Labour in Poland under neoliberal rule

For the uses of this article, neoliberalism and globalisation will be used interchangeably. By neoliberalism, I shall understand current Polish reality. Where I would decisively reject the idea that these destructions are only the residuals of the Communist past. Since its demise, there have already passed 15 years now, but the negative consequences of neoliberalism not only do not get smaller, but on the contrary even stronger.

Neoliberalism has had an effect on all aspects of social life, but with attention to the subject matter of the article, I'll limit myself to questions with immediate bearing on industrial relations.

To start with, a few words on myself. I have higher technical education, and in my work life have been physical worker, foreman, master, executive factory director and provincial representative. I think that for the topic in question I have enough experience to be able to talk with confidence on the matters at issue.

To start with, I excuse myself for the fact that given that I have a technical education, grammar is not my strongest side. Nevertheless, I hope I shall be able to get across clearly what I want to say.

My presentation will be divided into two parts, the first part will be on the impact of neoliberalism on the social sector and the second on wage and working conditions in particular.

Influence of neoliberalism on daily social life in connection to hired labour

In Poland, from 1989 on, state means were systematically reduced and the financial means acquired with its help handed over to the private sector. The consequences of this for hired labour are the systematic reduction of their rights as workers and of their incomes.

This is realised by way of:
1) changes in the labour code
2) complete restructuring of the social sector linked to work life
3) breaking of trade union rights

In order not to be superficial, let us talk about each of these points in detail.

As to point 1) Since 1989, the labour code has been amended more than 30 times, and the changes to the benefit of the workers can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The novelties looked that way:

a) The rights of the employers were strengthening, the number of consultations with the workforce systematically reduced and the impact of the trade unions on the restructuring process was reduced.
b) The introduction of new forms of work contracts made it possible to shift the burden of supplementary wage costs to the workers, one example: self-employment,
c) The power of disposal of the employer over the employee was strengthened, one example: work at home,
d) fixing in the labour code of minimal demands, and right to the employers to break collective agreements that might contain dispositions more favourable to the workers, this leads to reduction of workers' rights, more frequent unemployment and poses a threat to industrial relations,
e) reduction of certain minimal demands on extra-payments in the labour code or elimination thereof (for instance, overtime, holiday payments, premia for seniors or thirty-year veterans)
f) weakening of trade unions, accompanied by a reduction of their rights. Any moment, they can be expelled or their salaries reduced under the pretext of needed restructuring,
g) in general, a demotion of the business councillors from participation in decision-making to one of merely giving an opinion, there it helps to look at an organisational chart of the firm,
h) and that in turn helps in transferring as many workers as possible to part-time work, which in turn reduces their say in the firm.

But of course, in order to be fair, we need to recall that workers' right are being reduced everywhere in the EU, and wherever changes favourable to the workers are being made, they are always accompanied by limitations in other workers' rights.

as to 2) I have in mind here such things as social aid, health insurance, school education and retirement allowance. I shall talk about them one by one.

Social aid

I have in mind here help to the unemployed or communal help to the poor. The help to the unemployed is being systematically curtailed; at first it ran at 75% of one's last salary and was paid for a year. Now it has been reduced to 125 Euro paid for the first ½ a year only and independently of the level of the salary previously earned. Such low means for the unemployment agency are hardly compatible with the neoliberal doctrine of wanting to do away with unemployment. Similarly low means are foreseen for the re-education of workers, and for the employment of unemployed people by the employers with the goal of their retraining. Certainly this shameful state of affairs is hardly rational. However, precisely this reduction has led to yet a further undermining of state funds. Because why after all should a worker be retrained if he won't receive a new job at the next factory anyway? But the employers take him on anyway, because he can use the state means for his retraining to push down his costs of labour, then get rid of him and claim subsidies again for the next one. There is no question of reduction of unemployment, but only of the replacement of one unemployed by the next. There are also some attempts to put unemployed on their own independent professional feet, giving them to that end additional state funds. However, the success of that measure is limited to a few; the rest fall into indebtedness. This is caused by high interest payments, and very low demand for the services offered, given the large number of unemployed and the low wages and salaries generally. Following the sayings of our dissidents in former times, the slogan became very fashionable, that one should not give the worker a fish, but a net to catch the fish himself. That would be o.k., if there were any fish in the pond. Finally, the unemployed are then reduced to help by the community, but that at present unfortunately lies at only 6 Euros per month.

Health insurance

That is a sector that has been constantly reformed. The polyclinics have been abolished, the personnel of the ambulances has been reduced and the salaries of those remaining active in the sector reduced. The National Health Funds has systematically reduced payments to the sector that for many months before the end of the year is lacking funds for its functioning. The directors have no other choice and against the law are trying to seek the costs from the patients. You can see with a blind eye that the goal of all of this is the privatisation of the sector. If the patients are already paying for everything themselves, why not make all hospitals private. The newest idea is the division of patients into good ones and bad ones, where the subsidised part of insurance must then be filled up by a voluntary one. Those who pay will then be treated more quickly and better served. At the end of the chapter, it needs to be recalled that the list of medications paid by the National Health Funds has been shortened.


Here the situation looks similar to the situation in the health sector, and here again the goal is the privatisation of education reached by means of reduction of public subsidies, which means that capital will flow into the private sector. Again it is clear to the blind that scientists will go abroad, the number of Polish patents is falling, which means that technical progress is falling, and lower educated people will not insist on a good qualification of their children. Consequently, the school reform of 1999 proposed to emphasise general education, based on the hypothesis that the working people will anyhow need to requalify themselves many times in their lives. The consequence of that is a deficit of qualified workers in the technical factories.


Retirement allowances and pensions are being reduced by the constant pressure of the employers. One consequence of that is lowered pension levels, another the constant attempt to increase the retirement age, for instance, by the equalisation of the retirement age of women and men. Pensions are difficult to pay for, on the one hand, due to the high level of unemployment, starting already with the difficulty of the young generation to even enter the labour market, which leads to all kinds of pathologies: alcoholism, drug and narcotics abuse. The neoliberal propaganda for pension funds, on the other hand, actually means downward pressure on pensions, because the money paid in there due to low earnings and the time factor will never be able to guarantee a decent life in old age. This is exacerbated by forcing sick people to work for a living, which means that their life time is being cut, because no one will employ a sick person.

As to 3) The breaking of workers' rights in Poland is an epidemics so to say. The pressure to lower cost is so great that many employers in Poland can't even wait for the change in the labour code. They therefore try to circumvent it. Therefore, corruption spreads, the courts are troubled, industrial relations are weak, the State Labour Inspection is ineffective and underfinanced, the fear of unemployment or exploitation is great. I draw your attention to the fact that all the factors mentioned by me have their roots in neoliberalism. The breach of workers' rights begins with the non-payment of premia, the refusal to pay overtime work and even wages agreed upon in collective bargaining with the trade unions. Subsidies are cashed, yet workers are fired. Working conditions are bad, premiums are no longer paid, workers need to work longer hours...

Ryszard Prątkowski, Attac Poland


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