Trade unions launch campaign for higher wages

In March 2007, the two largest trade union organisations in Poland – the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (NSZZ Solidarność) and the All-Poland Trade Unions Agreement (OPZZ) – launched a drive to secure higher wages. NSZZ Solidarność is pursuing its campaign under the slogan ‘Low wages – a barrier to Poland’s development’, while OPZZ has published posters emblazoned with the query ‘Who stole your 36%?’.

Setting the minimum wage rate

The minimum monthly wage in Poland falls within the scope of discussions pursued by the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Trójstronna Komisja do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych). Once the social partners sitting on the Tripartite Commission reach a consensus on this matter, the minimum monthly pay for a full-time position legally in force for the coming year is announced in the official journal, Monitor Polski. If the Tripartite Commission fails to achieve a compromise, the Council of Ministers sets the minimum wage and announces it in a special statutory order. This procedure is laid down in the legislative Act of 10 October 2002 regarding minimum remuneration for work.

With effect from 1 January 2007, the minimum monthly wage in Poland is PLN 936 (€240 as at 16 March 2007). In February 2007, the average monthly wage in the Polish economy was almost PLN 2,700 (€692) before tax. These figures rank Poland among those EU Member States with the lowest minimum and average wages. In this context, trade union demands for higher pay come as no surprise.

Campaign for pay increases

‘Who stole your 36%?’

At the beginning of March 2007, some of the national trade union organisations began a campaign advocating wage increases. The All-Poland Trade Unions Agreement (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) adopted the most radical – and perhaps most eye-catching – set of slogans. The striking question ‘Who stole your 36%?’ which appears on OPZZ’s posters undeniably grabs attention. The 36% refers to the difference between the increase of work effectiveness in Polish industry (43% between 2000 and 2005) and the real increase of the average remuneration in Polish industry before tax over the same period (just 7%). In its campaign, OPZZ plans to use billboards across the country and smaller posters around the capital city of Warsaw.

The stated aims of OPZZ’s campaign are the following, in order of importance:

  • drawing the attention of the government and of the public at large to the problem of low wages in Poland;
  • encouraging the government to begin dialogue on pay policy;
  • improving knowledge among trade unions – and their members – about the differences in wages in Poland and in the other EU Member States.

As part of its campaign, OPZZ also plans to provide other trade unions with support in whatever wage negotiations they may be pursuing at this time.

‘Low wages – a barrier to Poland’s development’

The Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy Solidarność, NSZZ Solidarność), the other trade union organisation currently pursuing a campaign for higher wages, has opted for a less colourful and more pragmatic phrasing of the problem: ‘Low wages – a barrier to Poland’s development’. The NSZZ Solidarność activists maintain that, in the longer term, wage stagnation is bound to have a negative impact on the overall state of the economy. Skilled workers are already scarce in certain specialised fields because many workers with marketable skills choose to leave Poland and work in other countries where the same job offers much higher wages. Another reason why many Poles travel abroad to work, in the opinion of the union officials, is the short-term nature of typical employment contracts at home.

The NSZZ Solidarność campaign therefore calls for higher remuneration and for longer term employment contracts. In the course of their meeting with Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, the union officials also cited other negative factors in the labour market, such as neglect of employee training or ‘bogus self-employment’. In the latter case, employees are forced to leave work and to establish themselves as sole traders in order to continue working for the same employer, who thus avoids payroll taxes.

In response to the NSZZ Solidarność demands, Prime Minister Kaczyński offered assurances that his cabinet will pursue a policy of social solidarity, and he added that all guideline documents being prepared for the various ministries mention social dialogue.

Commentary

It remains far from certain that the prime minister’s declarations will bring any tangible effects. At present, the centres of political power in Poland preoccupied with the latest set of problems endangering the cohesion and continued existence of the ruling coalition. Work on fulfilling their electoral promises, such as those about building a caring state, has been put aside for a later time (PL0610079I, PL0702049I).

Meanwhile, the frustration of Polish workers with the wage levels prevailing in the country seems to be growing in proportion to the amount of jobs being offered to Poles in other European countries. The Chair of the parliamentary opposition party Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), Donald Tusk, remarked that, by opening the UK’s job market to Polish citizens, the British authorities have done more to counteract unemployment in Poland than the Polish government ever did.

Wages in some areas of the Polish economy have been increasing slightly of late; this trend is most pronounced in the sectors most affected by the exodus of workers who prefer to work in the UK or Ireland. Considering these developments, it is likely that labour market mechanisms will be the deciding factor in determining the increase of real wages in Poland, leaving the unions, despite all their vocal campaigns, scrambling to take some of the credit. Needless to say, the actions launched by the trade unions should not be lightly dismissed. However, the desired end effect – an increase in wages – will be produced by a set of different dynamics and circumstances, and not only by specific initiatives taken by this or that union.

Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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