Labour law then and now

International Workers' Solidarity Day, known as Labour Day, has been celebrated in Poland for 131 years as a symbolic commemoration of the workers' protests in Chicago. What is the nature of this holiday today? How is it understood? What has changed over the years in labour law? This is what we are talking about with dr hab. Monika Tomaszewska, prof. UG from the Department of Labour Law, Faculty of Law and Administration, University of Gdańsk.

Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska: - Workers' protests in Chicago in 1886, bloodily suppressed by the police, were aimed at introducing several concrete changes in labour law. They demanded, among others, improvement of working conditions and regulation of working time. Today, the 8-hour working day seems to be the standard (although there are countries where the working week is even shorter), and the Labour Code regulates the rights and obligations of both employees and employers. Much has changed over the years. Also in the form - today there are no more pompous May Day celebrations. However, Labour Day has remained a day off.

Dr hab. Monika Tomaszewska, prof. UG: - May 1st commemorates events that took place in the 1890s in the United States. The strike of workers in Chicago was triggered by terrible working conditions, employment on contracts for 1.5 dollars a day and working hours reaching 12 hours a day. At that time, no one had heard of such things as notice periods - jobs were terminated overnight. Nor was there any legislation against child labour. The slogan of the workers was "Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!", meaning eight hours at work, eight for rest, eight for what you want. The latter meant demanding one day a week set aside for rest.

In the Second Polish Republic, the 1st of May was not a public holiday, but the celebration of this day, as a day of working people, was organised by the Polish Socialist Party. In Poland, May 1st was made a public holiday in 1950, thanks to a law signed by Bierut on April 26, 1950. It contained a preamble promoting the socialist system of the state and shaping the moral and political consciousness of society in this spirit. Interestingly, the questionable preamble was dropped only in 2007, when the law was amended, while at the same time the state character of the holiday was retained.

- If you were to say something about the direction of changes in labour law and employment conditions - has much changed in our country recently? Can it be said that Poles receive decent wages for their work?

As far as pay conditions are concerned, it seems to me that the level has improved a lot, if only because we have had an unprecedented, compared to previous years a dramatic increase in the minimum pay (within the last 5 years). In this matter, we have almost approached the standard of achieving 50% of the average salary, expected by European standards, including the European Social Charter. Moreover, the Act on the Minimum Wage has extended the guarantee of the minimum wage rate to persons employed in non-employment forms and therefore based on a contract of mandate or a contract for the provision of services. Unfortunately, not all forms of employment benefit from this protection.

It should be emphasised that in terms of purchasing power we are within the European average, as indicated by Eurostat data for 2021. Calculated in purchasing power parity (PPP), the minimum salary in Poland is currently exactly EUR 1,084 - i.e. 57% of median earnings, according to Eurostat.

- How do the economic situation, rising inflation, and with it credit rates, among other things, relate to this?

Unfortunately, the above factors, especially the economic situation, the disruption of the supply chain, the search for alternative energy sources in the face of war and the threat to the supply of basic raw materials for food production (fertilisers/wheat) can have a very negative impact on the standard and quality of life. At this point, it is difficult to estimate their impact. Already very high inflation is causing the real purchasing power of our wages to fall sharply. It looks like we are working about two months pro bobo compared to last year, assuming wages have not risen.

- We seem to work the same and earn the same, but we can afford less and less. And yet according to the statistics, Poland is the seventh busiest country in the European Union. What is the reason for this?

On average, we work about 250 hours more per year than Spaniards, according to OECD data for 2020. In terms of the number of hours worked per year, we are only surpassed by residents of Romania, Malta and Croatia.

The average number of hours worked by an employee in Poland during a year is 1766, while the EU average is 1513 hours. The least working hours are observed in Germany (1332 hours), Denmark (1336), the Netherlands (1399) and Austria (1400), according to OECD data.

It should be noted, however, that although we are the busiest people in the whole of Europe, we are distinguished by a very short period of professional activity compared to other European countries. A statistical Pole works on average for 33.6 years during his life. This is two years less than the EU average (35.7 years). The most professionally active are the Swiss, Swedes, Dutch and Danes, where the average length of service is 40 years.

- You conduct research on the labour market and the so-called working poor. What is meant by this term? What is the current trend - is the number of working poor increasing or decreasing?

According to the definition adopted by the European Statistical Office, the working poor are people who:

  • worked for at least 7 months in a year or had an employment status for more than 6 months in the period to which the income information relates;
  • persons with a household whose total income after taxes and other public tributes is below 60% of the median disposable household income (the sum of incomes of all household members divided among them after taking into account their size and structure).

In turn, the median salary in Poland tells us how much an average Pole actually earns. This should not be confused with the so-called average salary; the average gross salary itself reached PLN 5748.24. According to the latest data, the median in Poland is about 4.7 thousand PLN gross. After deducting, among others, taxes, one is left with even less, around PLN 3.4 thousand. We assume that 60 per cent of this amount, i.e. around PLN 2.2 thousand, is the disposable income. If around PLN 2.2k falls on a household, then we can speak of the working poor.

Unfortunately, yes. We are seeing a tendency for the level of working poor to rise, which is very worrying. It is really difficult to predict what effects a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude related to the war in Ukraine will have. Helping refugees is not a commitment for weeks - we should realise that it is a commitment for years.

- It is hard to talk about the future, especially today, but I would still like to ask if we can count on some good changes in labour law? I am thinking, for example, of job protection or a secure and reliable pension?

Extensive changes are being prepared shortly, which are in large part related to the need to implement the EU directive on transparent and predictable working conditions. This Directive gives very wide protection to employees. In some aspects, it also extends the protection to persons employed in non-employment forms. This concerns, for example, the obligation to inform an employee employed on one of the bases of a fixed-term contract, that is, a probationary period contract or a fixed-term contract, of the reasons for refusing to continue cooperation and to conclude another employment contract.

It should also be emphasised that the amount of pensions is influenced not only by the intensity of work and the amount of remuneration received during the period of employment. Above all, it is the length of service that has an impact. As I said earlier, Poles are distinguished by their relatively short period of work for European conditions. Compared to Germans, Dutch or Danes this difference amounts to as much as 7 years. Maybe the secret is that they owe their long professional activity to the fact that the length of time worked per year is much lower than in the case of Poles, and therefore less work overload translates into longer professional activity.

- Thank you for the interview.


EMW / Press Office UG