More Pains than Gains for Organized Labor in Law and Justice’s Poland

Workers on precarious contracts are more likely to take on additional shifts in the hope of staying in their managers’ good books. The depressed wages in the ambulance service also play their part, incentivizing the contractors to take on more than the minimum 14 monthly shifts they would be expected to work if they were on permanent contracts. Before the pandemic, a paramedic contractor working 14 12-hour shifts a month would take home around 2,500 PLN, or 550 euros – the equivalent of a starter salary, and barely enough to cover the cost of rent and bills for a small apartment in a Warsawsuburb.

During the peaks of the pandemic, the ambulance service did offer paramedics double the usual rate of pay – but the short-term bonus did not placate the workers. The service’s eventual offer of a 12 per cent pay rise, in response to the strike, was rejected by many workers unaffiliated to the nationwide trade union. The head of the union, Piotr Dymon, acknowledged there was discontent over the pay deal but emphasized that any gains tended to be won incrementally.

‘No overnight solutions’

The employees of Poland’s Social Insurance Institution, ZUS, the body responsible for disbursing pensions and benefits, also served on the frontlines of the state’s pandemic response, albeit more discreetly than the ambulance workers. At the start of the pandemic, the institution was abruptly tasked with disbursing emergency grants from the state’s bailout package for struggling businesses.

Like the paramedics, ZUS staff would end up working additional hours. But unlike most paramedics, they had permanent contracts, placing limits on the amount of overtime they were officially permitted to work. Where the paramedics may be tempted to work additional shifts by the prospect of higher earnings, the ZUS employee could only be paid for overtime hours that were within the official limit. Under pressure from superiors however, many ended up exceeding that limit, effectively working unpaid. In a phone interview with BIRN after a 12-hour shift last November, Jolanta, a ZUS clerk from the city of Koszalin who asked for her real name to be withheld, described how her manager routinely instructed her to work “unregistered” by logging out of the application that measured the hours spent at desk.

Like hundreds of her colleagues, Magdalena, the ZUS clerk from Krakow, shifted to new duties at the start of the pandemic. By June 2020, she had already exceeded the maximum annual overtime permitted. She said the prospect of additional earnings from the extra hours was not much of an incentive because the salaries were so low anyway. “We only work overtime because of pressure from the management,” she told BIRN. After 12 years in the job, Magdalena’s net monthly earnings of 2,500 PLN, or 550 euros, barely exceeded the minimum wage – similar to the paramedic working a standard number of shifts.

In August 2021, the eight unions representing ZUS workers demanded a pay rise. That September, the government offered to top up all ZUS employees’ monthly earnings by an additional 300 PLN, or 60 euros. As with the paramedics, the pay offer would prove divisive, pitting an established trade union against disappointed workers. “This is nothing when we earn so little,” said Ilona Garczynska, a ZUS employee from the city of Wroclaw who co-founded Zwiazkowa Alternatywa, ZA, a union that had promised to take a more confrontational approach. “We demanded a 60 per cent increase.”

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