapting processes to be better understood by foreign workers, namely providing all documents and instructions in the relevant language that they understand, including through visuals, clear instructions and support in their onboarding, structured work rules. We can give good examples by setting up a programme for them to follow throughout the day, giving them specific tasks to do at the beginning so they can get used to working independently.

In the IT sector also the lack of sufficient talent, but already qualified, which is a challenge for many companies in the country and this requires the entry of people from India and other countries – here, however, through the “blue card” procedure“.

From which countries people are most often interested in working in Bulgaria?

The basic interest of job seekers from third countries is to work in Europe, the European Union and Bulgaria as part of this area. This in turn puts us in competition with countries that started working with foreigners many years before us. We are an attractive destination for people from Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, India and Nepal. These are countries where labour is lower paid. That’s why one of the goals of those coming to work in our country is to stay as long as possible, and it is not uncommon for them to recommend their friends and family to companies for jobs. There are also conjunctural factors, such as the war in Ukraine, which have prompted investors to move their businesses to the country, inviting people they have worked with to do the same. In this regard, citizens of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are interested in working in our country. Similar is the case when citizens of the Republic of Turkey are attracted by the prospect of working for local investors expanding their business in Bulgaria.

However, we should not consider all people coming to work in our country as people with the intention to work in here on a long-term basis. For some of them, the motive is to gain access to the Bulgarian labour market, as a first step in plans for a subsequent move to another EU country for even higher earnings. There are constraints for such a change to happen within the first year, and all this means that the careful process of selecting and attracting such talent is as much on the agenda as it is for Bulgarians in the country.

How companies deal with cultural differences and the language barrier?

Before proceeding with the hiring of a foreigner, it is essential that the organization concerned be well acquainted with the cultural characteristics of the people in the countries from which it plans to hire employees. The next step is to prepare the organization for what is to come, i.e. preparing documents, work rules, procedures that are understandable to foreigners. The teams they will become part of should also be prepared for this change. The best option in our practice is for a team member to be able to communicate with the new hires in a language common to both parties.

Each working group is usually made up of several English or Russian speakers who in turn act as supervisors or translators for the others. By considering the different cultures of the people in a given country, companies could organize the environment in the organization to respond positively to the rapid and effective adaptation of workers to the work process. For example, Nepalis have a collective mindset, so identifying the right team leader and communication channel is key. They are people who need specific guidelines and distinct rules to follow so that over time they can be very adaptable and independent in their work. In Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, for example, people from Nepal are successfully filling jobs in agriculture, logistics and hospitality. Most of the people from Nepal coming to work in the listed sectors have the mindset of being employed for a specific season for a period of 3 to 4 months, but subsequently both employers and workers jointly decide on long-term residence and permanent employment.

How do intermediaries in such projects help companies and the people who come to work in our country?

For third-country applicants:

  • Referral to suitable work in Bulgaria, together with partner organizations in the relevant country;
  • Informing candidates with photo and video material about places of work and accommodation;
  • Preparation of documents for Visa D, for work and residence here;
  • Active participation in the employee’s onboarding process in the new workplace.

For companies:

  • Advising companies on how to adapt workplaces for foreigners (bilingual instructions, etc.);
  • Replacement of employees in case of adverse development with appointees to the position;
  • Providing housing for workers from other countries;
  • Counselling and support for health care needs;
  • If necessary, preparation of an employment contract in accordance with administrative requirements or a draft contract necessary as a mandatory requirement for triggering the procedure for issuing long-term residence and work permits in the country.
  • Accompanying the employee to the “Migration” Department.
  • Legal advice and opening a bank account for the employee.
  • Preparation of mandatory additional health insurance.
  • Translation of personal documents into Bulgarian.