We live in a society where we have to work for money to survive. We need money for food, housing, education, healthcare but also for culture, recreation, leisure activities etc. Often, we struggle to cover all our costs, so when we aren’t paid for our work at all, the consequences are drastic for us and the people who rely on us. In response to this widespread phenomenon the International Workers’ Association (IWA) decided to set the third week of October as the International Week Against Unpaid Wages. Throughout this week, the unions federated in the IWA will inform about the issue and how they approach it in practice.
Unpaid wages as a global phenomenon
Non-payment of wages occurs all around the globe. It is an easy option for bosses to save costs or enrich themselves. The worst situation is in workplaces with fishy (or no) contracts and informal verbal agreements, which makes it hard to prove such practices, but there are also cases when we just wonder how insolent the employers can get and how obviously they violate law.
Bosses know that when they don’t pay wages (or overtimes, wage for trial period, wage compensation, etc.) they can get away with it easily. They have no problem risking because they know that even if someone took them to court, it wouldn’t be easy. Moreover, people generally have a negative attitude towards legal proceedings, because they cost something, last long and have uncertain results.
Employers know one more thing – even if someone starts to push for owed money, it is most likely that they will be dealing with individuals and not a collective power, and that these individuals will have to focus on the lost income and deal with problems arising from it. Therefore they take a chance and ignore them or promise over and over again to make the payment, expecting that after some time, the workers will simply get tired and discouraged from taking other actions.
We fight against non-payment of wages
Our main method is direct action, i.e. collective protest actions that hit the bosses where their profits and power lie. They have to see that the problem is handled not only by individuals they tricked, but by a union that now fights together with the individuals.
Concrete forms of action stem from the concrete problem and its circumstances. It could be a protest in front of the workplace, a blockade of the workplace, a visit of the bosses’ home, a news article about their practices, a protest aimed at their business partners, a boycott of their products or services, an international solidarity campaign etc.
Unions in the IWA have experience with various situations that appeared to be hopeless for the workers. But when people decided to start a conflict (not a court case), stuck to the agreed tactics, didn’t get intimidated and actively participated in decision-making, they stood a good chance to get their wages.
Here are some examples of conflicts fought by the IWA unions:
Anarchosyndicalist Federation (Australia)
Only one picket was needed to win this conflict with New Star Kebab restaurant in Sydney in 2017. Activists demanded owed wages for four weeks of work for an ex-worker Melinda. The response of customers was very positive and the owners decided not to risk further losses. Within a week Melinda got her money.
Związek Syndykalistów Polski (Poland)
In 2019, cleaners from a refugee center in Warsaw with quite unfavourable contracts via outsourcing company Sadar won proper holiday, sick pay and social security payments. In the end, they also got contracts directly with the center and not the external company. These results came within weeks thanks to direct actions organized together with ZSP.
Anarho-sindikalistička inicijativa (Serbia)
In 2016 there was a conflict with a private grammar school in Belgrade organized by ASI that lasted less than a month. A teacher who left the school due to harassment, mobbing and humiliation by the school principal, was owed part of his last wage. The campaign was successful and he got the wages as well as compensation for the harassment. The principal demanded removal of the information about the conflict from the internet claiming that it damages the school’s reputation, but the union resolutely refused.
Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (Spain)
La TagliatellaAt the end of 2018 CNT-AIT in Albacete had a conflict related to holiday, compensation for termination of contract and night shifts differential. The advantage in this conflict was that the La Tagliatella restaurant had branches in several towns. CNT-AIT organized protests in Barcelona, Alicante, Tarragona, Madrid a Granada and within several months won all the owed wages.
Solidarity Federation (UK)
In a conflict from 2011 against the Office Angels agency in London Dan was owed three days wage. Dan decided to fight for his money together with SF. What contributed to the eventual victory (besides several protests in the UK) was also an e-mail campaign of the IWA, which our union joined as well. SF has a longtime experience in conflicts related to unpaid wages, most of which end with a victory.
Our union also had several conflicts related to unpaid wages. Their detailed description and results can be found in a pamphlet called Ako sme si poradili s problémami v práci: Spory zväzu Priama akcia v rokoch 2015-2019 (How we coped with problems at work: Conflicts of Priama Akcia union in 2015-2019). It can be downloaded for free: https://priamaakcia.sk/Ako-sme-si-poradili-s-problemami-v-praci-Spory-Priamej-akcie-2015-2019.html
Laws and courts are not the solution
Often, we hear that when we have problems, we should go to court. While we think that it is important to know the law, we cannot rely on it and the courts either.
And what does the law actually say? The Slovak Constitution stipulates the right for wages for the work performed (with a sarcastically sounding comment “sufficient to secure a dignified standard of life”). The Labour Code (LC) obliges the employers to provide wages for work that can’t be lower than the minimal wage. According to the LC, the employer is obliged to pay out the wages on a date determined in the contract or collective agreement. If the date is not determined, the wage is due no later than at the end of the next calendar month.
In case of owed wages, the employee can claim their payment via a recorded letter to the employer. If the wages aren’t paid, a letter of demand follows, sent as a recorder letter as well. If this is doesn’t do the trick, from the point of view of enforceability of owed wages by legal means, only two other options are left (they can be used at the same time):
1) Civil proceedings
It is possible to file a motion to issue an order of payment which can include the payment of default interest and reimbursement of the costs of proceedings. The court will then issue a order of payment within 10 working days. If the employer raises an objection within 15 days (lodges a statement of opposition) or does not pay the demanded amount, judicial proceedings begin, which can last months or even years.
2) Criminal proceedings
It is filed at a police station since unpaid wages can be a criminal offence. The Criminal Code specifies when it is so (if the employers had financial means they did not necessarily “need for running the business”). It is not rare for the police to decide that there is no reason to start the criminal prosecution, since non-payment of wages is a criminal offence only in cases when the employers do not pay the workers despite the fact that they have the financial means to do so.
Many people think that sending a complaint to the Labour Inspectorate (LI) could help. However, the LI has no legal means to enforce owed wages. It can only investigate the situation, call for rectification or fine the employer. Immediate termination of employment by the worker is no solution either. The employee can terminate the contract immediately within 15 days after the payment period (but only within a month). However, leaving the job does not mean automatically getting the owed money back and one has to fight for them anyway.
The anarchosyndicalist approach
While we consider direct action to be a very effective tool in getting the owed wages back, we are aware that even if we won all owed wages, the phenomenon won’t cease to exist. The nature of the capitalist system will always play into the hand of bosses and they will try other tricks on workers. Therefore, we don’t call for “fair” wages or treatment. The problem is the wage system itself, because someone usurps the work of someone else and gives only part of its value in return. Furthermore, we don’t think that direct action itself is the goal. It is very important that it is interconnected with collective organizing, decision-making, experience sharing and generally building the culture of mutual aid.
The aim of the unions associated in the IWA is not only short-term material victories. We realize that everyday struggle against unpaid wages is just a direct response to an immediate problem. Even though we consider it a defensive struggle, it is at the same time part of our wider long-term struggle for substantial changes in society.
We want a different world. Without capitalism and its production based on profit and not people’s needs. Without hierarchies on all levels of social life which artificially divide us and are a breeding ground for inequality and oppression. And without the state which is just a reliable saviour of capitalism and holder of the power over the rest of society. To lead happy and dignified lives and develop our abilities and society as well, we don’t need either of them.
That’s why we organize and get together with workers in Slovakia and abroad. If you like our approach, contact us.
We will carry out informational and other activities as part of the International week against unpaid wages in Slovakia. We will inform about them on our FB page and in special FB event.