In October 2020, ZSP published „Fighting Back”, a longer article detailing various examples of how the union has fought against different types of wage theft. (The article is available here in English: https://zsp.net.pl/files/ZSP-IWA-against-unpaid-wages-2020.pdf) The article was written to precede the International Week of Action against Unpaid Wages which the IWA held from October 12-18, 2020. It was decided to repeat the week of actions again, this time from October 11-17, 2021. As we stated in the previous article, wage theft is an enormous problem in Poland and comes in various forms. It is made far worse by the fact that the legal system is practically useless in terms of helping workers and cheating employers know that if they steal, they are very likely to get away with it. This has been one area where ZSP has had quite unique success. Almost no mainstream unions deal with this issue in most of its most common forms, especially when it concerns categories of workers that it routinely ignores: those working on trash contracts or without contracts at all. However, wage theft also occurs in workplaces where unions are present. ZSP has taken on many cases that the mainstream unions won't touch, thus making it an effective tool for workers' direct action.
A few of the more recent cases of wage theft that we've dealt with show some of the problems workers face very well.
Hospital Cleaners Cheated
The cleaners in Jaworzno's hospital find themselves cheated in various ways – a situation that unfortunately many hospital cleaners and support staff find themselves in Poland. The health care sector is one that is highly unionized, but it tends to be unionized by profession: nurses and midwifes have their own unions, EMTs have unions for EMTS, doctors for doctors, etc. This means that very often, some group of workers is being exploited or cheated at a hospital where several unions exist. But these unions have tunnel vision. ZSP sees a different way to organize and thinks it is not acceptable to encourage a mentality where one group of workers ignores another in the same workplace.
Cleaners very often are outsourced workers, so legally, they aren't even working for the hospital. In the case in Jaworzno, some cleaners are employed directly, but the rest have a shady situation. The company that won the public tender – Impel, which is a huge and notorious firm specializing in outsourcing – actually manages everything on site but uses a number of different companies to employ the women. So the workers are in a situation where they work together but are actually legally employed by several different companies. One of the reasons that this is done is to cheat the workers out of overtime pay. Almost everybody has to work overtime but when the workers reach the limit, instead of paying them time and a half, they receive a contract with a second company. Thus their overtime hours are treated like a second job. The workers never ever saw or had contact with any of these other companies. What's more, many of the workers are with disabilities and legally cannot be forced to work overtime.
This type of abuse is systemic is Polish hospitals when it comes to cleaners. They are treated as the lowest of the health care workers, a fact established in the recent minimum wage tables approved by the government. If the low wages and difficult conditions were not bad enough, they must face frequent forms of abuse such as the practice described above. In Jaworzno, other forms of wage theft were also experienced. For example, all health care workers who had to work through the COViD pandemic were to receive a bonus, but in Jaworzno, only part of the cleaners received it. Also, workers with disabilities are to receive some small extra payment and rights to rehabilitation, but the workers do not get this. The government actually pays subsidizes to employers to hire them so the outsourcing company doesn't even have to pay them a minimum wage by themselves. The final type of wage theft we saw in Jaworzno is that, although most cleaners have a work contract, some have a trash contract, although they do exactly the same job. Trash contracts are used to avoid paying workers paid vacation and other leave. We don't think it was any coincidence that older women (over 50) seem to have regular work contracts, but that younger ones (ie. women in child-bearing age), often have trash contracts. As it happens, one of the workers is pregnant and would like to go on maternity leave. Maternity leave is only paid to people on trash contracts if they themselves paid extra into the state insurance scheme: people on normal work contracts have this automatically. In addition, the leave is only paid if the birth happens before the contract expires. On a work contract, there are protections against firing a pregnant woman; with a trash contract, if the contract expires even during the 35 week of pregnancy, the employer has no obligation to prolong it. Defacto, trash contracts allow employers to easily get rid of workers by giving them short term assignments which they can end at any time. The existence of this possibility is a government invented and approved form of mass wage theft.
The workers have already stated their demands and are organizing an action. As we were asked in the IWA to provide articles about wage theft sometime before the Week of Action, we are not able to write more about this yet, but we are sure some protest will have been taken before the Week of Action and you can check the ZSP page for an update on this struggle.
Direct Actions at Huge Franchise Bring Payments
The form of wage theft in Zabka tends to be much more straightforward. Zabka is a huge convenience store chain, with over 7000 shops in Poland. As it is a franchise, workers are hired by the franchisee. The conditions can be different but often these are trash contracts at minimum wage. We know of situations where there were no contracts at all. Or no evidence of working time kept and then workers didn't get paid for all their hours. It looks as if in Zabka, there are lots of cases of workers simply not getting paid for all the hours they worked.
When workers decided to take action, we were easily able to get unpaid wages paid at Zabka. We were able to go to talk to the bosses in Warsaw and get everything paid by threatening to protest and in Lodz were able to protest and get payment. As a high-profile retail shop that often relies on a constant stream of new workers, the owners do not want protests in front of their shop.
Despite the fact that we were easily able to win with Zabka, some workers who contacted us in a similar situation decided to remain cheated instead of taking action. It is very hard to explain this type of long-term defeatism that the working class often feels in Poland, but it is in large the legacy of the crap legal system, which fails workers. Too many people have failed to get any help and hear stories from other people, thus discouraging them from even trying. The state has normalized wage theft. This is why what we do is important, to show people that they can stand up to this and be successful.
Action at Local Bookseller also Has Immediate Effect
Sometimes it is just enough to stand up for yourself to get what you are owed. Last December we held a picket in front of a bookseller in Warsaw. The boss had cheated the worker by not properly evidencing the working time. The contract provided was also illegal. The young woman, who is a student trying to pay her rent, was perhaps seen as a easy target. Many unscrupulous bosses take advantage of students, suspecting they don't know their rights or might be in such a desperate situation that they'd agree to anyything. When she understood that the guy had cheated her, she decided not to let it go and during the picket, money was transferred to her bank account.
Week of Action Against Unpaid Wages
The successful actions described above are just a few that we could describe. (Many more were detailed in the longer article we wrote last year, linked to above.) We understand that this is a worldwide problem and the various organizations of the International Workers Association may face slightly different particulars in their local conditions, but the main problem is the same. Exploitation and abuse of working people. This is absolutely not acceptable, no matter what the form.
From October 11-18, we will try to raise awareness of this problem on a global scale and hopefully take some actions locally.
Solidarity and direct action are our weapons in this war against exploitation!