II. Labour market reforms and utilisation: learning from countries’ experiences

Structures, institutions, and agency: the drivers of the expansion of precarious employment in Poland


Flexible workforce and low wages - along with the weak enforcement mechanisms of labour law - were sometimes considered important sources of comparative advantages of Central and Eastern European (CEE) economies (Maciejewska, Mrozowicki, & Piasna, 2016; Muszynski, 2019). However, they also proved to generate high social costs in terms of increased social exclusion risk and lower wages of precarious workers, worse representation by trade unions, the threat of exclusion from decent pensions in the future, and limited access to banking services (such as credits), to mention just a few (Czarzasty, 2016; Kiersztyn, 2018; Teisseyre, 2012). Some of the Eastern European countries experienced a sharp increase of temporary employment in the 2000s. Examples include Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia (Eurostat, 2019a). In Poland, the share of temporary employed rose from 5.6% of employees aged 15-64 in 2000 to 28.3% in 2014 and only slightly declined to 24.3% in 2018. In other countries, precar- ity meant rather very low wages than the experience of temporary employment. Examples are Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, with the share of temporary employees as low as 1.1% (Romania), 1.6% (Lithuania), 2.7% (Latvia), 4.0% (Bulgaria) (Eurostat 2019b). Yet all of them score very low in terms of median gross hourly earnings (adjusted to purchasing power standards) in comparison to other European Union countries (Eurostat, 2019c).

In this context, it is astonishing that the expansion of precarity did not generate sharp social conflicts in CEE countries. As documented by Vandaele (2018), average days not worked due to strikes were lower in the most of Eastern European countries in 2000-2017 as compared to Western European ones. Other forms of social protests, including media and social campaigns, occurred in some of CEE countries, such as Poland, Croatia, or Romania, following austerity measures implemented in the post-crisis period after 2009 (Bernaciak & Kahancova,

2017). However, their coverage, tools, and intensity were much lower than in the case of the south of Europe and even Nordic countries, despite the tradition of mass workers' protests in some CEE societies, such as Poland, in the socialist past.

The chapter examines the situation in Poland, in which precarisation of work - at least with respect to the expansion of temporary contracts - has been most advanced in Central and Eastern Europe. It analyses three drivers of precarisation: (a) socio-economic structures typical of the Polish variety of capitalism, (b) the three pillars of socio-economic institutions underlying precarity, including legal regulations, normative expectations, and cultural-cognitive schemes (Scott, 2008, p. 51), and (c) agential responses of workers aimed at surviving, managing, or possibly resisting precarisation (Hardy, 2015). Particular attention is paid to two latter factors - institutions and workers’ agency - which are held responsible for the perpetuation of precarity.

We understand precarity as a relational category in line with suggestions of scholars such as Dorre (2019) and Lorey (2015). The best summary of such a perspective is given by Dorre, who suggests that employment can be called precarious ‘if it does not allow for subsistence above a certain cultural and socially defined level' (Dorre, 2019, p. 19). At the subjective level, precarious employment is considered risky and insecure from the perspective of a worker (Kalleberg, 2009). Precarity is related to the problems of labour utilisation, as understood in this volume, in at least two ways. Firstly, it often reflects skills mismatch on the labour market as precarious workers tend to work below their formal qualifications, being trapped in perpetuating, insecure contracts, doing cheap, dead-end internships (as in the United Kingdom or the US), and being involved in transitory labour market programmes (as in the case of Germany) (Standing 2011, pp. 72-73). Secondly, it means work intensification due to the need for continuous 'work for labour’ - 'work that does not have exchange value but which is necessary or advisable’ (Standing, 2011, p. 120). Such work is not reported in statistics, but it is widespread and common in flexible labour markets. It involves, among others, searching for jobs, commuting, and doing work-related business, such as networking, in formal 'leisure' time.

Two questions are addressed in the chapter which are connected to the general theme of the volume. Firstly, what is the relationship between the expansion of precarious employment in Poland and socio-economic and institutional factors related to the course of capitalist transformations in the country? Secondly, from an institutional perspective focused on shared understanding and logics of action (Scott, 2008, p. 51), the solidification of flexible labour regime calls for the analysis of the social consciousness of those affected by it. Thus, it can be asked do individuals reproduce such a regime in their ways of thinking or rather tend to question them?

The chapter suggests that precarious employment in Poland emerged as a result of the low-cost model of business competition adopted in the country after 1989, policy measures to counteract high unemployment in early 2000s by flexibilising

Labour Code regulations, in line with European employment strategies, and the weakness of industrial relations actors and institutions in regulating and monitoring employment conditions, as well as global economic trends, such as the economic slowdown in late 2000s (Maciejewska et al., 2016). The chapter also argues that the institutional and socio-economic factors partially converged with subjective interpretations of reality among young precarious workers which tended to ‘normalise' precarity through their life strategies and social consciousness. Yet the convergence is incomplete, which opens some space for critique of precarisation.

The chapter is structured as follows. Dealing with the first question, its first part examines the forms and drivers of the work-related precarity in Poland, paying attention to socio-economic factors, cultural/ideological and political factors, and labour relations contexts of precarisation. In the second part of the chapter, the typical patterns of managing precarious employment encountered among young (18-35 years old) people in Poland in the course of the PREWORK research project carried out in 2016-2020 are presented. In the conclusion, the main findings are summarised and limitations of the study are elaborated.

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