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(en) Poland, Rzeszow, Nestle fired unionist case

Date Mon, 09 Feb 2009 18:35:42 +0200

In September this year, Jacek Kotula, the president of the workplace commission of the
“Solidarity” trade-union in Alima Gerber S.A. in Rzeszow, Poland (currently owned by
Nestle) has been dismissed on disciplinary grounds. This is one of many cases of contempt
for workers’s rights by large corporations operating in Poland. It is not the first time
that Nestle workers have to fight with Nestle in order to have their basic rights
respected in various Nestle factories spread around the world. Russian workers are still
in the process of struggling for the right to negotiate wages.

Below, we present an interview with Mr. Jacek, made by a member of the Union of
Syndicalists of Poland (ZSP*).

ZSP: The official reason given for your dismissal was a conversation you had with a Polish
farmer, in which you informed him that Alima Gerber imports apples from Italy instead of
buying it from the local farmers. In the opinion of the management, this conversation was
detrimental to the interests of the company. Do you think it was the real reason why you
got fired?

Of course, this was just a pretext to get rid of me. The real reason was my activity and
the activity of the workplace trade-union commission of “Solidarity” presided by me for 3
years. Let me just mention that since July 2008 our commission grew by 50% and our
activity has expanded to Nestle in Warsaw. I have demanded wage raises of about 140 Euro
monthly. Currently, a regular employee earns about 350 Euro after tax.

The employer was not interested in negotiations. I have also proposed to sign an agreement
about combating stress-related problems. The management falsely claimed that there are no
legal grounds to introduce such a program. I have also presented the facts related to the
discrimination of our employees in comparison with another Nestle plant in Poland, where
workers earn 50% more than the ones in Rzeszow, while performing similar work.

Since there was no reaction, I have sent a letter about the case to the United Nations. I
have indicated the many illegal actions of the management of the factory, confirmed many
times by the Work Inspectorate. I have asked the president of Nestle Poland to meet me
regarding an important issue I have mentioned in writing. Each time, I was faced with a
wall of indifference. In the end, they just got rid of me in the most brutal fashion - by
way of a dismissal on disciplinary grounds.

The conversation with the president of the union of farmers of Alima Gerber which I had
and the alleged encouragement to negotiate high prices for fruit and vegetables was only a
sad pretext to get rid of me after 16 years of work there.

ZSP: How did your colleagues and union members react to the management's decision? Did the
local commission act in your defence?

The decision to dismiss me was a shock for everyone. My colleagues from the Solidarity
union gathered signatures on a protest against my dismissal. Two thirds of the workforce
signed the protest. The union commission, nor the work council, did accept my dismissal.
Despite this, the employer knowingly broke the law by dismissing a union representative
protected by the law. This is a clear violation of the worker's rights and the Labour
Inspectorate in Rzeszow has initiated a proceeding against the management.

ZSP: How was the dismissal delivered to you?

After I was informed about the intention to fire me and after I saw the September 5th
letter asking the union to accept my dismissal, I felt very sick on psychosomatic grounds
and I have spent a week being treated on the cardiology department. In the meantime, the
management of Alima Gerber harassed my family several times. The saddest event occurred on
September 13th, at 7 AM. Four of my children, aged from 7 to 13, were alone in the house,
while my wife was working on a night shift. My children were woken up by the relentless
bell ring. When my 12-year old son opened the door, the manager tried to give him the
dismissal document.

My son did not want to accept anything from the manager. The manager demanded that an
older son be called. But the older son refused to take anything and locked the door. The
manager stood at the door until 9 AM, kept ringing and knocking the windows and door. The
children were terrified and informed their parents by phone of what has happened. The
youngest son kept crying and asking: "why do they want to put daddy in jail?"

After the manager left, the house was under observation until noon by a man in a red car,
at about 50 m away from the house. Our neighbours informed us of this fact. After I left
the hospital, I went to Bulgaria on September 16th, for a training organized by the
European Trade Union Institute from Brussels. The training was earlier approved by the
manager of the plant.

I was the only representative from Poland. At the Okecie airport in Warsaw, after luggage
check-in, I saw the manager and the Human Resources director going after me. I was shocked
to see them there. I ran to passport control and haven't seen them afterwards. After I
returned from the training, I was not let into the plant. It was claimed that I was
fired... at the airport!

ZSP: How did the management portray this case to the employees? Were there any attempts to
turn employees against you? If so, were those attempts successful?

The management informed the employees that I am a criminal, because I have acted to the
detriment of the company, allegedly advising the farmers to negotiate the highest possible
prices for fruit. The management claimed that this was the reason for falling profits and
that is why the employees cannot expect any significant raises. The workplace commission
was also threatened that its members will have to participate in court hearings. Was this
successful? I believe in some sense, yes.

ZSP: When will the trial begin?

I have filed the case on September 25th in the Labour Court in Rzeszow. The first court
hearing will take place on November 10th. I believe I will win, as I did 6 months earlier,
when the employer illegally punished me for entering with a workplace security inspector
on a night shift. I did nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, the inspector admitted that I
acted in the interest of the plant by informing the president of the farmer's union that
apples are being imported from Italy. No one can convince me that apples imported from
Italy will be cheaper than the apples from near Rzeszow. Besides, the farmers are
shareholders of the company. They are not competitors, but members of a family and the
plant could not function without them.

ZSP: Dismissals of active union members are quite common in Poland. The political climate
for union activity is quite bad. This year several union members have been dismissed in
state owned and private companies. The employers seem to act with impunity. How to reverse
this negative trend?

We must highlight cases when the employers break the law. We need to show people the of
meanness of some companies which knowingly break the law by firing protected union
members. We also need to change the law in order to give real protection to the union
activists who are on the front line of the struggle for workers rights. All unions must
act together in this area.

ZSP: Temporary work is a common phenomenon. What kind of difficulties did you encounter
while trying to fight for equal treatment of temporary workers employed by temp agencies
and workers with permanent contracts?

Our plant has been hiring temporary workers from the Impel agency for three years. These
employees performed the exact same work as the permanent employees, for half the wages.
They did not receive compensation for working in noisy conditions, their working clothes
were not washed and they did not receive meals.

They were discriminated against, which is not allowed by the law on temporary work
agencies. We have reported the issue to the management, but to no avail. Two years ago, we
informed the Work Inspectorate about the case. The inspection revealed that our suspicions
were right. The plant was forced to employ 70 of the temporary workers on permanent
contracts, with the same wages as other Alima Gerber workers. A few of the workers filed
suits against Impel for discrimination. Their lawyer estimated their losses to over 3300
Euro a year. The case is still pending.

ZSP: The international character of many corporations doing business in Poland allows for
international actions of support in case workers rights are being broken. What are your
experiences working with other organizations internationally?

I have excellent experiences, especially with unions from the so-called "old" European
Union. There seems to be quite a different union culture there. For example in 2006 I have
written a complaint to the Swiss management about the extremely poor wages in our company.
I have argued that an employee of our company cannot sustain himself, let alone his family
on the wages he receives. We have received support from the European Confederation of
Trade Unions in Brussels, from the IUF (International Union of Food workers) from Geneva,
the European Worker’s Council and many unions in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. A
journalist from Basler Zeitung has visited us to write a big feature about the case.
Another newspaper, “Input” has written an article about the topic.
The western media and organizations are the only real weapon of Polish unionists.

ZSP: Since you have lost your source of income, are you in need of material help? How can
union members and people interested in worker's rights help you in your situation?

I have not received wages since September 16th. I don’t receive any unemployment benefits,
since I was fired on disciplinary grounds. Our family subsists on the income of my wife,
who is a nurse. I have four children, who still are very much in shock after what happened
to me. I have to return a credit from the Social Fund until October 15th. I am in the same
situation as many ordinary workers in Alima Gerber, who can only afford some basic
necessities despite years of hard work. I believe that the good will prevail. I ask people
of good faith only for prayer.

ZSP: Thank you for the interview. We wish you success in your fight for reinstatement in
the workplace!

We have written about the Nestle case here:

Last month, a trial took place in Rzeszow. Here is some information
about how it went.

Jacek and the lawyers were satisfied. The manager of production and
the human resources director testified. They didn't say anything that
would help Nestle - the lawyers think it actually helped Jacek. The
managers gave conflicting descriptions of the event at the airport,
when they tried to give Jacek the dismissal notice.

Jacek's lawyers also demanded that the farmer who testified against
him would testified separately from the manager and that the same
questions would be asked, in order to compare their versions. The
claim that Jacek "acted to the detriment of the company" is based only
on the testimony of the farmer, who reported to the management of
Nestle that "Jacek has asked him to negotiate the highest possible
prices on fruit". Comparing the versions of their testimonies might be
good - however the judge agreed to have it only on the next trial on
March 3rd. Some Polish local media were present.

The lawyers obtained a written statement from the ex-manager of the
regional Center of Agricultural Advisory, which states that Nestle was
actively looking to find an excuse to hassle Kotula. He also testified
having talked with the farmer who denounced Kotula about the pressure
from Nestle management on him to create this provocation against

So, Jacek is rather optimistic, as it looks that the management is
giving contradictory statements and there is some evidence
of their provocations.
* of the anarchist spectrum
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