Wroclaw hospital employees protest over unpaid wages

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In November 2002, a number of employees of the debt-ridden Rydygier hospital in Wroclaw, Poland, launched a hunger strike aimed at obtaining the payment of wages, which had not been paid since September. The hunger strike was followed by high-profile street protests. Politicians at the regional and national level stepped in to try to calm the conflict, but the hunger strike has continued.

On 12 November 2002, a group of employees at the Rydygier hospital in Wroclaw, Lower Silesia, embarked on a hunger strike with the purpose of obtaining the payment of wages which the hospital staff had not received since September. This hunger strike was the second in recent months, following a similar action in August when the workers also sought payment of wage arrears, eliciting promises to this effect from the hospital’s directors. The employees involved in the second hunger strike, however, maintain that these promises were not kept – hence the renewal of their protest.

The financial situation of public healthcare in the Lower Silesia region is very poor, even in comparison with the rather bleak norm in Poland. On 25 November 2002, the Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper, citing a report from the Ministry of Health (Ministerstwo Zdrowia, MZ), estimated the overdue liabilities of hospitals in Lower Silesia as exceeding PLN 800 million, most of which is owed to the Social Insurance Institution (Zakład Ubezpieczeń Społecznych, ZUS) and to the hospitals’ own staff.

The district authorities have sought to achieve savings by reducing the number of hospitals within the city of Wrocław, and the regional assembly decided to close the Rydygier hospital, an institution grappling with particularly difficult location conditions. The closure process began in October 2001, but was suspended when the Wrocław District Court (Naczelny Sad Administracyjny we Wrocławiu) ruled that the regional assembly’s decision was illegal. By that time, however, two wards had already been shut down.

The first hunger strike, held in late August 2002, was discontinued when the speaker of the regional assembly promised to pay out the overdue wages to the Rydygier hospital staff. In reality, however, all wage payments ceased as of September. The conflict seemed to have reached a dead end, and an escalation ensued - by the fourth day of the November hunger strike, the protests were taken to the streets of the city. Around 100 people organised a blockade of one of the main streets in central Wrocław, about a dozen of whom were briefly detained by the police but released after identity checks.

The street incidents attracted the attention of Polish public opinion and of politicians and trade union activists as far away as Warsaw. In the meantime, a credit facility was hastily secured from a bank, enabling the partial payment of overdue wages to the hospital staff. Bożena Banachowicz, the chair of the National Labour Union of Nurses and Midwives (Ogólnopolski Związek Zawodowy Pielęgniarek i Położnych, OZZPiP), travelled to Wrocław, while the radical Self-Defence (Samoobrona) party formulated a draft parliamentary resolution condemning the use of force by the police, and the chair of this party – Andrzej Lepper – also took a trip to Wrocław. On the heels of Mr Lepper’s visit came one by Barbara Labuda, the Secretary of State for social and cultural affairs, acting on behalf of the Polish President. She met with employees of Rydygier hospital and with local government officials, discussing the possibilities for continued operation of the facility.

In spite of these attempts at mediation, the protest did not come to an end. The employees who began the hunger strike quit on doctor’s orders, but were replaced by colleagues. Ms Labuda, for her part, has promised that a special governmental task force charged with assisting the hospital will be convened in December.

The issue of the debt-laden public healthcare system will also be tackled by an inter-ministerial team which is presently preparing amendments of the relevant legislation so as to pave the way for restructuring measures. The government also seems to be placing much hope in an increase in the obligatory health insurance contribution from 7.75% to 8.0% of earnings, effective as of 1 January 2003. The requisite act has already been approved by both houses of parliament and approved by the President (on 29 November), although the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), an opposition party, has been threatening to challenge it before the Constitutional Tribunal (Trybunał Konstytucyjny, TK).

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