Katarzyna Duda, expert on social politics working for the All-Poland Trade Union Confederation (OPZZ) and member of Razem (Together) party, discusses the questions of post-transformation Polish labour market with Cross-Border Talks’ Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat and Veronika Susova-Salminen. In the centre of attention, there are multinational corporations and the way they treat their Polish blue-collar staff. Katarzyna confronts myths about ‘progressive’, ‘efficient’ and ‘job-creating’ corporations, sharing stories of exploitation and dubious management. She also puts the thing in context, showing how the shock therapy of the 90′ paved way for multinationals’ entrance into a labour market full of desperate people, and how little has been done so far to protect the working population.
Good afternoon everybody, and welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks. We are again focusing on Eastern Europe. Today our guest is Katarina Duda, who is a trade unionist from Poland and also a member of the Together left party ,and first of all, the author of two books in which she shows the ugly face of Central Eastern European capitalism. In her first book, she portrayed the places where, during the socialist era, people had stable jobs in the state-owned factories, but then during the transition, they suddenly lost everything. They lost their job and basically the whole culture, the whole environment that existed around the factory. In her second and newest book called Korpo, she takes on the multinationals, the corporations that often came basically in the place of the closed down state-owned factories. Katarzyna says in the introduction to her book that had someone coming to a job interview in a transnational actually knew all the secrets of the place, he or she would have never agreed to work in a place. We are going to find out the secrets. We are going to have a look at the job market and labour market in Central Eastern Europe and we are also going to look for solutions for that. Katarzyna, thank you for being with us in Cross-Border Talks.
Katarzyna Duda: Thank you for the invitation and good afternoon.
Of course, I couldn’t forget my great colleague, Veronika Salminen, the Czech-Finnish expert on everything related to Central and Eastern Europe. Please, don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-Border talks. We are on YouTube. We are everywhere, on SoundCloud, Rumble, Spotify, whatever you want. So please don’t forget to subscribe. And now we can pass to the first question.
So, Katarzyna, can you reveal to us some of the dark secrets of the corporations, of the transnationals? What are the nastiest things that corporations hide from potential employees? Before you answer, I just wanted to say that the things happening in these supposedly model employers can be really nasty, really scary and really tragic. Your book is devoted to the memory of an employee who actually died in an Amazon warehouse in Poland. And the situation is even more tragic given that Amazon today boasts to be to get the title of a top employer of 2022. So imagine this: Amazon is hailed as a model employer in many European countries, and at the same time, one of the employees loses his life during a shift in a factory. So what is wrong with corporations and what do they do that they don’t want to tell us?
Thank you very much for mentioning Dariusz Dziamski, who died one year ago in Amazon, and I dedicated my book to him. In three weeks, we will have one year anniversary of his death. His wife and I are going to meet with employees from Amazon to talk about working conditions now and about what – if anything – happened after his death.
So the main problem with working conditions and with multinational corporations, I think it’s the lack of democracy in these companies and the fact that the main goal is to have bigger and bigger profits. It’s the reason why working conditions are so poor, why people even die there, because the main goal is not to make working conditions better, more comfortable. The goal is not to hear and listen to workers about their problems, their needs. The main goal is just to make profits. Dariusz Dziamski died one year ago, although one month earlier he talked to his leader. He told him that his working conditions are so bad that he should change something, but the leader didn’t listen to him. So that’s the problem: people want to change or something, want to improve their workplaces, but the corporation and the leaders don’t want to listen to them. In this case, the result was the death of Dariusz Dziamski. And there are many, many examples in my book of the situations of lack of democracy.
Also, the multinationals offer so-called benefits. Many people think that it’s something very, very good. For example, some companies offer private healthcare or something like that. But if workers want to change it into something else, for example, if they want to earn more, or if they wanted to get more money for holidays as a benefit, the corporations would not want to hear that. They give the benefits, but they are not open to any discussion. So even if the company shows its better face, we should be suspicious. We should assume that it is not as good as people may think. Behind the benefits, there is also a lack of democracy and an authoritarian face of corporations.
I will now ask a more general question because I think it’s pretty important to understand how we get here in Poland and elsewhere. By the way, our Central-European countries are seen by many as successful models for economic transformation. This economic transformation was based on basically two pillars. First pillar was foreign direct investment, and the government of Poland was among the pioneers in it, in the early nineties.Our governments betted deliberately on attracting the foreign companies and on adjusting our labour markets, our economies and well-being of the societies according to the competitive approach. This approach means that foreign direct investment will not come if we do not do this and that and do not adjust, we will be not competitive enough. And the part of the competitive model is also the so-called cheap labour. This is what you said already. You said it: if workers want to talk about salary increase, the employers don’t want to hear it because all the models are based on cheap labour. The reason why the corporations are in Poland, the reason why they are in Czechia, the reason why they go to Hungary and so onis that salaries are low, much lower in the core countries of the European Union and still lower than in Southern Europe, by the way, for example.
So I would like to ask you about how we got here and what are the particular changes which happened over the last three decades in the particular Polish labour market? And by the way, we speak about Poland. And here I would emphasize: one of the biggest ironies of the Polish development is that the the it was the Solidarnosc, it was the trade union who were behind the transition, who were and actually the result is that trade unions these days are much weaker and the labour rights are much more weaker than than you would guess, based on this fact. So how is this context? And what did the foreign direct investment model and the cheap labour model did with the labour market in Poland and with the rights of workers in Poland in general?
I have to mention about the 1990s and high unemployment. At the beginning of the Polish transformation, the unemployment rate was very, very high, even 20 or even 40% in some areas. So many citizens were unemployed because of transformation and privatization, because many public institutions were closed. When the unemployment rate was so high, the politicians wanted to offer people any kind of jobs. All private companies, foreign companies, and big companies were welcome. The quality of these jobs wasn’t as important as just the mere fact that there were jobs.
For example, in Wałbrzych (Dolnośląskie voivodeship, Southern Poland) in 1998, all three mines were closed. These public companies employed about 20,000 people, miners. When they were closed – people lost everything. And many private foreign companies were invited to run a business close to Wałbrzych so that the inhabitants could get any job. That’s why Poland was so open to multinational companies such as Amazon. And for many other companies.
But people that remember how it was to work before 1989 often repeat that those were completely different workplaces. Completely, even completely different worlds! The main value for public institutions before 1989, were people. Workers were more important than profits. And after this change, everything changed, including the power of trade unions. As you have mentioned, Solidarity was so powerful and big between 1989. But after that… and now I have to quote a trade unionist from one foreign company who said “Now we feel fear because Amazon is so powerful. Amazon has power and may even decide that the trade unionists will lose their jobs. The fight is not equal”.
So, now not even Solidarity, one of the main trade union confederations in Poland, is not a partner for Amazon. What has happened 30 years after 1989 is a dramatic change. People changed their opinion about trade unions or other organizations that want to improve working conditions. People do not want to join organizations that collect people. People just want to do everything on their own. This individualism evolved after the transformation of the Polish economy.
I will react to what you said about the early 1990s. The attraction of the foreign capital was based on the kind of, I would say, crisis management, because the shock therapy, especially in Poland, was not working well. People lost so many jobs, the economy shrank so much that basically those who started the transformation were in shock. But this, let’s say, crisis management element is with us still 30 years later.
You have argued in one interview that these foreign investors are actually not creating jobs. The politicians often say that they are creating jobs. You argue something else. So could you elaborate on that? What do you mean by saying that they are not creating jobs in Poland, you said, but replacing the jobs? So how does this mechanism work exactly?
I would even say that they are stealing jobs. They are not giving the jobs. They are stealing jobs from people from other countries: from Great Britain, from the United States, from France, from Spain. Many companies that run their businesses in Poland, five or ten years ago employed people in different countries in Western Europe, but also in the United States. So many of them just close companies in other countries and they don’t take care of the people that must live there. They simply go where they can earn more. For example, to Poland, where wages are not so high.
But they also don’t take care of us! We cannot feel safe. In five years, in ten years, when wages and the political situation will be better in Eastern Europe, in the south of Europe, they will close their companies here. In one year, in two years, they will leave us. That’s how multinational companies work. Their main goal is to spend less on wages, to earn more. And they think all the time about better places to run a business. Today it’s Poland, yesterday it was France.Tomorrow it might be Bulgaria, Greece or Romania here. That’s the process, which is called outsourcing, a part of globalization. Of course, we can say that they give us jobs, but at the same time, they steal jobs from people from other countries.
I wanted to have a little bit of a bird’s eye view on the Polish labour market because your book is full of really drastic examples of what happened in multinationals. There is basically everything there. There is exploitation, there is work overtime, there are low wages. There is even a chapter on workers who work on moderating content on the Internet and who are exposed to brutal or obscene content without any psychological support from the side of the company. So there is really everything in that book. One could even ask: why still are there people willing to work in corporations in Poland? Perhaps the other workplaces are even worse? Or is there an alternative? So I could ask, is this that only multinationals come to Eastern Europe to exploit local people or the whole system is rotten? And if the answer is that the whole system has a problem, then how can we start repairing it?
Why do people work in these companies? I would name two main reasons. The first one are wages, which are not so bad when it comes to Polish conditions. When it comes to the Polish labour market, the wages are usually the minimum.The multinationals pay more and it is one of the most important reasons.The second reason is that many people come from small cities, villages where there is almost no alternative and they travel to their work to these multinational companies, even one hour or 2 hours, because there are no other available jobs.
After 1989, when so many Polish public companies were closed, these multinational companies didn’t decide to replace them at these places where exactly they were located. They chose places and areas close to bigger cities. And that’s the second reason. So wages and the fact that there is no alternative in many small cities.
And you ask about the Polish labour market. I have to say that generally speaking, we’ve got problems everywhere, even in public institutions, even at public schools. We have a problem with short term contracts, with exploitation. Private foreign companies aren’t an exception, but a part of a bigger problem.
It is also a bigger problem that the state doesn’t focus on developing trade union movement, that the state doesn’t focus on improving the labour code. Our state wants to attract foreign companies, and doesn’t want to be an employer, to open new state-owned entities.
There are so many short term contracts in Poland. Around 2 million people work on these short term contracts and don’t have all workers rights.Many people that are employed by foreign companies work on this basis. This happens also in small and medium entreprises and even in the NGOs. For many people, it’s a horror to work in a small Polish company.
The Polish labour market, generally speaking, needs a very big reform or even revolution. Polish trade union movement needs to be stronger – now only 12% of workers are members of trade unions, whereas abroad, in Europe, 50 or 60% workers are unionized. But the state doesn’t support regulations that could help trade unions to grow. I have to mention that we need education about workers rights, about trade unions at public schools. But it’s not a key issue for the ruling political party here, the right wing political party now. It Is more important for them to teach about the right-wing past and important right-wing figures, than about workers rights here and now.
I’m not Polish so I’m not an insider in this. But we can observe that the current governmental party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or Law and Justice party, is putting itself in the position of some kind of semi anti-establishment party with a strong social conservative agenda. And many people outside of Poland see them as a kind of example for some kind of social policy. And you are actually talking about the state now, a state not willing to change. So could you, in a nutshell, tell us what actually the government of Law and Justice offer- if it did – as an alternative model to this rotten model you describe? By the rotten model I understand the model in which you invite foreign investors and foreign capital, you change all the labor market according to its needs, which is, of course, turning into a domestic problem because all must compete within the same system. So what did the governments do?
The Law and Justice Party, I would even say, strongly supports this model, this system.
They even behave very similarly, like foreign companies. Even if they give something to the people, we should be suspicious, because the reason why they give benefits or social programs is not an ideological conviction. The main reason is not to help people. The main reason is to create a kind of illusion that they take care of people. Many years ago, Law and Justice offered a social program called 500 plus – 500 PLN monthly for every child. And it’s one of the most important programs that they provide. They also offer older people additional money when they retire. But these solutions are not a part of the system. It’s not a part of a system, but it’s a kind of benefit, you know.
In private companies, we could just earn more, and companies didn’t want to pay us more. They offer us benefits here. And this government is very similar, behaves very similarly because the government could raise the minimum wage much more and provide many changes in law. But they don’t want to do that. Instead, they sometimes offer people social programs, which are not a part of the system. So people can feel that there is a lack of democracy.
I have to mention one very significant incident which happened three years ago, I think. So when trade unions and employers organizations discussed the minimum wage, how high it should be, they offered to the government a kind of solution. They proposed a sum. And what happened? The government didn’t consult with trade unions and employers, but a few days after that situation, the government offered a higher minimum wage. Within any consultation with trade unions. It showed that the government didn’t want to discuss anything with trade unions, and didn’t want to make trade unions stronger. You know, the government just wants to be perceived as the good father who is better than that given the trade unions. So it’s not healthy to know a partner for trade unions. It’s not a healthy democracy if the government behaves like that. That’s so we should be very suspicious every time the government tries to look like a good father.
Indeed, we need to be suspicious in Poland whenever a right wing government tells us that something will happen to our benefit. Everything in Poland was supposed to be to our benefit: the foreign investment, the low taxes, even there was an idea to put trade unions out of the workplaces, which was also supposed to be of our benefit. But for our luck, it did not happen. But now I wanted to ask you, this will be perhaps the last question, as over time is getting over. My last question would be about the workers’ resistance, because your book also gives examples of people who tried to organize in factories, despite all the obstacles posed by the employer. You also mentioned people who actually set up trade unions and who rally their friends, their workmates to protest. We had a huge protest in Solaris at the beginning of the year. Solaris is a bus factory belonging to a Spanish multinational. It is located in western Poland and it was a historic strike because the workers actually stopped the factory for almost two months. It was six weeks, if I am not mistaken.I wanted to ask you: is resistance growing in factories? Are people trying to tell multinationals that they want the democratic workplaces, that they want better conditions and they don’t want to be in the cheap labor force anymore? What does the situation look like?
Yeah, there were many, many strikes last year in Poland, in Polish, in foreign private companies. And that was something new. I think that was something very inspiring for people from the other companies who thought that it’s impossible to organize against a multinational company, tto go on strike. People from trade unions and the common workers from Solaris showed that it’s possible that workers that are united, even with different trade unions, and that it’s important to unite within trade unions and with other trade unions present in a given company. And that they showed that it’s their power, that they can successfully fight to raise their salaries only when they are together. And in such a moment they are powerful.
There are many foreign companies that didn’t want to let workers to unite, including call centers. It’s very difficult to unite workers in call centers, which offer people short term contracts, usually for six months or for one year. So that’s a very big obstacle for trade unions that want to evolve and grow in private companies. But thanks to these examples from Solaris, from Paroc, we can build a strategy in other companies on how to organize a protest manifestation or strike.
And I have to mention that it was very important to cooperate with the media, including foreign media. A parliamentary member from my Together party appealed from the parliament to trade unions and to the government from Spain to push on the company to raise wages in Poland, in Solaris, which belongs to a Spanish multinational. So it’s important to cooperate with the media to talk about the Polish problems abroad, especially with politicians here and with trade unions. By analyzing these strikes, we can indeed learn how to fight successfully for workers’ rights against multinationals.
You mentioned the need to work with foreign media. I feel that to solve the problems of markets in Central Eastern Europe, we need, generally speaking international cooperation, that we need to support contacts between trade unionists, within the region. And we also should push for a more social Europe so that there is no division between the core countries and the peripheries where multinationals seek cheap labour. So those are definitely questions to be resolved on an international scale and with the very important principle of internationalism. That was always one of the key elements of the trade union movements or workers movements in general. But this is perhaps a topic for another conversation in cross-border talks. We are here to enhance such international contacts and cooperation, and we were very happy to host today Katarzyna Duda, the author of Korpo, the book that is so far available in Polish, but hopefully it will be available in other languages as well. So we were very happy to discuss today this important topic with Katarzyna.