Bulgaria's pensioners forced to work
by Independent Online
Kremena Dimitrova, one of thousands of Bulgarian pensioners who have to work to make ends meet, is 78 years old but does not look it, which makes it possible for her to teach in two high schools in Sofia.
"Young people don't want this ungrateful job which is very badly paid (€1,85 per hour), so several schools have asked me to work for them," she says.
Dimitrova receives 276 leva (€141) per month as pension but after paying electricity and heating bills, what's left is just four leva per day for food.
She never buys clothes, and her earlier savings disappeared during the 1997 hyperinflation.
"I belong to a generation that experienced shortages after the war, then during the communist era, and now economic instability after the price explosion," she says.
"I know how to save money but I can't even think of comparing myself to others like me in the West, who can make the most of their retirement and travel."
Guena Tsvetanova, 74, works as a cleaner in a company. Despite the pain in her arthritis-deformed arms, she never rests, taking care of a sick woman at night.
Former reserve officer Luben Ganev, 67, works non-stop 24-hour shifts every three days as a concierge.
"At the beginning, this plunge down the social ladder really got to me, but I've resigned myself because one has to eat," he says.
Inflation in Bulgaria, the European Union's poorest newcomer, has reached an 11-year high of 14,7 percent compared in the first six months of this year.
With 2,3-million pensioners in a country of 7,7-million people, Bulgaria's social security system is rapidly losing steam.
Life expectancy remains rather low - 69 for men and 76 for women - but the proportion of pensioners is expected to go from 23 percent in 2010 to 37 percent in 2060, according to the national statistics institute.
The maximum pension is 490 leva, but prices, especially for food, have already caught up with European levels.
Social Minister Emilia Maslarova has said it is impossible to significantly increase pensions without limiting the so-called grey economy, where many workers earn an undeclared part of their salary.
The grey economy accounts for an estimated 30 percent of Bulgaria's gross domestic product.
Ahead of general elections in June of next year, the ruling Socialist party, whose voters include many elderly, has promised pensioners free holidays and mobile phones to call the hospital in case of an emergency, and has proposed that care families look after elderly people.
"It pains me to see foreign pensioners who come to our holiday resorts, while our own can't afford it," said Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev.
The government is now considering increasing pensions to a maximum of €350 starting in January.
Meanwhile, grandparents who take care of their grandchildren under the age of three while their parents go to work, will also earn a minimum of €110 per month on top of their pensions.
Only a few lucky ones can enjoy a comfortable retirement, after getting back property that was confiscated by the state under the communist regime.
"We're renting out a flat and a shop in Sofia's city centre," says Alexandre, a retired journalist.
"So my wife and I have already toured Europe and we're planning a trip to China."