Social labour inspection examined

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Under Polish labour law, companies with trade union representation have a 'social labour inspection'- employee health and safety representatives with a range of rights. The aim of the inspectors is to protect employees’ rights and ensure proper working conditions. We examine the organisation and operation of this institution in 2002.

The Act of 4 February 1950 established 'social labour inspection' (Społeczna Inspekcja Pracy) as a structure to be established by company-level trade union organisations. The activities of this institution were later regulated by the Act of June 1983 on social labour inspection. More recently, an item of legislation of key importance for social labour inspection was the Council of Ministers Ordinance of 28 July 1998, which concerned the determination of the circumstances and causes of accidents at work, the method of recording these accidents, and the scope of the information kept in a register of accidents at work.

Social labour inspection is a 'social service' rendered by employees, with the aim of ensuring the maintenance of safety at work by employers and the protection of the employee rights specified by labour law. Inspection is managed by company trade union organisations, but should represent the interests of all of a company's employees, regardless of whether or not they belong to trade unions.

Organisation and structure

Social labour inspection assumes various forms, depending on the structure of the company concerned. It can involve:

  • a company social labour inspector – ie for the whole company;
  • departmental social labour inspectors – ie for individual departments of the company; and
  • group social labour inspectors – ie for organisational units or divisions.

It is the objective of the legislator to have social labour inspectors in every company, but the decision about the shape of the inspection in each firm belongs to company trade unions.

Selection

Company trade union organisations are the exclusive organisers of elections for social labour inspectors. Inspectors must be an employee of the company - a trade union member who has no managerial position in the company or even an employee who is not a union member (depending on the decision of company trade unions). It is expected that a candidate for social labour inspector will possess the necessary knowledge about social labour inspection activities and sufficient work experience - a company inspector should have at least five years of work experience in the industry in which the company operates and at least two years of work experience in the company itself, while a departmental or group labour inspector is required to have worked for two years in the relevant industry and one year in the company. These conditions, however, are not applied inflexibly, as otherwise there would be no social labour inspectors in newly established enterprises.

Elections of social labour inspectors are conducted directly or indirectly, depending on the workforce size:

  • company and departmental inspectors in companies or departments with up to 300 employees are elected by a general meeting of company or department employees;
  • in companies or departments employing more than 300 employees, company and departmental labour inspectors are elected by assemblies of lower-level labour inspectors; and
  • group labour inspectors are elected by a general assembly of the employees of organisational units.

Employees have far-reaching autonomy in choosing inspectors. The law provides that the employees’ decision about the election of social labour inspectors is final and cannot be questioned by any external body. Once elected, inspectors have a term of office of four years.

Rights and rules of conduct

According to the law, social labour inspectors are entitled to enter at any time the company's facilities in order to conduct monitoring and control activities with regard to technical safety and the legal protection of workers. Social labour inspectors also have the right to:

  • demand information and be shown documents necessary to perform their monitoring and control function;
  • notify the employer and heads of departments of any violations of occupational health and safety regulations or labour law provisions;
  • demand immediate removal of direct threats to the life and health of employees;
  • issue orders, in particular to order the cessation of the operation of a given machine or process (this right applies only to the company labour inspector);
  • demand that employees who do not have the necessary qualifications or, where relevant, a doctor’s certificate, be removed from work;
  • participate in the work of accident investigation teams determining the circumstances and causes of industrial accidents;
  • demand that an inspector of the State Labour Inspection (Państwowa Inspekcja Pracy) conducts an inspection, and the right to participate in such inspections;
  • take part in analysing the causes of industrial accidents, occupational illnesses and other diseases caused by working conditions;
  • monitor the application of decisions and recommendations made by bodies responsible for supervising and controlling working conditions and, where necessary, notify these bodies that their decisions and recommendations are not being carried out; and
  • give approval to projects for improving working conditions and plans for occupational rehabilitation, as well as monitor their implementation.

Furthermore, in accordance with the Act of July 1998, if a minor accident happens at work, the decision to resume production at the workstation where the accident occurred is made by the employer only after consulting a social labour inspector. Experts believe that this power has introduced a new quality to the work of social labour inspectors.

If irregularities and accident risks are found to exist at the workplace, the social labour inspector may recommend that the employer remove them within a specific time limit. Where a direct threat to the health and life of employees exists, the inspector may recommend that the employer immediately remove this threat. If the employer does not take appropriate steps to comply with this recommendation, the social labour inspector may issue a recommendation to stop the work and notify the company’s trade union organisations about this decision. The employer is obliged to comply with the recommendation or, if it believes the recommendation groundless, submit an objection to a competent inspector of the State Labour Inspection.

Work plan and removing inspectors

The basis of the activities of social labour inspectors is an annual work plan, prepared for a period of one calendar year and approved by company trade union organisations. After the approval of the work plan, social labour inspectors are responsible for its correct and timely execution. They are also obliged to report on the execution of the plan to the unions at least once a quarter. Trade unions hold social labour inspectors accountable for their actions and, where necessary, take steps to assist them in performing their supervisory duties. Failure to execute the plan is in practice the only case in which it is possible to remove social labour inspectors from their role. They can be removed on the basis of a decision taken by company trade union organisations, or by at least one fifth of the relevant employees. Social labour inspectors may also resign.

Commentary

Although the scope of the institution of social labour inspection is just as limited as that of trade unions (union density has fallen to as low as 14% of the workforce - PL0208105F), it has made achievements in terms of shaping the habit of social control and influence over employers. Moreover, despite fundamental changes to the structure of the Polish economy in recent years, this institution has survived and is accepted by employers without reservations. (Rafał Towalski, Warsaw School of Economics, (Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH) and Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP)).

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