In Poland, land of perks and profiteers, socks can be a luxury
Warsaw — People who wish to make life ''reasonably tolerable'' have a variety of options, a Polish friend says. Of course, most of those options depend on money. ''If they have really a lot,'' he says, ''they can use the black or the 'free' markets. If not, many have perks and side-kicks going with their job. Or, they may simply have to depend on thoughtful relatives in the West.''
In today's Polish context, ''reasonably tolerable'' means being able to afford a little more than the basic necessities - a bit more meat, a little more butter and sugar, or better quality shoes or clothing. Luxury rarely comes into the picture, unless one considers an electric razor bought at a government hard-currency store as a luxury.
On a visit to a big factory recently, a reporter for the weekly Polityka asked employees just what they regarded as ''luxury'' in contemporary Poland. Socks, coffee, razor blades were among the first answers.
Such answers are slightly mocking, but they do reflect the situation here. A bicycle - not a car - seemed to be the highest aspiration.
''Luxury means easy money and profiteering,'' a worker said. He cited the greenhouses proliferating around Warsaw in recent years for raising vegetables and flowers. Greenhouses are expensive, but a surprising number of people contrive a way to buy them.
Greenhouses represent one of many forms of private profiteering the authorities would like to curb by bigger taxes on profits. So far their efforts haven't had much effect.
Another target is shopkeepers who, at the toughest times of 1981-82, made fortunes by hiding stocks until consumers were ready to pay almost any price. Last year some 50,000 people were jailed or fined for speculative hoarding and similar rackets. Sentences have been increased to as much as five years.
Hundreds of thousands of Poles have ''perks'' at work. Bakery employees get two free loaves a day, the newspaper Zycie Warszawy revealed recently. Foresters get ample wood, salt miners all the salt they need, and matchworkers 70 boxes a month.
''It's as though one must work in an auto plant to get a car, or in a locomotive works to have access to the trains,'' the paper remarked ironically.
Workers in the meat industry apparently enjoy a midmorning break with ham and get an extra 2 kilograms of sausage each week. The standard monthly meat ration is 21/2 kilos each, and that includes red meat, ham, and sausage.
Managers say it would be hard to keep their workers without such ''perks.'' At the least, they say, perks keep employees happy and working hard.
Some of these extras were written into union agreements before the war. But at that time there was an excess of goods - however backward Poland was in other respects - and money was tight. Now pockets are full of zlotys that are chasing scarce goods.
For the government's Pewex organization - nourished by hard currencies from many of the 10 million ethnic Poles who live abroad but have family ties here - martial law has meant a boom. Pewex has shops dotted throughout the country, and they sell imported electrical goods, cosmetics, Levi jeans, foodstuffs, and even cars for American dollars, West German marks, Swiss francs, and English pounds.
Pewex profits are secret, but the government takes half to import scarce goods for the open market. Last year it collected more than $100 million for that purpose.
Barter is also big business. One operation is between food-short town and commodity-short countryside. At weekends many Poles go to the country armed with manufactured goods and Pewex purchases and return with meat and other food. It is illegal, but they take the risk of detection, confiscation, and fines. Those fortunate enough to have freezers stock up for a month at a time.
Factories, too, engage in barter. A shoe factory swapped thousands of pairs of shoes - then on ration - with a textile plant's products, all for their respective employees at cheaper prices.
''Socially unjust,'' says the government newspaper. But public attitudes are too ambivalent for the authorities to be able to stop the practice. An average Pole grumbles about someone else's ''perks'' or the profiteering, but - under prevailing conditions - thinks it ''natural'' to use whatever means you can to get what you want.
''Tax the greenhouse gardener too much,'' a factory hand said, ''and we'll never see a bloomin' radish!''
Less picturesquely, the official news agency commented: ''We must accept that profiteering will go on as long as more money is around than goods to buy.'' That, unhappily for Poland, seems to be the case.