We publish below an interview to two activists of the Polish union Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers’Initiative), that we realized on the occasion of the presentation of the documentary movie «Special Exploitation Zones» organized in Bologna, and another documentary concerning the living and working conditions of women in Wałbrzych. Poland is the only UE member State which established Special Economic Zones (SEZ), high-exploitation areas where the multinational enterprises connect national spaces to transnational fluxes of commodities thanks to special tax-regimes and worsening the workers’ condition. In Summer 2012 the factory Chung Hong Electonics, placed in one of these SEZ, was the theatre of a strike. The workers refused to activate the machineries for two weeks. I. and G. describes the living condition and the organization of the strike, the obstacles and the perspectives opened up for the workers, mainly for women.
What were the working conditions in Chung Hong electronics?
I: The workers at Chung Hong receive very low salaries, usually the minimum, which in Poland is 300 € after taxes, 400 euros before. More than half of that goes away in rent, so your left with around 150 €, even less, which is practically nothing. On the other hand you are forced to work overtime, around 150 hours throughout the year, but obviously many workers do much more, and if production is high the workers have to work 16 hours a day in two shifts, and if they refuse they can be fired.
We observe the precarization of working conditions in the sense that people are usually dismissed from work they can return but when they have been previously dismissed they can only return on elastic conditions, they get temporary contracts. That was the situation in FIAT, where 1450 workers were fired this year and one month ago around 150 got the possibility to return to work but as temporary workers with a temporary contract and for lower wages. In Chung Hong half the workers are employed by job agencies when production is high. Usually there are 200 workers but when production is really high the job agencies hire another 200. If production is low there are just the 200, and most of them have temporary contracts, for two or three years usually. The very important thing is that it takes at least 2 or 3 hours for the workers to get to work, only a few of them live in Wroclaw which is 20km (half an hour) from the factory, but most of them come from cities where unemployment reaches 30% or more, at least 100 km away. As a consequence if they have to do overtime it takes them 2 hours to get there, then 16 hours working, then another two hours to get home. So they have just a few hours to reproduce themselves, or spend with their children, its a horrible situation.
G: This is an assembly line factory, workers on the assembly line have one break of 20 minutes in a shift which is 8 hours, if they want to go to the toilet they have to get permission from their supervisor. Some of the workers because they work with electricity are connected to the floor with cables so when they are working they cannot move too much. In the factory there are also people who measure time of work, sometimes behind the backs of the workers, this person from the office who all day measures their work-times, typical fordist organization of labor.
I: Another thing to underline relates to LG. Chung Hong is a supplier for LG, and it’s located in a Zone created for LG. At LG there was an accident, a worker was killed by a machine because he didn’t have safety training, he hadn’t been told how to operate the machine, and he died because of this. Job inspectors have conducted a sort of investigation, and we know that workers are given fake «trainings» in how to use these machines, and sometimes they are burned by electricity or like this worker get killed.
G: In many cases there are these fake trainings. Most of the time the jobs on the assembly line are quite simple, after a couple of days they are working regularly, but they don’t get any wages for this «training» period.
So, how did you organize the struggle and the strike and what were the outcomes of the strike?
I: Workers from Chung Hong joined our union two years ago and after half a year they entered a labour dispute because it was impossible to get something from the boss, he didn’t want to agree for nothing, just for nothing, and that’s why workers were so annoyed that they decided to enter a labour dispute. If you are a worker in Poland and you want to organize a legal strike you have to pass three steps and after those three steps you have to organize a referendum; so workers passed the three steps, it took one month and then they organized a referendum, but it was really hard to organize it because the employer didn’t let them organize it inside the factory, so they had to organize it in buses. Usually, they go, as I said before, they go to work from the cities which are like 100 km from the factory and employer organize transport for them, and they made this referendum in buses and during the referendum, almost at the referendum, the leader of strike, G, was fired, because he was actually the leader, so he was dismissed from work. And then the workers from the factory decided that they go on strike; on the referendum, workers voted for the strike, so most of them wanted to go on strike. But most of them didn’t go on strike, and it was because the people from offices, office workers, and administrative work directors and so on were really close to production workers and they controlled them whether they go on strike or not and workers were so scared of them that they decided to stay in the factory and they resigned from strike. At the end 24 people went on strike and after two weeks they were dismissed from work, and they got disciplinary dismissal. It means that when they were dismissed they didn’t have unemployment benefit and they didn’t have any welfare, nothing, just nothing, they stayed without any income. So we tried to organize a kind of special fund, strike fund for them, we collected money for this was the most important thing for us, because among the people who were on strike there were single mothers who stayed without any income. It was June and July, so in September the children went to school and didn’t have any money for books, for nothing, so we tried to collect money for them. Right now we have a cases incurred and we also organize everything connected with this. But it’s really difficult to win it and it will take another few years till these cases will be finished. And if workers win those cases is because they demand competition because they think that they were fired illegally. If they will win, they will get 1000 euro after 2 years so it’s like nothing.
During the strike, workers couldn’t get inside the factory, it was like 40 degrees or even more. It was hot, there were horrible high temperatures, they couldn’t go to the toilette, they were in front of the factory, they couldn’t get in buses for workers, the employers hire special buses only for them, because they want to separate them from all workers. They couldn’t talk with other workers, nothing. It was really hard time for them, especially because they couldn’t use toilette. They made pee in front of media cause they didn’t have any choice. As a union, we of course try to support them, we have organized demonstration around special economic zones, pickets, we stay with them all the time, of course we organized support from other groups and other unions, just a union August 80, quite big in Poland, also support them, another organization decides to support them, and we also organized pickets, ones organized special occupations of agency, like public agency, which it is responsible for special economic zones, because they give permissions to companies. If some company wants to join special economic zones, this company has to get permissions and this public agency, an industrial development agency, it’s public, and it gives the permissions for the company, so we organized occupations of the main office of this agency, demanding that if they give permissions to the companies they should check if this company respects the labour’s rights or not.
You said that a lot of workers were women, what can you say about the impact of these struggle on the life of these women?
I: Right now we observe that there are a lot of women who are taking part in many struggles. For example they take part in struggles which are linked to housing problems because houses are connected to the production area, but also in factory we observe that many women are active. In this struggle also many women took part. It affected them a lot. There were women who were single mothers and they stayed without any income, without any welfare, they didn’t get anything, so they worked because they didn’t want to be dependent on their families. After the strike, they started to be dependent on their families again and it was quire problematic for them because they had come back to live with their families, father and mother, and also they were dependent on family income. On the other hand, we know that if a woman goes on strike and starts some struggles, sometimes social workers can go to them and check if they are good mothers or not. It never happens to men, but if women start struggles, it is quite a common situation that a social worker checks whether you are a good mother or not. It is a very repressive situation, women are threatened and they are in danger that they can lose their children. There are also other women who are also affected by the struggle in a positive way. Actually when I met them for first time they were really dependent on their husbands because they were married and they couldn’t do nothing alone, husbands were always with them and they didn’t let them be active in the union, so it was really hard for them to come to the meetings, to the union meetings. Usually they couldn’t do that and they had to have some arguments and clashes with husbands just to come to the meeting. There was one woman who, after the strike, her husband kicked her out of the house because he said that he doesn’t accept her activity in the union and her other activities, so she decided to just leave him and divorce him. I think it was a positive experience for her because right now she is a totally free person and she is not dependent on her husband who was really despotic. She is still active in the union and some others are active in the union after one year and I have really positive feelings about this because it was really a hard experience for them, especially for Yola, because she lost her job. On the other hand, she lost her husband but she found something in the struggles and she still believes that the struggle was important and her struggles are important. So, it was really a positive experience.
Last question: why did you choose to found your own union?
G: It’s a long story. We come from anarchist groups in Poland and this is our basic political background. In our city we just established a so called section of Anarchist Federation 10 years ago. Some of the people from anarchist milieu in our city around 2000-2001 started to be interested in labour issue, in the union stuff, with influence of anarcho-syndicalism and we got connections with the workers from different places of Poland and from different unions. We established very strong connections with workers from Cegielski factory. In 1956 the workers of this factory organized the first big workers’ riot against the communist regime so it’s a factory with a tradition of workers resistance. Around 2002-2003, there was the last peak of workers’ struggles in Poland so we, with the workers of this particular factory, joined the national committee of support of the workers protest. We went to many protests and, after this experience, in 2004 we established a formal union. It was the idea of the workers from this particular factory, from Cegielski. They wanted an independent union. They had been before in the union «Solidarity 80». So our union was made by people from «Solidarity» who didn’t agree with «Solidarity». This particular group from Cegielski didn’t want to be in that union anymore, it was too bureaucratic for them and not enough militant so we established together in 2004 the «Workers’ Initiative».
I: At the beginning there weren’t many women, there were some, but not too many. Now there are a lot of women in «Workers’ Initiative» because we see that in factories and other places work is really feminized, especially unskilled work; this is because, of course, women agree more than men for lower wages and stuff like this. Even if we have to deal with the situation that, on the one hand, employers try to use gender division against workers and try to block women’s activities in the factories, on the other hand sometimes local authorities do the same: they send police or social workers to women activists. Even if things like that happen, we see that women try to organize themselves as workers in factories and, on the other hand, on different levels like reproduction, housing problems, and stuff like this.