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Workers' Initiative Union (OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza) COVID-19 epidemic activity report

"We won't be a human ant-crisis shield"
"We won't be a human ant-crisis shield"

From the very outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, the Worker’s Initative Union — OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza (IP) has been working in defence of workers’ rights. The union focuses on the fight for secure and hygienic working conditions (which includes a complete closure of those workplaces whose activity is non-essential during the epidemic). At the same time, knowing that attempts will be made to make workers shoulder the costs of the ensuing economic crisis, the union is preparing for the conflicts that will arise. These activities are carried out by union representatives in branches locally and nationally.

Below is the detailed report on the union’s activities in March 2020.

 

National activities

Shortly after the government announced their decision to limit the activity of educational, cultural and welfare institutions, IP’s National Committee launched an online service dedicated to the impact of the epidemic on the worker’s situation. It provides legal advice, information on the work carried out by the union’s representatives within individual workplaces, reports from other countries, and analysis of the “anti-crisis shield” prepared by the government.

To date, six handbooks have been published dedicated to such topics as (1) downtime and the remuneration of downtime, (2) leave regulations, (3) remuneration / sick leave for quarantined workers, and (4) the possibility of suspending operations where the worker’s life and health are at risk.

The National Committee has also published a critique of the legal adjustments planned by the government and referred to as the “anti-crisis shield”. The union opposes wage cuts in any form, subsidies for business owners, and any attempts at making work even more flexible than it already is. We propose the following alternatives to the “shied”: (1) increase of unemployment benefits and lifting the restrictions, which currently entitle less than 20% of all unemployed to unemployment benefits; (2) universal access to healthcare, (3) eradication of casual employment (the so-called “junk contracts”), (4) free and universal access to basic utilities (electricity, gas, water/sewage and heating). A detailed analysis of the consequences of the governement’s proposals included in the “shield”, as well as reports on unions’ activities in other countries have also been published on IP’s website.

We are currently working on materials encouraging the non-unionised to get organised as well as on handbooks dedicated to blocking salary cuts and job dismissals for economic reasons.

The private sector: industry

Key demands made by IP representatives in industrial manufacturing plants such as Volkswagen and Danfoss was to suspend production and introduce fully paid downtime. This demand has been implemented in the Volkswagen plant in Poznań, which employs approx. 11 thousand workers.The Danfoss factories continue their operations, although changes have been introduced to the organisation of labour.

On March 14, IP representatives at Volkswagen Poznań published an open letter to the management board at VW Poznań and the Polish authorities demanding: (1) suspension of production with 100% pay, (2) launch of a support fund for workers to cover the increased costs of healthcare during the pandemic, and (3) contract extension until the end of the pandemic for all fixed-term workers. The letter ends with an appeal to state authorities for an intervention should the company’s board not comply with the union’s demands.

In the following days, the board refused to meet with union representatives, and in their communication with the workers indicated that the company’s priority is to “maintain continuity of production”. At the same time, car factories (not only VW) in other countries, such as Spain, France and Slovakia, continued to suspend production thanks to an active involvement of trade unions.

Three days after the open letter was published, Volkswagen introduced a two-week downtime that would begin of Friday, March 20. Though initially intended to last a fortnight, it was eventually extended until April 10. The board came to an agreement with another trade union, NSZZ Solidarność, according to which a part of these days will be treated as downtime (the so-called “flexible days”), while the remainder will “provide an opportunity” for VW’s employees to take paid leave. However, there are known cases of workers being pressured into taking paid leave accrued from last year in order to take advantage of downtime. After IP’s intervention, such pressure ceased.

For IP representatives at Danfoss, the month has begun with a fight for raises. After a series of leaflet campaigns — one of which involved a police intervention called in by company management — and a spike in employee dissatisfaction, Danfoss Poland decided to publish the results of annual pay review (ASR’20) for production workers two weeks ahead of schedule. Salaries for this group of employees increased between 5 and 11%, depending on the position. This increase was significantly lower to what IP representatives expected. However, two weeks later it transpired that these were the raises granted by Danfoss Poland only this year.

The management board for Danfoss Poland announced in mid-March that it would dismiss ASR’20 for office workers due to the coronavirus epidemic and the company’s deteriorating economic position. Later, it also transpired that not all Danfoss plants in Eastern Europe have granted ASR’20 to their production workers. It would seem, therefore, that Polish production workers received a pay raise, because at the time of cancelling ASR’20 for all office workers the company’s management could no longer withdraw from the raises granted two weeks earlier to production staff.

As everyone’s attention turned to preventing the spread of the epidemic, which brutally entered Poland in the first days of March, Danfoss introduced such security measures as: remote work for office employees, adjusted meal organisation at the canteen, alerting all workers to keep a minimum 1,5 m distance from each other, and to wash their hands and disinfect machinery more frequently. Part of these security measures had been included earlier in IP’s demands.

According to the employees and IP representatives, these security measures are insufficient. As long as production efficiency and the number of employees concentrated in one plant remain unchanged, it is simply impossible to meet such security measures as minimising contact with others and keeping the 1,5 m distance between workers. For this reason, IP representatives petitioned the board twice to follow in the footsteps of Danfoss factories in Italy and India and close the plant. The company’s authorities, however, have not granted the request, citing that the closure of Danfoss factories in other countries came as a decision of public authorities.

The private sector: logistics

Despite the epidemic, Amazon and Avon warehouses continue to work as usual. At the time of writing neither of the companies considered a suspension of work, despite such demands being made by trade unions present in those workplaces.

On March 11, IP representatives at Amazon appealed for closure and demanded a meeting with the management board. On March 16, due to a lack of response from Amazon’s management, IP working in collaboration with NSZZ Solidarność has issued their appeal for warehouse closure to the regional administrative officials, demanding an intervention by the public authorities.

It was not until March 20, when a conference-call took place between trade union representatives and the company’s authorities, who refused to discuss the closure of warehouses. Instead, the management proposed to introduce a supplement in the sum of PLN 4 (approx. EUR 0,80) gross per hour for the period between March 15 and April 30, and then refused to negotiate the amount as well as payment conditions. In the following days trade unions carried out a widespread awareness raising campaign on the working conditions in the company’s warehouses — posting videos on social media depicting conditions in locker rooms, shuttle buses and canteens, as well as a map showcasing the sprawl of the area the company’s 30 thousand workers are shuttled from every day.

On March 30 Worker’s Initative and Solidarność agreed to the PLN 4 gross per hour for the period between Match 15 and April 30 supplement, but they declared their continuing effort toward warehouse closure during the epidemic.

IP representatives at Avon Distribution in Garwolin, which continues to work “as normal” during the pandemic, posed similar demands to those made by the union at Amazon. In a petition sent to the employer on March 13, the union called for:
• introduction of economic downtime (based on the provisions of the so-called “second anti-crisis act” of 2013);
• suspension of production efficiency, which would result in increased rest periods and a maintenance of good hygienic practices during the epidemic;
• suspension of 12-hour shifts to reduce the workload taken on by employees, in particular vulnerable workers of advanced age, suffering from irregular blood pressure or diabetes;
• equipping security guards and drivers with additional disinfection equipment (evaporators and diffusers) — at the time of writing they were only equipped with a cloth and rubbing alcohol;
• increasing paid annual leave entitlement during the epidemic, so that employees can take care of their elderly parents;
• introducing changes to the bonus distribution system;
• informing all employees of Avon warehouses — both those employed directly by Avon as well as those outsourced and hired through temp agencies— of increased health and safety measures the employer intends to introduce during the epidemic.

The employer replied to IP’s petition three days later, declaring the care for employees’ health and safety as Avon’s “highest priority”, however in regards to key demands the company “does not intend in the foreseeable future” to introduce downtime, decrease production efficiency nor shorten shifts. “Effective working hours” was decreased by 4% (approx. 18 minutes) to increase bonus opportunities, so that workers could wash their hands while retaining the right to a bonus. The company purchased contactless thermometers — after repeated demands by the union. In our opinion the above provisions are insufficient.

Public sector: higher education

Following the decision of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, university chancellors have shifted their universities to remote teaching, while on-site work is carried out in a limited capacity by administrative and service staff. IP representatives at universities and higher education institutions have intervened on several occasions over the period of the last two weeks, mainly in relation to the working conditions for technical staff.

IP representatives at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń issued a statement regarding insufficient security measures for employees working at reception desks in student housing; the intervention by IP representatives at the Jagiellonian University resulted in employees of the Jagiellonian Library working remotely; and IP representatives at the University of Warsaw intervened in regards to the working conditions for service staff in one of the buildings belonging to the Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology. Their intervention resulted in the shortening of working hours and an introduction of a roster with reduced staffing.

Moreover, various IP branches have published a number of statements: on March 13, the IP branch at the University of Wrocław submitted a petition regarding health and safety conditions for non-academic staff; on March 18 the IP brach at the University of Warsaw published a statement expressing concern over the government’s announcements regarding pay cuts; on March 20, the joint IP branch at the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw issued a statement regarding work safety, securing the salaries of the lowest-pay-grade employees as well as those employed under fixed-term contracts, organisation of remote work, taking into account the conditions and caregiving responsibilities at home.

On March 20, IP representatives at the University of Warsaw received the Chancellor's statement referring to the questions submitted by the union during the first week of operating under special regulations, and confirming that actions to “minimise the effects the crisis will have on the employees” will be taken.

Public sector: culture

The work of all cultural institutions is suspended under further notice. IP representatives continually monitor workers’ situation. In most cases, office staff have been relegated to working remotely, but people whose work is strictly event-related are now in a difficult position: actors and technical staff are affected by the cancellation of theatre plays and rehearsals, educators by the cancellation of group activities, security staff by the closure of exhibition spaces. The consequences of event cancellations are particularly severe for those working under fixed-term contracts. Wherever applicable, employers relegate them to work remotely (e.g. e-learning activities, recording speeches and tutorials, etc.), but this is only feasible to a limited extent.

IP representatives in cultural institutions are also negotiating downtime remuneration with their employers, following the legal guidance provided by the union. An example is provided by the Old Town Cultural Center, where consultations are ongoing between IP branch representatives and the employer in regards to the rules of determining downtime remuneration, remote work, on-call time and other types of remuneration during the suspension of the institution’s activities.

The situation at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews highlights the difficulties faced by workers employed by outsourcing companies. A company providing such services for POLIN in the area of customer service has forced its employees to file leave and has not provided downtime remuneration. The situation has not changed despite the efforts of IP representatives at POLIN. As a result, the union filed a complaint to the National Labour Inspectorate.

Cultural institutions are still waiting for state authorities to provide guidelines regarding the remuneration for workers employed under fixed-term contracts, as well as by external companies. All adjustments require changes in annual budgets, annexing contracts or non-standard solutions that go beyond the Public Procurement Law.

OZZ Inicjatywa Pracownicza
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