WARSAW — For a generation or more, it was an axiom of the socialist workers' world: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."
The terms of this unwritten but well-understood contract of the Communist world, for both managers and employees, were simultaneously hard and convenient. For the bosses of factories, it may have meant unfulfilled quotas, but it also brought infusions of state money to make up for "losses." For workers, it meant lousy pay--but holidays of up to six weeks annually, long "sick" leaves, lax to nonexistent job discipline, company-subsidized housing and virtually inviolable job security.
It was an arrangement that translated, most visibly, into shoddy work and shoddy products--and a lot of leaning on the shovel.
The revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 changed the politics and continue, painfully, to work their slow transformations on the economies of the region. But the peoples of Eastern Europe are finding out (as the citizens of the former Soviet Union will as well) that old habits--particularly work habits--die hard.
Krzysztof Dziewulski, a Polish-American from Garfield, N. J., complained about the problem bitterly recently. He had come to Poland with the idea of setting up a joint-venture firm offering custodial services. The new outfit, Continental Group Services, is under way, but not without difficulty. His big problem, Dziewulski lamented recently, was personnel--the Polish worker.
"They drink, they smoke, they come to work late," he said. "They don't know how to work."
Now, as economic shifts take hold and as the specter of unemployment becomes more than an abstract threat, the revolution is beginning to catch up with the workers. But it has been a slow process and is far from over.
"We had very hard problems when we first opened," said Maciej Kopacki, manager of Luxus, the first Western-standard supermarket in Warsaw.
"Sometimes people would work for us one day," Kopacki said. "They would come in, throw their aprons on my desk and say, 'I quit.' One woman said we were running a 'concentration camp' here. I would go to Holland on a business trip for three days, and when I came back, 50% of the faces would be new to me."
For the last two years, since reforms began to take a visible hold in Poland, complaints about lazy workers have been common among the newly emergent entrepreneurial class--the highly visible, adrenaline-driven merchants, traders and profiteers who were out to earn money at breakneck speed. As they moved swiftly to fill the obvious gaps in the economy, particularly in service industries, they hired--and fired--ruthlessly, paying good wages by Polish standards but demanding good work in return.
Mikolaj Miszczak, who in the past two years has turned a hole-in-the-wall hamburger stand into a pair of pizza parlors and two more hamburger restaurants, employs 100 people in Warsaw but estimates that another 50 to 60 have not made the grade.
"I'm getting better at hiring," he said recently. "I've had to fire only about 10 people this year. Now I know better what to look for. If they come in and ask me, 'How much am I paid?' I am not interested. If they come in and ask, 'What is the work, how do I do it?' then usually they are good people."
But, he adds, the special conditions of Warsaw, where unemployment is low, add to the problems of finding eager, willing workers. "Warsaw people are harder to deal with, they don't know how to work. I'm opening a new place in Gdynia (on Poland's Baltic coast), and I have to protect my people there from my employees in Warsaw. The Warsaw people will infect them."
The latest Polish government figures show unemployment at 2,155,600, or 11.4% of the labor force, with the figure ranging as high as 17% in some generally rural districts in northeastern Poland. The rate for Warsaw, however, is around 3%.
Some economists argue that the unemployment figures are inflated by the large number of casual laborers who queue up outside employment offices and work for one or two days at a time, enough to pay for their minimal needs. With additional unemployment benefits of up to about 600,000 zlotys (about $50) a month, their incomes roughly equal the lowest state wage levels.
To some employers, these state-paid benefits are simply too high to contribute much to the Polish work ethic. "Why work at a steady job," one asked rhetorically, "when you can work a couple of days in the 'black' (where their income is not reported to employment or tax authorities) and collect unemployment?"
The difficulty of finding reliable manual laborers, particularly in Warsaw and other large cities, has opened the market for a wave of workers from the former Soviet Union, who have found thousands of jobs in the construction business.
"I've had miserable experiences with Polish workers," said Robert Stankiewicz, an entrepreneur who is building a large house for himself on the outskirts of Warsaw.