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MigrationOnline.czE-library › Polish trade unions and migrant workers: a need for cooperation

Polish trade unions and migrant workers: a need for cooperation

4. 7. 18
Source: migrationonline.cz
Country: Poland

Polish trade unionists have already realized the presence of a significant number of foreign workers in the country and are ready to help them. But there are several problems ahead: migrants need legal advice rather than trade union interventions, and most of them are working in Poland seasonally, so they often cannot even experience results of trade union interventions.

In recent years, the Polish labour market has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of foreign employees. The fastest way to respond to this change is provided by commercial service providers: in addition to job offers for migrant workers, you may increasingly find ads offering banking, telecommunication and health services in foreign languages. State Administration is trying to catch up - in March 2018, the Ministry of Investments and Development introduced new priorities in the field of migration policy, underlining the importance of long-term migration, not only from eastern neighbouring countries. Hence, it is appropriate to ask how the Polish trade unions respond to the increase in the number of migrant workers. Do they want to defend local workers at all costs or opt for openness and integration?

If in 2013 the Polish authorities issued less than 40,000 work permits and 232,000 declarations of intention to entrust work to foreigners (a simplified procedure allowing employment for up to half a year for the citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Russia), then in 2017 it had increased to 235,000 permits and more than 1.8 million declarations. Although these data do not directly reflect the number of migrants, they show how important place foreigners have taken on the labour market in Poland. The vast majority of documents were issued to Ukrainian citizens. At present, the history of labour migration to Poland is mostly the history of the Ukrainians.

Sixteen percent of employees are union members in Poland. It is not a big indicator compared to other Western countries. However, the influence of trade unions on relations between the state, entrepreneurs and employees cannot be overlooked. Foreigners have the same right to join trade unions as local workers. As such, the largest union has already prepared an offer for the Ukrainians.

"The situation of Ukrainian workers in Poland resembles the situation of the Poles in Great Britain and Ireland after 2004," says Piotr Ostrowski of the OPZZ, the largest Polish trade union organization, comprising 86 national federations and several hundred individual trade unions. "After joining the EU, the number of Poles on the islands increased rapidly and local unions opened for them. GMB or UNISON created separate posts for Poles who worked with newcomers. We in OPZZ have decided to follow their path, "adds Ostrowski. In 2016 the OPZZ initiated the establishment of a trade union of Ukrainians in Poland. It is a separate legal entity, even though it has an office at OPZZ headquarters in Warsaw. In addition, the Ukrainians are represented in the member structures of the trade unions, but Ostrowski was unable to indicate precisely their number. "Just like Poles, they pay 10 zlotych a month (2,3 EUR) and in return, they can rely on our help right from the first month. This distinguishes us from Western Europe where the employee usually has to pay contributions for at least half a year to count on the union's help, "says Ostrowski.

In September 2017, the OPZZ Council adopted an official stance on migration policy. It emphasized the need to establish wage equality for Polish and foreign employees having the same qualifications and also proposed the introduction of collective labour agreements in sectors where foreigners are most represented. Besides, they have stressed that migration policy cannot exist without an integration policy aimed at employees and their family members.


The importance of cooperation with migrant workers is also perceived by the Workers’ Initiative (Inicjatywa Pracownicza) - a self-governing trade union organization that avoids classic bureaucracy and is more open to all professions with different flexible types of contracts. Ignacy Jóźwiak of the IP says that addressing foreign workers began three years ago. In their activities, they draw on experience from Italy and Germany. "Migrants in Poland work in poorly unionized sectors – gastronomy, hospitality, domestic work, and are often employed using precarious contracts, so naturally they are our target group. For the time being, we did not create a separate commission for the Ukrainians, but we have translated the basic information materials, produced flyers with a labour-law minimum," explains Jóźwiak. He also mentions the four cases where Ukrainian workers have been asked to help. "These were the situation in Poznan, Gdansk, Bydgoszcz, concerning both unpaid wages and changes in working conditions that were not in line with the contract. Unfortunately, only in one case we were successful. In other cases, the length of the foreigners' stay was too short to win the case. "

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Both experts admit that it is currently difficult to create a classical trade union organization for the Ukrainians. This is due to the high labour market fluctuation and limited residence time, which makes it difficult for Unions to intervene. As surveys by the Ukrainian agency Ranking show, more than half of Ukrainians who head for Poland for work remain in the country for a maximum of three months. They want to earn as much as possible in a short time. So if they fight for something, it is rather against unpaid wages rather than for better working conditions or fair treatment. It even happens that their visa or work permit will expire more quickly before the unions can effectively respond to violations of their rights.

This diagnosis is confirmed by Andrzej Mikołajewski from job agency Good Agency (Dobra Agencja). "The offer of trade unionists barely targets Polish workers, not to mention foreign ones. I myself, when I went to the Netherlands or Norway for work, did not even think I could seek support from the trade unions. "

The second obstacle in the way of wider cooperation between Polish unions and Ukrainian migrants is the fact that the Ukrainians are turning to them primarily for the purpose of legal counselling. Most calls from foreign employees concern the legality of residence and employment. The reason is obvious: the regional authorities cancelled the information points, the NGO suffers from a lack of funding and the service fee for private lawyers exceeds the minimum wage.

There is another reason why migrant workers are lukewarm towards trade unions. Andrzej Korkuś, director of the EWL Group (TWA), believes that the objectives of migrant workers are often different from those of local staff. "Foreigners mostly come to Poland for a short time and want to make the most of it. To make the most of your work, you work for more hours, sign flexible contracts on the basis of the Civil Code. Employers are also willing to offer multi-hour shifts to foreign employees. "

There is a room for cooperation, thought.

According to Piotr Ostrowski, there is still room for intensive cooperation: "It is normal that Ukrainians slowly become accustomed to a new reality. Unionization of Poles in the UK  is also lower than that of British and Irish workers.” Ignacy Jóźwiak, however, suggests that temporary work agencies are an obstacle. "The problem of outsourcing also affects Polish employees, because in the long run, it divides the workers in one company into better and worse. In the event of a conflict between the employer and the employee, it is often shown that workers are employed in the same positions under different conditions.

Andrzej Mikołajewski says straightforwardly that there is a conflict of values and interests between trade unions and agencies. "While the unions are fighting for social security, it is important for agencies to secure the financial stability of their clients at the expense of their employees. Agencies in Poland are paid by employers, not employees, and therefore they care for the interests of the first group. Business executives are rather hostile towards trade unions - if they learn about recruiting agency workers by unions, for example via handing out leaflets at a workplace, they would probably end the contract with the agency.” On the other hand, Andrzej Korkuś adds that despite differences in interests, trade unions and agencies could cooperate, for example, to inform employees about the legality of employment.

It seems that most of the work is only ahead of the trade unionists. The need for assistance will increase when there are a larger Ukrainian diaspora and the number of non-seasonal workers in Poland. However, the model of co-operation with migrant workers remains to be resolved today - the growing economy needs more working hands and only migration from neighbouring eastern countries is not enough. Visa and work permits are being requested by citizens of India, Pakistan and Nepal. When the availability of legal aid is low and the integration policy of the state lags, it is the unions that can become one of the key institutions for the integration of foreigners into society.

This publication has been produced as part of project “Towards stronger transnational labour inspection cooperation” (STRONGLAB), funded by the International Visegrad Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Responsibility of ideas or opinions expressed in this text lies solely with the author. Neither the International Visegrad Fund nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands are responsible for those ideas or opinions nor for any use that may be made of them.


Olena Babakova



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