Black Box East: Labor and Automation in Bulgarian Car Factories

Robotization is most advanced in the automotive industry. But production is far from being a fully automated process. Human hands and brains are still needed and often recruited where labor is "cheap." For instance, in Bulgaria. Architect Ina Valkanova did research in a factory built to create a single car part: rear lights.

In his last extensive exhibition “Countryside:⁠ The Future” Rem Koolhas shifted his attention from the urban cores to the rural landscapes. He described countryside territories, which are being transformed through technological advancement, large-scale infrastructure projects and automatization. Similarly, in “Machine Landscapes” Liam Young depicted a fast-spreading socio-spatial condition, where territories empty of humans and inhabited by robots extend to every corner of the world. Both works portray realities reigned by non-human actors: data-centers, Internet infrastructure, and logistic robots. They are “cautionary tales” about what could happen in our world and the uncomfortable it will hold for human beings.

Human exclusion zones and human dependency processes

Those conditions and places do exist in the world, even increasingly so. But to focus on the technological sublime and excluding the role of the humans is a reductionist approach, which echoes the post-industrialism focus on the service and knowledge economy of global cities while disregarding the intensive labor production in developing territories. Observing those machine landscapes, it would seem that the human brain plays a role in the design and manufacturing of our world, but human hands don’t. This is, however, true primarily for western developed economies.

Most of the objects we use on an everyday basis, cars, technological gadgets, clothes, and home appliances, are significantly produced by human hands. Despite all automation efforts, people still play a crucial role in implementing, operating, and general success of a manufacturing system. For example, the Swiss company ABB – a leading robot producer – had only one robot in its Bulgarian factory for electrical systems in 2016. Most of the precise work of entangling copper cables into electrical switches was done by hand by local women from the rural areas of Southeast Bulgaria.

The effort of this article is not to counter a specific narrative – post-anthropogenic or human-centered – but to argue for a complex reading of the forces that shape our society today that includes both dreams of endless technological progress and the effects on uneven labor development. Currently, technology does not replace human labor but rather displaces it. While in western economies and global cities, innovative and products are designed, they are produced and assembled far from the western city cores in desert landscapes of African cities, Vietnamese Hinterlands, or Mexican rural areas. This doesn’t mean that such conditions will remain the same in the future. Automation efforts in every industry sector aim to eliminate the uncertainty of the human factor. Our relationship with technology and how to create an inclusive and sustainable societal transition in the technological age remains one of the central questions of our time.

While transnational companies would prefer to use a highly effective predictable automated system for industrial operations, instead of paying people’s wages, machines prove to be unreliable and often break. Mechanization still needs high-skilled workers to control and maintain the process. Nowhere is this battleground of technological progress and human culture more present than in the often-overlooked region of South-Eastern Europe, where western high-technology companies outsource production to take advantage of cheap land and “post-communist” industrial traditions.

The automobile industry exemplifies this struggle of technological growth and human dependency brilliantly. The automotive industry has become “a leader in robotization, accounting for almost one-third of all new industrial robot installations yearly.” The research of Cedefop shows that half of EU automotive companies use robots, which is more than twice the average of the manufacturing industry as a whole. At the same time, the sector still depends very much on high-skilled human labor, a tendency that has led to the relocation of important production sites throughout the CEE region. To go beyond the macro-economical perspective and understand how such transition and neo-liberal industrialization impacts local people and places, let’s look behind the doors of an automobile component manufacturer in south Bulgaria.

How your car rear lights are made – a day in a factory

I spent a week in a factory, which supplies rear lights components for several European auto produces, intending to be trained as a worker and understand the factory plant’s daily life. More than 250 workers are employed here, and the demand is growing. Workers find out their weekly shifts with a weekly advance. Today I am trained as a spare part assembly line worker by Nasko – a young team leader I got to know in my research process. He has an early shift, but for my first day, I come to the factory at 9:00. There are four shifts – the first one starts at 6:00 and lasts until 14:00, the second shift is from 14:00 to 22:00, the third shift is from 22:00 until 6:00, and the regular shift is from 9:00 until 17:00. Only rear lights are produced in this factory. I ask where the headlights are made. “In Slovenia and Turkey,” an engineer answers. I enter the factory hall, which is full of machines and assembly lines. There is no single robot, only people standing in the assembly lines and more workers hectically moving around. I quickly realize the people moving around are team leaders, or engineers with technical education, while the band workers have no specific prior training. One of the assembly line women’s previous occupations was a cashier in a supermarket. 

Nasko, an agricultural engineer by training, transferred to the manufacturing sector due to the high demand and career possibilities. He starts by giving me a tour of the factory. First, the plastic material in the form of grains, delivered from Saudi Arabia, is melted and poured in the specific conditions provided by the car producer firm. This process is completely automated. The parts then need to be put together to form a rear light, and the geometry to be measured and tested to fit precisely for the specific car model. Two parts of the rear light component lights get delivered to the line and then measured, covered with rubber bands, pressed together, cleaned, marked, and ready to ship to the logistic hall. From then on, the components become part of complex logistic networks and are sent to various locations around the world. On my line, there are approximately ten people, mostly women. It seems an easy process, so I want to start right away, but the pressing machine breaks down, so production stops. There is chaos; engineers gather around the machine, people discussing, leaving, coming back. This situation lasts for about half an hour when miraculously, Nasko presses a button and fixes the machine. There is cheering, people gather joyfully and congratulate each other. Production can further continue. Every 121 seconds, a rear light is assembled on my line, which means 720 rear lights a day and a total amount of 262,800 parts a year. 

It’s almost 14:00, and the shift is nearing its end. I ask Nasko when he will leave together, but he wants to stay and fix another machine. Do you need to stay? – I ask, Are you paid overtime? But no, no one asked him; he wants to stay and fix it as if he feels a sense of responsibility and almost like a relationship of joy to the machines. It’s clear he likes to fix things, which makes him so valuable to the factory. Because appliances break down daily, sometimes they break even multiple times a day, reminding us that in a car component factory human labor is still very much a crucial component in manufacturing.

Future of human labor and social consequences of automatization

While I painted a picture where automatized production is still highly dependent on human labor, the future of manufacturing processes is very uncertain. The experience in the plant showed how the local factory is incredibly entangled with global production networks, resource supply, and product demand. Therefore, it is essential to read what is happening in Bulgaria in light of global manufacturing tendencies. The current subtle shift to electric vehicles, which require fewer components, has caused much distress about possible lost jobs in Germany. While predictions range from no job losses at all to a “Detroit” scenario with half a million job losses in South Germany, one thing is clear: the component suppliers worldwide will face significant restructuring and job cuts in assembly positions, as the one Nasko employs. In developing countries, where significant numbers of workers are still engaged in assembly and painting, low-cost and low-skilled jobs might be replaced or at least transformed at a much higher rate through automation in the future.

At the same time, Eastern Europe still regards the auto industry as the Holy Grail of Foreign Direct Investment and spares no effort in attracting automobile production companies. Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia participated in a highly mediated bidding war over the reception of a new Volkswagen facility. But the Volkswagen factory that was supposed to be built in SEE is not the cutting edge technology, which would help upskill local workers and raise new capacities and knowledge. Rather, the new Eastern European factory would ease VW’s factory in Emden, Germany, and shift from Passat production to electric cars. At the same time, the old technology would be implemented in Southeastern Europe, continuing the tradition of keeping innovative R&D jobs in Western Europe.

Suppose we accept the inevitability of post-anthropocenic landscapes, pictured by Rem Koolhas and Liam Young. In that case, it is crucial to ask how we want such a transition to happen and what the social implications of such a scenario are. Because there are both winners and losers in the technological revolution and such a process would deepen existing social and territorial divides. As a battleground of technological progress and fragile social conditions, Bulgaria is well suited as a case to rethink contemporary manufacturing as a tool to create more sustainable and inclusive habitats. In the words of Richard David Precht, we need “to get back our autonomy and not to leave the future to an autonomous evolution of the technology.” This challenge must be understood as a collective effort that includes global companies, local workers, and governments.

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This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on https://berlinergazette.de/. You can find more texts, artworks, and conference information on the English–language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

Ina Valkanova
Ina Valkanova is an architect, curator and researcher. She studied architecture in RWTH Aachen and University of Arts, Berlin. Her research explores the relationship between production and place and the paths for transformation in the case of Trakia Economic Zone in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. She was a coordinator for investment and innovation of the long–term development strategy of the city of Sofia – Vision for Sofia 2050, which aims to improve the mechanism of urban planning by including all interest groups in the decision–making process from its very beginning. Prior to this, she also served as the director of the international architecture festival “One Architecture Week” in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Ina is a co–founder of Gradoscope, a collective focused on city reinvention, based in Sofia, Bulgaria. She has taught in the University of Architecture in Sofia and has lectured in various European locations, such as Copenhagen Architecture Week and Belgrade International Architecture Week. She was a collaborator of Alvaro Siza in from 2011 to 2012 on the project Atrio de la Alhambra.

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