Coronavirus and the workplace. What is the price of Human Life?

The following discussion between Ana* from SocSol (Socialist Solidarity) and Tereza* from KOVO (unnamed large assembly plant) took place on April 16, 2020. 

Ana: Hi, good evening everyone. Welcome to today’s stream on the topic of Coronavirus and the workplace. 

Tereza: Hello friends, hello comrades. I have been active in the trade union for about 10 years now, practically the entire time since I began working at my current job. If it’s not necessary to specify where exactly I work, I would like to keep it to myself because the times are pretty hard for both employees and union officials. It’s a crisis, and I dare to say it’s a lot more crucial than what we had here in 2008. I dare to say we haven’t had anything quite like this before. It’s pretty hard to satisfy the demands on us as representatives and to negotiate basic human and decent conditions with the management, and I think my workplace has mostly adhered to legal regulations historically. What is entirely new and crucial is that unlike in 2008, the capital and the entrepreneurs have essentially wrapped the government around their finger. Right now, we are in a situation where the most prolific equipment, the facemasks have been taken out from some labour code. Facemasks, respiratory tract protection which you need just to be able to move safely around your workplace is somehow not a measure of personal health protection according to the Ministry of Health. So you may not even get one from the employer and they are not breaking anything by that.  The employer can order you to sew one yourself and wear it, just like that. Of course, I heard that some fields are better off with the protective equipment. For example, in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics-producing industry, they have plenty of protective suits. But at our plant, up until last week, we only got one surgical mask a shift. Starting today it should be two. You can easily google how long the protection lasts, and then try to imagine how social distancing works in a factory based around belt production. So the thing that’s historically worked for us, that the government didn’t stand-by while the employers violated the occupational safety and health regulations, changed overnight. The situation is risky for people, they are undeniably chancing their health and to some degree of probability their lives. We are living in this incredibly difficult and stressful situation, and not knowing what to expect is not making it any better. So we function like this, betrayed by the Ministry of Health to top it off which is something one would not expect. If you have any questions and would like to know what the situation is like, let’s get to it. 

Ana: Tereza, I for one would like to ask what your and your colleagues’ normal work-day looks like, how it’s different to before the pandemic. 

Tereza: Well, from our point of view, what’s important is the shortening of the shifts. Instead of the usual 12 hours, they are 11,5 hours to allow the clusters to switch without interacting. What has changed for me… I walk to the plant so for me, it’s not that stressful, but some of my colleagues use public transportation or employee transit that has been strengthened recently and overall it is far different from what it used to be, they have to pay attention to disinfecting their hands, have their facemasks on before even getting on the bus. Just last week people’s temperature was taken at random at the plant, now it is obligatory to measure it everywhere. There have been thermo-cameras installed, not by the entrance because the temperature there isn’t stable and they wouldn’t work precisely, but… Some screening is being carried out. What changed fundamentally is that everyone absolutely has to work with the respiratory tract protection on. If you look it up on the internet, or at least in the social bubble that I am a part of, you will find out loads of advice on how to wear the masks and really keep wearing them, if I exaggerate it slightly, you should keep it on even while running in the woods, But nobody will tell you how to bear it at work for 11 hours. That’s just… It really isn’t easy to keep it on at all times, some of us have glasses, we can’t put them away because the nature of our work requires precise eyesight. It’s not possible to do the job without them. It’s an art of sorts, to balance having your own protective gear, and if I consider the ideal assumption that the homemade mask will last me about 3 hours under normal working conditions, then having 3 to 4 of your own for a single shift, or however many the employer is able to provide. So many things have changed. Your workplace needs to be disinfected following your arrival, these things were developed during the normal work process, they have not been put in place on March 13, for example. The people whose responsibility this is have been learning on the move, and we also function somehow with the full knowledge of that if something is underestimated, and it does not have to be due to bad intent either on our or the employer’s side, we will bear the full consequences So work that was already hard before is much more difficult now. Because we have the union articulating all of our demands upwards, the employer has met some of them. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I would like to note that there are more frequent breaks, many marginal things are not as strictly insisted upon, the manufacturing process has been adjusted.  Some of the most hazardous parts have been left out. We also have social distancing on the factory premises, but it is not absolute since in some places it’s just not possible. Our managers have been honest about that, the production line would need to be cut and reassembled. That’s just not possible under normal operation, we’d need to shut down. That hasn’t happened. So that’s about it. 

Ana: You already spoke a little of the benefits of having a union, could you maybe tell us more about your activities either at your workplace or elsewhere? Maybe some information you heard from different places

Tereza: At our plant, we produce and test electronics for example, computers, computer clusters. Someone has to assemble them, plug them into testing stations, replace faulty parts, check whether it’s been assembled as specified by the blueprints. Later on, down the production cycle, the storage and expedition teams take over…It’s mostly materials that cannot be sanitized fully. We cannot spray the sensitive electronics with anticovid-19 that’s so popular in households nowadays if we don’t want to destroy them. They are not water-secure, some disinfectants with high alcohol levels even destroy printed circuit boards.  Still, we are doing what we can, hoping that we will get out of this with our health intact. The shifts that I usually work are 12 hours long. Depending on the part of the process, you work in clusters of 3 or 4 people. I assume if any of our listeners ever worked in any large-scale manufacturing plant, they have an idea of what it looks like. It’s halls with artificial lighting with roughly hundreds of metres in both length and width, the products are slowly moving through the hall and being completed as they go. (…) Finally, the products are put into boxes and sent out. It’s not rocket science; every bit of know-how is given to us by the final costumer.  It’s that kind of work that’s being done in stable temperature and clean environment, up until now. Temperature-wise it is still stable, unfortunately, the question is whether that doesn’t actually help the virus spread, but that’s not for me to decide. The premises are thoroughly ventilated, the air inside changes a few times. From what we’ve read that should help us quite a bit. Every union representative needs to keep themselves up to date on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS), not just the matters their employer deems relevant. We have regular workshops, at one of them we found out that coronavirus should be susceptible to intense light and drying out. Which is exactly what we have at our factory, thankfully. From what I know there haven’t been any cases confirmed in the factory itself. But there has been a case in one of the warehouses that prepares supplies for us and exports. The entire team reportedly ended up in quarantine, they did disinfect the area somehow.  But at this point we can only rely on the employer’s statements as the union does not yet have any standing in this part of the production process. There aren’t any union members who could confirm it for me. So my job is testing and assembling electronics. We fall under KOVO, and although the electrotechnics section is small, the trade union itself has a long tradition and I’m not afraid to say it’s a powerful organisation. We have regular training, a general union where there’s a possibility of getting legal help from qualified labour lawyers, etc. There are a few thousand workers at our plant, and the union has members in the hundreds. At my workstation, it’s almost everyone, of course. But varies and definitely doesn’t apply to the entire company.

Ana: Do you happen to have information from other workplaces, if the working conditions are better or worse than in your work?

Tereza: There are relatively similar conditions in Kolín’s TPCA, Automotive assembly is not all that different from our job, but it’s way more physically demanding. Working on the production line wearing a facemask in this industry, I can’t imagine how the workers coped before the factory shut down. People often read this bit of information in press releases regarding temporary shutdown of factories, that they closed down because of health concerns. That does not apply to our plant, that one is running quite well, maybe even a bit too well, not that I am not wishing them well. But many of the factories that shut down, reportedly, over health concerns have actually ended production from PR reasons. In reality, they stopped production only when their warehouses were out of components, those are usually imported from China or elsewhere in foreign countries, of course. Once the subcontracted shipments ceased, only then they made a PR statement about caring for their employees’ health and announcing a 14-day shutdown of production. Companies that make products necessary to fight coronavirus or are in demand for different reasons, the entire business with video-calling blew up overnight. Suddenly there’s not enough server capacity. So many things that were done in person until now are a strictly virtual affair these days. Our employer is experiencing an influx of orders, so it doesn’t concern us, but some of my good friends at TPCA told me that up until the moment when the warehouses were empty, the production was still running. In this country, not just in the automotive industry, it’s not well-received when a worker doesn’t feel all that great, that they’d just stay home. Of course, as soon as coronavirus appeared, there were new factory guidelines published. IF you are not feeling great, go home, self-isolate…. And get 60% of your pay. Who can even live on 60% of their pay? Not many people. The only thing we can be happy about is that this mess with corona only got here after we finally scrapped waiting periods. I can’t imagine us convincing people to stay home and not get paid at all for the first three days. That’s another thing. And within the union, we encountered cases of something that can only be described as vulturism. We can say the names here, they’ve been through national media anyway. Backer CZ right, eta Hlinsko, they continued production even with confirmed employee cases. Maybe because the company is Swedish their approach to social distancing and fighting the disease is not half as strict as in the Czech Republic. Managers there did not take it as seriously as necessary. I think they underestimated the situation,  from what I know from my colleagues… The production went on long after it shouldn’t have. The question is what the local hygienist had to say about it.  They were making non-essential stuff, refrigerators, ovens, radiators…  Why did they not shut down for god’s sake? Well, it looks like to some employers maintaining sales is of much more value than their employees’ health.  So I don’t exactly want to complain, it could be way worse. I’ve heard of places where it’s way worse than at our plant, but of course that’s not a reason to forgive our employers. And most importantly…what we should take away from this is the knowledge that when we relied on the government to protect us and stop all non-essential businesses, they didn’t do it. We can debate whether it’s because the prime minister is an industry mogul, but I see no reason to attack him personally, I think that even if this government fell and in its place, we’d have ODS with TOP09 and whomever else, they would not do the slightest bit more. No way they would. We have a systemic problem on our hands. I’m not sure if I mentioned it in the beginning, but what’s completely new about this crisis is that the workers are expected to pull us through it, as usual, but this time at the cost of their health. The employers were given a blank cheque by the state. That’s relatively new, might even be the very first time in post-November history 

Ana: I just got another question and it concerns Amazon. There have been some reports from Amazon factories in other countries, how they did not want to stop the processes, not even at places where there had been confirmed coronavirus cases. Do you have any information about Czech Amazon? 

Tereza: I heard some stuff from my colleagues, and it’s no walk in the park. Their employees only get one facemask a day, they’d need gloves, but that’s an issue everywhere. And of course, Amazon is facing the same situation as us. The companies tied to the internet in any way are experiencing an unbelievable boom. Really it’s no wonder that Amazon does not want to stop distribution or production. This is like Christmas in the middle of Summer for them, but that’s in issue in and of itself. The working conditions… Amazon in the States is one thing, what we know from the media, that’s just horrible. Their workers have no health or social insurance, so they will keep coming to work until they drop. In the Czech Republic it’s not that great either. I can say I’m really glad I’m not working there, for myself. The work is physically demanding, you have one mask for the day, and you are not quite running but definitely walking fast all day. That doesn’t really add to anything. But we, the union representatives, are able to discuss what the conditions are like at other workplaces, we know each other at least a bit. That’s about it. I’m not sure what our listeners would like to hear,  if they wanted to know what kind of protective equipment they get where…

Ana: You already spoke about it a little bit. In your opinion, the government gave the entrepreneurs a bank cheque, because they don’t need to limit non-essential business. The question I got is asking you to analyse this. Systematically, do you think that means the benefits and profits are worth more to the employers than people’s lives and health?

Tereza: From where I stand it certainly looks that way. Of course, every PR statement begins with the words „We value our employees’ lives and health, and that is why we are putting measures into place that exceed the government regulations by far.“ Well, it isn’t that much of an effort to enforce stricter measures. The government ordered us to wear facemasks, so everyone sewed one. If the employer as much as distributes some facemasks, some disinfectant, then the PR statement may as well say that you value your employees’ health above all else and that you are investing even more into it than the government requires you to. That’s the way things are. The truth is that people go to work scared, because spending 11 hours with a couple of hundred other people in the hall, or even a few dozen people in the same manufacturing process that build up is a very different level of risk than 5 or 10 minutes. You try to keep the 2-metre gap, as became the usual recently. Firstly, it’s just not possible in some parts of the process. Surely somewhere, definitely not everywhere. Secondly, time plays a huge role. You are not moving from one place to another, you are at work and you will be there for 11 hours

Ana: You got into it a little bit already, but we’d like to hear about your thoughts on the level of psychosocial stress experienced by the workers who have to work under these conditions, or if you could describe how you feel. How does it impact the relationships between colleagues, the employee group?

Tereza: People who have not engaged in any activism and have not seen a policeman in riot gear live, I don’t think they’ve experienced this level of acute long-term stress before. It’s a completely new experience for them, I think. It’s an intense threatening feeling that lasts for hours and hours, and you know it’s not going to end anytime soon.  Of course, you will eventually get numb because living with that constant intense feeling of “this is really not great” is not possible forever. I think we are currently in this phase where we are kind of apathetic towards the risks.  Unsurprisingly, you can tell a lot about a person’s character in situations like these. Some people end up genuinely great, selfless and solid, but some people just go the opposite way. I think that’s happening everywhere. I think the people who are forced to bear the burden together at one workplace are usually of the better sort. Maybe that’s just something I want to believe in, but I really do think so. After facing all this stress we all need to unwind.  Some people do sports, some drink, some play videogames. We all need to get it out of our systems because the feeling of threat takes its toll You go into work every day. Knowing that you need to watch your hand disinfecting, make sure you don’t touch your eye accidentally…  And you are there for hours on end, shift after shift. And if you maybe feel a bit weak or you suddenly have a higher temperature because the temperature difference between halls is about 2 degrees, you watch yourself panicking whether this is it …It’s not nice. We are doing our best, just like we always do. No one here has any experience with something like this. No one. Except for healthcare professionals who faced a different pandemic, but in this country it’s a brand-new experience… There have been flu epidemics in the past, but there was no acute sense of dread spreading through social media. It wasn’t half as intense. I’m sure the previous flu outbreaks in this country had more casualties than coronavirus, but I was younger, and I don’t remember ever going to work thinking that I may not be there in two weeks’ time. That’s new for most people, I guess. There’s nothing to compare it to, sorry.

Ana: Within the trade union, did you hear of any cases of ostracization of people who were under suspicion of having contracted the disease or even had it confirmed? 

Tereza: Well, the number of cases we have is relatively low. There is some degree of enmity towards people who recently travelled to foreign countries, to Italy… But I think there’s some class aspects at play. I’m fairly sure most of my colleagues did not go skiing to Italy. Notwithstanding the fact that production has a quarterly cycle and we are quite busy right now. There’s dividing lines of sorts, rather than ostracism. I think they are class-based, but that’s just my opinion, I can’t speak for the union on this matter. They are quite conformist when it comes down to this. From my point of view, there are some pretty clear historic parallels when it comes to our managerial staff and highly qualified workers. They just disappeared from the factory, similarly to Florentian nobility during the plague. Only they are not writing the Decameron anywhere, they are conducting us from afar, from their home office. I guess some characters now are the same as they would have been during a pandemic a couple hundred years ago. The workload is hoisted upon the servants, the nobility disappears to their isolated summer palaces, only it’s home offices now. From the medical standpoint, that’s the right way to go about things, whoever has the choice to evade the disease should do it, but it’s really easy to see social hierarchy in this. Workers on production lines, at assembly points, the testing stations, … They continue to work in these difficult conditions. We need to pay more attention to disinfection, to our protection. And those people who really do have the salaries, the opportunities, either by qualification or privilege of a different kind, they are isolated from this danger. They’ve got home-office, or maybe they go to work just for some managerial meetings. As far as the exposure to danger is concerned, these people up there compared people working down on the production lines… That’s just incomparable.  Some things never change, and that’s something to remember. I believe we, workers on the production lines, testing stations and assembly points, we will remember this long after the pandemic. Who stayed with us and who fled and where, who acted in what way. That’s about all I want to say on the matter. I haven’t experienced anyone pointing fingers at a colleague like “you went to Austria and we are going to die from this exotic disease”. But I did experience people realizing that their work outputs are being controlled by someone from their cosy home-office. These people complained to me, told me it’s unfair. “I’m doing my best here and this guy XY, our manager, is checking our every move online, if we produced enough, and then he goes even further and writes an e-mail to produce even more, that we are behind.” So there dividing lines exist, I find it redundant to point out personal failures here, but I can clearly see the people who have the privileges allowing them to not be down on the production line using them. Understandable on one hand, no one wants to put themselves at risk. But on the other hand, this crisis showed us many people’s character, and it’s not necessarily a good one.  I can’t really say the people sitting at the other end of the CCTV are more understanding. Some are, some aren’t. If I were to put it really simply, nobility fled and hid away safely, that’s something worth remembering, and remember it we will. 

Ana: Do you think your colleagues and others in a similar situation might experience a greater impulse to organize and try to change the future of their workplace somehow? You did answer that partially, but…

Tereza: The awareness itself and some basic analysis do not mean that any organizing will take place. Yes, I can say with certainty that we have an influx of new members in this situation. It’s happening because people finally realized that their employers already have an opinion on the future proceedings, and if there is anyone to take their side, it will be us. But, on the other hand, we need to realize that our plant running is more of an exception to the rule. Many businesses will be facing terrible consequences. The unemployment rates we are about to have will be a factor in people’s willingness to organize, or rather the lack of it. I’m seeing both of these tendencies. People who have experienced injustice understand that there is no one else who will take their side, to whatever end.  But the good old days of our campaign Konec levné práci where we had agreed on four consecutive years of pay growth, that is over now. There are new battles ahead, oftentimes just to keep what we have now. I can’t say the crisis clearly resulted in class awakening. Definitely in many people, but we cannot know what they will do with it.  It’s way too soon to evaluate it now.

Ana: We just got a question from Facebook asking about what we just discussed, if there’s more interest in unionizing or if there are new unions starting where there were none previously. You did answer that, but I’m wondering if the trade union already know, and you can say it, what strategy they will use to harness this interest and strengthen organizing. Or just to allow some practical realization so that it doesn’t stop at interest only.

Tereza: As far as I’m aware, we are not doing any special recruitment campaign, we are quite busy with negotiating decent conditions regarding OHS. Of course we will accept new applicants, but right now is really not the best time to be doing any recruitment campaigns. WE have to keep up social distancing, and let’s not fool ourselves, employers would mercilessly use it against you, now more so than ever. That has been indicated to us on no uncertain terms. I dare to say there’s a bit of positional warfare coming our way. I’m not expecting … Maybe our member base will grow by 10% or 20%, but it will not be 300%. And the main battle is being moved entirely. Yes, the situation awakened class awareness in many people, but it’s a long way from realizing the situation is borderline terrible to direct action and organizing, quite a long way. But from my friends all over the republic I’ve been told about several places where this is happening, for example this metalworking factory somewhere in the north of the republic where the current situation led to the founding of an informal trade union. Almost instantly. The conditions there were terrible, the people there did not receive any disinfectant, masks, nothing at all. That’s a very different story to the one I experienced at my factory. The workers there realized that they will either get their demands in now or the price will be their health. Also keep in mind… the times are incredibly hard, so… I can’t really tell you now if we can use this situation to emerge better organized and stronger in our numbers. I don’t know. I wish that were the case, and there are some signs, but in the end I don’t think it’ll go down this way. People will be careful. I don’t think I can say more on this at the moment. We will need to have a look at this at a later date.

Ana: We’ve got one more question from Facebook. What’s the official ČMKOS stance on starting unions online? Have you started dealing with this topic?

Tereza: Online founding. No. I don’t know what’s the official ČMKOS stance, it makes sense since the lines of power are quite long in the organisation. But. The trade union is a relatively traditional organisation for better or worse, so I dare to say that for now we cannot function without regular paper applications in KOVO. Of course, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Anyone can still get the documents from us in person, as well as give them back, so as of this moment completely electronic applications…I don’t think that’s happening any time soon. It’s definitely something to consider in the future, but right now our primary concern is protecting our people, getting them the protective equipment they need, and trying to limit the effects of the economic crisis that is going to come. It’s basically at the door already. Or at least we need to oversee whether there’s any violations of labour law once it arrives, for example with employment termination due to redundancy. So putting a web portal together is not something we are doing at the moment. Even with such a powerful and well-established union as KOVO  it’s not a priority. I’m afraid it’s currently off the table, but that’s just my opinion. This concerns the organisational structure of the union. That’s not something I have a mandate for, and I also have my own opinions on this. People from the IT support centres in regions may have a different opinion on this, but we as the last link right at the workplaces… It’s not something we’d put much thought into. Our problems are way more practical in nature. Negotiating OSH, maybe some more anti-epidemic measures with our employers, processing new sign-ups. There’s not that many that it can’t be done offline. That’s all I can say on this matter.

Ana: I have been thinking about how everyone speaks about managing home-office, the working conditions in healthcare, social services or even the supermarkets etc., but I’ve got a feeling that the working conditions at factories or in logistics are not all that represented in media. I also read an opinion poll where most people stated they are happy about the steps undertaken by the government. So the issues we are now speaking about are escaping scrutiny, do you feel the same way? Also, as we breached, if you think the government did everything to satisfy the entrepreneurs, what would the desirable steps for them to take?

Tereza: We’d need to have completely different government than the one we have right now. And the desirable step. I guess I can imagine that the measures we have taken would be even more strict. If you had asked me 14 days ago, I’d have had said to shut down all non-essential businesses. So unless you are making lung ventilators, electricity, food or disinfectant, or distribute any of those, you will be staying home. So making ovens or refrigerators, the kind of excesses that happened at Backer CZ or Eta Hlinsko, that just shouldn’t have happened in the first place. These are the things that would’ve been avoided, at least according to me. A government that truly cared about peoples’ health would’ve stopped it; the question is why ours didn’t. Maybe that’s given by the fact that we are one of the most industrial countries in central Europe and highly reliant on export.  I can’t imagine if the government was led by the social democracy with interesting vote percentage, if it would be much better than it is now. Historically they sided with the big industries as well… I can’t imagine…, or rather I can imagine it if the situation here evolved like it did in Italy, in Spain, then I can see non-essential businesses closing down.  We’ve got the government we have, there’s not much point to discussing hypotheticals…

Ana: I’ll read a comment from Facebook: Thanks for the answer. What I meant is that there may be some places where people are starting to organize only thanks to covid-19 and in the current situation they have no chance of starting a union. That’s why it would be great if you could some thought into it and adapt to the current situation.

Tereza: Alright, I understand. In my life I have seen some union cell founding in different factories, but there had always been 3-or 7-or 9 brave companions and those were the people who did it while fully knowing that if it’s discovered by the employer before the actual creation of the union, it will cost them their employment. From what I gathered while getting to know these people, think they are the kind of people who would be able to take the founding and signature documents, drive to the regional centre and calmly discuss it there with the overseers while socially distancing, covid or no covid. If the situation is dire and you need to take action in a matter of hours, like at that business in the north of the Czech Republic, the paperwork can be done retroactively regardless. What needs to be done is organization and direct action, so that the people there establish an action committee and the employer either does what we want, or we physically block the production. There’s loads of time for paperwork afterwards. So if anyone is limited by the lack of response by the regional centres, I’m not the right person to take it up with. I’ll admit it’s not my speciality. If people are having trouble with founding the union, I am able to pass on the contact information of my local centres’ workers, surely it can be arranged almost instantly. But moving purely into virtual space,… I’m afraid that’s just not possible because the trade union has a tradition of in person interaction, chain of operation. Later on we will most likely have to function virtually, but that’s about building capacity that we now have no time or energy for. I’m sorry to say it this way, but I don’t want to discuss the union. That would come right back at me, like a boomerang. 

Ana: I think the important bit from what you said is that even if someone does not have the formalities needed to officially start a union prepared, they can still contact their regional representatives and start doing real work before full finalizing the formal matters. 

Tereza: Surely, after all from what I’ve seen during the beginnings of those union cells, there was always a group of unyielding people who were not willing to bow to every whim and they began informally. The formal creation of the union only took place some days later.

Ana: Here’s one more question. What exactly do employer-union negotiations look like under the current conditions, whether at your workplace or elsewhere? What about the negotiations between the trade unions and the government from what you know?

Tereza: About the second point, I’d rather not comment on that at all. There are so many problems at my own workplace that I have not been able to keep up with the bigger picture. I’m the chairwoman of the local plant organisation, for these meetings we have negotiators, people who are affiliated to the regional centres. What does it look like? Like any other meeting at this time. People gather in a meeting room while keeping to the 2-metre distance rule while wearing facemasks, half of them are only present via videocalls. Nothing extraordinary, I suppose all meetings are like that nowadays. People sit with 2 metre gaps, only half of them physically present, the other broadcasting. This is what our meetings are like these days. They are incredibly difficult in the sense that the employers are not in favour of listening to our demands regarding pay rises, they are facing uncertain times themselves. It’s difficult for everyone. More so for us, because we hardly ever negotiate from a position of power over the employer. Sometimes, maybe, but usually the opposite. I already described the technicalities, as for the subject matter… It will be tremendously difficult negotiations, the kind we have not experienced since 2008. 

Ana: The person who asked previously specified their question, they meant how hard it is to push your demands through rather than the technicalities of it.

Tereza: What can I say. Some lucky union organizations have already finished collective negotiations for this year by the end of March, under conditions unaffected by covid. In these cases there’s agreement on wage growth by 7%, 8% or even up to 11%. The big trouble came afterwards. Then there’s the organisations that have not been able to finish the discussions that fast, mine included because the employer has subsidiary companies in China, and thus was well aware of what sort of uncertainty was coming. So our negotiations have not concluded by far, and this situation it’s likely to be one of the most difficult negotiations we have faced, ever. That’s public knowledge, in this instant most employers, even those with guaranteed market outlets, don’t know if they will withstand the subsequent economic crisis. So everyone will be very careful with the kind of promises they make. It will likely be the most difficult thing during my employment here, in the last ten years.

Ana: Thanks a lot. We have about 5 minutes left, so if anyone has got any more questions, ask as soon as possible please. One more question. If you were asked to guess, do you think we have huge layoffs coming up in the near future?

Tereza: Well, that’s already been happening elsewhere, mostly in foreign countries, but I’m afraid we will get our own share of it. We will have to face this issue somehow, it’s inevitable in many businesses. I assume that the tertiary sector will be hit massively. Restaurants, hotels … they will not be back to business as usual any time soon. The automotive industry that we speak of in the Czech Republic, despite pulling up the employment rates significantly, they are far from fully operational. Many of them only operate 2 out of 3 shifts, and if something similar to what we faced in 2008 were to come, like a demand freeze, then of course … It’s hard to predict. It’s safe to assume there will be layoffs, but the entire society does need to go on. Unconditional income is being debated in many countries, maybe we will come stronger out of this. If we were to follow the usual procedures or the ones used in 2008, that means austerity and budget cuts, then the massive layoffs will be sure to follow in any field. In industrial business, the tertiary sector. But. I hope we have since grown wiser and the madness of restrictive austerity policies and cuts has been proven not to be the way. Maybe there will not be any layoffs because we will finally sensibly apply kurzarbeit in the Czech Republic, or we will opt for unconditional basic income, even if just for the duration of the crisis. It’s not necessary to have thousands of people unemployed. There is work available, we need to take care of each other and there are hundreds of people needed in caring professions. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a mechanism to properly reward these people so that they can go on doing that work. That’s the issue we need to deal with as a society. So yes, if we act in accordance with the previously used frameworks, the capitalists have always had us under their thumbs and it will be business as usual, then of course, there will be a crisis, employee discipline, raising of production quotas. Everything that we have experienced from 2008 and 2009 onwards, but it does not have to be that way. I hope so. 

Ana: Thank you so much for such an inspirational ending, Tereza. And also many thanks to everyone watching.

Tereza: Goodbye.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the participants.

Translation from Czech into English by Petra Krcmarova, Research Assistant to Dr Rutvica Andrijasevic, University of Bristol, UK


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