PIONKI, Poland (AP) — Everybody in Poland seems to be against them now: temporary contracts that offer few benefits to their workers, popularly known as “junk contracts.”
Until recently it was mainly trade unions and the political opposition that opposed them. Now even the pro-market government is vowing to limit their use as it faces a rising wave of voter anger that seems likely to end its eight years of rule in October elections.
Poland is the European Union member state with the highest number of workers on some form of a temporary contract, 28 percent. It is creating a precarious existence for many Poles and deepening divisions between the haves and have-nots in a post-communist country that is otherwise witnessing impressive economic growth.
The “junk contracts” were originally intended to give flexibility to artists or other professionals working for multiple employers. They lack many of the guarantees of regular employment contracts in Poland, like paid vacation, employer contributions into the national health and pension funds, and protection from being fired at short notice.
“People are really feeling this insecurity on the labor market,” said Dominik Owczarek, an analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. “Everywhere now there are young people employed on temporary contracts with low pay and high doses of uncertainty, but they make up a big part of the society in Poland.”
The frustration of people on such contracts or who otherwise feel left out the Polish economic miracle is suddenly on the political agenda, and is seen as a major reason for the surprise victory of nationalist Andrzej Duda — of the euroskeptic Law and Justice Party — in May presidential elections over a widely favored incumbent from the ruling Civic Platform.
Michal Nowocien, 22, has worked on a “junk contract” at a chocolate factory, signing a new contract from month to month and not getting any paid vacation. He was among those who supported Duda.
“Civic Platform hasn’t helped us here,” he said from his hometown of Pionki, a small town of 20,000 where low wages and bleak job prospects have driven many to either accept insecure work conditions or flee to Western Europe. He now works on a temporary contract as a welder.
The presidency is largely symbolic. But a more important parliamentary election comes in October, and polls suggest that the pro-market Civic Platform, which has ruled for eight years, faces another stinging defeat. Law and Justice has surged ahead with vows to help the poor with more state intervention in the economy.
A second win by Law and Justice would mark a significant political shift in Poland, the EU’s sixth-largest economy. The party vows to impose higher taxes on the country’s mostly foreign-owned banks and large retailers.
Polish government statistics show that about 1.4 million people are on the temporary contracts with limited benefits, up from about half a million five years ago. Separate EU statistics show that Poland has a larger share of its workforce on temporary contracts than any of the other 27 member states, at 28 percent in 2014.
“I work on one, and I love it,” said Radek Ciszewski, a consultant who benefits from the flexibility of temporary contracts. But critics say the contracts are being abused by employers. Often, people who are essentially full-time, long-term workers are forced to sign new contracts each month.
Workers going month-to-month on temporary contracts rarely qualify for mortgages, and insecurity is keeping some from starting families. That, in turn, threatens to exacerbate the demographic time bomb of Poland’s falling birth rate, one of the lowest in Europe at 1.3 babies per woman. New legislation effective next year will limit the use of these contracts, but Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz has vowed to restrict them further as she struggles for political survival.
Despite the government promises, a state auditing body revealed recently that there are government ministries where nearly half of the workforce is employed on the “junk contracts.” The one with the most, the Culture Ministry, defends itself by saying it often needs the expertise of outside consultants.
Even the country’s main daily paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which played an important role supporting the transition to a market economy, says the junk contracts represent a deregulated form of capitalism that has gone too far. The paper launched a campaign against them on July 20, saying “they have started to demolish our labor market.”
“In the time of transformation this flexibility helped us to attract investors and fight high unemployment,” Gazeta Wyborcza wrote. “At the same time it has brought terrible social consequences.”
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