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Changing Lifestyles : Where the Work Ethic Doesn't Work : In Eastern Europe, socialist-bred habits die hard at the workplace. 'They drink, they smoke, they come (in) late,' complains one employer.

January 28, 1992|CHARLES T. POWERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"They drink," Stankiewicz said in an interview with Reuters news agency. "They work for a while and then go on a binge for a week."

Fed up, Stankiewicz hired four workers from Ukraine who, he said, "work 12 hours a day, they don't drink and they do a month's work in three weeks."

The problem, however, reaches beyond the unskilled labor pool. Indeed, it is sometimes worse in the office, where technical skills are in short supply and where workers, in the old system, were used to undemanding standards.

"We are in a situation now," said Piotr Marciniak of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who has studied the labor issue, "where if you know anything, you can go very high immediately. This is very obvious to anyone coming to Poland to do business and finding these people lacking--for example, highly expert secretarial services, good bookkeepers, good managerial assistants."

Marciniak divides the labor force of Poland, and by extension the rest of post-Communist Europe, into three broad categories:

* At the top are the entrepreneurs, ranging from street-corner fruit vendors to millionaire traders. They are--whatever their level--energetic, creative, dynamic and quick to adapt to markets and opportunities.

* At the bottom are the "marginal workers," who were marginal in the Communist system as well. "The old system, however, protected them. They might be factory workers or, in fact, factory managers. In socialism, this was a large group. It was this group, for example, that the Pope used to refer to when he said, 'Polish labor is ill.' For these people, confrontation with a real work regime is terrifying. Even higher pay cannot compensate them for the loss of their lifestyle, which is based on avoiding work."

* In between may be the group most psychologically wrenched by the changes whirling on around them. "They are qualified, either objectively or in their imaginations," Marciniak said. "They do not see themselves as entrepreneurs--an idea they find distasteful--and they think they should be earning real pay, pay at the level of private enterprise. Most of these people were in state enterprises and had jobs that once--at least in their minds, and to some extent objectively--had some prestige. Now everything has shifted. They are caught between the old world and the new, and they can no longer identify their place in the system."

As Marciniak's analysis suggests, age has much to do with it. Employers have generally found that younger workers adapt far more easily to the changes.

Paul Malcolm, the marketing director for the Marriott Hotel, which opened in Warsaw in October, 1989, has seen a vast improvement in worker standards in the past two years.

"We certainly had our teething problems," he said. "We lost a lot of people at first because they couldn't take the pace." Last year, however, employee turnover dropped to about 1%--very low, he said, for a work force of 1,050.

"We hired a lot of young people," he added, "and less than 1% of them had any hotel experience." The hotel instituted frequent training sessions and emphasized such matters as grooming, dress codes, the use of deodorant.

"You can't fix the old system in a year," said Maciej Kopacki, the Luxus supermarket manager. "The principle in the Communist system--I know, because I worked in it--was that you did your time and you left. You were not a part of it. If someone doesn't feel a part of it, he doesn't care. Now it's different, and some people are beginning to understand it. We exist because the company exists."

Looking at the Labor Force

Piotr Marciniak of Polish Academy of Sciences divides Eastern Europe's work force into three categories:

* Entrepreneurs, who range from street-corner fruit vendors to millionaire traders. They are energetic, creative, and quick to adapt to opportunities.

* Marginal workers, such as factory workers, whose lifestyle was based on avoiding work. They were marginal in the Communist system, as well.

* In-between workers, who are qualified as employees but do not see themselves as entrepreneurs. Caught between the old world and new, they are group most psychologically wrenched by changes whirling on around them.

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