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(en) Poland, Ozzip: Exploitation and protests in the construction industry (interview) - Krzysztof Król [machine translation]

Date Sun, 9 May 2021 09:34:07 +0300

"If the builders cared about their own interests as much as the interests of their boss, the construction industry would be the best industry in the country." Szymon Gams talks with Krzysztof Król - tower crane operator and member of the National Committee of OZZ Employee Initiative ---- How long have you been working as a tower crane operator? ---- I have been working since 2015. ---- What are the biggest problems facing your industry right now? ---- The biggest problem for years taken up by various operators or IP Committees is too long a working day. The first operator committees in 2015 were formed, among others because the operators had quite a long working day. On average, in Poland it is rarely 8 hours of work. Usually the minimum is 10 hours, the norm is 12 hours, and there are days where the time range reaches 14 or 16 hours. On top of that, it's Saturday and in the end it turns out that people work a minimum of 200 hours, and some work more than 300 hours a month. As organized operator groups, we wanted an 8-hour working day from the very beginning. In 2018, we forced the Ministry of Development to have a regulation that would regulate working conditions, but the Ministry only included a general provision in this regulation, that the operator cannot work more than 8 hours a day. We wanted this regulation to include an electronic time record, such as is currently the case with truck workers. The ministry did not write it down and in practice this regulation does not work.

There are other problems related to eg health and safety, but this is the main one that is not respected in 90c/o construction sites. On top of all this, there were also problems related to cutting rates, in fact rates are now returning to the level from 2015, these are the direct reasons for the recent protest.

During the protests you talked a lot about safety at work, could you remind yourself once again about the problems related to health and safety?

From the point of view of an employee, the construction industry has been experiencing regress all the time since 1989. Health and safety at work by construction companies is used to put more pressure on workers and get paid for not complying with it. So, at the largest construction sites, there are health and safety inspectors who walk on these sites and supervise health and safety in order to impose fines on subcontractors. An occupational health and safety worker has to earn his salary and additionally issue enough tickets for the main contractor to earn more than his own salary. This is what it looks like on large construction sites. On the other hand, on small construction sites there is usually one main contractor who either ignores health and safety rules or treats them very loosely.

For employees, adherence to health and safety rules often makes work difficult and is associated with increasing its length or intensity. The employee simply has a standard that he has to follow, but the occupational health and safety worker adds to him the tasks that must be performed to maintain health and safety standards - which makes work difficult. So it's not quite the case that if there is health and safety, work is easier.

Health and Safety can be used in two ways. It can be used by employees to facilitate their work, so that it is less strenuous and is performed under better conditions. Or vice versa - it can be used to, for example, increase profits, such as in the case of inspectors who impose fines and make the work of workers difficult. And that's the way it is at construction sites, that business simply strives that if OHS is implemented, it makes life difficult for employees.

On the other hand, in general, historically, it is the employees themselves that have less and less say in health and safety matters. There is no good health and safety training, mostly construction workers do not follow building schools where they would be taught health and safety. Managers have much more theoretical knowledge about health and safety, so if there are any accidents, employees do not know how to defend themselves in investigations into these accidents, because they do not know the rules of health and safety. When it comes to describing the course of work, the manager, knowing the health and safety rules, is able to defend himself from responsibility and put it on the shoulders of employees who do not know how to testify in their own interest.

The operators used to have much more to say when it comes to health and safety at construction sites and, for example, it was easy for the operator to stop working when, for example, there was a strong wind. Currently, these issues also in the regulation (these restrictions regarding, for example, winds) have been even more relaxed in relation to the old regulation, which was written in 53 AD. So we have a setback in this respect. This regulation from the 1950s was more restrictive than the current one, and the wind blows as well as it blew in this country. There are no and there will be fewer winds.

There is also this general rule: pressure to comply with health and safety rules occurs when the costs of complying with them are borne by employees. For example, the main contractor advises that employees wear protective clothing as it does not pay for it. However, if the wind is too strong, the manager will not stop the cranes; at most he will agree with the operator's decision as the operator is brave enough to stop working. Although in most cases it is to be expected that the manager will force him to work even in the event of a hurricane. Everyone on the construction site is to have vests, but the fact that they work several hours, thus causing accidents resulting from exhaustion, is not a problem. Ultimately, when someone is crushed by the formwork in the 14th hour of work, because someone else was not focused enough, it is the employee who did not take care of something.

You can look at the statistics. In 2017, there were 269 fatal accidents in Poland, 51 of them in the construction industry. Every year in Poland, no more than 300 workers are killed at work, and every year most in the construction industry, although it is objectively not the most dangerous. The mining industry is the most dangerous, but there are unions there that put more pressure on companies to follow the rules. In addition, when a serious accident occurs in a mine, the whole of Poland knows about it, because the union is able to publicize symptoms of pathology in the industry. In construction, however, accidents are hidden. Indeed, I am convinced that there are even more fatal accidents in construction, as undeclared employment is widespread. This means that fatal accidents of undeclared workers are hidden and statistics include, for example,

At Monday's protests outside the headquarters of one of the companies, employers from Layster came in and said that the form of a workplace strike did more harm than good because it breaks up potential talks between the employer and the employee. Do you agree or is the problem more nuanced?

It is certainly a loss for them, so they want to get people to work as soon as possible. Employers who say they know a better workers protest strategy are lying. It is us - employees - who know better how to protest, they do not have to teach us to protest. If I hear a businessman telling an employee how he should protest, it is pure absurdity. After all, they did not offer any form of protest other than a laconic conversation. If they want to improve working conditions, they should limit the working hours of cranes to 8 hours and increase wages. They can do it in one day. When business begins to feel pressure, it very often proposes interviews. The conversations cost him nothing in reality. During the talks, the production goes on all the time, you can actually talk for months.

The truth is that the greatest strength of employees is not to talk, but to stop working. Managers have no idea how to organize production, how to properly use tools, only employees know. Secondly, managers would never withstand the intensity and length of work that workers can withstand. The management of companies know very well that it is the employees, not the bankers, shareholders or intermediaries, that produce the essential product. Business knows well that only the work of employees generates their material profits. It is our daily work that produces wealth, not the outstanding intelligence of a manager or papers confirming some kind of qualifications. We work in the sun and rain for 12 hours and this is not a qualification. Show me one worker from the construction office who would endure a week in such conditions.

The greatest threat to the business is the cessation of work by employees because it immediately means a real reduction in profit. We maintain this economy and not the investors who arrange the loan for one or the other construction. They pay off these millionth loans thanks to our work, not their own. They don't work a million times more than we do. We give them work, not them, the results of which they grab. Business will do anything to persuade employees to return to work. Because he knows that each hour of an employee's work is a specific money for them, and the lack of this hour is a tangible loss. That is why they try to dazzle employees by offering them to discuss the spilled milk.

Ultimately, the essence of any manager's job, or a large part of it, is to force employees to work. Accelerating the pace, worsening working conditions and lowering wages. So, as a rule, they try to force us to work. And they have quite a lot of achievements in this regard. The most famous Polish export is cheap labor. Polish workers are known all over the west for working in the worst conditions for the worst wages. Polish companies, however, go further. Construction managers have reached such a tragic level that even Poles are unable to implement their ambitious visions. There are more and more construction sites where the main works are performed by Ukrainians and Moldovans. Only the leadership is Polish is concerned with the control, deception and humiliation of migrants. The pressure is so big

These crane business owners only do what they are taught to do. By advising us on how we should or should not go on strike, they want to limit protest and losses. These are their enlightened advice for which we will already thank you after years of hard work, constant cheating and humiliation. Employers pretend nothing happened after Monday's stoppage. The only company that contacted us was Layster. They have few lifts, it hurt them more. Of course, they do not want to improve working conditions, so they spoke pro forma to explore the ground without any specificity. Large companies such as Hercules have not even approached us, because they are not afraid of us so far. These companies didn't feel it that much, so far it's only been one day. For them, it is some form of loss, but too small to be really worried about.

As long as companies do not feel real pressure, and the greatest pressure for them are financial losses, they will not react at all. For decades, companies have been used to seeing operators more like working cattle than people who have dignity and who are not enough to shout to make them work faster.

During the Friday protests, employees mentioned the role of intermediaries in the process of claiming their rights. Could you explain what the brokerage problem is?

The entire construction industry is based on subcontracting, i.e. this kind of agency, and this structure is to ensure the breakdown of employee unity. The organizational structure of such a classic larger construction consists precisely in the fact that there is a developer who does not perform any production work - he orders the construction of a main contractor and then the main contractor subcontracts specific works to be performed by the main contractor, and in the case of cranes, the main contractor orders the assembly of the crane to a company which has cranes, that is eg Layster (or Hercules, Corleonis, Trinac ...). Then this company either hires an operator or an intermediary who arranges the operator. Thus, the operator has to keep the developer, main contractor, subcontractor and broker through his work.

The broker earns on average about PLN 10 for each hour of the operator's work. The crane company usually has PLN 50 per operator's hour. The operator himself currently earns 20 or 18 zlotys. So all of these entities earn on our work, which is incomparably more difficult than their duties. Such an intermediary makes phone calls, writes out invoices and rarely goes to a construction site to do something. And the crane company does nothing special in terms of operation. In fact, the crane company only arranges an intermediary for the 20 or 18 zlotys and does nothing to ensure the crane is serviced.

Ultimately, such an arrangement means that operators have different bosses and do not know who they work for, e.g. their colleagues or themselves. The situation is that when it comes to rushing and putting pressure on workers, this is the broker and construction manager and the manager of the crane company. When it comes to wages, all entities shift responsibility to another entity. If the operator has a problem with getting money from the broker, the broker claims that the crane company is not paying him. Later, the crane company claims that it is the main contractor of a perpetual motion machine, a cycle of absurdities. Now there is a situation where intermediaries claim that it was the crane companies that lowered our rates. When you have to work, "do it as soon as possible" and when it comes to pay, "calmly, you have to be patient". Only,

The subcontracting system increases competition between contractors, there is a downward auction, ultimately about who is able to work for an even lower rate. Not 12, only 16 hours. The complexity of this structure hides the responsibility for low wages because there is no single entity responsible - it is fuzzy. In fact, as far as we know, at least two entities are responsible for our remuneration, i.e. intermediaries and crane companies, maybe also the main contractors exert pressure on crane companies, but we do not know this, because the arrangement between the main contractor and the crane company is hidden from employees.

The matter is also complicated by the diversity of these intermediaries employing operators. There are probably a dozen of them in Warsaw. It also makes it difficult to put forward demands on one entity and simply breaks the unity of employees who work under different subcontractors, under different conditions. It is true that these conditions are somehow averaged, but they differ in details and construction quality - they are easier and more difficult to build.

The subcontracting system removes responsibility towards workers and breaks down their structural integrity in terms of employment. What's more, when you have several companies on a construction site that perform the same work, it becomes absurd. Even employees of one professional group fight with each other because they are hired by someone else. For example, fixers from one company are fighting for crane access with fixers from another company. Because the norm is that the management employs too many workers requiring the help of a crane. In this way, instead of fighting the manager for better working conditions, employees fight with each other for who will execute the plan set by the manager faster.

Regarding the strike of the operators, it is getting louder, even TVN and Wyborcza are interested in it, how do you approach it? Do you see any specific potential in these recent uprisings?

I see the potential as the beginning of further actions, but if it all ends with what we have now, the protests have not brought anything special yet. If this is to be the beginning of further downtime, work limited to eight hours, some unionization of this industry, this is a good start, although it's hard to talk about the beginning, because these attempts have already been made by the Employee Initiative since 2015, so it is actually much longer series of activities.

In this perspective of 6 years, the development is very slow. Operators, like other workers in this country, do not know what a trade union is, how it works, they do not know how to cooperate with each other, they trust bosses or politicians more than each other, they do not know that when they stand, construction companies kneel immediately . They are more concerned with the performance of a task imposed by their boss than with their own life, relationships with e.g. family, their own comforts. It is typical for Polish employees that they care more for the interests of those who use them than for their own. If construction workers cared about their own interests as much as their bosses, construction would be the best industry in the country. Unfortunately, most people make themselves believe that being a worker is about serving your superiors day and night and not fighting for a better life.

I am not interested in whether he is doing a good job, but whether I have a good life. It is not in my interest that the construction company earn as much as possible. Just because she makes millions doesn't mean that I will get more of it. It may be the opposite: for additional money, another manager will be hired, which will make my working conditions even worse. It's hard to be proud of a job where you have no control over anything, where you earn pennies, the effect of which is taken away from me. I'm not proud to be a slave, I'm not proud that someone is making millions for me and I can barely make ends meet.

On the other hand, the operators have never managed to organize such a large protest in this country. This is a historic event when people see that they can do something together, and not constantly compete with each other and enjoy a wage higher than one zloty than others. I am not interested in squeezing out higher wages from the middleman or in a quiet building. It does not change anything, it is also no reason to be proud. When we went to the ministry to fight for the regulation, it was not so that the five of us were better off, but that all operators would get better. In practice, the regulation is not respected anyway, but it is the basis for further struggle to improve the conditions of more operators, not only mine.

One event, such as stopping work for one day, will not change much in the balance of power, the system is the same all the time, i.e. the domination of business over employees. However, the operators saw for the first time that something like this could be done and that they themselves were able to do something like that.

You mention the scale of the protests, some workers did not join the strikes, and embittered Internet commentators say that it may be the fault of the trade unions. It is true? Is it even possible to organize all employees in your industry?

Business and politicians are to blame that this is the case - it seems obvious. These are the two basic forces that break down employee potential. When it comes to the small scale of workers' protests in Poland, this scale is caused by the pressure of business and pressure from state institutions, or the lack of action on the part of these institutions. This is what puts workers in a dire situation in this country. Especially the work structure of the operators makes it difficult to do something like a strike or a protest.

The operators do not have close contact with each other, they work on various construction sites, their contact is basically limited to the Internet or telephone calls. After all, they do not even have contact with workers on the construction site, so it is difficult to organize such isolated workers. Secondly, operators work under different bosses and these bosses, as I said, there are several, so for structural reasons it is very difficult to organize a workgroup like operators. If you add 270 hours of work per month to that, when do operators have time to meet?

Until there is an 8-hour working day, there will never be a serious relationship in the industry. A man who works 12 hours a day does not have the time or the strength to meet his basic physical needs, let alone organize a union.

You can go on. Let's take a look at the law on trade unions in Poland, which makes it difficult to establish a trade union organization and its operation. In a building structure that is structurally broken, it is difficult to maintain the formal structure of a union, as the legal requirements to maintain it are too complex. The Act on Settlement of Collective Disputes was created in such a way as to limit the possibility of legal strikes. The way out of this situation is to conduct wild strikes, but this is what workers fear more.

When it comes to labor regulations, there is still pressure for liberalization. They are to be lifted because they hinder business. On the other hand, when it comes to establishing and operating trade unions, the opposite is true, with more and more regulations and restrictions.

I would like to ask one last question. During Friday's protests, workers mentioned that construction companies threatened to lay off operators who did not take up work on Monday. Have you heard of such situations and are such threats common in your industry?

All kinds of threats from these various construction bosses are the norm in this industry. Personally, they do not make a big impression on me, because if the operator wants to work, he will find a job without any problems. There is always a lot of bad work in this country, it is not a problem to find a bad job. The problem is possibly with finding a better job, of which there are also not many, so there are operators who are used to these threats. Some, unfortunately, take them too seriously.

However, formally speaking, it is a symptom of the pathology of the industry that management is able to simply intimidate, sometimes in a rather brutal form, employees. The fact that these threats are sometimes quite strong is due to the weakness of the employees themselves and the fact that the management has got used to the fact that they may not respect employees because they will come to the construction site on the next day and will work 12 hours, eventually even not even getting paid for work, which is quite common here.

They don't know the law, they don't cooperate with each other, they don't have a trade union - that's why some of these workers fall for these threats, which are usually childish.

Once the cabin door slammed, the manager did not arrange the service. After the shift was finished, I walked through the cabin window onto the jib and then went downstairs. The next day I made a mess in the office and the manager tells me to keep quiet because I will be fined for walking on the boom. I replied that sooner he would be punished for telling idiocy.

thank you for the conversation

Interviewer: Szymon Gams

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