“For higher wages and lower rents”
The Women's Social Congress took place on March 3rd in Poznań. It was initiated by women employed in Poznań's nursery schools and cultural institutions, as well as by women tenants from Warsaw and Poznań. The Congress was organized in response to the need to extend the struggle for higher wages and lower rents, in which we take active part through trade unions and tenants' organizations. Often time, this struggle is a direct reply to the anti-women policies pursued by city governments. We see current attempts to further restrict the law on abortion as complementary to these same anti-women policies, but this time at the level of central government. As such, we also protest in the streets because we are part of the wider women's movement. The following list of demands is not a direct response to the authorities' attempts to limit access to proper medical care in case of unwanted pregnancy. Nevertheless, the lack of this sort of care makes our economic position worse, and this incites our dissent.
1. Reduce the working week to 35 hours without cutting wages.
Besides daily struggles with duties on the job, to make matters worse, women workers also do free labor at home. In fact, they work much more than 40 hours a week. Meanwhile, the continuous growth of labor productivity in the economy allows for shortening the working time without cutting wages. If the working hours are not reduced only business gains from greater productivity, while the working people lose. What more, without a widespread shortening of the working week the growth of labor productivity in the long run brings about unemployment and poverty. The average annual working time in Poland is about 500 hours longer than in Germany and it is one of the longest in Europe, which proves how overworked we are. We need more time off work so that we can attend to our own needs. In the case of nursery school workers and others employed in the care sector, the working time must be shortened to 25 hours per week. This is the length of the working week required of preschool caregivers and it allows for proper rest from the job.
2. Increase wages and provide employment contracts at all workplaces financed by the local government or state budget.
Assigning more responsibilities to institutions financed by the local government or state budget while simultaneously limiting the number of work positions makes the workload greater. Yet more work does not equal more pay. Low wages, which are prevalent at municipal institutions, force us to work “side jobs” after our regular 9 to 5, on weekends and during holidays. Sometimes this work is done for the same employer, but as part of a different scope of duties. Our health declines because we are overworked: we suffer from injuries, accidents at work, chronic diseases, and occupational illness. These problems are made worse by temporary employment and outsourcing, thanks to which institutions cut the costs of their activities, reduce wages and deteriorate work conditions. What more, temporary jobs are used to reinforce divisions between workers into “better” and “worse”, with the “worse” category also serving to put pressure on those workers who still have regular employment contracts.
3. Increase the number of spots in public nurseries and kindergartens, and reduce fees for their services.
Many years of underfunding and cuts in public spending, which reduced access to nurseries, kindergartens and other care institutions, hit women the hardest. Their unpaid or low-paid labor makes up for the deficits caused by limited access to services, food or poor housing conditions. In practice, older women, for example, must work to help out their adult children by providing care for their own grandchildren. The underdevelopment of public care institutions, like those for children and the elderly, in fact translates to women being chained down to work in the household.
4. Count travel time to work as part of the total time of the working day.
The effort associated with the daily commute to work is not treated as work, although many companies are able to operate only because they employ people who do not live in their immediate vicinity. These people are forced to travel long distances due to the lack of jobs in their home area. Multiple-hour commutes along with full-time work make it impossible to carry out all the necessary care duties at home, not to mention getting enough rest. Bus shuttles for workers are often subject to control and various regulations, for example, eating and drinking is prohibited on buses that transport employees to Amazon’s warehouses. On the other hand, public transportation forces us to pay fees, what brings about an absurd situation. Not only is getting to work a waste of time that only serves to benefit business, we are the ones who have to pay for it. In result, every week we give our bosses anywhere from a few to several dozen hours of our lives for free, and sometimes, we also have to pay for it.
5. Increase public (social) control over the finances and activities of local government
City finances are not transparent for most city residents. Local authorities justify their austerity policies by citing economic reasons, yet the problem is not the lack of funds but the way they are distributed. Low wages at institutions financed by the local government are actually the result of specific political priorities, and not a “tight budget”. Spending on social security, municipal services or on arts and culture does not bring great profits to business. In principle it is considered that these areas generate losses, and as such their underfunding is the norm. On the other hand, the construction of roads or stadiums makes it possible to transfer millions to private pockets and, in effect, this type of spending is referred to as “strategic investment”. In their decisions regarding the financing of, for example, cultural institutions, local politicians are guided by their own tastes or current political trends. In the case of care institutions the priority is to maintain their inefficiency, what can always serve for a pretext to close them down. While we waste our time deliberating over the structure of the budget, politicians use it as a tool to take from the poor and give to the rich. The more obscure the structure of the budget, the easier it is to take out millions and hand them over to a privileged few.
6. Enable trade unions and workers control over work norms
The lack of detailed regulations on work norms in the Labor Code allows business to increase work intensity according to its own needs. Norms, productivity indicators, the number of products to be made per hour on the assembly line, or the number of children in nursery groups often exceeds the physical capacity of the employees. We demand workers’ control over the regulation of norms, through trade unions or crew representation. Norms cannot be raised without justification (without the introduction of technological improvements). We demand that bosses cease laying people off on the pretext that they did not make the norm. Labor productivity norms must take into account the needs and capabilities of workers (especially the elderly or the disabled).
7. Working time planning (setting schedules, changes or breaks at work) according to the needs of employees.
Flexible employment makes business even more rigid when it comes to work time planning. Many plants operate on a 24-hour schedule, although there is no other justification for this than increasing profits (we are not talking about sectors that provide for ongoing needs such as health care). Overnight work, forced overtime, additional tasks, and increasingly longer billing periods destroy our physical and mental health. Especially in the case of overnight work, we demand that the working time be adjusted to our needs (as in the possibility to limit shift length and the possibility to choose working hours), and that work schedules be planned at least three months in advance. Parents and people taking care of the elderly or the disabled are hit twice as hard by unstable work hours. Short-term agency contracts (for ex. two-week or month long), based on which you end up working for half a year or more, are used to shift business risks onto working people. These contracts bring extreme uncertainty and make people work beyond their capabilities (even when they are sick) in order to “earn” another contract. Furthermore, breaks, which are necessary so as to be able to work all day, should be entirely reserved for getting rest and not for carrying out additional work tasks or for reaching the designated resting place.
8. Universal health insurance for all people who live in Poland. No limits on specialist medical services.
Widely prevailing unstable employment conditions and their effects like frequent periods of being out of a job, make it difficult to access free specialist medical treatment and rehabilitation. Only those with proper work contracts can use the current social security system. People hired on the basis of civil law contracts (also called “junk” contracts) and those who are not registered as unemployed have to pay a fortune for private medical care and prescription drugs. These conditions combined with low wages force people to overwork themselves. The lack of funds for treatment and preventive healthcare, especially among older people, brings about the rapid deterioration of health. State and business should bear the costs of health failure due to work and not the workers, who are often forced to treat themselves and their relatives using home methods. Regardless of whether we have a job contract or if we have Polish citizenship, the obligation to work puts a burden on our health. As such, we demand permanent, and not limited, access to medical care.
9. Universal pension at the level of minimum wage in the least.
The sudden drop in income after retirement forces seniors to continue work, if their health so allows. This problem especially affects single persons and women who usually earn less during their working lives, and in effect end up getting lower pensions. Low pensions make it impossible to pay rent or buy necessary prescription drugs, what in the long run condemns older people to eviction or an early death.
10. Expand social and public housing as an alternative to commercial housing, and not as a form of assistance.
The basic problem of today’s housing policy boils down to the drastic suppression of social and public initiative in housing construction, in favor of the development of the commercial property sector. In 2010, noncommercial initiatives built only 6.6% of all new apartments, while real estate companies constructed over 40%. The decline of the importance of social and public housing is particularly evident in cities. Here, development companies built 60-65% of all housing constructed today (as compared to only 6.3% in 1995). At the same time, privatization of the public housing stock has brought about a sharp drop in its numbers. According to a government report, municipal authorities meet the demand for low income housing at a level of 1-2% per year! The growth of private property development and the collapse of social initiative in housing construction, including in the construction of public housing, only favors large investors, construction companies and the banks that finance private building. The lack of competition has led to the monopoly of several property development companies, what means soaring prices of both buying and renting housing. In order to counteract this situation the real estate market must be diversified and municipal public housing must be expanded. We demand that local government take steps to implement social and public housing programs, as only proactive policy can ensure decent housing conditions, prevent the depopulation of cities and avert the growth of social inequalities.
11. Stop the re-privatization of public property and remedy the social harm it has caused.
Re-privatization involves taking over pre-WWII property assets by private landlords, including the public housing stock. In many cities, these properties were developed by means of public loans. In Warsaw, after the war, these properties were rebuilt thanks to unpaid and partly-paid labor, deductions from workers’ salaries across the country and in using materials from demolitions in other cities. Just as after WWII “the whole nation rebuilt the capital”, at present we are all throwing in to rebuild the fortunes of the new elites, now the landlords of re-privatized property. In addition to the re-privatization of thousands of public tenement buildings, the authorities have designated tens of billions of zlotys for financial compensation to landlords with claims to pre-war real estate. Driving such large sums out of the Warsaw city budget was possible by means of a series of antisocial reforms: the city authorities privatized school canteens and the city’s central heating system (SPEC), they raised rent in public housing and increased the cost of public transportation. For these reasons, re-privatization appears to be the greatest plunder of public assets in the history of post-war Warsaw. The authorities, however, are shrugging off responsibility for the social harm that this process has brought about. Remedies must involve the following: all private claims to public property must be verified, privatized property must be re-communalized, all tenants evicted as a result of re-privatization must be able to return to their homes, public services that were privatized (and that now in effect cost more) must be re-communalized, the public housing stock must be recreated and expanded.
12. Debt relief for tenants waiting to receive low income housing and forced to pay so-called penal rent (compensation to landlords for living without a lease agreement).
People who have been qualified to receive low income housing are unable to benefit from it (they can’t move in) because there is too little public housing available. In the meantime, as they wait for a spot they continue to live in their former housing (usually private) while the city pays out monthly compensation to their landlords. Subsequently, the city demands its money back from the tenants. The lack of a solution to this problem means that it is the tenants who foot the bill for the shortage in public housing. In reality, the right to housing does not apply to these tenants and they are burdened with thousands in debt that they will never be able to repay. Many people who were qualified for low income housing through a court judgment end up waiting for over ten years for an apartment to become available. Tenants cannot be the ones forced to bear the consequences of this situation, especially that their right to social housing is based on their low income and poor financial situation.
13. Total ban on evictions to so-called temporary housing, which is mere camouflage for eviction onto the street. Also, a total ban on using homeless shelters run by NGOs and city authorities as substitute accommodations.
So-called temporary housing for evicted tenants is usually rooms in hotels for workers, paid for by the city authorities for no longer than a month’s time. As such, most often after a month the tenants end up being sent to a homeless shelter. Sometimes the legal guardian of a partially incapacitated person, instead of defending their rights, makes it easier for the landlord to go ahead with the eviction. By definition, homeless shelters serve for housing in crisis situations, and they should be treated as such. Under no circumstances can homeless shelters be used as substitute housing or social housing.
14. Adjust the income criteria used to grant social and public housing, eliminate the maximum apartment size criteria and revise regulations on granting social housing such that it corresponds to the existing needs of the people.
When the authorities want to sidestep their obligation to provide public and social housing according to the needs of the people, they set criteria used to evaluate applications for housing such that a large part of them end up being rejected. Income criteria eliminate people who earn too much to qualify for public housing. Yet these people earn too little to be able to rent on the free market. Another problem is the apartment size threshold, which disqualifies people with low incomes who are “trapped” in relatively large rental apartments. In Poznań, for example, the authorities were forced to make changes to some selection criteria what resulted in an increase in the number of applications and revealed the large need for public housing.
15. Protect the housing rights of people who took out mortgages denominated in the Swiss franc. Protect the housing rights of people who fell into debt, were no longer able to repay mortgage loans, and in effect lost homeownership rights to their only apartment/home. Due to foreclosure they become homeless and are not protected under Polish housing law.
According to some data, about 560 thousand people in Poland are behind on mortgage payments denominated in the Swiss franc. Housing debt concerns entire families, meaning a much larger number of people are facing this problem. In 2000, mortgage loans taken out by people in Poland amounted to a total of about 9.5 billion PLN – currently they amount to about 378 billion PLN. Over a dozen or so years, mortgage debt in Poland increased by nearly 3,900%. Often time, families that have debt and stop paying off their mortgage loan lose the right to their only home. Households lose financial liquidity mainly as a result of high mortgage installments (often formerly denominated in francs). The underlying causes are various, like getting laid off work due to illness or some other circumstances independent of the debtors. Unable to make mortgage payments, their home is foreclosed and they are left without any housing title. According to Polish law, the new owner does not have to file for eviction in court, instead on the basis of their purchase agreement they can immediately hire a bailiff who automatically carries out the eviction order.
16. Central heating in all public housing, debt relief for tenants forced to heat using electricity and real regulation of energy prices.
Almost 70% of public housing in Warsaw lacks central heating forcing tenants to heat their homes using electricity, which is the most expensive form of heating. In order to qualify for public housing tenants must prove that they have low income. But once they qualify, the costs of heating their apartments with electricity far surpass the wage thresholds determined by the city authorities to get public housing in the first place. This absurd situation is particularly difficult for working mothers who are unable to save on heating because they have to provide the right conditions for their kids. While officials stick their heads in the sand, it is the tenants who end up paying for the unwillingness of city authorities to provide access to cheap energy. Until all public housing is hooked up to central heating, tenants forced to pay the high costs of heating with electricity should not have to pay rent. Since as a result of heating costs many tenants have fallen into debt and are facing eviction, debts on rent must be cancelled and the evictions must stop. Currently existing energy subsidies only amount to 2% of the actual costs of heating with electricity, and as such we demand greater financial support in footing the heating bill. Privatization of the energy sector is the reason for the continuous rise of electricity prices, which should be subject to much greater regulation.
17. Housing support programs for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in need.
Since 2013, the Wielkopolska Tenants’ Association has been supporting Roma migrants in the fight for the right to housing. Due to their poor financial situation, these people often live in abandoned community gardens. Roma people are not allowed to register their stay in Poland. This means that municipal institutions and private entities carry out illegal evictions more frequently, breaking the Polish law that protects the rights of tenants. Some municipalities in Poland are even facing judgment by the European Human Rights Tribunal for their role in displacing Roma people. Evictions and illegal demolitions are associated with money spent from the public budget that could be used instead to develop public housing for everyone. People who have filed for asylum or some other form of protection and who are waiting for a decision cannot take up legal employment in Poland. What more, they do not have the right to basic social welfare in the form of public housing. As such, migrants are forced to take up illegal employment in order to pay for housing on the free market.
18. Domestic violence policy on housing according to which it is the perpetrator who is required to move out.
Existing policy on domestic violence is not sufficient when it comes to the protection of tenants’ rights. Often time it is the victims of violence who are forced to move out, and then wait for many months or years for a court judgment and the possibility to apply for public housing assistance.
19. Total ban on the construction of substandard housing in the form of freight containers (also known as “social containers”) and barracks, as well as on using them for social housing or temporary housing for the poorest.
In Poland, approximately 5.5 million people live in substandard conditions. In 2012, the Central Statistical Office announced that the wages of an average resident of Poland allow for buying about half a square meter of housing. That’s almost two times less than ten years ago. While municipalities across the country are increasingly choosing to invest in substandard housing in the form of barracks, containers or plywood homes, thousands of people are waiting in line for social and public housing. These policy decisions are often in violation of construction law. What more, locating substandard housing neighborhoods on the isolated outskirts of cities only serves to escalate social segregation. “Social ghettos for the poor” are also used as a scare tactic against so-called “difficult tenants.”