Private firms in Poland fill in where the state falls short

Need shampoo, a zipper, blue jeans, tights, a spare part for the car, or a battery? And the ordinary shops are out of them? If you are in Poland, you can probably find them in a ''Polonian'' store.

A Polish shopper will usually pay more for items there. In terms of present Polish incomes, he or she may pay dearly. But after years of standing in line for everyday necessities, or going without them, few Poles complain.

''Polonia'' - the name of about 500, mostly small, companies legally funded and founded by foreign capitalist investors from some 35 countries - has become a synonym in Poland for energetic enterprise and speedy response to consumer needs. Both of these characteristics are in as short supply here as many of the goods that Polonian businesses provide.

In a year, recent Polish press reports say, the firms provide goods and services worth up to 13 billion zlotys (after the recent devaluation, almost $ 130 million).

That is still a peripheral 5 percent of the total production value in Poland's entire small-business sector (public and private) - and only half of 1 percent of the entire consumer market. But without these firms many Poles would go without many basic supplies, since state economies cannot guarantee them.

Yet since last year, Polonian enterprises have been under fire by ideologically minded detractors, and are threatened with larger government taxes.

The government itself is committed to economic reform that would decentralize management techniques. The reform, which was passed in 1981 but modified in 1982 during martial law, also envisages independence for enterprises and managerial initiative. But, at least in the initial stages of reform, the central government has retained enough of the old controls to make managers leery of taking chances. Waste and inefficiency continue, and the products' poor quality means they cannot compete in Western markets and bring in hard currency.

Enter Polonian entrepreneurs. They started off in enterprises founded by people of Polish descent in the United States and other countries. Now they seem to come from all over the world, and have limited or no Polish origins. An Indian woman in the textile business, for example, happened to be married to a Pole.

Though small, they undoubtedly make a contribution to the ailing economy here. As one weekly wrote, they not only bring machinery and hard cash into Poland - without adding to the country's liabilities - but also introduce better methods of organization and business management.

Also, the state sector gains from cooperation with Polonian firms. It gets imported materials, spare parts, and equipment. Shops are supplied with attractive, hard-to-find goods. And the Polish treasury rakes in taxes and levies on the Polonian firms' export earnings.

Some government officials charge that Polonian companies are often founded to make a ''quick killing'' and that profits are excessive. But a recent state audit of nearly 200 Polonian enterprises ''dispels many legends and myths about Polonian business operations,'' wrote Express Wieczorny, Warsaw's evening newspaper, last month.

Fourteen firms lost their licenses, including four which were allegedly making up to 100 percent profit. Few of the rest exceeded a ''decent'' profit of 25 percent, the paper said.

There are grumbles that Polonian employees earn more than most other Poles. Apart from managers, the wage differences at ordinary levels are not great - but are big enough to attract people ready to work for it.

Their defenders in the Polish news media point out that Polonian productivity is often four times higher and that work discipline is better than in state enterprises. Better pay and the status of working at Polonian firms attract qualified people, which results in superior product quality, they point out.

On figures given by the press here, half of Polonian hard-currency earnings end up in the state treasury. In 1982, government policy toward these businesses was fairly ''liberal'' and tax rates were reasonably low.

Now the government seems to think it has been too liberal. Since last year, its policy has been repeatedly modified. Income tax rates were raised from 50 to 85 percent, and sales taxes were also increased. And new obstacles make it more difficult to clear export activity with the Finance Ministry.

Some consumers complain about Polonian prices. A Polonian car battery, for example, may sell for 12,500 zlotys (about $120, or almost three-quarters of the average monthly wage). But 65 percent of that goes into sales. A pair of tights may cost 300 zlotys, but the state takes 180 zlotys. In a six-month period in 1983, Polonian firms paid more than 2 billion zlotys in corporate income and sales taxes. An 85 percent tax rate is well above the highest rate in any West European country. Yet most of the Polonian investors come from Western Europe. Unless the Polish authorities ease restrictions and make conditions comparable to those in Western Europe, these foreign investors may find Polonian businesses not worth their while.

Government officials claim that Polonian firms get tax rebates - but only by producing import-substituting exports or consumer goods, which is not always possible. They also claim that these companies are tax-exempt in their first three years - but that is conditional on reinvestment of one-third of their profits in Poland.

Jean Zarecki, deputy chairman of the Interpolcom Polonia Board, recently wrote in the weekly Polityka, Poland needs to give investors confidence ''in the continuity and permanence of state policy.''

''No new investor,'' he warned, ''will be drawn to Poland unless he can see his business here.''

A few Polonian firms have withdrawn from Poland. Some companies have talked of moving to Hungary, which is known for its more liberal business conditions.

The weekly Lad put it in perspective: The Polonia is a tiny operation that can never seriously influence the composition or development of Poland's economy.

''It will neither save it nor sink it,'' the paper said. ''But it is a useful supplement to the public sector and a valuable stimulant in the desired market process.''

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