Poland: Latest working life developments – Q2 2016

Conflicts in the public sector, improved minimum wages, union representation for Ukrainian migrant workers and concerns about the consequences of Brexit for Polish workers in the UK are the main topics of interest in this article. This country update reports on the latest developments in working life in Poland in the second quarter of 2016.

Conflicts in the public sector

The industrial relations climate remained relatively peaceful in the second quarter of 2016. However, there were two high-profile conflicts. The first was in the National Customs Service, where customs officers demanded that the pension scheme for uniformed services be extended to all employees of the Customs Service, while the government want to grant the scheme only to line officers. Another aspect of the conflict was the opposition by trade unions to the plans to incorporate the Customs Service into the yet-to-be established National Fiscal Administration (KAS).

The second was at the Children’s Health Centre in Warsaw, the best-known paediatric hospital in Poland. Nurses at the centre not only presented their pay demands to the Ministry of Health, but also raised the issue of severe understaffing in the public healthcare system. Major occupational groups in public healthcare, such as nurses, midwives and doctors, are beginning to recognise the need to introduce more coordinated wage bargaining.

Pay increases announced but signs of discontent

The Social Dialogue Council (RDS) continued its tripartite negotiations at a swift pace during the second quarter of 2016. However, signs of discontent among the social partners started to emerge over the alleged reluctance of the government to consult the RDS about all the planned legislative initiatives.

Among the intensive developments in industrial relations related legislation was the signing into law of amendments to the Labour Code, designed to eliminate the so-called ‘first day wage’ syndrome (that is, non-payment of wages for the very first day at work). The law now requires the employment contract to be signed by the end of the first day.

Also adopted were amendments to the Minimum Wage Act. Under this act, the lowest hourly rate to be paid for work performed under a civil law contract will be PLN 12 (€2.80 as at 19 August 2106), commencing 1 January 2017. This may rise to PLN 13 (€3.00) as the government is still considering a possible increase.

The government announced that the monthly national minimum wage in 2017 would be increased to PLN 2,000 (€464) for a 40-hour week, which was welcomed by the trade unions but criticised by employers. Despite continuous improvement in the state of the labour market and the demand for labour exceeding the actual supply, Polish employees are generally dissatisfied with their wages, pessimistic about their career prospects and chances for promotion, and often complain about the negative effects of routine work and professional burnout.

Migrant workers start looking after their interests

Facing problems recruiting new staff, employers are showing interest in hiring migrant workers, with Ukraine being the major source. The Ukrainian Workers' Trade Union was established in May to represent the interests of the growing number of such workers, which is estimated to be around 800,000.

Echoes of Brexit

In the context of Brexit, the most discussed issue in Poland has been the potential consequences for Polish migrants in the UK. The Polish community in the UK is estimated at around 800,000, of whom 300,000–400,000 have lived there for less than five years. This group does not have the right of permanent residency and their status, as the UK severs its ties with the EU, will have to be determined anew. The national trade union confederation, the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions (OPZZ), has reasserted its readiness – together with British unions – to stand up for the rights of Polish workers in the UK.

Commentary

While the first half of 2016 passed quite peacefully (as far as industrial relations climate was concerned) and new tripartite institutions continued to work with high intensity, there were, however, signs of tensions emerging. First, conflicts in the public sector surfaced; then social partners expressed some – although still very mild – worries about the attitude of the state towards social dialogue and, in particular, the RDS.

The improving state of the labour market (based on unemployment statistics – the current situation is the best since 1991) is in contrast with the deep dissatisfaction of employees with working conditions and wage levels. This dissatisfaction has prompted the interest of some employers in using cheaper migrant labour. Hence the long debate on the exhaustion of the model of economic development created after 1989 and the reliance on low labour costs is set to continue.

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