Priama Akcia union succeeds in another conflict over unpaid remuneration (+interview with worker)

This was our fastest victory so far. It took just eight days from a collective delivery of a demand letter for the former veterinary hospital worker to receive the money in her account. Same as in our last case in 2019, we succeeded before the conflict went into the public phase, since the boss paid the amount owed within a deadline. We are thankful to all people who came out to support the worker during the letter delivery and wanted to join the planned solidarity campaign! In this article you will find more information about the conflict and an interview with the worker. If you have a problem with unpaid money and want to actively address it, please contact us.

THE PROBLEM

Lucia worked as a doctor in a veterinary hospital. She received money for her work under a mandate contract. One part of her `salary` was paid on the basis of an invoice she issued each month for a fixed amount of €700. The other part consisted of a sum for miscellaneous tasks, the sale of feed and for night shifts, for which she received an extra payment.

The problems with the employer (more precisely, the mandator) arose in September, when she was due to receive money for work in August, which was also her last month with the company. According to the manager, there were basically two reasons for the non-payment. The first was that she had not returned some company items (e.g. keys or a stamp). He claimed this despite their agreement that it would be sufficient if she returned them during September. The second reason was an open circumvention not only of previous practice but of the contract itself. The manager began to claim that Lucia was not entitled to the €700 because she had not worked enough hours, and tried to `legalise` this claim with an amendment to the contract, which she refused to sign. She sent the manager a lengthy explanation, which she wrote with her lawyer, and added that she would start claiming default interest if the outstanding invoice was not paid.

A further complication arose on 1st October, when she had already returned all the company`s items and there was really nothing to prevent payment of the amount owed. The manager suddenly came up with the following - Lucia still had to pay an aliquot part of the amount for the work clothes, without indicating how he had calculated it at all. Lucia had had enough in the last month and decided to contact our union on 7th October.

PREPARATIONS FOR THE CONFLICT

After a collective review of all the documents and communication, we concluded that we could win the potential conflict. The main task now was to determine the amount owed. The fixed amount was clear, but Lucia had to get to the amounts for the tasks and other things first. It was not impossible, but it was time-consuming, as she no longer worked in the company and could not check data in the system herself. So in the meantime, we agreed that Lucia would try to ask the manager to explain the calculation related to the work clothes, as the amount didn`t make sense. She sent the first email on 13th October and a reminder on 20 October, adding that if the calculation of the amount was not sent by 22nd October, she would consider the whole amount to be irrelevant. Ironically, shortly after sending the reminder, she received the first part of the debt - a fixed sum of €700 - in her account. (This was 48 days after the invoice was issued, or 19 days after the last company items had been handed over.) However, the payment of this amount was unrelated to the reminder and was totally coincidental. There was no guarantee that the company would pay the remaining few hundred Euros, especially when we saw the (lack of) communication on the manager’s part. And since the manager did not even respond to the reminder, we decided to deliver a demand letter directly to the company on Monday, 25th October.

COLLECTIVE DELIVERY OF A DEMAND LETTER

We wanted to deliver the letter to the person in charge, i.e. the company head. While he works as a veterinarian in the company, too, it was not certain that we would be able to reach him during working hours. We therefore made sure that one person pretended to be a customer and arranged a meeting for Monday evening. That was exactly when we walked into the veterinary hospital together with Lucia and other people who had come to support her.

Lucia asked the receptionist to call the company head, saying that she wanted to talk with him about owed money. The first message was to wait two minutes. After more than two minutes, a second attempt followed. This time the receptionist said that he was on a phone. Although we hadn`t planned on staying any longer and had a plan B in reserve for such a situation, the atmosphere was pleasant and we were quite curious to know if the manager was just pulling our leg or if he really had pressing obligations (although he was supposed to be waiting for a fictitious customer at the time). After a few more minutes, Lucia asked the receptionist to try again, otherwise she would have to give the letter for the company head to her. The receptionist came back with a message that Lucia could either go to him alone or meet the manager the next morning. The "indecisive" behaviour of the manager caused general amusement in us, and after giving the letter to the receptionist we left the hospital premises in good spirits.

The 8-day period (until 2nd November) for payment of the money started, after which we planned to enter the public phase of the conflict.

QUICK VICTORY

On Wednesday, 27th October, we received an email from the manager finally clarifying the calculation related to the work clothes and requesting an invoice. Lucia accepted the calculation and the amount, and on 28th October an invoice was sent to the company for the outstanding amount of €441.50. The deadline for payment remained 2nd November and the company complied with it. Lucia received all the money owed that day. So, after lengthy individual communication with the company, all it took was one collective action and the threat of conflict and we achieved a lightning-fast resolution of the problem.

We are pleased at how quickly the money was paid, but whether the conflicts are short or long, they are always a school of mutual aid between workers. They confirm that if we want to achieve something, we have to stick together. And they show that we really can do it.

INTERVIEW

After the conflict, we asked Lucia for an interview. We were interested in how she perceived the conflict. We also briefly discussed veterinary work in general.

Initially, you tried to resolve the issue of the owed money with a lawyer and considered a pre-suit notice. Eventually, however, you decided to contact our union and use direct action tactics instead of the courts. Can you elaborate on why you made that decision?

I was discouraged from going to court by my own lawyer, as it would have dragged on for a year or two. I was familiar with your activities and when I started to have first doubts whether I would get money from the company, I considered the possibility of contacting you with a person close to me. Shortly before that I considered trying a pre-suit notice to see how they would react, and especially at this point I was greatly helped by a lawyer (who actually found it quite difficult to navigate through such a messy mandate contract).

Did the people around you know that you wanted to fight for the money you were owed, and even in a way other than through the courts? If so, how did they react?

They knew. Some with a more vivid imagination immediately imagined demonstrative standing and shouting outside the company`s headquarters, and they were more inclined to advise me to better go to court. On the other hand, from the closer family circle, they liked the method of direct action and last but not least, my partner was very supportive and helpful.

One of our conditions was that you would be active in the conflict and that we would not do things for you. We must commend your commitment and cooperation in preparing the conflict. However, we would still like to ask you if you had any fears, uncertainties or doubts, or if you imagined things differently, if anything surprised you...

I`ve read your publication "How We Coped With Problems At Work", where you summarised your conflicts between 2015 and 2019. This was very helpful, I could imagine better how a conflict could escalate. In my case it all went quite smoothly, mainly thanks to you. I told to myself two things at the beginning when I sought the help of a lawyer - that I would not take the whole thing tragically and that it would be a valuable experience however it ended up. I mean, working somewhere for free for a whole month feels bad but...

You mentioned that the use of mandated contracts in veterinary practice is very common. Is this in any way connected with the existence of the Chamber of Veterinary Doctors of the Slovak Republic and basically a mandatory self-employment?

A veterinarian who decides to carry out a private veterinary practice must register with the Chamber, which then assigns him or her an ID number and he or she is registered as a self-employed person, a so-called occupationally-related trade. One of the conditions for registration with the Chamber is that the person concerned is not in a state employment relationship, an employment relationship or any other similar employment relationship, nor does he or she carry out any other gainful activity in the field of veterinary care except for teaching, journalistic, literary and scientific activities. So, yes, basically, we do not have much choice.

Do you think that mandate contracts are equal in their advantages to employment contracts?

I don`t think they are equal. A mandate contract is governed by the Commercial Code, ergo in court the mandatary (an employee of the company in question) and the mandator (the company head) have equal status, the mandatary is not protected by the laws as an employee under the Labour Code. Nowhere is it defined how many hours a mandataries can work in a given month, so they are governed by their mandate contract, and this is often abused by company directors, and it may happen to you that you actually work 192 hours, in the contract you have a maximum limit of 184, and since nothing protects you, you can only hope that you will somehow negotiate it with the boss/manager.

Our last question is related to a problem we often encounter. A conflict requires that the workers prepare for it, and they need to find time for that. At the same time, they usually already have a new job or are trying to find one. The other thing is that they are not used to confronting someone who has or has had some power over them. There`s probably no one-size-fits-all answer or advice, but can you think of any advice you would give to people who haven`t received their pay?

Hehe, probably just a universal answer: channel all the anger and resentment into proactive action, realize who is perpetuating the unlawful situation, which was caused by the former employer in the first place, and perhaps most importantly, don`t underestimate the collective power. Just knowing that other people are interested in my problem at work gives me the strength and motivation to face it.

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If you have problems at work and want to actively address them, you can contact us at one of our contacts. If our activities are close to your heart and you want to develop them in your area, fill in the questionnaire https://www.priamaakcia.sk/zapoj-sa.

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