For workers from Poland and other central and eastern Europe countries, work in Ireland is often only the possibility of earning pretty good money. Since we entered the EU, the Irish labour market stands open for us. Many people take advantage of this situation, and to-day, there are Polish, Czech, Lithuanian and Slovakian workers in almost every factory in Ireland. Despite the fact, that according to Irish law, all workers in Ireland have equal rights, dishonest employers often try to cheat temporary workers. In my case, the conflict with the employer took some time to mature, because it took time and many observations to realise the mechanisms by which I and many other workers were exploited..
In November 2004, I arrived in Dublin, and got employment via the GRAFTON Recruitment agency. The agency sent me to work in TESCO Distribution warehouse, where I worked for eight months. My main task was preparing ordered goods to be sent to shops, which means carrying packages.
I was one of many agency workers; in addition to us, there were workers who were employed directly by TESCO. They were doing the same job as us, but their wages were on average ¤200 higher. Unlike us, they had every second Saturday off, received holiday bonuses, and had the full benefits going with normal employemnt. Naturally, every agency worker dreams of being employed directly by TESCO, but the corporation avoids signing contracts with workers, so it's very difficult to get off the agency's leash. Signing a contract obliges the employers to do many things: it's favorable for them not to get burdened by responsibility, and to take advantage of agencies' provision of cheap labour. The arrangement between TESCO and agencies turned out to be useful for Tesco, when we protested against rising of daily norm. Leaders of the protest were withdrawn from TESCO's warehouse by agency employing them. This way TESCO got rid of the loud, inconvenient workers.
When I started work, the daily norm in TESCO was to lift 750 packages per day. However, agency workers very often used to pick 900 or even 1000 packages, hoping, that their diligence would be noticed, and rewarded with signing a contract with TESCO. No way! The officiousness of these naive workers provoked TESCO to raise the norms. First, to 800, and then to 900 packages a day.
At that moment, a group of Polish workers employed by Grafton and Jobs went to the manager, and asked about the reason for raising the norm. We were told that if we had a problem, we could find ourselves some other job.
As a form of protest, the next day I put on a t-shirt with the inscription on it: WE ARE PICKING 800. NO MORE. The atmosphere got nervous. SPITU trade union offered its help, and agency workers &endash; despite intimidation attempts made by the agency &endash; started joining it. Negotiations between SPITU, TESCO and the agencies started. In spite of that, the norm was risen again in June &endash; to 1000 packages a day! Also an employee was fired without any reason being given, which probably was his refusal to lift more than 800 boxes. As sign of solidarity with him, I put on the provocative t-shirt, again. Polish media took the topic, and started informing about the arrangement, unfavourable for workers, between TESCO and the agencies, and about the workers' rebellion.
One day after a big article was published in one of biggest Polish magazines, I was called to Grafton agency office, and informed that there is no work for me in TESCO anymore. One of the reasons TESCO wanted to get rid of me was the criticism triggered by us in the Polish media. The same day Zbyszek Bukala, who was also engaged in the protest, lost his job too.
Our reaction to this attempt to silence us was to establish TESCO Agency Workers' Defence Committee. We organized a picket in front of gate of the warehouse we used to work in. We demanded our jobs back, the abolishment of the 1000 packages a day norm, and adoption of a rule saying that after three months of working in TESCO, an agency worker automatically signs a contract with TESCO. Solidarity actions, organised by anarchists, took place in several towns in Poland, Britain, and Ireland. Polish workers in other factories started talking about problems of agency workers.
Our protest was supported by trade unions and workers' groups in several countries. If we try to summarize the outcome of the conflict with TESCO in Dublin, we have to say, that it's an unquestionable advantage in publicizing the problem of agency workers, a problem still unsolved in all European countries.
More on Workplace struggles and the unions
This edition is No88 published in Sept 2005