Poland tells workers they must not ask for big wage increases

It could have been the World Bank talking. But it was Poland's Communist leadership telling workers that wage restraint and better work are the priorities for moving the country out of its deep economic red ink.

One of the United States sanctions against Poland that the Warsaw government rails at most is the bar to Poland's admission to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Its applications were on the table when martial law intervened in 1981. Nearly three years later IMF and World Bank help for economic survival here is still more vitally necessary.

The World Bank usually requires debtor-nation applicants to adopt stringent domestic austerity. In Poland, more austerity on top of present hardships could spell political problems. The IMF's careful handling of Yugoslavia earlier this year showed it is aware of such complications.

In Poland's case, nonetheless, the primary demand will still be for more energetic application of the economic reform, which must mean certain painful curbs on popular consumption.

This was the message the Communist Party Central Committee strove to bring home at its unusual ''open'' meeting at Lodz June 2 and 3 to some 800 representative workers brought in from all parts of the country.

From the start, the reform process has been impeded by a nonstop growth in wages arising from the latitude individual enterprises now have to use pay hikes as incentives to increase (but not necessarily improve) production.

At Lodz, party leaders sounded like the IMF when they warned workers that higher wages, even as incentives, can only bring higher prices, which will defeat the reform.

The reform, the workers were told, can succeed only if all but minimal wage increases are waived and better goods produced to build up a much better export performance.

Warsaw's party organization recently revealed that by far the bulk of citizen complaints it receives involve housing. Since January, some 29,000 flats were readied for tenants, most of whom had waited at least eight to ten years for one. An identical number would have to be made available monthly from now until 1990 if the situation is to be radically improved.

Other conditions are just as grim. Food supplies will increase if there is a good harvest and if new attitudes and policies are applied in agriculture.

Figures for 1983 - which looked better than any for the past five years - encouraged some mild official optimism about economic trends. Production growth rates rose from 2 percent in January to 4.8 percent in April. But most of the improvement was superficial.

There were, for example, nearly a million more pigs on private farms in April - a first sign of an upturn in animal breeding after last year's slump. But Poles should not expect an early increase in their meat ration, some 51/2 pounds a month. There is hope, however, that rationing of butter, sugar, and flour might be ended this year.

It will be a long time before farmers' real incomes reflect their increasing contribution to the national income. Meanwhile, agriculture remains the economy's poor relation, with minimum needs of machinery, tools, fertilizer, and pesticides going unmet and water supplies becoming increasingly problematical.

Coal is the brightest light on the economic horizon. Along with copper, it is regaining Western markets lost at the height of the crisis, thus earning hard currency to finance essential imports.

There is improvement in productivity, too. According to Wladyslaw Baka, the economic reform minister, it has returned to the level of 1979, the year before the crisis arose.

The Polish government attributes much of the country's economic plight to Western sanctions and credit restrictions, though economists differ on just how much. The Main Statistical Office's report for 1983 acknowledged the role of internal economic weaknesses and inefficiency.

In an effort to make Polish manufactured goods competitive, severe new controls coming into force July 1 will make quality a condition for an enterprise to get bank credits.

It remains to be seen how effectively these controls will be applied.

Managers protest that low standards are not always their fault or that of their workers. They cite old and obsolete machinery and the lack of hard currency to buy tools and spare parts. Relatively few enterprises are benefiting yet from the economic reform's promise of a share in profits for their own use.

A Western diplomat described the ''long lines of shining, well-maintained Western equipment'' in a high-tech plant he visited. One whole line was idle for want of a single replacement part.

The director of another plant wryly told the diplomat: ''I am not the director of a modern factory. I am the curator of a museum of 20th century machinery!''

Ministers often remind Poles they have the shortest workweek in the Communist bloc - and that hours actually worked are lower, too. This is true. The Poles are not known for overexerting themselves, or for being conscientious and disciplined about work.

But this is far from true about workers in such heavy industries as shipyards , steel plants, and mines. These workers resent being told, for example, that in the US people work harder and better than they. It isn't just that American workers are infinitely better paid and better fed. Like the best Polish managers , many workers know - or sense - what is wrong in planning.

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