In September this year, Jacek Kotula, the president of the workplace commission of the “Solidarity” trade-union in Alima Gerber S.A. in Rzeszow, Poland (currently owned by Nestle) has been dismissed on disciplinary grounds. This is one of many cases of contempt for workers’s rights by large corporations operating in Poland. It is not the first time that Nestle workers have to fight with Nestle in order to have their basic rights respected in various Nestle factories spread around the world. Russian workers are still in the process of struggling for the right to negotiate wages.
Below, we present an interview with Mr. Jacek, made by a member of the Union of Syndicalists of Poland (ZSP).
ZSP: The official reason given for your dismissal was a conversation you had with a Polish farmer, in which you informed him that Alima Gerber imports apples from Italy instead of buying it from the local farmers. In the opinion of the management, this conversation was detrimental to the interests of the company. Do you think it was the real reason why you got fired?
Of course, this was just a pretext to get rid of me. The real reason was my activity and the activity of the workplace trade-union commission of “Solidarity” presided by me for 3 years. Let me just mention that since July 2008 our commission grew by 50% and our activity has expanded to Nestle in Warsaw. I have demanded wage raises of about 140 Euro monthly. Currently, a regular employee earns about 350 Euro after tax.
The employer was not interested in negotiations. I have also proposed to sign an agreement about combating stress-related problems. The management falsely claimed that there are no legal grounds to introduce such a program. I have also presented the facts related to the discrimination of our employees in comparison with another Nestle plant in Poland, where workers earn 50% more than the ones in Rzeszow, while performing similar work.
Since there was no reaction, I have sent a letter about the case to the United Nations. I have indicated the many illegal actions of the management of the factory, confirmed many times by the Work Inspectorate. I have asked the president of Nestle Poland to meet me regarding an important issue I have mentioned in writing. Each time, I was faced with a wall of indifference. In the end, they just got rid of me in the most brutal fashion - by way of a dismissal on disciplinary grounds.
The conversation with the president of the union of farmers of Alima Gerber which I had and the alleged encouragement to negotiate high prices for fruit and vegetables was only a sad pretext to get rid of me after 16 years of work there.
ZSP: How did your colleagues and union members react to the management's decision? Did the local commission act in your defence?
The decision to dismiss me was a shock for everyone. My colleagues from the Solidarity union gathered signatures on a protest against my dismissal. Two thirds of the workforce signed the protest. The union commission, nor the work council, did accept my dismissal. Despite this, the employer knowingly broke the law by dismissing a union representative protected by the law. This is a clear violation of the worker's rights and the Labour Inspectorate in Rzeszow has initiated a proceeding against the management.
ZSP: How was the dismissal delivered to you?
After I was informed about the intention to fire me and after I saw the September 5th letter asking the union to accept my dismissal, I felt very sick on psychosomatic grounds and I have spent a week being treated on the cardiology department. In the meantime, the management of Alima Gerber harassed my family several times. The saddest event occurred on September 13th, at 7 AM. Four of my children, aged from 7 to 13, were alone in the house, while my wife was working on a night shift. My children were woken up by the relentless bell ring. When my 12-year old son opened the door, the manager tried to give him the dismissal document.
My son did not want to accept anything from the manager. The manager demanded that an older son be called. But the older son refused to take anything and locked the door. The manager stood at the door until 9 AM, kept ringing and knocking the windows and door. The children were terrified and informed their parents by phone of what has happened. The youngest son kept crying and asking: "why do they want to put daddy in jail?"
After the manager left, the house was under observation until noon by a man in a red car, at about 50 m away from the house. Our neighbours informed us of this fact. After I left the hospital, I went to Bulgaria on September 16th, for a training organized by the European Trade Union Institute from Brussels. The training was earlier approved by the manager of the plant.
I was the only representative from Poland. At the Okecie airport in Warsaw, after luggage check-in, I saw the manager and the Human Resources director going after me. I was shocked to see them there. I ran to passport control and haven't seen them afterwards. After I returned from the training, I was not let into the plant. It was claimed that I was fired... at the airport!
ZSP: How did the management portray this case to the employees? Were there any attempts to turn employees against you? If so, were those attempts successful?
The management informed the employees that I am a criminal, because I have acted to the detriment of the company, allegedly advising the farmers to negotiate the highest possible prices for fruit. The management claimed that this was the reason for falling profits and that is why the employees cannot expect any significant raises. The workplace commission was also threatened that its members will have to participate in court hearings. Was this successful? I believe in some sense, yes.
ZSP: When will the trial begin?
I have filed the case on September 25th in the Labour Court in Rzeszow. The first court hearing will take place on November 10th. I believe I will win, as I did 6 months earlier, when the employer illegally punished me for entering with a workplace security inspector on a night shift. I did nothing wrong. As a matter of fact, the inspector admitted that I acted in the interest of the plant by informing the president of the farmer's union that apples are being imported from Italy. No one can convince me that apples imported from Italy will be cheaper than the apples from near Rzeszow. Besides, the farmers are shareholders of the company. They are not competitors, but members of a family and the plant could not function without them.
ZSP: Dismissals of active union members are quite common in Poland. The political climate for union activity is quite bad. This year several union members have been dismissed in state owned and private companies. The employers seem to act with impunity. How to reverse this negative trend?
We must highlight cases when the employers break the law. We need to show people the of meanness of some companies which knowingly break the law by firing protected union members. We also need to change the law in order to give real protection to the union activists who are on the front line of the struggle for workers rights. All unions must act together in this area.
ZSP: Temporary work is a common phenomenon. What kind of difficulties did you encounter while trying to fight for equal treatment of temporary workers employed by temp agencies and workers with permanent contracts?
Our plant has been hiring temporary workers from the Impel agency for three years. These employees performed the exact same work as the permanent employees, for half the wages. They did not receive compensation for working in noisy conditions, their working clothes were not washed and they did not receive meals.
They were discriminated against, which is not allowed by the law on temporary work agencies. We have reported the issue to the management, but to no avail. Two years ago, we informed the Work Inspectorate about the case. The inspection revealed that our suspicions were right. The plant was forced to employ 70 of the temporary workers on permanent contracts, with the same wages as other Alima Gerber workers. A few of the workers filed suits against Impel for discrimination. Their lawyer estimated their losses to over 3300 Euro a year. The case is still pending.
ZSP: The international character of many corporations doing business in Poland allows for international actions of support in case workers rights are being broken. What are your experiences working with other organizations internationally?
I have excellent experiences, especially with unions from the so-called "old" European Union. There seems to be quite a different union culture there. For example in 2006 I have written a complaint to the Swiss management about the extremely poor wages in our company. I have argued that an employee of our company cannot sustain himself, let alone his family on the wages he receives. We have received support from the European Confederation of Trade Unions in Brussels, from the IUF (International Union of Food workers) from Geneva, the European Worker’s Council and many unions in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. A journalist from Basler Zeitung has visited us to write a big feature about the case. Another newspaper, “Input” has written an article about the topic.
The western media and organizations are the only real weapon of Polish unionists.
ZSP: Since you have lost your source of income, are you in need of material help? How can union members and people interested in worker's rights help you in your situation?
I have not received wages since September 16th. I don’t receive any unemployment benefits, since I was fired on disciplinary grounds. Our family subsists on the income of my wife, who is a nurse. I have four children, who still are very much in shock after what happened to me. I have to return a credit from the Social Fund until October 15th. I am in the same situation as many ordinary workers in Alima Gerber, who can only afford some basic necessities despite years of hard work. I believe that the good will prevail. I ask people of good faith only for prayer.
ZSP: Thank you for the interview. We wish you success in your fight for reinstatement in the workplace!