by Magda Malinowska (OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza, Poland)
The present text, which we co-publish together with LevFem and Lefteast, is part of a series of publications on the topics of social reproduction, (women’s) labour and migration in East-Central Europe and beyond. Magda, worker, activist, unionist of Workers’ Initiative and member of the E.A.S.T. network, discusses how the pandemic accelerated processes of precarization of the labour force. Low local wages, longer shifts, shorter rest periods: all this made Poland a reservoir of cheap labour for global capital even during the recession. The article, which was written after the September webinar, that is before the outbreak of the Polish women’s strike for abortion freedom in October, talks about several, albeit sometimes isolated, protests: nurses, DPS carers, Volkswagen workers, private employees with increased duties, lower salaries, no personal protections. These protests happened simultaneously with the protests of Amazon workers in Polish, German, American, French, Slovakian, Spanish and Italian warehouses. Strike and walkouts were the only way to obtain protections and wage, even though for women going to work was an escape from domestic violence and increased reproductive labour obligations. This article thus summarizes some key elements that anticipated the great October mobilization and provides some of the reasons why large parts of the population in Poland, and not just women, took to the streets under the watchword of the strike and united to the protest against patriarchal oppression which creates new divisions and hierarchies in and out of the workplaces. To connect and empower struggles like these on the transnational level and organize an essential strike against exploitation, racism, patriarchy: this is the urgent task that we are facing both in the pandemic and the future reconstruction.
In terms of the employment structure, Poland differs from Western Europe. 59% of all employees work in services, 31% in industry, and 10% in agriculture. Although the Polish economy is largely dependent on foreign investments and the situation in partner countries such as Germany and France, this country should be relatively less affected by the current crisis than, for example, Spain, Italy, Greece or France. We can see it observing production growth indicators. Although industrial production in Poland fell by 25% in April, it started to increase in June, and in July it reached 0.2% higher level than in the same month of 2019. Registered unemployment indeed increased, but not drastically so far. The main statistical office recorded an increase from 5.5% in January 2020 to 6.1% in July 2020. There are still fears that official data do not show the actual scale of unemployment and we will experience a crisis in this field in autumn or winter (when the seasonal work and programs to counteract layoffs introduced by the state will end). Currently, however, it is still one of the lowest rates in Europe.
This does not mean, however, that employees in Poland are in a privileged position. Hunger wages still remain a problem for the local labor market. In June 2020, the average wage in Poland was almost four times lower than in Germany, three times lower than in France, and half that in Italy or Spain. Labor costs in 2019 were 2.5 times lower than the EU average, over 3 times lower than in France and Germany, and 2.5 times lower than in Italy. Apart from its geographic location, it is mainly low labor costs that attract foreign capital to Poland. Due to low labor costs in Poland, some services, production, transport, logistics, warehousing and construction are profitable for global capital, even in a recession. Unfortunately, only a few benefit from such investment.
In 2017, the increase in nominal wages in Poland accelerated, reaching 6%. However, it was not enough to compensate for the imbalances arising in the labor market in less than three years. The pandemic and the specter of the crisis contributed to a decline in wage growth. In July, it was 3.8% and was similar to the one in June – 3.5%. With inflation around 3%, this means that real wages in Poland are almost stagnant. This is confirmed by the situation in Polish Amazon facilities, where it was announced that most employees will not receive any pay increase this year. Such a decision was made a month after Forbes magazine published information indicating that as a result of the pandemic Amazon founder Jeff Bezos become the richest man in the world, with a fortune of $200 billion.
The data published by analysts do not indicate that due to Covid Poland has to confront a deep collapse of the economy. The panic, however, made it possible to transfer funds towards capital, hit small entrepreneurs and tighten the screws for workers. How did this happen?
„We don’t want to be a human shield”
After the pandemic was announced, as in other countries (although on a smaller scale), the Polish government started to support the economy by introducing new anti-crisis shields for businesses. Unfortunately, from the point of view of employees, the virus was used to worsen working conditions and to introduce further privileges for business. The current government’s proposals did not differ much from the austerity plans implemented after the recession of 2008. At that time, employees paid for the crisis by flexibilization of working time, increasing the retirement age, spreading civil law contracts, outsourcing, wage freezes, and extending billing periods. These changes were supposed to be temporary, but have not been reversed till today. It is partly because of the decisions of previous governments that the current situation in the labor market (weak bargaining position of employees, the number of people employed under junk contracts, chronic overwork) and in health care is so dramatic.
This year, as part of the shield for businessses, working time was made even more flexible by reducing the daily and weekly obligatory rest period, the rules for granting holidays were changed to the disadvantage of employees, work without medical examinations was made possible, the functioning of the labor inspection was suspended for several months, the possibility of sending employees to a standstill payable only 50% of their salary was introduced, etc. People who worked under civil law contracts could receive benefits, but it was the employers who had to apply for them.
At the same time, a large stream of money was directed to large enterprises, offering them low-interest loans and subsidies. The condition for receiving financial aid was maintaining jobs for a minimum of 3 months. However, to get the subsidies, enterprises had to shorten the working time of employees and to reduce wages to 20%. Subsidies were dedicated to those businesses whose production and profits dropped and who couldn’t provide enough of work to employees anyway. The experiences of workers show that employers applied for subsidies and reduced working time even though the amount of work in these enterprises didn’t drop. One of the biggest foundation which supports women on the labour market Sukces Pisany Szminka, made an inquiry among women about their situation during pandemic. 1/3 of respondents answered that they now spend more time at work and have more professional duties than before the outbreak of the pandemic and at the same time their wages dropped. Even in workplaces such as the Avon factory and distribution center, which, according to financial reports, did not experience significant production drops, they still cut working time in order to get subsidies. Nevertheless, trade unionists from Avon, united in the OZZ Employee Initiative, for several months argued about working time and remuneration. As a result, both were cut by only “10%” (not 20% as previously assumed). During the dispute, employees were threatened with mass layoffs, although the number of orders did not indicate that these layoffs would be in justified. A similar situation occurred in many other companies that applied for subsidies.
Business Demands a Social State (for Itself)
As a trade union Inicjatywa Pracownicza, we tried to build a wider coalition of trade unions to resist the provision of subsequent anti-crisis shields for business and to push through pro-employee changes such as the shortening of working time without lowering wages, introducing wages in accordance with the 3: 1 rule (meaning that the highest wage in an enterprise cannot be higher than three times the lowest paid one) or universal health insurance for all. More than 40 companies signed up to our demands. Most of them, however, unionized in Inicjatywa Pracownicza and just few plants from 7 other trade unions. Large union centers have not taken significant steps to block the unfavorable changes. Only the extreme anti worker ideas of the government were blocked. During the lockdown, conflicts broke out among workers like: DPS carers, locked in nursing homes with their own patients who tested positive; nurses whose working conditions were significantly worsened by putting them on high alert and requiring the greatest dedication; employees of markets and plants where infections have been detected; employees who were threatened with group layoffs; employees whose duties were increased by reducing working time, etc. All these protests were, however, atomized and did not turn into a larger collective resistance. The rapid introduction of new anti-crisis shields for business, required the quick reaction of various workplaces and the analysis of new documents, which, combined with reduced mobility, significantly weakened mobilization capabilities of unions and workers.
The broken, weak and neglected labor movement in Poland still needs time to unite and overcome it’s limits. This is not favored by the still dominant view that blue-collar workers are entitled to work like dogs for nothing, white-collar workers for a little bit more, and big entrepreneurs are sacred cows who should have access to all the wealth in society and nobody has a right to question it.
As a consequence, entrepreneurs turned out to be the most militant group in Poland during the pandemic. With the support of the right, they organized a series of demonstrations during which clashes with the police took place. Ironically, they called the protest ‘a strike of entrepreneurs.’ Self-employed people (e.g. hairdressers) who actually found themselves in a difficult situation due to the lock down also took part in it. The main organizers, however, were right-wing politicians and wealthy entrepreneurs who demanded faster financial support and subsidies, guaranteed by the pro-business shields. The ‘strike’ of entrepreneurs received wide coverage in the media and overshadowed workers’ protests. Those who for years had been lobbying against right to the strike and against worker demands, without any embarrassment, referred to working class traditions and started riots demanding a ‘social state’ (but only for business).
Amazon and Volkswagen Workers in the Struggle
In plants such as Amazon and Volkswagen, employees demanded the closure of warehouses or the introduction of additional security measures and hazard pay to compensate them for working in dangerous conditions. Due to the lockdown of production in Germany and the lack of access to components from China, the Volkswagen factory was closed for some time. Trade unions associated in OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza postulated, however, that “production lines in Volkswagen Poznań factories should be immediately switched to the production of respirators and [PPE] necessary for hospital workers in Poznań and all over Poland.” Volkswagen has benefited from enormous subsidies from the government since the 1990s and is exempt from taxes. It was demanded that in this way the company should repay the hard work of its employees and the support of the Polish state.
In Amazon, a financial bonus and additional benefits were obtained thanks to the bottom-up international cooperation of employees from Poland, Germany, the USA, France, Italy, Spain, Slovakia and the groups and people supporting them, such as the Solidarity Group of OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza, Transnational Social Strike, Amazonians United, etc. Thanks to this cooperation, Amazon workers managed to work out joint demands, organize a petition, organize joint conferences and speeches, write a letter with demands to Jeff Bezos, etc. An important achievement was breaking the divisions between white-collar and blue-collar workers and the mutual support of warehouse workers and tech workers, and cooperation with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Another important element of the protests was the use of such tool as work stoppages when workers don’t feel safe. On that basis, various walkouts from warehouses in the US were organized, protests in France and Italy, etc. In Polish Amazon branches, about 60% of employees stopped coming to work using sick leaves or childcare leaves (one of the few additional benefits provided to parents of children under 8 during the pandemic was the possibility of taking paid care leave due to school closures). Although it wasn’t a form of collective resistance, the absence of so many employees certainly helped put pressure on Amazon to improve working and pay conditions at its facilities.
One of the primary demands made globally by Amazon employees at the begging of the pandemic was to close warehouses. Bringing together thousands of people from different cities and towns, they didn’t seem safe. Indeed, in countries where more tests were performed than in Poland, many cases of infections were detected. Also in Poland, infections occurred in most of warehouses. This postulate was supported by the majority of employees, but not all of them. It aroused mixed feelings among some people employed by employment agencies who were afraid of redundancies and some women.
Most of the employees of Amazon’s Polish warehouses come from low-income households in small towns. Usually they are dependent on the income of at least two family members. Moreover, the high cost of living in bigger cities limits their mobility. In the localities they come from, they have houses or flats (often built at cost, by themselves and their family members), the value of which is much lower than that of much smaller flats in a larger city. Moreover, in their hometowns they can count on their family or friends and neighbors who they have known for many years, who can help, for example, in taking care of children or the elderly. During talks with union shop-stewards, some employees of the warehouse located near Poznań said that lockdown meant staying at home, where they did not want to stay. There are many reasons for this, the basic ones are domestic violence and conflicts in the family. Others include the quality of housing, overcrowding, lack of space for oneself, intimacy and peace, etc. According to these employees, despite the risk (most of them are at a higher risk because of their age), they prefer to work for pennies in a warehouse where it is dry and warm and you do not have to argue or look after anyone from your family than stay in their own homes.
The pandemic situation reminded us that the housing situation of employees has a significant impact on their bargaining ability. The less access to a decent roof over your head, the more difficult it is to fight for decent working conditions. The situation can also be described in the opposite way: the better our housing conditions and the possibility of changing the flat, the more stable our position in the conflict with capital.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed who our society depends on for survival. It was those working in logistics, health care, trade, the post office, and other ‘essential’ industries that saved many economies from collapse and ensured the functioning of entire societies. Yet, years of living in poor conditions, working in unsafe workplaces where our lives don’t mean anything, years of alienation and marginalization of workers in public sphere have left quite a mark on working class abilities to mobilization. Those who managed to organize across the workplace’s walls and borders started to build transnational structures a long time ago. During the pandemic we could see that it wasn’t for nothing. We have to continue transnational organizing as labour and tenants’ movements on everyday basis. If we only start to do it when a crisis hits it can be too late.