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Hired labour in the enterprises of the III Republic
[2008-08-18]

The means of treating hired labour in the enterprises of the III Republic might well serve as subject of a doctoral dissertation. It would supply immense services to a politician trying to evaluate the future desires of his or her voters. Unfortunately, given that I work at a factory and am also very engaged in political work, I don't have time to write it. Yet, I should like to share with you a couple of reflections based on personal experience and information by the media.

In the market economy, work is a cost factor and as such is subject to systematic minimisation. This can be done in two ways, one is the reduction in staffs or respectively the increase in the volume of work and the other is the reduction in wages. At first, there predominated the first means, however, automation and computerisation also led to a need for wage increases for those handling these. By contrast, the efforts for the unemployed were by far not sufficient, and the unemployment allowance for many of them are not enough to even allow them to survive. In order not to be fired, all kinds of strategies were pursued, including telling on people, servility and even simple corruption. All this led to a situation, where there did not have to be so many criteria for firing someone. It also sometimes led to drastic scenes among the workers and also among workers and already fired ones. The fear for the fate of their families sometimes made people forget about ethical restraints. Naturally, those fired also turned for help to the trade unions. They put forward three demands to force the firms to act more humanly. The first one was to test leaders to be promoted for their corruptibility. The second one was to make efforts for the reemployment of those fired. Finally, to attach to them a bad reputation if these two first measures did not work. One should not be surprised that many Poles react to this complete helplessness vis-à-vis the employers with shock, indignation and support the injustices only with difficulty. By contrast, the managers of the firm meet them with an unwillingness for dialogue and lack of understanding.

After all, when people get fired, the material situation of those remaining should improve. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The free market and the social model that accompanies it, led to continued lowering of wages. There seems to be no limit to the lowering of wages. After all, in the newly set-up firms, there is no lower limit to the wage at which new workers may be employed, and in fact the wages are often not even sufficient to cover the bare existential needs of the workers and their families, let alone fulfil social standards and work norms. Workers can be fired regardless of their suitability or non-suitability. There is absolutely no standard of justice here, and the workers are always at the disposal of the employer. Often in the place of the fired one, there is hired a drinker, lazybone and when that one is fired, another incompetent one. There is after all always the guarantee of a high level of unemployment. For that reason, the employer receives subsidies for each newly hired labourer, and moreover, there is a guarantee of absolute loyalty and gratitude from the hired ones, who are then soon enough settled again with a dismissal.

The situation is somewhat different in the case of the old state enterprises in the process of restructuring. There trade unions are active, and dismissals for the time being are restricted. The possibility for wage reductions is limited, even if they are not possible. However, there are still quite a number of means for reducing the cost of labour, of which for reasons of time, I shall only list a selection:

a) limitation of bonuses and blocking of advancements,
b) informal extensions of working hours,
c) lowering of premia for length of service and holidays,
d) work at home,
e) outsourcing,
f) burdening of workers with work expenses without rise in salaries,
g) individual negotiations with the employer resulting in reductions in wages and salaries,
h) hiring of new workers at the lowest wage category and under contract,
i) forced pre-retirement,
j) minimal compensation for retraining.

I am a witness myself that all these means and more are used and that the inventiveness of managers in this respect and the collaboration by the workers knows no limits. I limited myself here though to those that require no collaboration by the legislators. A couple more remarks on the list above:

Add a): In the large majority of large enterprises there operate bonus payments. This is probably one of the most significant element of wages, and its loss hits the family budget very hard. One might of course argue that premia have a supplemental character and are paid for extraordinary services. But these arguments hardly withstand criticism, when basic wages are so extremely low, but bonuses high. The employer that way established a special system of wage regulation. In some cases, premia can amount up to 40% of income. In many firms, they have already been abolished or suspended until a better day. This is justified by the difficult position of the firm. Unfortunately, this is often an unjustified argument, given that finances are kept hidden. In some cases, it is true, the trade unions were able to get access to the documentation, but they do not exist and moreover are very often ignored... The situation is the same as far as the blocking of promotions is concerned. Thus the lowering of wages by way of blocked premia goes on, and where this possibility exhausts itself, it is accomplished by inflation.

Add b): Often, it is suggested to workers that in case of delays in working on orders, they will get fired. As a result, they stay longer and take work home. Indeed that is possible despite our labour law and despite the high level of unemployment. The workers can be obliged to stay at work almost double their regular work time. There are known to me many examples, where the workers' council was informed that the employer either did not keep track of overtime or counted it wrongly.

Add e): The word is foreign, but the system is very simple. One or a couple of functions of the firm are transferred to a subcontractor. The gain from that follows from the fact that the latters' activity is regulated by other legal norms, and that the owner can easily avoid the objections of his workers. In such a firm it is easier to break the labour code as well as the other usual norms. In many subcontracting firms, I know of regular working times of more than 8 hours a day, and people are often forced to work on Christmas or on Easter day.

I think we all remember the public discussion on cases where small and larger firms helped themselves to legal and financial latitudes when founding and operating small firms. This is precisely how a foundation is put under the practice of outsourcing.

Add to f): In large enterprises, decisions are taking on the basis of information reaching managers by way of intermediaries. In fact, they know very little about how things are handled at the “bottom“. The costs of free-market orders are devolved to each subunit, which is completely independent. This leads to many orders not being fulfilled. Because as a result of the reform, the market is so big that it is difficult to satisfy it even at the greatest intensity of labour. In technical services there is great need, but technique is broken down into automated, electrotechnical , hydraulic and mechanical, and the administration of all kinds of technical and administrative equipment. Production workers, whose education ended after middle-school, must suddenly know all about all kinds of machines that they operate. The natural order of things can't be broken, and even superman would not know what to do. Therefore, there arises a situation where the foremen rather follow the slogan “Don't report on difficulties!“ and must throughout their working time constantly break legal and customary rules. An overworked foreman either does not fulfil the tasks any more or does it badly. They rather not see what's wrong, or pretend they don't see it and somehow manage the periodic reorganisation or the ISO certificate. The growing difficulties are interpreted as laziness or incompetence, and fall guys are chosen. Work turns into a nightmare, and because of the unwillingness or impossibility to leave into pure hell. If you say something, you are quite likely to find your car windows smashed and yourself beaten up. Where the trade unions say something, they are called “hypercritical and lazy“.

Add g): Employment of a new worker, at a low place, possibly resutlting in training costs, where he or she might still turn out incompetent. That is a really risky business. How is it done? The person is asked for an individual conversation and put before the alternative, does he or she want to be dismissed or be given a wage reduction. Of course, almost all choose the second alternative. That is the most perfidious and most brutal method, where the employer by means of primitive force rules over the market characterised by high unemployment and a very small and systematically limited social aid. In business slang, it is called male brotherhood or partnership agreement.

Add j): That is a method used especially in the employment of seasonal labour. Claiming training costs allows you to employ workers each year at the lowest wage level. Moreover, work is always distributed among the fewest possible hands. This method has the only shortcoming that it requires the consent of the trade union.

Often, one asks oneself how long this might go on and I fear to have to assert that it will be a long time, because there is no political force in sight that would want to break this pattern. Certainly not the SLD that without interruption has formed Polish reality and turned it into the known direction.


Ryszard Prątkowski


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