The death toll of postsocialist mass privatisation

In 2007-2009, I did over 50 interviews with Bulgarian maritime workers. I wanted to study the post-socialist transformations of institutions and practices of maritime labour – and how those changes affected the working lives of seafarers and other maritime workers. Two different respondents told me the same tragic story. One knew it first hand, from his workplace, and the other – through the maritime grapevine, but both told the story without undue exaggeration, only sadness and respect, and in strikingly similar ways.

A middle-aged lady who worked in the on-shore administration had suddenly passed away. The previous day, a rumour had passed through the office that their branch in that city would be closed down, and all of the on-shore administrative staff – hundreds of people – would be sacked outright. One of the colleagues had suddenly felt dizzy and ill, and gone home. The next day she did not come to work. She had died of a heart attack.

Now, in-depth interviews people tell many personal and less personal things, some of which they would not have shared publicly. As a sociologist, although I fully trusted both of my respondents, I could not have verified this information outside their interviews. The direct link between stress and death is extremely hard to prove objectively, if at all possible, and I was not even a journalist, so I was in no a position to investigate. Or so I told myself. Perhaps I should have. The ethics of a field study are never clear cut.

Sadly, this was not the only story linking stress and illness or possible death, but this was the most striking one. It was told by two different people, from two different generations, both of whom I had good reason to trust. But I have also heard of other instances of people falling ill in expectation of, or soon after, being laid off, around the restructuring of the local maritime labour market and especially the former national fleet’s privatisation. I have also witnessed the effect of stress and fear of job insecurity among those seafarers and shore workers to whom I was close when I did my fieldwork (some in my own family, others friends and colleagues of my seafaring family members). Throughout the months and years, I have personally seen aggravated heart disease, incidents of hypertension, insomnia, breakdowns, not to mention family tension, middle-aged men’s hair going white in the course of weeks, or other diseases getting out of hand because the person works too much and has no time to visit the doctor, or is too worried about overspending or not taking on more financial debt, in case he or she soon gets laid off.

Today, I came across at a study by David StucklerLawrence King and Prof Martin McKee, published in the Lancet, which reminded me of this story. The study – which is already old, published in February 2009, but no less relevant – claims that as many as 1,000,000 working-age men died due to the economic shock of mass privatisation policies followed by post-communist countries in the 1990s.

One of the authors, David Stuckler from Oxford’s Department of Sociology, commented: ‘Our study helps explain the striking differences in mortality in the post-communist world.  Countries which pursued rapid privatisation, or ‘shock therapy’, had much greater rises in deaths than countries which followed a more gradual path.’

Read a summary here and the study report, if your institution or you have a subscriptionhere). 

The authors’ response to methodological criticism (free access) is also well worth reading.

Another of the authors, Lawrence (Larry) King, gave a public lecture at the UCLA on the subject – you can hear the podcast here.

For months on end, seafarers and shore-workers had been expecting the national cargo fleet to be privatised. It had already been the subject of rumours for over a decade, and many young and well-qualified workers had already ‘deserted the sinking ship’, but tens of thousands had stayed – out of loyalty, or because they had nowhere else to work. But now new rumours had appeared that the privatisation would really take place soon. Rumours were running wild, because absolutely no officially confirmed information was available. Workers were afraid they could lose their jobs any time – and the older ones among those men and women were justifiably scared for the livelihoods of their families, because they would be unable to find other jobs. And no, we cannot attribute workers’ fear solely to middle-age risk aversion, or advise them to be more enterprising and laid back. The structure of the post-socialist labour markets – by far not only in maritime transport – seriously discriminates against older workers, and especially women (it also discriminates against the youngest workers, but this is a separate, painful, topic). There simply are not enough jobs for people, even though they may be well-qualified. And, to quote prof Stuckler again,

‘Not only did rapid privatisation lead to mass unemployment but also wiped out the social safety nets, which were critical for helping people survive during this turbulent period.’

Photo: Krassimir Delchev, BGNES (


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