The Union of Syndicalists of Poland (ZSP) has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by calling for different forms of working class action. It is planning a mobilization to start as soon as it is possible to gather en masse in public.
First, it has pointed out that workers who want to (and should) stay at home, should do so. In Poland this is even protected in the Labor Code – however, many workers are not protected by it due to employer abuse of civil contracts; workers on such contracts, which number in the millions in Poland, are excluded from these legal protections. Furthermore, some employers have threatened workers who want to stay home or misinformed them of their rights. The most common threat is that, due to a lack of business, the workplace will suffer economically and have to cut staff. It is implied that workers will be fired for using their right to refuse work in such a situation.
One place where ZSP has been active for some years is the Post Office and this is one of the places that the government thinks should function during the pandemic. ZSP has been calling for action in the Post Office and informing workers of their rights while the directors misinform them, claiming that if they want leave, it has to be unpaid or come out of their vacation time (which is subject to approval). Right now it is hard to judge the level of work refusal and, ironically, some workers feel like it is something of a social duty to service the public at this time.
Indeed, some members of our union are out working with the public now (taking the precautions and actions merited by social responsibility) – in health care, bringing food to people who have self-isolated or have been sent home, delivering masks to workers or trying to lobby with city officials.
The union in Warsaw is trying to organize an action at the first possible date to confront the government, which has not done enough to combat the phenomenom of „trash contracts”, despite lip service to the labor movement. When the situation allows for a mass gathering, it will call on precarious workers to protest the situation. Members of that union who are also involved in tenants' organizing have called on the city to freeze rents for people who are adversly affected by the situation. (The city President has infuriated people by first offering help to business renters, but nothing yet for households.) Although the government has promised some help to workers, including those on civil contracts, the union has pointed out that many people will fail to qualify for such help and that scores of workers on civil contracts which offer no guarantees or notice period have already lost their jobs and are likely to be affected for many months.
The union has published two statements in the past week, one in specific response to the government's crisis proposal. The crisis proposal helps out companies in several ways and assumes the burden for paying a small, one-time payment to the millions of workers who are on civil contracts. As the union has pointed out many times during its existence, the use of civil contracts often is a fradulent way of avoiding the responsibilities of labor contracts and this state of things is passively supported by state institutions that supposedly control this. The State Labor Inspectorate is not effective and often turns a blind eye to employer abuse, as do the courts, which even have blatantly ignored to law to protect the profits of businesses.The Union has called out the government on this public bailout, arguing that when it gets an application for the payment, it can gather information on which employers are using fraudulent contracts. In the Union's opinion, we must help all these workers right now, but we should not support these abusive companies with public money. If they do not want to compensate their workforce, which they falsely claim are not permanent workers, they can be fined and the proceeds can be used to pay workers.This is something that the State, which has facilitated employer abuse of civil contracts for the last three decades, does not want to do. ZSP has always pointed out the State's complicity with this system of organized theft and maintains that we need to keep the pressure to win significant improvements and provide more security for the precarious workers who now find themselves in a very difficult situation.
Below are translations of the first statement of ZSP on the Coronvirus situation and the second statement, which is a direct response to the government's plan. ZSP joins the Alternative union in Poland in demanding concrete actions be taken against trash contracts, but goes one step further in offering a concrete proposal for workers to provide information about the nature of their employment.
The first statement of ZSP was intended to stimulate public discussion on the problems of millions of workers not covered by the Labor Law, who would not be entitled for compensation in times of forced work stoppage. According to the law, in such a situation, workers on normal labor contracts receive money even if they are not working but workers on civil contracts do not. This topic was widely discussed in Poland and the government responded by offering a small one-time payment to some (but not all) of these workers. It also offers no special help to those in the grey market or unemployed. The second statement is a response to the government's plans.
First Statement of ZSP
Let's fight for our health: We have to cure the sickness of poverty and precarization
The Coronavirus pandemic has increased public awareness about our health and the risk of passing on the virus. ZSP wishes the best of health to all workers who are still performing important work for us – among them being medical workers, but also others who are often underappreciated like supermarket cashiers, farmers, bakers, food industry workers, food couriers, cooks, public transport workers, taxi drivers, etc. etc. We know that without you, urban life cannot function normally.
However, ZSP would like to point out that for years society has passively accepted that many of these people work in very precarious conditions – often without stable employment contracts, for very low wages. For years workers (and actually, mainly women workers) from the health services like nurses, EMT workers or cleaners have been fighting for better working conditions. We believe that the majority of society agrees that they have the right to decent working conditions and a good salary for their hard work. However, we have not done enough to show those in power that we demand increased spending on health care. Those in power try to cosmetically conceal the tragic situation which we really face. In reality, people are dying in Poland of the side effects of poverty, such a lack of proper nutrition or unhealthy living conditions. We live in a situation where senior citizens have to chose between buying medicine or paying for rent and millions of workers have precarious employment, in which they often work beyond their physical capacity, without paid vacation or sick leave.
For years ZSP has been reminding people that every day, many people go to work ill because their bosses force them to. They don't have paid sick leave and they are always just a few weeks away from homelessness and hunger. Among those who frequently work while they are ill are gastronomy workers and this puts both them and people visiting restaurants at risk. Clients of restaurants often pay a lot for eating out, but that doesn't mean that the owners of the restaurants take care of the workers.
In the current situation, we know that many workers just cannot afford to lose 2 or more weeks of work. They have to pay rent, pay back bank loans and cover many other expenses. We call on the government to finally enact legislation to stop the pathology of trash contracts and precarious work conditions – all the more so because many of these workers are fictiously employed on such contracts and are entitled to be on regular employment contracts. We also need a Special Act on compensating these workers and victims of unemployment – (multiple) payments to workers on civil contracts who lost their income because of stoppage of work and also including workers whose contract ended during this period. We call on everybody to support workers who decide to fight for their rights. Write to companies that you know hire people on trash contracts. We encourage workers to become acquainted with their rights and to fight to be recognized as workers on a labor contract.
ZSP will support those workers who want to actively fight for their rights. Join us and show that you don't want this pathology of trash employment to continue!
A few days following this statement, a Special Act was announced by the government. The government did recognize the scale of people on trash contracts (which is obvious) and offered them a one-time payment of 80% of the minimum wage, before taxes. (Equivalent to 328 euro.) The union saw this as a way to falsely convince the public that it is taking the problem seriously, while not really doing nearly enough. First of all because workers on normal work contracts will receive 80 percent of their normal pay but also an additional payment and second because these payments will last for the duration of the work stoppage, not one time. Second, huge numbers of these people are not employed now (their contracts were terminated) and it is not clear if those people will be covered. Third, they will not pay anybody who started their contract after March 1, although many people on trash contracts are given new contracts each and every month to sign. This „help” is a pittance to the workers. At the same time, the government has offered much more significant aid to businesses.
Second Statement of ZSP
The Crisis of Trash Employment – we need firm action
The crisis situation of workers on trash contracts has been growing for years. Now this problem can no longer be swept under the carpet. We need a firm plan of action.
People with low income who lost work because of the epidemic and quarantine must receive support. We don't accept the idea that this support be only 80 percent of the minimum wage. This contradicts the very idea of a minimum wage. No wage should be lower than it, included income guaranteed in this time. We also do not accept that this help is limited to one time. We don't know now how long this situation will last. The government has nothing to offer people who lost their jobs (or whose trash contracts simply were not extended) because of the pandemic.
The government decided that only contractors who signed contracts before March 1 should be entitled to help. Why? Are the really ignorant to the fact that some employers even sign new contracts with such workers on a monthly basis?
The crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic must be used to fundamentally treat the unhealthy situation of workers on trash contracts who often are in fact performing work in the same conditions as people on normal labor contracts. This situation should be used to force companies to create normal jobs and to resign from this traditional of sanctioned fraud.
We don't have any concrete information yet about how the government plans to pay these people but if they have to apply for payment, this is a chance to check if these workers aren't really entitled to a normal work contract. On such an application, the government could include questions to be filled out by the workers such as:
1. Have you worked in the same company
a) less than a year (if so, how many months)
b) 1-2 years
c) more than 2 years
d) more than 5 years
2. Did you perform work for your employer under their supervision * and in a placce and time determined by them?
(Translator's note: These questions are formulated taking into account provisions of the Labor Code.)
(*) Supervision does not have to be direct or mean that they tell you every concrete thing you have to do, nor does it mean you are in the physical presence or same location as the supervisor/employer.
If the workers answers affirmatively to question 2, it means that a work relationship existed and according to Art. 22 paragraph 1 of the Labor Code, any contract signed with the employer should be legally considered a work contract, regardless of the form of the contract actually signed.
If it turns out that this work had the characteristics of a labor contract or that this work lasted for more than 1 year, this case should automatically be sent to check. The Inspectorate should be given the legal capacity to change the agreement to a labor contract if it meets the requirements under the labor law. In addition, these companies that violated the Labor Code by using trash contracts where they were legally obliged to form labor contracts should be excluded from any anti-crisis subsidies from the state budget.
The government is currently working on amendments to the Labor Code. Unfortunately they do not plan any serious changes for workers on mandate contracts (trans. - most common form of fictious civil contract in Poland). We know that many workers who perform the same work as those on labor contracts are given these contracts and thus they are denied some important workers' rights which is particularly evident is crisis times like this.
The epidemic has shown clearly how necessary it is to make sweeping changes in the Labor Code and the competences and actions of the authorities. The legal loopholes which some employers use to deny workers their rights must be patched up and more serious sanctions need to be taken against employers using trash contracts.