Quo vadis Poland?

Populist social promises and their impact on the labour market

Anna Piszczek, University of Lodz and Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland

Social intervention processes should focus on actions designed to further social activity and, consequently, active employment of persons who are at the risk of exclusion, yet have the potential to take up employment. For it is work that should be the source of welfare of individuals and families, and employment should substantially minimise the risk of poverty and exclusion. The contemporary paradigm of social policy should depart from the concept of welfare state (guaranteed employment, high benefits) and instead embrace the idea of full-employment state (furthering activity in the labour market, flexible employment, lower labour costs).

Gender equality, work-life balance, minimum income, old age income and pensions – these are four out of 20 key principles of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The purpose of the European Pillar of Social Rights initiative is to deepen the social dimension of the Union and improve positive social convergence between the Member States. With regard to gender equality it stipulates that, e.g. equality of treatment and opportunities between women and men must be ensured and fostered in all areas, including regarding participation in the labour market, terms and conditions of employment and career progression. In respect of work-life balance the Pillar indicates that parents and people with caring responsibilities have the right to access to care services. With reference to minimum income it lays down that for those who can work, minimum income benefits should be combined with incentives to (re)integrate into the labour market. The European Pillar of Social Rights specifies that women and men shall have equal opportunities to acquire pension rights.

The shared responsibility for the implementation of the principles and rights laid down in the European Pillar of Social Rights rests with the EU institutions, Member States, social partners and other parties concerned. Therefore, it is expedient to look at the social policy administered in Poland in recent months in the light of the purposes of the European Pillar. Do the social policy tools help the excluded, or rather make them dependent on the sources of aid and discourage them from active employment? Do they pursue gender equality and high participation of women in the labour market?

In Poland, the main area of the state’s social activity in the last three years has been profamily policy dominated by financial activities subordinated to political purposes, i.e. the need to seize and keep power. The incumbent government has simply loosened the purse strings, which is easy to prepare and implement. The adopted solutions serve to preserve the traditional family model of working man and housewife, which is facilitated with generous maternity entitlements or benefits that compensate the possible abandonment of career in favour of the role of full-time mother/carer. By contrast, a fine-tuned policy of a real welfare state should combine direct benefits with infrastructural capital expenditures, first and foremost for care and education facilities that would provide quality social services: public nurseries, kindergartens, after-school activities, well-functioning after-school clubs, as well as care homes for senior citizens. Hence, the Polish government’s policy is a far cry from the European Pillar of Social Rights initiative which underpins equality of men and women.

Moreover, the social policy administered by the new government appears to be inconsiderate of the labour market. While only a labour market that is capable of providing well-paid and secure jobs can create the basis for common welfare of society. In Poland, low employment rate is still an issue. However, the government has not implemented any specific measures that would be conducive to its upturn, while such solutions as the "500+ Scheme" (approx. €120 per month for the second and subsequent child in family) or lowering of the retirement age make up a blueprint for an opposite effect. In the first place, they cause women in the economically productive age bracket to leave the labour market. Additionally, there is no reflection on the long-term effects of the running social schemes. The government is inconsiderate of what will happen to the families whose children have come off age and their income from the "500+ Scheme" starts falling to eventually reach zero. Nor do they see the issue of the return to the labour market after a break caused by withdrawal from active employment for the duration of raising children. Sadly, a part of the long-term unemployed will remain dependent on the social aid system. The second problem of the Polish labour market are low wages. The average pay is still around one-third of the average pay in West European countries, but the majority of workers do not earn even that. From the point of view of the interests of the young generation, more important than direct social transfers would be capital expenditures for education in poor areas, financial aid for gaining qualifications, support for entrepreneurs who create better paid jobs in impoverished areas, capital expenditures for public transport that would ensure fast and cheap commuting to places where jobs are available.

Notably, Poland is in the run-up not only to the European Parliament elections (May 2019), but to the national parliamentary elections (October/November 2019) and the prospective presidential elections (2020) as well. The outcome of the latest local elections in 2018 is indicative of the likely profound changes on Poland’s political scene. High turnout and landslide victory of the opposition coalition in large cities demonstrate that the ruling party’s primacy, notwithstanding the current support polls, is not a foregone conclusion. In the months to come we are likely to hear a plethora of social promises, the exact content of which is impossible to predict today. Suffice it to say, however, that of late the media have been reporting that the "500+ Scheme" is to be replaced with a "1000+ Scheme". It cannot be excluded that such promises will also be made by the opposition parties and we will witness a peculiar auction of populist promises.