In the past few years, the level of participation in employees’ representative organizations (such as trade unions and works councils) has decreased significantly in Poland. This process has influenced in particular the activities of trade unions, which have lost a number of members and have not managed to attract new ones. In consequence, their role as a social partner in communication with employers or the State in matters regarding employment is decreasing. Contrary to what was expected, introducing works councils on the basis of European directives has not really influenced the situation on the labor market. Out of more than three thousand works councils established after the bill was enacted in 2006, barely one in seven was still in operation last year. In the prevailing opinion, the lack of interest of employees in works councils stems from the general way of describing their privileges in the law. Works councils are entitled to be informed about the situation of the company, but the scope of information they have to be provided with is not strictly defined by the statutory provisions. Furthermore, works councils do not have any strong competence they could use to force the employer to take their opinion into account while making business decisions. This leads to little interest in works councils that have already been established or the creation of new ones. The employer is obliged to inform its employees that they may establish a works council, but the employees frequently do not have any interest in such involvement. In consequence, works councils have little impact on employment relations. Works councils, a new body introduced to Polish law on the basis of a European directive, have not had the impact on labor relations that they were expected to have.
As for trade unions, according to the study conducted by the official Polish statistical office, only 12 percent of employees are members of trade unions. The number of employees acting in trade unions varies depending on the size of the company. In small enterprises, where the headcount does not exceed 50 persons, only six percent of all employees are members of trade unions. The larger the company is, the more significant the unionization level (the percentage of employees who participate in trade unions). About 28 percent of employees who work in large enterprises, employing more than 250 persons, are members of trade unions. The unionization level is significantly higher in enterprises co-owned by the State and in larger companies that were privatized during the last two decades.
The decreasing unionization level is followed by a negative or skeptical opinion of trade union activities. More than two thirds of employees believe that trade unions acting at enterprises either achieve very little or even nothing for the benefit of employees. Only one in six respondents had a positive opinion of the achievements of trade unions. However, it should be noted that recently many initiatives have been taken, indicating that trade unions have become more active. This covers in particular the changes to the labor law or social insurance system. The unions are now able to organize protests, gathering a number of persons to influence the legislative process and projects of on-going reforms. The increasing role of civil-law contracts on the market is one of the topics the trade unions are particularly interested in.
In light of the above, the ideas concerning a civil-law contractor’s entitlement to participate in trade unions should not be surprising. According to officially still unconfirmed information, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is working on a bill which would entitle civil-law contractors to join trade unions. The project itself was a success of the trade unions. The work on the new bill is the outcome of a complaint that the trade unions issued to the International Labour Organization concerning the status of civil-law contractors. Employers have raised concerns about the bill; however, it is unclear whether it would in fact have as much of an influence on the labor market as the trade unions expect it to have.