Polish temp worker fights back1
On the 12th of December 2008 Michal signed a contract with the temporary employment agency Groen Flex in the Polish city Opole. Groen Flex would send him to work with Eurocontract Zeeland in the Netherlands. The contract applied for a period 78 weeks and they told Michal he would work in glasshouses with vegetables. The contract, signed in both Poland and the Netherlands, guaranteed health insurance starting December 15th 2008. This ‘guarantee’ became the point of difference between Michal and his union on the one hand and Groen Flex on the other.
On his first workday, the 15th of December, he was send to work at the Koninklijke Schelde in Vlissingen, a shipyard! He started working, even though he never did such work, didn’t get any (safety) instructions, and not being able to speak Dutch nor English he couldn’t read one warning sign. Just like many others before and after him, Michal came to the Netherlands to make money. First of all because it’s a lot harder to find a job in Poland and second of all because the wages are much lower. Out of fear to lose their jobs with the employer (Groen Flex) and the principal (the shipyard), when just arrived to the Netherlands, a lot of workers don’t regard their own safety.
A few days after that, the unsafe situation repeated itself in Middelburg. Without safety clothes or protective mask Michal cleaned a ship. The matter he got exposed to, appeared to cause harm and Michal lost his consciousness. They brought him to the hospital of Vlissingen, cardiology department.
Through another Polish person who was living in the Netherlands, Michal was able to communicate with the doctors. No one of Groen Flex or the company he worked at came to visit him. After 24 hours Michal was released from the hospital. After that he was told there was no more work for him, after working just one week of the 78 applied weeks of the contract. His employers told him everything with the hospital bill would get settled, because he was insured. On the 9th of January Michal went back to Poland. There it appeared he wasn’t insured by the company at all. The 2.316,50 Euro bill for medical assistance was send to his home address. Groen Flex didn’t pay for his health insurance during his stay in the Netherlands. Michal called the office for clarification. There he was told that Groen Flex didn’t have anything to do with Eurocontract (even though Groen Flex represents that company in Poland) and that he should take legal proceedings against Groen Flex.
Out of Poland Michal and his union, the Polish Union of Syndicalists (ZSP)2, started up to fight against Groen Flex.
Groen Flex and Eurocontract share a website and office together. Also, data at the Chamber of Commerce show that the companies are closely connected together as Groen Flex is the only stockholder of Eurocontract. Last weeks the ZSP started up an examination and an Internet forum based on Michal and others' information3. On various fora for and by Polish workers in the Netherlands debates are going on about Groen Flex. Also before folks in Poland explored ways to take on Groen Flex. From the Netherlands came support from the Vrije Bond (Free Union)4. Here the first findings.
The connection between Groen Flex and Eurocontract seems deliberately kept unclear. This causes that a lot of workers don't know who their employer is.
The provisional contract signed in Poland is misleading. Promises made in Opole about types of work, place of work, housing, working hours and wages mostly can't be redeemed.
Even though promised full time jobs, there are a lot of days without any work. The places the workers are housed, are all in possession of Groen Flex, like a former hotel and a converted officebuilding. There are many complaints about the weekly checks, night clock and searches through personal belongings in the hotel in Wateringen. It also happens that the costs of meals are being taken automatically from the paychecks, unregardingly if they took the meals or not.
Workers are being send to different working places without any information, causing that simple information even like the name of the principal stays unknown.
Also in other cases Groen Flex dealt inaccurately with health damaging work at principals. It also happened before that (former) workers received hospital bills at their homes. There are multiple reports about how Groen Flex neglects to make ascertain the principals give enough training and supply safety equipment.
The ending of contracts can happen without any clear reason. Various people who signed a contract for several months, got send home early. There was no more work. There are also cases of people who only worked one week in the Netherlands. They didn't get any compensation.
Polish workers appear to be in the Netherlands without a contract, this is prohibited by law.
There are also reports about late payments. Mainly the first payment came up two to three months late.
Groen Flex and Eurocontract are not responding to complaints of workers.
Workers have bad juridical possibilities when injustice is done. The case has to take place in a Dutch court. And this keeps a lot of them from pulling through with the proceedings when back in Poland and unable to speak Dutch.
The Polish Union of Syndicalists made these demands to Groen Flex and Eurocontract:
Cooperation of Groenflex and Eurocontract in the case of Michal for obtaining compensation for his hospital bill and all compensation he is seeking from the end-user employer and employer.
Ensuring that all workers receive proper health and safety training, equipment and care from their end-user employers.
Providing perspective employees with the final contract to be signed in Poland, not Holland. The contract should be signed with the Polish legal entity, not the Dutch one.
The job description should be clearly stated in the contract. Workers should be compensated should this work not be available.
Contracts should not be terminated early without reason. Failure to provide employment should be treated as breach of contract on the part of the employer and should require compensation to the employee.
All payments should be made on time, to the bank of the employee’s choice or in cash. Employees should not be forced to open accounts in a specific bank.
All employees should be informed of the name of the end-user employer where they are working.
In the case of an industrial accident or other unfortunate circumstances, the agency should help the worker obtain compensation from the end-user employer.
The agency should make sure that employee insurance has started before their first day on the job. Employees should receive evidence of being insured from the agency when insurance payments are deducted from their wages.
The agency in Opole must stop misleading potential employees by making false promises or misrepresenting the work to be performed or other aspects of the employment.
Last months the Polish Union of Syndicalists tried to sue Groen Flex in Poland. It is possible, but juridically it's very complicated because of unclarities in the labor acts of the European Union. Dozens of other cases people tried to make, never made it to court. This explains why Groen Flex Poland is this arrogant to tell Michal to go and start a court case. But this time it might be different than in previous cases. First of all because Groen Flex had to deal with the ZSP, a small but persistent union that has international contacts and gets support from the Netherlands in this case.
Friday the 13th of February 2009 this turned into action, as well in Poland as in the Netherlands. At six in the morning members of the Vrije Bond handed out pamphlets to Polish workers at 'Pension De Zak' in Overzande. This is where Michal stayed while he was working in the Netherlands. Elaborately was spoken with the workers, who just woke up and made themselves ready to go to work or get picked up by a van. This gave more information about ways that Groen Flex works and the precarious situation of the mainly Polish workers.
Shortly after that, the Groen Flex office in Opole got occupied by a couple of dozen members of the ZSP. People who passed by got pamphlets. And the press was very interested in this international action. After all, which Polish family doesn't have relatives working abroad. The occupants stayed the whole day in the Groen Flex office, and made their demands to the manager and forced negotiations. The manager was surprised by the action and showed his astonishment to the local television. He got caught in his stories while the occupants were able to uncover his lies. Under the eye of the camera he promised to pay and compensate.
1 This article was originally published on the Dutch unionist webzine Solidariteit: http://www.solidariteit.nl/extra/2009/poolse_uitzendkracht_vecht_terug.html