Polish and Ukrainian people do not want to be a cheap labour force!

There can be no effective international trade union cooperation without an exchange of experience. Such an exchange took place during the meeting entitled “Ukraine, Poland: forever a cheap labour force in the EU?”. It was organised in Warsaw by the Workers’ Initiative (Inicjatywa Pracownicza) labour union.

The meeting was attended by Polish activists representing the Initiative and the Workers’ Unity Free Trade Union (Jedność Pracownicza), as well as foreign guests: Italian, French, Brazilian and Spanish activists. Given the theme of the event, voices from Ukraine were of course not to be missed.

The meeting took place on 27 September, on the eve of the departure of the II solidarity convoy with aid to Ukraine, organised by European trade unions. The convoy was scheduled to arrive in Kryvyi Rih, an industrial town in the south-east of Ukraine, just a few dozen kilometres from the front line. The aid being transferred will be taken over from European trade unionists by the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine, whose activist Yuriy Samoylov connected via Zoom to talk about the situation in the town.

Kryvyi Rig grew up with iron mines and other industrial plants. Now, Samoylov said,some of the factories have temporalily halted production, and average wages in the town have fallen to the equivalent of no more than 200 euros.

50,000 residents have been drafted into the Ukrainian army. Those who remain fear they may be one day deprived of electricity and heating as a result of the bombing. And what are the trade unions doing? Samoylov pointed out that in those factories where they are present, workers mobilised to the front continue to receive their pay. On the other hand, where unions are not present, bosses take advantage of the law passed after 24 February and withhold the pay of people who are currently serving in the army.

Magda Malinowska, an IP activist who was in the town with the previous union aid convoy, also spoke about the difficult situation in Kryvyi Rih. She also pointed out the tasks of the whole initiative.
The convoy, organised by workers for workers, is intended to strengthen them, to contribute to them standing up for their rights effectively.

The activist estimated that if, after the war, Ukraine were to implement a shock therapy along the lines of Balcerowicz, the social consequences would be even more tragic than in Poland, for example. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian government unequivocally favours business against workers, said Vitaly Dudin, chairman of the left-wing organisation Social Movement (Social Movement) joining from Kiev.

Dudin enumerated the anti-worker laws that have come into force during the war. They allow not to pay salaries to mobilised workers, “suspend the employment relationship” (i.e. stop paying) as long as the employer believes that the war has harmed his business. The right of trade unions to defend their members against dismissal was cancelled. In factories with fewer than 250 employees, they have introduced the possibility of quick dismissals and the signing of contracts on an individual contract basis, where the employer can place many additional requirements. Vitaly Dudin also pointed out that 35% of Ukrainians have lost their jobs since the end of February, and several hundred people have been killed in their workplaces when factory facilities came under fire.

During the war, Ukrainians do not have the right to strike or to assemble in protest, and the labour inspectorate does not operate. Factories continue production even when their facilities are under direct threat from the Russian army.

Ukrainian and Polish activists agreed – if Ukrainian workers lose all rights, Poles are next in line, and then Western European workers, even if their position is much better today.

Magda Malinowska speaks.

Activists of the Workers’ Initiative showed how workers’ rights are being restricted in Poland. Magda Malinowska talked about how she was disciplinarily dismissed from Amazon, although she was entitled, as a trade unionist, to protection. The story of how the trade union Jedność Pracownicza wanted to get rid of Kaufland from its shops was told by its activist Wojciech Jendrusiak. The activist stressed that in Poland, when forming a trade union, an attack from the employer must practically always be expected. The corporation employs large law firms specialised in fighting workers’ organisations. Unions are forced to defend themselves in courts, which means spending a huge portion of their funds on lawyers.

Marta Rozmysłowicz talked about collective disputes conducted by her union, in which the employer, under the pretext of COVID-19, cancelled meetings with the workers’ representatives or unilaterally did not recognise the existence of a collective dispute, although employees had presented their demands. Jakub Grzegorczyk took a wider look at the state of labour rights in Poland. He described the extremely complicated and strike-restrictive Polish mechanism for resolving collective disputes, and pointed out how few Polish workers, compared to their western (or even southern, Czech) colleagues, are covered by sectoral collective agreements. In Poland it is currently about 13% of the workforce, compared to more than half in Germany, more than 80% in France and 98% in Spain.

At the end of his presentation, Grzegorczyk recalled a thought that was perhaps the most significant conclusion of the conference.

There are no illegal strikes, there are strikes which were lost –

if workers are strong enough to stop the plant working and do not back down in the face of threats or false concessions from the employer, the latter must ultimately recognise their demands. It is then irrelevant whether the protest started according to the procedure prescribed by the legislation. This is why Polish workers, but also Ukrainian or Western workers, need courage, consistency and further organising.

This is much more important than calling for cosmetic changes to the law, which are unlikely to be implemented anyway, as most governments are not siding with the world of work in the current crisis.

The article has been first published in Polish by Nasze Argumenty website.

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