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Welfare and Social Issues

Precariat’s World

By Bartlomiej Kozek

Making ends meet by relying on a seemingly endless round of unstable, precarious jobs is becoming a common experience for young people in Poland these days. According to a report from the European Commission, the percentage of people working in the so-called “junk job sector” in Poland hovers at around 27%, but in the younger age brackets these figures are even more shocking – 65% for people under 30 years old and 85% for people under 24!

I often hear stories from my friends that differ from the official view of the country as an island, unaffected by the economic crisis. These stories range from changes to working time in a cinema chain, which for my friend meant that he needed to work in two cinemas to make ends meet, to friends that worked in restaurants in which working time has been illegally extended, and at the end of the month the workers get little money for their extra work.

I sometimes consider myself a lucky person because I don’t have a permanent job, but at least the studies or articles that I need to write to earn a living cover my areas of interest. Although – after six years of living in Warsaw – I’m still far away from enjoying financial stability. Looking through the job opportunities available, I can’t shake the feeling that some time ago there were much more of them in the press or on the Internet. The statistics regarding the labour market in Poland seem to confirm my suspicions.

A generation on the edge

Although the precariat in Poland is a huge group, a sense of community amongst its members is almost non-existent. For many couples the most dramatic days of their relationships are when you have to pay the rent. From early morning you can sense a tense atmosphere in the house. Sharing a flat with your friends or loved ones – and I know that not only from my experience – increases the risks involved in ending relationships or friendship, once one of the people involved has a problem with paying their part of the bills, or someone finds a more suitable (cheaper) housing offer, not informing their housemates early enough so that they could find a replacement without losing financial stability. With such conditions being increasingly common it comes as no surprise that according to opinion polling 81% of Poles would like to have at least 2 children, but they rarely do, because of low and unstable incomes or poor housing conditions.

No political force in the Polish parliament wants to admit that a “from rags to riches” approach, which after the economic changes of 1989 became a sort of accepted idea, simply doesn’t work.

For years young people in Poland have been taught that the only people responsible for their quality of lives are they themselves. It results in growing individual frustration, as sending more and more CV’s ends only in rejection, or – at best – an unpaid internship or a short-term job for just a few months. The sense of failure further alienates the group of 20-25% of people that after finishing their studies have problems with finding a suitable job. They have no language to tell the world about the sense that something is not right with this feeling that they have under their skin. They also don’t see the relationship between their situation and that of the workers that lost their jobs due to economic transformation or offshoring production, that they portrayed as inflexible and unfit for the times of young, ambitious and well-educated. Often living in cities where the unemployment rate is about 5%, they don’t see any similarities with people living in areas with high, structural unemployment of 25-30%.

In 2010 Izabela Desperak and Judyta ?mia?ek wrote a report for the Feminist Think-Tank, focusing on the situation of young people working in the junk jobs sector in ?ód? (the third largest city in Poland) which in recent years has fallen into decline due to deindustrialisation. In this report we see young people – mainly students – accepting underpaid and unstable working conditions just to get another line on their CV’s. They quickly realise that achieving a work-study balance is becoming more and more difficult for them. Their leisure time quickly shrinks and their dreams of having children are postponed. PhD students also need to find a job, as only 40% of them receive any financial assistance from their universities. But even getting a job doesn’t mean a happy ending for their – not only financial – problems. Workers’ rights are being neglected – from the issues of safety in the workplace, through to not paying overtime, up to delays in paying wages. Let us remember that it’s not easy to postpone essential payments, such as rent or food.

Regarding fixed-term contracts, Poland recently surpassed Spain as the European leader in their share of the labour market – in Spain it is “only” 26%. In Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities we recently saw mass social protests of people with few prospects for a fulfilling life or even a low-paid job, as the unemployment rate for young people in Spain recently hit over 50% (52,9% in the under 25-age group in August 2012, according to Eurostat).

A problem neglected

Sadly, you can’t find protests on a similar scale in Poland – to be honest, the problem of a potentially “lost generation” only received mainstream attention after a series of articles in the press in mid-2011, and later on with the publication of a governmental report “Youth 2011”, presenting a vision of a young generation fighting bravely against the problems on the labour market. No political force in the Polish parliament wants to admit that a “from rags to riches” approach, which after the economic changes of 1989 became a sort of accepted idea, simply doesn’t work.

The need for change

If we want to limit the scale of junk jobs, which undermine the social insurance system as the contributions to the pension or the healthcare funds are reduced in some forms of working contracts, ideas such as a more flexible labour market and making it easier to fire workers won’t help. According to OECD data, Polish labour laws aren’t much more restrictive than the average in the member countries of the organisation and more flexible than in Germany or France. Lowering of labour costs also won’t do the trick – you don’t have to look very far from the ruling Civic Platform’s programme from 2011 to see that the level of taxes and social insurance as a percentage of GDP in Poland is one of the lowest in the European Union.

What we need is the abolishing of fiscal preferences for contracts other the ones covered by Polish labour law. Implementing the same level of social insurance on different types of contracts will put an end to an unfavourable situation where employers that create more stable jobs face a higher tax burden than the ones preferring precarious forms of employment. Sadly, Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, decided recently that he will not push such legislation, worrying that an increase in costs in a time of economic crisis would hurt the economy. The situation of people with no prospects of getting health insurance or a pension when they are old was not at the centre of the prime minister’s attention.

The voices that argue that if such changes are implemented the unemployment rate will rise and more and more people will seek jobs in the black economy sound just like the ones who argued that increasing the minimum wage would be a “job killer”. Well, the facts in Poland are that in January 2005, when the minimum wage was at 849 z?oty’s brutto (ca. 205 euro), the unemployment rate was at 19%. In the first half of 2011, when the minimum wage was set at 1386 z?oty’s (ca. 335 euro), 12.8% people were unemployed, with an employment rate close to historic highs. This example shows that believing in neo-liberal dogmas binding social progress with economic decline just doesn’t make sense and looks similarly to the 19th century calls opposing to abolish child labour or shortening the daily work time. As to the “black economy argument”, the answer is not lowering labour standards, but giving adequate financial resources and law enforcement mechanisms to the public workplace inspection service. It is the cutting of the finances of such institutions that allows the black economy to thrive.

Changes will come only when we won’t be embarrassed to talk about problems that occur in our lives. Although not every difficulty we come through is a result of the policies of this or that government, the idea that our lives are only shaped by ourselves is equally flawed. It requires some courage to say out loud that the situation in the labour market can be more important than individual strategies to be more flexible and be prepared to sit quietly and have a low paid junk job. But, if we will lack this courage, the situation in Poland and its place in the global economy won’t change and we will be stuck with relying on a “comparative advantage” from our low wages.

 

This article is an updated version of the article from the Zielone Wiadomosci magazine, in which it was published in late 2011 under the title “Zwiat wedug prekariusza”.