Polish Economic Reform Keeps Workers on Edge
WARSAW — POLAND is not Russia. Its economy is growing, not contracting. Its reformers have had more success than their counterparts in Russia. Even here, however, the citizens are weary. Three years of economic reform make many Poles yearn for the days under Communism.
``People in Poland long for this feeling of social security that they had in the past,'' says Leszek Miller, a former Communist Party secretary and now Poland's minister of labor and social affairs. ``Life used to be very stable. People didn't have to worry that their company would close up the next day.''
Even among young Poles with good job prospects, the mood is uncertain. ``It's difficult,'' says Piotr Syta, a university student in Warsaw.
The strongest signal of the need for security came in the September elections, when, just as in Russia this month, former Communists made impressive gains. With 20.4 percent of the vote, the Polish Alliance of the Democratic Left became the largest party in Parliament. Teamed with the Peasant Party, it now runs the government.
Western diplomats do not believe the new government will reverse the reforms of the previous administration. Poles also doubt that much will change.
``This government is going to do the same things, but the people are different,'' says Marcin Prusaczyk, a third-year student at Warsaw's Polytechnic Institute. ``And that's important in Poland.''
Arguably, Poland is further along in its reforms than its neighbors. Last year's economic growth of 1 percent is expected to reach 4 or 5 percent this year. That would make Poland the fastest-growing nation in Europe. Unemployment, which stood at 13.9 percent last December, shows signs of leveling off. In October, it was 15.3 percent, down from 15.4 percent a month earlier.
But the transition facing Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe remains huge. Former Communists talk about the need to restructure their economy, just as conservative politicians do in the West. But the scope of this region's transformation is far greater.
``We bailed out Chrysler,'' an American diplomat says. ``But we weren't in a position to bail out thousands of Chryslers. And that's what these countries are facing.''
Unemployment in Poland is unevenly distributed. In large cities like Warsaw and Poznan the rate is relatively low. But in some rural areas and one-company towns where the company has closed, the jobless rate is 40 percent or more, Mr. Miller says.
The burden falls most heavily on women and young people. More than half the unemployed are women, usually single mothers. Two-thirds of the unemployed are under 35. Even high-skilled graduates face challenges.
Of the 20 recent graduates that university student Rafal Grodlewski knows, all have jobs. But the jobs are not always in their chosen profession. One student, who majored in geological science, answers the phone for a Polish paging company, he says. Low-skilled workers have an even harder time finding employment.
Social benefits are not generous here. Unemployment benefits last for a year and amount to 36 percent of a worker's average wage. After that, the unemployed qualify for welfare benefits.
TO alleviate the situation, Miller plans to implement measures proposed by the previous government. The plan includes government spending on highway construction, tax relief for job-creating industries, targeted subsidies to defense factories, measures aimed at increasing private investment, and stepped-up job-training programs.
Miller may give his own twist to the plan. ``The basic characteristic of the program is to rationalize the way in which jobs are liquidated,'' he says. ``We should always ask whether it is justified to close the factories and dismiss workers.'' He also wants to extend unemployment protection beyond a year.
Such a plan would cost 8-9 trillion zlotys ($400-450 million) next year. But the country's financial squeeze may prevent it. ``We do know what to do but we don't know if we will have enough money to do it,'' Miller says.