In autumn 2021, Maria Magdalena Malinowska was dismissed from her job at Amazon. A trade union activist and a social labour inspector, she was protected by Polish law – but the employer ignored that. Two years later, Malinowska won her court case to be reinstated, and even her representatives were surprised to hear harsh words from the judge – towards the company.
A lot has been said about how Amazon searches for localisations where cheap workforce is available, pressurizes local authorities to guarantee tax cuts and preferences and/or engages in union busting and discouraging the staff’s self-organisation. Less than two weeks ago, Magda (as she prefers to be called) Malinowska, a Polish trade unionist from Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative) union, spoke about all that in Berlin during a Socialist conference. At that time, her personal case against Amazon was still ongoing: for nearly two years, she had been struggling to get reinstated at her job, and to hear, officially, that Amazon had no grounds to hand a disciplinary dismissal to her.
Malinowska sounded pretty self-confident when I approached her in that conference and asked about the court case. After all, the story sounded evident from the very beginning: social labour inspectors are not to be sacked under any conditions, according to Polish labour law. Labour unionists are also protected, and Amazon did not even prepare the dismissal in time. Nevertheless, Magda had to wait for the verdict for nearly 24 months – and this is a standard length of a case in a Polish labour court.
The background of this particular case is, however, particularly shocking.
The activist’s dismissal followed the tragic events at Amazon’s warehouse near Poznań (Western Poland) on 6 September 2021. On that day, an employee – Dariusz Dziamski – died at the warehouse. Shortly before, he had complained about being left alone on a demanding post, where he had to carry heavy boxes in a quick pace, and where usually more staff members are engaged. Malinowska, as social labour inspector, was alerted by other workers about that.
– Workers I spoke to said that when he was complaining of chest pain, the management did not tell him to sit down and wait for medical help. They told him to go to the medical point. He went down from the floor and walked through the warehouse, which is large. When he got there, it was too late. It was not possible to save him – she told me shortly after the accident. – The first aid rules say: a person who reports shortness of breath and pain in the chest must not move! There are lifts in our warehouse. He was, however, instructed to go up the stairs alone, as a lift ride would have been a “non-safety” [under the COVID-19 rules].
Malinowska asked to be included in a commission that would investigate the death. Amazon did not agree. Instead, the management accused the activist of having photographed the body. Malinowska denied doing anything of the sort. A few weeks later, despite her union’s objections, she found out that Amazon dismissed her.
Employers operating in Poland know very well that sacking a protected labour unionist is much easier than reversing a dismissal in court.
Many of them decide that it is better to sack a labour leader and then hope that his/her organisation becomes paralysed – so even if the person is reinstated, there’s no self-organisation of the workers again.
The labour court confirmed that the dismissal should have never taken place on 12 October.
Judge Agata Chabir found that already by virtue of her position as a social labour inspector, Maria Magdalena Malinowska was a specially protected employee. But she also commented, and actually smashed, Amazon’s other arguments. She stated that there was no evidence that the union activist had taken photographs of the body of the deceased employee. This was not evident from the testimony of witnesses who saw her with her phone in her hand, while the photographs themselves were not seen by anyone. Amazon did not produce the surveillance footage that its lawyers suggested would support the allegations. Nevertheless, taking photographs on the company premises could also hardly be considered a gross misconduct, justifying a disciplinary dismissal, according to the court.
– The judge pointed out that the conflict between the trade union and the employer could not be the basis for dismissing a trade union activist or not reinstating him/her by the court. Indeed, the company requested that the court change the claimant’s claim for reinstatement to compensation. This was argued on the basis of the conflict between the employer and the union. In the judge’s view, Maria’s activity on the site and in the media, which was critical of Amazon, was due to her involvement in union activities, and the will of two parties is necessary to resolve conflicts on the site – the Workers’ Initiative activists wrote in a statement.
In other words, the court made it clear that the story about taking photos was made up and could not be proven, and that Amazon simply intended to get rid of a person who defended her fellow workers’ rights.
After the verdict, Amazon’s lawyers refused to comment. Amazon was represented before the court by representatives of the PCS Littler chancellery, known for representing employers, including biggest companies, in legal disputes against labour unions. The activists of the Workers’ Initiative refer to them simply as specialists in union busting (i.e. obstructing the activities of trade unions and eliminating them from workplaces).
– The verdict and the court’s reasoning confirm that Amazon is closed to a dialogue. Maria’s dismissal is just part of the company’s policy of constantly obstructing union activity. Other examples are the non-admission of trade unionists to the workplace during the strike referendum, or the refusal to allow energy expenditure surveys. For many years we have been demanding to be involved in the process of organising work at Amazon so that it is safe for workers. We hope that today’s verdict and the court’s reasoning will change the company’s attitude towards the staff – comments Workers’ Initiative.
The judgment is not final and the company might file an appeal.