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In Poland even grandmothers are black marketeers

By Eric Bourne / September 14, 1981



Warsaw

An antispeculation squad arrives at a city market. The shelves of various sections for foodstuffs are bare or only sparsely stocked. The inspectors look around outside.

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* A woman pensioner is selling a stock of children's shirts and vests. "Bought for my grandson," she says. She does not explain why she has so many or why she is selling them.

The officers note they are straight from a warehouse. Her stock includes Hungarian tights and Czechoslovak jackets.

* Jeans are being sold -- at 3,500 to 4,800 zlotys [$100 to $150] -- by a teacher who claims to have brought them back from Italy.

* An elderly man is selling american neckties. "Bought them myself in chicago," he says. The price: the equivalent of $50 each.

These are some of the "amateurs" of the speculation and black marketeering that have mushroomed here over the past six months. They all add to the chaos of a supply situation that imposes agonizing hardships on the vast majority of people.

Speculation and blackmarketeering have become a way of life -- a way to survive with some minimal degree of adequacy -- that seems, willy-nilly, to involve almost anybody and everybody.

A newspaper reports the case of a Lodz teacher-turned-storeman at a children's summer camp who was arrested after police found a cache of goods in his flat. There were hundreds of cans of meat and ham and hundreds of jars of jam and fruit, tea, sugar, soap, and washing powder, all of which are almost impossible to find in any store.

The "professionals" operate on a much larger scale, often working in organized networks. In many cases, they virtually hijack stocks from warehouses or from trucks on the road, in connivance with either managers or workers.

They deal in everything. Throughout Poland there are reports of large quantities of consumer goods -- shoes, stockings, clothing, winter boots, food, and durables like refrigerators and furniture -- being concealed by shop managers and staff for customers who can be relied on to pay double the price.

Motorists are held to ransom by employees at state-owned gas stations and service units or by private lessees who have hidden away oil, brake fluid, antifreeze, and spare parts -- everything from gaskets to batteries and tires. The attendants make these items available only to customers who "know how to show friendliness" to them, as a Warsaw reporter put it.

One, caught profiteering with illicit oil, said cynically, "They don't have to buy if they want to ruin their car!"

Another newspaper told how speculators corner goods that are not rationed in a particular city or town, then transport them to other towns where the same items are on restricted coupons.

Police and Army inspection teams were put on at the start of August. In a month they seized a million dollars' worth of stolen goods, transferred numerous "amateur" hauls to retail stores, and referred more than 8,000 cases of offenders to citizens' courts, the only legal recourse at present.

Even this touches only the tip of the iceberg. Police say the percentage of illicit goods recovered is small. Only a few major operators are caught.

Many people say the crackdown has proved counterproductive, reducing the amount of goods available and merely driving the "professionals" underground. For, as the police went to work, the professionals moved into hideouts, leaving go-betweens to hang around the markets to tip off customers where goods might be found.

Between them, the small speculators and the "fat cats" are said to get their hands on one-quarter of the commodities intended for retail.

Deterrents? When a liter of motor oil can be sold illegally for the zloty equivalent of $30, current fines are laughable.

A bill before parliament may change that. It provides for up to two years in jail and fines of up to 15,000 zlotys (about $450). "But under present conditions the black market will always find a way -- and customers, . . ." a Polish friend remarks.

Unhappily for Poland, it is true. The practice has spread from the towns to the countryside, where meat and animals for slaughter, farm machinery, fertilizer, and coal "disappear" only to show up in the hands of speculators.

There are proposals to post "social guards" at unloading points, at warehouses, and even on trucks.

But even this, along with market patrols, heavier fines, and imprisonment, seems unlikely to halt the speculation, given the desperation of a populace that -- after the big pay hikes of the past year -- has money to spend and very little available to buy by normal, honest means.