Thematic feature - unskilled workers

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This article gives a brief overview of the industrial relations aspects of the topic of unskilled workers and unskilled work in Poland, as of February 2005. It looks at: national definitions of unskilled workers or work; the number of unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs, and the extent of unskilled work; employment and unemployment among unskilled workers; the regulatory framework; trade union organisation among unskilled workers; pay and conditions; recent initiatives to improve the situation of unskilled workers; and the views of trade unions and employers' organisations on the issue and its implications for collective bargaining.

In recent years, labour market developments have altered the demand for labour. Increasingly, employers are looking for adaptable workers, with more 'transversal' and 'relational' competences. The nature of skills required to be considered efficient in a job has thus evolved. In this situation, there is a growing risk of exclusion among unemployed workers whose profiles do not match the job characteristics needed, while the low-skilled or unskilled workforce is more at risk of unemployment.

In this context, in February 2005 the EIRO national centres were asked, in response to a questionnaire, to give a brief overview of the industrial relations aspects of the topic of unskilled workers. The following distinctions are used, where applicable:

(a) an unskilled job is a job which requires, for its proper execution, hardly any formal education and/or training and/or experience;

(b) a worker in an unskilled job is a worker doing such a job, irrespective of their level of qualifications or competences (especially under conditions of high unemployment, a significant share of those occupying unskilled jobs may be 'overeducated' for them, or 'underemployed'); and

(c) an unskilled worker is someone who has only the lowest level of qualifications or education (however defined).

The questionnaire examined: national definitions of unskilled workers or work, including those used or provided in laws, statistics or collective agreements; figures or estimates on the number of unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs, and the extent of unskilled work; employment and unemployment among unskilled workers; the regulatory framework, including any specific laws or collective agreements, and trade union organisation among unskilled workers; the pay and conditions of unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs, or for unskilled jobs; any recent initiatives to improve the situation of unskilled workers; and the views of trade unions and employers' organisations on the issue and its implications for collective bargaining. The Polish responses are set out below (along with the questions asked).

Definitions and extent

(a) Please provide a definition of unskilled workers or work (see distinctions above) in your country. Are there any definitions provided in laws, statistics or collective agreements?

The notion of 'unskilled worker' is not familiar in Polish labour law regulations. Nor is there any information available whether this term appears in the content of collective agreements. Similarly there is no 'unskilled worker' category in the public statistics standards applied in Poland. The Classification of Trades and Professions used by the Central Statistical Office (Główny Urząd Statystyczny, GUS) contains a large occupational group called 'elementary occupations', which mostly refers to employees assigned to: simple tasks in trade and services (domestic workers, cleaning staff, messengers, waste disposal and garbage collectors); agricultural, fishery and related labourers; and labourers in mining, manufacturing, construction and transport.

In statistical surveys the usual criterion used is the level of education, which can distinguish 'unskilled workers' as those with the poorest level of formal education. In Poland, an 'unskilled worker' is assumed to be a person who has graduated from middle high school at best (ie after nine years of education). Until 2002, the public statistics took graduation from elementary school (ie after eight years of education) as the upper limit of the lowest level of education. However, following a reform of the educational system in 1999, which consisted in introducing an additional echelon of school education - a three-year middle high school (Gimnazjum) stage - following a six-year elementary school stage, the range of the lowest level of education was extended to include the middle high school.

(b) Are there any figures or estimates available on the number of unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs, and the extent of unskilled work. How have these figures changed in recent years - have changing skill needs or improvements in education/training systems led to a reduction in the numbers of unskilled jobs, unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs? Please break all figures down by gender where possible.

Comparing the censuses held in 1988 and 2002, it appears that the percentage of the economically active population who have the lowest level of formal education, or who have no education at all, was more than halved (from 34% to 15%). In 1988, of 18.5 million economically active people, some 6.3 million were only elementary school graduates. Fourteen years later, the size of this group had significantly decreased, but remained elevated: in 2002, some 2.4 million out of 16.8 million economically active people were unskilled workers, on this definition. The average level of education thus grew systematically from 1988 to 2002 - this included those with the poorest education, but the growth was uneven, since women made the greatest progress. In 1988, men constituted 51% of the unskilled part of the economically active population, while in 2002 they made up 56%. As far as people in employment are concerned, 13% (1.7 million out of a total of 13.2 million) were unskilled workers on this definition in 2002, and 56% of this group were men.

(c) Please provide figures on employment and unemployment rates for unskilled workers, compared with higher-skilled groups. Have unskilled workers/workers in unskilled jobs been particularly affected by industrial and company restructuring? Have new jobs created in recent years been filled by unskilled workers? Please break all figures down by gender where possible.

According to the data gathered during the 2002 census, the 'employment ratio' for people with no formal education (incomplete elementary education) was only 7% (the situation of women was much worse, as their employment ratio was 5.5% against 9.8% for men). For people who had only completed elementary education, the employment ratio was 19.2% (24.5% and 14.9% for men and women respectively).

According to the Labour Force Survey, the economic activity rate of people with only elementary education or incomplete elementary education has been going down in recent years, from 27.6% in 2000 to 24.3% in 2004 (third quarter). Among those with basic vocational education, the figures were 72.9% and 68.8% respectively. The rates for people with high-school education were 47.5% in 2000 and 45.5% in 2004, and for those with vocational high school education 73.2% and 67.6%. For university graduates, the rates were 80.6% and 79.4%. The average activity rate, resulting from this survey, for the entire economically productive population was 56.7% in 2000 and 54.8% in 2004.

Between 2000 and 2004, the employment rate for unskilled workers decreased from 22.1% to 18.1%. The equivalent figures for other groups were: people with basic vocational education - 76.1% and 73.2%; high-school graduates - 38.7% and 35.7%; people with vocational high-school education - 63.7% and 56.4%; and university graduates - 76.1% and 73.2%. The average figures for the entire economically productive population were 48.0% in 2000 and 44.9% in 2004.

'Unskilled workers' are a category extremely prone to unemployment. Among the people with the poorest education, the unemployment rate (as measured by the Labour Force Survey, which differs slightly from the officially registered unemployment rate) increased from 19.8% in 2000 to 25.4% in 2004 (the average unemployment rates calculated in the survey were 15.4% and 18.2% respectively). The rise in unemployment has also affected other categories of educational attainment, though their situation is less dramatic. From 2000 to 2004, the unemployment rate rose: from 18.1% to 21.5% for basic vocational school graduates; from 18.6% to 21.2% for people with high-school education; from 13.1% to 16.6% for people with vocational high-school education; and from 5.5% to 7.7% for university graduates.

Unskilled workers likewise constitute the majority of the economically inactive population. In 2000, among 13.3 million economically inactive people some 7.3 million (55%) were people with elementary education at most. In 2004, some 6.7 million (48.8%) out of 14 million economically inactive people were unskilled. The Labour Force Survey does not provide indicators of men and women’s activity or employment by specific educational categories.

Unskilled workers are the motor force of the 'shadow economy'. There has also been an outflow of people with low vocational qualifications to the labour markets of the 'old' 15 EU Member States (this phenomenon can be especially observed along the western border of Poland).

Regulation and conditions

(a) Is there a specific regulatory framework in your country concerning unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs (however defined)? Are there specific laws or collective agreements? Are there specific trade union organisations for them, or are they represented in 'normal' union structures. Have there been any changes in these area reflecting the changes referred to in question (b) under 'Definitions and extent' above?

There is no specific regulatory framework concerning unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs. Trade unions do not have separate organisational units that represent unskilled workers or deal with matters relating to them. Where unskilled workers belong to unions, they operate within the regular structures of these organisations. Nevertheless, there are some entities that provide general 'job-brokering' services.

(b) Please provide any figures available for the pay of unskilled workers and workers in unskilled jobs, or for unskilled jobs, and the relationship of this pay with the average or with higher-skilled groups. Do collective agreements contain specific pay grades for unskilled workers, or workers in unskilled jobs? Please break all figures down by gender where possible.

(c) Are there any differences between unskilled workers/workers in unskilled jobs and higher-skilled groups in terms of access to other benefits, social security, pensions, etc? Please break all figures down by gender where possible.

According to the Ministry of Economy and Labour (Ministerstwo Gospodarki i Pracy, MGiP), some 4% of workers receive the minimum wage, and a majority of these are people with the lowest vocational qualification . In Poland's current conditions of 'economic growth without employment', unskilled workers are in a particularly unfavourable position.

Representative surveys conducted by GUS in 2002 among enterprises employing nine workers and more ('The structure of wages and salaries by occupation in October 2002') found that the employees performing 'elementary occupations' (ie unskilled jobs) earned monthly wages worth 59% of the average wage in the national economy (64% for men and 55% for women). The workers in this group earned 56% of the average hourly pay (61% for men and 53% for women). Defined according to the criterion of education, 'unskilled workers' (at that time those who graduated only from the eight-year elementary school cycle) earned 71% of the average wage (79% for men and 59% for women).

Unskilled workers make up a significant (but difficult to evaluate) share of employment in the clandestine economy. This is because of the low profitability of employment of unskilled people (ie the high costs of labour opposed to the low productivity of unskilled workers). The scope of the 'grey zone' in particular labour-intensive sectors of economy, such as construction, farming and gardening, otherwise known as proximity services (according to Poland's 2005 National Action Plan for employment, endorsed by the government on 21 September 2004), indicates clearly that these tasks are performed by unskilled workers. Pay in the shadow economy is often better than in legal employment. The negative consequence, however, is the lack of social and health insurance for such workers.

Actions and views

(a) Please describe any recent initiatives taken jointly or separately by companies, public authorities (national or local) or the social partners (eg collective agreements) to address the situation and improve the situation of unskilled workers in terms of pay, working conditions, training, employability, unemployment etc.

Until very recently, groups facing difficulties on the labour market - among which the unskilled labour force is prominent - received little vocational activation from the authorities. Labour market policy had a passive character and was generally limited to supporting disadvantaged social groups with social funds transfers. In recent times, however, there has been a turn towards active labour market policy. The Employment Promotion and Labour Market Institutions Act (PL0405105F), passed in 2004, provides the legal grounds for executive regulations which are to facilitate the access of unskilled workers and economically active people to the labour market. The 2005 NAP for Employment, as part of this Act’s implementation, points to the tasks that should be performed in order to improve the position of the 'at-risk groups'. The 2004-6 NAP for Social Integration, which was endorsed by the cabinet on 21 September 2004 (PL0412102F), identifies a low level of education as one of the factors in social exclusion and points to the 'right to work' as a top priority, whose achievement is necessary for better social integration.

A specific solution proposed by the authorities is a tax relief offered to people who employ domestic workers, which is supposed to result in this latter group coming out from the shadow economy and ceasing to have unemployed status.

(b) Please summarise the views of trade unions and employers’ organisations on the issue and its implications for collective bargaining.

Employers’ organisations see a need for eliminating or at least reducing the 'tax wedge', which should encourage entrepreneurs to offer new jobs, and also increase the profitability of unskilled work. Trade unions do not take any specific position with respect to unskilled workers.


In spite of a measurable improvement in the average level of education in Poland, unskilled workers are still numerous. The recent turn towards an active labour market policy opens up new perspectives, but there are still no specific solutions aimed directly at this group, with the exception of the proposal to legalise domestic workers’ employment. The problem is partially offset by the demand for unskilled labour in the old EU 15. However, in the long run the remedy can only be the construction of an effective system of continuing education that responds to the needs and capacities of the least educated part of society. (Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH])

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