In the first half of May 2016 Priama akcia entered a wage theft conflict against CATO Agency after we had been contacted by Martin asking for help with his unpaid wages. It took less than a month of activities and here is the good news – the company paid up. Our protest and direct action tactics proved effective once again. We would like to thank to everyone who spread information about the conflict and showed support to Martin.
REASON OF THE CONFLICT - UNPAID WAGES
Martin worked for CATO Agency as an unloader of animal food for Royal Canin between July 2015 and March 2016. Since November 2015, he also worked as a products promoter. Most of his wages came late which was in contradiction with the contract and § 129 of the Labour Code. In March 2016, he decided that he wouldn’t tolerate such business practices anymore and contacted Priama akcia union.
Since the money wasn’t paid up by the company director Veronika Šmihuľová Kašpar by the end of April (and she was claiming without providing any evidence that he had allegedly caused some damage) we decided to act.
On 1st May, we visited the headquarters of the company in Košice, which is at the same time a home address of the company managing directors. No-one opened the door, but we left a demand letter in the mailbox.
CATO Agency was given 7 days to pay up. They didn’t meet the deadline, so on Friday 13th May, we published an article announcing that we are entering a conflict with CATO Agency to make them pay the unlawfully withheld wage. Almost immediately a lawyer and the company director Šmihuľová Kašpar called Martin. They exchanged information about hours worked, which confirmed that CATO Agency owed Martin 190 €. The boss claimed that she had paid everything, but this was not true.
As the money wasn’t paid, on 24th May we published a template of a protest e-mail and an e-form that people could use to tell the company what they think about their practices. First, e-mails were sent mostly by people in Slovakia, but then the conflict took on an international dimension and information appeared in Slovak and English on various websites and Facebook.
Šmihuľová Kašpar was also responsible for PR and marketing of the international film festival Art Film Fest in Košice, so we contacted the organizers of the festival one after another and asked them for a statement regarding their cooperation with a person that runs business in Slovakia in such a way.
Soon after, we reminded in Košice again them that we are still here. On 1st June, there was a fashion show promoting new Art Film Fest costumes. The guests, media and festival partners received information about the practices of the managing director in front of the hotel in which this event took place.
AND MONEY WAS PAID
We didn’t have to carry on with our next planned activities. One week after the last action, Martin received 175 €. He considered the payment of this amount satisfactory and decided the campaign could end.
However, regardless of whether CATO Agency would have paid the remaining 15 € or not, we decided to inform them that this amount is still missing. We knew that the boss didn’t want to pay Martin for one taxi ride (5 €) although she had promised to pay, as well as for two hours (10 €) worked at a promo event for Royal Canin (the request to stay for two more hours had come from the representative of that company). We sent the boss an e-mail in which we described these sums and were curious how she would respond.
The next day a response came, in which, however, there was an unclear answer, so we sent a reminder a couple of days later. Only then did the company director make herself clear. She informed Martin that she required the actual taxi receipt (a scan was not enough) and that the remaining two hours simply would not be paid because the employer never demanded anything like this from him. (It would be quite interesting to see the accounting between CATO Agency and Royal Canin and how these two hours were recognised…)
CATO AGENCY PRACTICES
During the conflict we found several irregularities on the side of CATO Agency. However, we know only about one worker who worked for this company, and therefore can’t generalize. However, we think that potential CATO Agency workers should pay attention to the following:
- Money was paid after the period specified in § 129 of the Labour Code.
- Non-payment of wages. This was the root cause of the conflict. The managing director lied when she claimed that she had paid everything. We believe that Martin was able to get his wages only thanks to the involvement of Priama akcia union and supporters.
- It turned out that it was difficult for CATO Agency to provide complete evidence. On the contrary, Martin was able to recreate a precise work schedule for each month thanks to e-mail and SMS communication with the boss. Thus, he could easily dispute the evidence provided by her. However, he didn’t know that the two extra hours at a promo event, which were not confirmed, would become such a big deal.
- Neither the scope, nor the place of employment was duly specified in the student work contract
- The company has the word “agency” in its name but according to the Business Register, there is nothing in its scope of business which would authorize it to act as an agent providing workers to other companies. Despite this, Martin worked for another company (Royal Canin) at the premises of a third company (building and gardening material stores) and followed not only the instructions of the managing director of CATO Agency, but also of the Royal Canin representative.
In connection with this case, we recommend being careful in the summer season when signing temporary contracts and working for different companies. As for student contracts in general, we dealt with them in a special publication Ideš na brigádu? Skúsenosti a tipy, ako so sebou nenechať zametať (in Slovak http://www.priamaakcia.sk/Ides-na-brigadu-Skusenosti-a-tipy-ako-so-sebou-nenechat-zametat----brozura.html) where we provided reports from discontented workers and tips on what to do in case of problems.
MARTIN’S POINT OF VIEW
When we met Martin he didn’t have a clear idea about what a potential conflict would require. We gave him all the information about Priama akcia union and explained that if he was willing to enter a conflict and be active, he would have our support. Also, we shared our experience from another conflict which was won in January 2016.
It was interesting to see how similarly bosses behave towards workers not only when they are not willing to pay but also in situations when they find themselves in conflict with our union (the most common reactions include denial, sidetracking and, of course, intimidation). We utilized the experience not only to prepare a strategy, but also to provide support in uncomfortable moments. On the other hand, we have to say that Martin stood his ground and was able to respond to unforeseen situations very well. Our tactics proved successful once again. Yet, we were curious how Martin viewed this case, so we asked him a few questions.
- What did this conflict teach you? What experiences will you take into your further life?
It convinced me about the strength of direct action as a form of struggle. In my case I got the wages paid but I think I could generalize and say that various social problems can be solved by similar forms of pressure. I can’t imagine that I would have succeeded in the conflict so quickly, or at all, without Priama akcia. Also, the conflict helped me to learn how to handle different situations without being nervous. After all, I didn’t have any such experience before.
- What was the most important thing in the conflict for you?
It was the support from people. I knew I wasn’t alone in it. When we were in Košice handing over the letter with the demand to pay the wages, I didn’t expect that there would be so many people willing to selflessly support me. Also, I felt support from friends and the people I know, but that was more or less moral support.
- What advice would you offer to someone with a similar problem?
I would advise all the people with such a problem to not be afraid. I realize that sometimes it is easier to turn a blind eye to injustice, even when it affects you personally. I know that people in general are afraid of standing up to those who in a superior position. It took some time to decide if it was worthwhile for me to start an open conflict, but the support that I felt throughout the whole conflict and the successful result convinced me that I made the right decision.
Activists in Košice were very helpful in this conflict and played a key part, because they were involved in two very important direct actions (handing over the demand letter and the protest in front of the hotel). We had a positive response from Eastern Slovakia in general also in the form of protest e-mails and regardless of town, region or country we would like to thank everyone who found the time to send e-mail. It is an important and at the same time the easiest part of every conflict and, most probably, we will need such support in the future.
In this conflict we could once again rely on individuals and organizations from abroad, mostly (but not only) from the International Workers’ Association (IWA/AIT) – ZSP (Poland), NSF (Norway), KRAS (Russia), ASF (Australia), SP (Portugal), SF (UK), Solis (Czech), FAU (Germany), WSA (USA), AW (UK), plus other people from the UK, USA and Spain.
Worker’s solidarity union Priama akcia
Slovak section of the International Workers Association (IWA/AIT)