We conclude our series of articles on work in emigration with an interview with the “Unions Help Refugees“. This is an organisation in Poland that helps refugees to defend their rights. “Not today, not yesterday, not tomorrow” met with its representatives – Inna and Ilya.
Tell us about “Unions Help Refugees”, how did this initiative come about?
Ilya: The organisation appeared in March 2022, it was a response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The initiative to create UHR belongs to the Federation of European Trade Unions. We don’t have a separate legal entity, we are part of another NGO Centrum organizowania wyładzów zawodowych, and their main partner is UniEurope.
UHR directly helps refugees who left because of the war in Ukraine with their labour rights. Due to the large flow of emigrants to Poland, it was clear that nothing good was going to happen.
How did the war affect the labour market in Poland? Did emigrants get into trouble more often?
Inna: It seems to me that such cases have become more often talked about. This is also due to the fact that there are more Ukrainians in Poland. As far as I know, almost 2 million people came. Before the full-scale war, it was very common practice to work in threes in three months, such a rotational method. People came, agreed to poor working conditions, because they understood that they would have to suffer for three months and then rest. Now emigrants have to work longer and, of course, they have a desire to do it in normal conditions. When something is wrong at work, people start talking about it.
What kind of disorders do they tell you about most often?
Ilya: The most common one is non-payment of wages. In general, there are different stories, often a person is hired for a month, like a trial period, and then they say, “Oh, you didn’t pass, we won’t pay you”. They also often don’t get paid for the last month of work.
The second reason is occupational health and safety, especially on construction sites, where people are often injured.
And the third reason is lack of understanding of laws and complex procedures. Authorities work only in Polish, not everyone can figure out where to go and what to write. The complexity of the establishments themselves discourages people from going there.
How well does Polish legislation protect workers’ rights?
Inna: In Poland, there are different contracts under which you can work. For example, “terms of employment” are regulated by the Labor Law. But there is no “merger condition”, it is a civil-labour contract. Accordingly, in the first case, the employee is more protected.
Ilya: I would add that “working conditions” are better, but there is such a thing as an employment relationship, where three conditions must be satisfied: you work in a certain place, at a certain time, under the supervision of management. But there’s such a thing as an employment agency, and when they hire a worker, they outsource to a third party company, and sort of absolve themselves of responsibility. But at the same time, they remain a piece of the equation. It doesn’t allow the employee to say “here, I work for you directly.” And in that case, the employer can tell you that you will have a “merger condition” and it will not break any rules. In general, rights in Poland are defined, but, as if deliberately, holes have been made in the legislation so that these laws can be circumvented. And the party of power is not helping to fill those holes right now. Neither did the previous one.
What are the instances or mechanisms to protect one’s rights?
Inna: There are two excellent ways. The first is to apply to the trade union organisation, if there is one at a given enterprise. Why? Because trade unions are very influential. The second way is to go to the labour inspectorate. But we recommend contacting the labour unions first. If there are none, you can turn to public organisations, for example, to us at UHR. In the second case, the pressure on the employer will be informal but collective. If these two methods are not successful, it is already worth turning to the labour inspectorate.
Ilya: The third place is government agencies, because they work for a very long time and it is not always possible to achieve something: it may or may not work. Even if you have perfect evidence and you are sure that you will win, courts in Poland last two or three years, and everything can drag on for a long time.
Can you name a successful case from your practice when you managed to get justice?
Ilya: There was one case: people were working on a construction site and they were not paid about 50,000 PLN for 4 or 5 people, if I’m not mistaken. Luckily, one of the workers was super trained, he had proof of GPS that he was at work on certain days and hours. We picketed under the construction site and got half the amount back pretty quickly. Now the foreman continues to sue the company, he is already being helped by our friendly NPO, which is engaged in defending workers’ rights in court.
What were their reasons for refusing to pay?
Ilya: In this case they did not explain, but often companies look for reasons not to pay. For example: “You didn’t finish, you broke something.” It’s often nonsense.
Inna: Or it sounds like, “We will deliver the object, we will get money from the investor, and then we will pay you”. But more often than not, the workers don’t get anything afterwards.
To what extent can trade unions influence the labour market in Poland?
Inna: In post-Soviet countries, in Ukraine, in Belarus, we used to think that trade unions are something so ineffective that they mostly work for the employer. In Poland the situation is a little different, the trade unions here have not inherited from the previous government, except for “Solidarity”, to some extent. But as an alternative to “Solidarity”, there are many independent organisations fighting for workers’ rights.
Ilya: I would like to add that things are quite uneven. For example, there’s a trade union that is supposedly part of “Solidarity” or the Confederation of Labor. And maybe in one place their cell phone may work well, in another place not so much. It’s impossible to give a universal answer. Unions exist and they affect a particular workplace. But with regulating the entire market…. Here, let’s just say that everything is very complicated. And there is legislation that goes in a negative direction for trade unions. Recently there was an initiative that says that a strike can only be called if it is supported by the largest union. And this is usually “Solidarity”, and this movement is not very “strike-oriented”, let’s put it that way. There is a tendency to limit the manoeuvres of the unions, so they still have little influence on the whole labour market. But they can help on the ground.
If a person is not very orientated about employment and wants advice, where can they go?
Inna: You should start by learning about the law. We have a huge number of articles on our website that are categorised under headings. We have tried to convey the information quite laconically, we have tried to translate it from legal into a more understandable language.
Ilya: Belarusian anarchists have made brochures in Russian and Belarusian, they cooperate with one of the Polish trade unions – Inicjatywa Pracownicza. There is also Partizanka, also a Belarusian organisation, which also helps Ukrainians. There is UNHCR, which mainly helps refugees, there is also Belarusian House, Ukrainian House, which can be redirected somewhere.