Excerpts from an interview with a worker from electronics factory in Czech Republic
Q: 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?
A: “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.(…)"
Q: Do you happen to have information from other workplaces, if the working conditions are better or worse than in your work?
A: “(…) 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.(...) 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. (…)”
Q: In your opinion, the government gave the entrepreneurs a blank cheque, because they don’t need to limit non-essential business. Systematically, do you think that means the benefits and profits are worth more to the employers than people’s lives and health?
A: “(…) 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 (…)”
Q: 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?
A: “(…) 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. (…)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. (…)”
Q: 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?
A: “(…) 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. (...)”
Q: Is there more interest in unionizing or are there new unions starting where there were none previously?
A: “(…) I can’t really tell you now if we can use this situation to emerge better organised 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.(…)”
Q: What’s the official ČMKOS stance on starting unions online? 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. Have you started dealing with this topic?
A: 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.(…) 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. (...) 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 organisation 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. 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.(...)"
Q: 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.
A: “(…) Some lucky union organisations 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.”