THE RECENT strikes in Poland have shown that workers’ rights no more exist there than they do in the west. The demand for free trade unions is one which we can echo in our campaigns against Prior’s anti-union law and for democracy in the unions. But it is commonly believed that the position of women in Poland is better than that of women in most Western countries. Women go out to work, their equality is written into the constitution and collective childcare is an accepted part of life.
At least that is the accepted myth. Experienced observers of Eastern Europe have even claimed that women cannot be unemployed because their right to work is guaranteed by the constitution. Unfortunately the reality is miles away and touches much more closely on our own experiences.
As in the west, in periods of economic stagnation women carry the burden of the crisis. After the ‘spring in October’ of 1956, there followed a period of female unemployment. Women were sacked on the pretext of curbing the bureaucracy. The government even discussed giving allowances to men whose wives didn’t work.
At the same time, the benefits of the family as a stabilising factor were stressed and women were encouraged to see themselves as mothers.
‘Women’s jobs’ where women are ghettoised into low paid and badly organised work are as common as in the west. Poland has seen a ‘feminisation’ of certain sectors – 80% of health workers and 67% of teachers are women. Traditional masculine preserves like technical and skilled manual work remain precisely that. Seventy percent of married women work, but an unrecorded number are working on small-scale farms owned by peasant families.
The burden of housework and childcare rests almost entirely on women. Only 15 per cent of children find a place in state run crèches. The majority are looked after by relatives or informal childminders. Polish women spend an incredible two hours a day in queues for food and other essentials. Shortages are a way of life and things which help women’s work in the home, such as washing machines and detergents are often impossible to obtain.
Housing conditions in a country where a family will have to wait several years for a single bedroom flat, and where little single person housing is available, place a further strain on women’s lives.
Neither do women have control over their bodies. Abortions are only available by law if the woman is pregnant as a result of a criminal act or there are ‘difficult living conditions’ and many older women still rely on the rhythm and withdrawal methods of contraception. This is hardly surprising when the pill is not freely available and the influence of the church is still widespread. An estimated 40 per cent of Polish women still use abortion as their major form of contraception.
Polish society has women’s oppression built into it. Some people believe that is because socialism can’t bring women’s liberation. But workers self-government is a myth. The regime is no more socialist than nationalised industry here. There is nationalisation and goods are supposed to be produced according to a plan. But the system has nothing to do with socialism.
The Polish government has to produce in competition with the west in order to survive. Therefore it exports as much as possible to pay its debts to the west. That explains why in a major agricultural country like Poland meat is so scarce and why there is more Polish sausage in your local Sainsburys than in most shops in Warsaw.
Not everyone in Poland suffers. If you are in possession of western ‘hard’ currency many goods in short supply become magically available. Special shops sell western fashions, cosmetics, American cigarettes and plentiful quantities of meat and fruit.
They are for the benefit of the small group of bureaucrats who control society. But for workers, life is as grim as it is for most workers in Britain Food shortages, long working hours and the oppression of the family are all features of Polish life. Control of the factories does not lie with the workers but with that selfsame group of bureaucrats.
No wonder that the demands of the Gdansk workers went much further than the call for free trade unions. Demands included the equalisation of family allowances with the military police and the army, an end to special shops, improvements in nurseries, more housing and better maternity leave. They show that the issues concerning women are at the heart of the Polish working class, just as women themselves are.
The strikes have shown yet again that workers are willing to take action to change their lives. Women have one reason to be grateful to the existing Polish government. Their entry into the workforce has meant they are totally involved in the strike action. Now they have to begin to liberate themselves. The struggle for that liberation will mean having to overthrow the existing society in Poland and creating a new one, just as it will in the west.
When that happens, Polish women will find they can change the course of history and their own destinies as well.
From Women’s Voice October ’80 Issue 45