For six months, reporter Saša Uhlová worked in the lowest-paid manual jobs in the Czech Republic, having a go at work in a hospital laundry room, a chicken processing plant, as a cashier in a supermarket, in a razorblade factory, and in a waste-sorting plant. All these jobs are indispensable, yet they are severely underpaid. How do people make ends meet on just a few hundred pounds a month? Uhlová’s project, entitled The Heroes of Capitalist Labour, exposes the dark side of Czech Republic’s alleged post-communist economic success. In a country with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, wages remain low in comparison to Western neighbours. As Uhlová shows, those who earn minimum wage live on the edge or even below the poverty line and their small earnings get swallowed up by debt repayments. Published on A2larm.cz, the series of texts is also accompanied by the documentary film Limits of Work, which will premiere this October at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.
The first text takes us to the laundry room of Motol, the largest hospital in the country’s capital, Prague.
She led me down the stairs while I confessed my fear that I won’t make it. She reassured me, everyone has to start at some point, and every first step is hard. As we drew nearer, we heard the noise get louder and louder; we walked through a badly lit hallway and entered an enormous hall. The white light of fluorescent lamps provided slightly better illumination than in the dark hallway, but it still was not enough. Inside, there were large machines: washers, driers, mangles, ironing presses. The smell of freshly washed linen was in the air. People had to raise their voices to be heard over the hum of the machines. My guide led me to the forewoman, a calm, smiling woman who asked me what my name was.
“Alex,” I replied.
“Oh, we have an exotic one,” she laughed and told them to take me to Elenka.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked after being introduced to Elenka, a small, aging lady with well-kempt hair and a strict stare behind thick glasses. She was busy hanging trousers on a mechanical coat hanger, then she waved her hand in front of a photosensor and the hanger flew up on a conveyor.
The work seemed simple and I took to it eagerly.
Elenka led me over to the place where the hangers were arriving and took a pair of trousers from a huge metal cart. She showed me how to fold them, that they must not be inside out or too crumpled. Then she put them on a hanger and waved again. The hanger obligingly flew off. I took a pair of trousers and tried it for myself, then she showed me how to properly hang nightgowns and surgeons’ gowns. The work seemed simple and I took to it eagerly: we took the laundry from big carts standing next to us and when we emptied them, we got more from the place that sorts the laundry after it leaves the wringer.
After an hour and a half, I felt that I’d been standing there and just hanging and hanging and hanging for ages. It was unbearable, I wanted to cry. I was thirsty, I needed a cigarette, my back and hands ached, I wanted to lie down in my bed, I was awfully hungry. And suddenly I realized it was dawn, despite us being four floors underground: the Motol hospital is built into a hill so even the laundry room has windows.
About two hours later, Elenka told me to go out into the yard for a quick cigarette break. And then she offered me water and a candy. I immediately felt better; she asked me if I was there for the money or the punishment. That meant whether I’d been sent there by the Employment Office or whether I was sentenced to community service. When I told her I was there on my own will, she didn’t want to believe me.
I found the advertisement on the Employment Office’s website and it fit perfectly into what I wanted to examine: an unqualified but useful and necessary job, in a public institution. I signed a contract for eleven thousand crowns (approx. £380) a month with the agency – because my employer was not the Motol hospital, but Midian – Coral general partnership, a company that Motol contracted for odd jobs in the kitchens and food distribution.
It won’t fit you price-wise
Half-past eleven meant lunch break. Elenka explained that the lunch would be expensive for me, because I work “under Natasha.” That means I am employed by the agency: Natasha is a thirty-year old Ukrainian who personifies Midian – Coral to us: we negotiate with her, she hands out the payments, but when there is a lot of work and not much people, she works at the machines herself. She is essentially our second superior, next to the forewoman.
I still wasn’t sure why I could order only soup and a bread roll for eighteen crowns (60p). Elenka took me with her and walked me through the labyrinth of the hospital to the canteen, where she ordered soup, the main course and dessert. I sipped the salty water from my bowl and watched Elenka stuff herself with meat and dumplings.
I was actually told I would not be able to afford the lunch back at the agency. “There is a canteen, but it won’t fit you price-wise,” the woman who hired me told me when describing the job, recommending I take a sandwich with me from home. Now I regretted not listening to her. I gathered my courage and asked Elenka how come she can afford lunch while I can’t.
I would have to pay seventy-two crowns (£2.50) just for the main course. Which is more than I earn per hour.
It turned out Elenka was, unlike me, an employee of Motol. She earned several thousand crowns per month more than I did and was eligible to buy a full meal for twenty-five crowns (86p). Motol’s employees are the ones who have worked in the laundry for a longer time. In 2004 Motol’s director Martin Ludvík signed the contract with Midian – Coral for providing kitchen and food distribution services, as well as sorting dirty laundry. Other work in the laundry room is not detailed in the contract, but about twelve more people and I have signed up with them, not the hospital. Which means that if I want to buy the full lunch menu, I will not be able to take advantage of the subsidy Motol employees receive. I would have to pay seventy-two crowns (£2.50) just for the main course. Which is more than I earn per hour. Now I understand I simply cannot afford that.
As the day went on, the work relaxed somewhat: sometimes there were three, even four minutes when I could sit down. But by then I knew there would be another slower period, that the worst part of the day is the morning when one simply cannot stop. It made the work easier to cope with. Half-past three, the shift was over, and I was allowed to stagger home.
I won‘t live to see retirement
Over the following days, I would start right before six in the morning, even though I am aware that I should be coming earlier. The others are usually there at half past five, they clean the machines and manage to grab a coffee before the first batch of laundry is ready. I cannot manage to get up before four thirty, though. On the other hand, I can find my way through the hospital’s hallways now. Most of the time, I work with Elenka and Hela. We talk over the lunch break – it’s not possible during the work, because we don’t have the time to stop and besides we wouldn’t hear a word of what the others are saying.
Elenka is fifty-nine. She is energetic, short-tempered, and has a limp and diabetes. She is the only one in the laundry room with her hair done by a hairdresser, and she is not missing any teeth. Her whole personality makes it vivid that everything is perfectly fine with her life. She loves her job. She lives in a dormitory nearby and shares a room with a roommate with whom she splits the rent, so that she only pays two and a half thousand crowns (£86) a month. She raised four kids, alone. Back when she was married, she lived in Slovakia and worked as a seamstress – that is the job she trained for.
“Then I ran away to Czech Republic, because of my husband.”
“To the husband or away from him?”
“Away. Away from him.”
“Did he beat you?”
“More than that, he drank and brought whores into our home. He was a horrible man.”
When she arrived in the country, she found herself a job in the Avia car factory, where she stayed for fourteen years. And because it was not enough to pay for the family’s expenses, she made money on the side by cleaning. She has been working in the laundry room for seventeen years. Apart from her wages, she gets a bonus. She does not complain about her earnings, she even manages to send some money to her children in Slovakia and have an Internet connection in her phone. She will reach retirement age next year, but she wants to stay, to earn some more money. She even plans to find herself a small flat.
Every morning, Hela rides the four thirty bus, so she has to get up at half past three. She arrives home late in the afternoon, does all the household, and then falls asleep around 8pm.
My second colleague, Hela, is quiet and kind. She explains the way the laundry room works to me and patiently answers my questions. She radiates a peculiar, calm sadness. She is fifty-six and takes care of an ill husband. They live on the second floor of a small house some ten kilometers outside of Prague. The rent is low, housing costs them about three thousand (£100) a month: this is because Hela also takes care of the old lady that rents the upper part of the house to them. But the lady lives in the centre of Prague and Hela has to commute in order to do the shopping for her and help around the flat. Every morning, she rides the four thirty bus, so she has to get up at half past three. She works until half past two, then she has to go help her landlady, she arrives home late in the afternoon, takes care of her husband, makes food for the next day. She is done around eight P.M. “I try to watch the news then, but I almost always fall asleep,” she says.
Her monthly pay has been 9900 (£342) gross so far, but she should be getting a raise soon – for the first time. It is February 2017 and the government has raised the minimum wage to eleven thousand (£380). Hela does not understand the social system. She does not know whether she is eligible for financial help. She pays over three thousand a month only for her husband’s medication. They barely make ends meet. It will be six years before she can retire, but she does not believe she will ever receive retirement money. “They’ll change it before then, or I won’t live that long,” she smiles sadly, without bitterness, but also without irony.
Doesn’t matter if you’re dead, just make sure to show up
Another colleague, Marta, who works the mangle next to us, went to see a doctor on Monday morning on account of her aching back and knee, even though Natasha tried to dissuade her, saying that going to a doctor on Monday is not allowed – there is too much work and too few of us. Marta has waited for a long time to get that appointment so she decided to disobey, as her knee has been aching ever since she started working here. Elenka’s knee aches as well and mine started to hurt on Friday. Maybe it’s because of the way I use my leg to support my weight when folding trousers. At first, I joked about my knee, but then I realized the kind of hell I would face if the ache remained. Thankfully, it passed over the weekend.
Ten o’clock, Marta came back from the doctor’s. Something was wrong with her spine and her body was inflamed. She received some pills and was told to report to a rehabilitation clinic, but it was fully booked until April. She said she won’t last that long. But if she went to a different doctor and got examined again, she would have to excuse herself from work again – and this time she would probably have to use her holiday allocation for it.
A lot of the people here are sick, they cough, their noses run, but they keep working. This makes the sicknesses spread quickly, even I start to feel a scratch in my throat. Over the following days, we drag the sickness with us everywhere we go, at this point almost everyone feels ill.
While she has a noticeable limp, when she pushes the heavy cart full of laundry, it almost looks like she’s forgetting the pain.
That morning, before the shift started, the women talked about Berta being sick again and not coming. Natasha is bound to fire her soon. “You can’t blame her, what is the use of an employee who’s sick all the time?” Elenka says she does not use sick leave at all – when she was ill some time ago, she took a holiday. Five days of vacation and she was as fresh as a daisy again. It is just the knee that keeps tormenting her, she did not sleep last night because of it, but it does not stop her from working. While she has a noticeable limp, when she pushes the heavy cart full of laundry, it almost looks like she’s forgetting the pain. For Elenka, this job fills her whole life. Hopefully they will allow her to keep on working there even the next year, when she is officially retired.
At lunch break, a colleague said that she cannot take sick leave because she would not be able to pay her rent, but she is sick as well. Another, Libor, has to pay off distrain fees. He could use his holiday allocation for his flu, but he will not, because there are too few of us at work: solidarity with the others is one of the reasons why people keep showing up at work even when sick. No one will explicitly admit that their superiors won’t allow them sick leave. Only Marta added that some time ago they would not let her stay home when she was taking antibiotics, and they allowed her to take only a two-day holiday to lie down a bit. “Doesn’t matter if you’re dead if you show up for work,” she smiled bitterly.
Someone falling sick is a serious problem, it means more work for the others. One morning, Hela did not come and no one knew what was going on with her. Even the unbreakable Elenka feels ill. She is coughing and her eyes are red. The next day, Hela arrived: her voice was shaky and there were tears in her eyes. Her husband suffered a heart attack. They brought him here to the hospital Motol, but Hela had no idea how to find him. Elenka has promised to help her, since she knows her way around the hospital. At the same time, she proclaimed that even though she wanted to take a holiday to get better, she will stay because they have no idea what will happen with Hela’s husband and they are only two employees who know how to work on the constantly jamming folding machine. The forewoman eventually decided they will teach me as well, in order for more of us to know.
At lunch, Elenka told me the issue was that there was too few of us. Hanging the laundry is a job intended for three people, but there are only two of us there, which makes it more difficult. She also said that it is the people employed by the agency that get sick. “Motol supports the agency, not the other way around,” she stated angrily.
They were afraid I would break under the pressure of the Monday shift.
I started the job on Tuesday. When I managed to survive the first Monday shift, I was really glad that it had not been my first day on the job. There is considerably more laundry after the weekend, there are no breaks except for lunch and we work for ten or eleven hours. In spite of that, everyone seemed curiously optimistic. As if each heap of laundry was an amazing thing that we will happily overcome together. It was only later on that I realized they wanted to reassure me; they were afraid I would break under the pressure of the Monday shift.
Every time I went to fetch more laundry and dragged my feet because everything hurt, Michal, who is in charge of sorting the laundry, asked me how it was going and if I was alright. “Today we are working overtime, but at least there will be money. More money than we can carry,” he joked.
The next morning, I was exhausted and got up a bit later. I showed up at the laundry room at six. “Alexis has come!” yelled Elenka with relief in her voice and then she added: “It was Monday yesterday…” They thought I would just drop off after it. Had I not known there were only two more Mondays like that before me, I might have.
On Wednesday morning, I walked past Michal. He stood near his locker and happily shouted: “Today the people around you will be happy!” I asked why. “Because they get paid today!” That day even the ones working “under Natasha” were to receive more: it was the first payday after the minimum wage had been raised.
They were not happy. They looked just as tired as ever. Some of them seemed more bewildered than anything. Elenka was angry. She was badmouthing our colleague Radek, who complained about getting the same money as always. “But to notice he’s paying distraint fees, that’s below him,” she snorted dismissively. Hela timidly whispered she got the same amount of money as last month as well. We went to take a look at her payslip. It featured deductions for health and social care and an EX followed by a number. Elenka pointed at it and asked: “What’s that?” Hela shakily replied it had always been there. Elenka told her it had to be distraint. Hela looked frightened and surprise. “Distraint? Me?”
Hela looked frightened and surprise. “Distraint? Me?”
We sent her to Natasha to find out what’s what. It was a distraint fee. It turned out that in the past, Hela had not worked for a couple months – her husband still earned money back then, she was a housewife and it did not occur to her to go to the Employment Office. She did not pay for her health insurance, and that was the basis of a debt that managed to grow a considerable amount in the meantime. And now that she is working, they deduct the debt payments from her earnings. Up to December, she earned so little she has not noticed – the minimal unseizeable amount defined by law was essentially equivalent to what she earned. And she does not live in the place she wrote down as her permanent address, so she does not receive any notifications from the court.
She was not alone in finding she was under distraint that day. The desperate looks revealed just how many people received less than they expected, and the mood in the laundry room was grim and hopeless. Only the ever-positive Michal seemed all right: he is paying distraint fees as well, but he has known about it for a long time and has already reconciled with it. Even though he works overtime on Mondays, he does not earn too much extra, since most of it ends up going towards his debt. In spite of that, he cannot imagine just going away and leaving the others to work overtime on their own.
A cake at a metro station
That day, I left work with Michal. As we walked through the hallways and rode the elevator, he talked about his life. He lives in a dormitory in Motol. He pays five thousand (£173) a month for it, leaving him with about three thousand (£100) for everything else. He is really glad they extended the subway line to Motol: “Now that the subway is here, I sometimes buy a ticket for twenty-four crowns and go shopping to the supermarket. I can get there, do my shopping and get back in half an hour, so that I only use one subway ticket,” he told me enthusiastically. Finally, he can do cheap shopping elsewhere than the shops in the hospital itself. He also recalled that back when he had money, he rode the subway to some station with a shopping center and a patisserie. “I bought a cake there and took a photo of it, to have a memory of this fine living.”
When we neared the entrance, he asked if I was going to buy a tram ticket.
“No, I have a card.”
“Really? A card? You mean for the whole month?”
“Yeah, the whole month,” I lied. I did not want to admit I have a year-long one, because such an expense would probably shock Michal.
So in order to get to work or home, they pay more than they earn per hour.
The ticket inspectors run amok on the trains to Motol, and mornings before six are their favorite time. So every single one of my colleagues, who earn minimum wages that makes them incapable of saving enough money to get a tram card, pay for tickets religiously. Many of them ended up with debt for riding without them and they are afraid of paying more fees. So in order to get to work or home, they pay more than they earn per hour.
This work is beautiful
The next Monday was even worse than the previous one. We spent the entire day hanging the laundry. More than ten hours, excepting the lunch break which I decided to cut short by ten minutes. Seeing the carts full of wet laundry and the subsequent thought that they will keep coming at the same pace for the whole afternoon terrified me. In the end, we even managed a five minute break. That was so wonderful! I felt the aches of Monday in my body even two days later.
I felt the aches of Monday in my body even two days later.
In spite of that, the work is beautiful. The laundry is pleasantly wet and even though it does not have a scent, one can smell the cleanness. It is a useful job as well, which everyone who does it knows and takes pride in. And it is efficient. It is a well-thought out system where everyone does what they can to make the work run smoothly. A whole lot of laundry gets washed every day and more than that – it is also ironed, folded and sent back to the hospital.
Apart from hanging shirts and trousers, I also check for persistent stains, missing strings and buttons and whether there aren’t any holes. I take a piece of laundry, I hang it on the hanger, I straighten it, sometimes I shake it out a bit if it’s crumpled up, all the while checking for flaws. Then I clamp it to the hanger and wave at the photo sensor to send it on. Laundry for intensive care units, hospital wards and the anesthesiology-resuscitation unit are sent separately and also washed separately, in sacks full of holes. A lot of the work is automated: washing, wringing and ironing, but it is people who put the laundry into mangles, ironing presses and driers. Elenka and Hela and I work on trousers, gowns and nightshirts. If they are torn, we send them up to the sewing workshop for the seamstresses to fix it.
Four floors underground
The hangers fall from the rack. They are heavy, made of wood and metal. Sometimes they hit me in the shoulder, thankfully I have managed to avoid a hit to the head so far. I do not even turn when I hear the crash, I got used to it. I am here for the fourth week and I know I have to leave and look for another job. I don’t want to. There is solidarity amongst the people here, helping each other with the work in a friendly atmosphere. And the laundry room is restless: they expect changes and they are afraid of them.
In April, a new company is supposed to take over the laundry room. Elenka promised to get in a good word for me so they would hire me and I would earn better wages. But none of the people employed by the agency believe they will be so lucky. People say that “they will only take those who work for Motol” – and those in question believe they will keep their wages and employee benefits like cheaper lunch in the hospital canteen.
When a group from the new company came to see us work, we were not allowed to sit down even when there was no laundry.
The takeover is a big topic. “They were here and looked nice, but we’ll see. I’ve been working here for nine years and it’s good now, but if it can’t be helped, I’ll just leave,” a lady who does the ironing told me. Apparently it is the people who work for Motol that are scared the most – the rest earn so little it cannot get any worse. The new company is supposed to modernize the laundry room and they have a new accountant, whom they will bring from as far as Ostrava. “We’ll see,” the employees keep telling one another. But when a group from the new company came to see us work, we were not allowed to sit down even when there was no laundry.
We talk about the important things over in the yard during lunch breaks. Apart from the ever-present worries about the future, a constant topic is pointing out from the people who spend too much and ask others for money at the end of the month. They despise begging. They have so little, even if some have even less. No one is concerned with the fact that different wage levels in the same workplace are a violation of the Labour Code, but everyone sees it as unjust. But they do not know how to call for justice and they cannot think of other venues of complaint than lunch break gossip in the yard.
The work will always be the same
Near the end of the shift, when we were putting bedsheets into the mangle, Libor said that back in communist times, one could just do the work and go home, while nowadays one has to wait for all the others to be done. Libor is twenty-three. He only knows communism from what he has been told by others. Evidently, he views it as a mythical age when everything was better. As he handed the bedsheets to me and Marta, he reproached us: “It’s your generation that wanted the change, it’s your fault!”
He steals, he steals and that one steals as well. Would you believe that?
I gathered my courage and asked if he voted in the elections. “No, why would I? Work will always be the same.”
I ask the others in the yard. Not even Elenka votes, because: “He steals, he steals and that one steals as well,” so there is no choice. The others nod approvingly. The most astonishing thing is that the people high above steal, even though they earn so much money. “Would you believe that?”
In April, the laundry room was indeed taken over by a new company. Shortly afterwards, six people left, saying that they were bullied. This made the job even harder for the others. Currently the company offers work for 14 120 crowns (£488) a month with a 2500 (£86) efficiency bonus. Midian – Coral still advertises the same job, but now for 12 000 crowns (£415) a month and rumors around the laundry room say they plan to bring workers over from Ukraine. Those who worked under Midian – Coral before still earn the minimum wage.
Even half a year later, I cannot forget the moment right before I left. I cried. I saw Elenka and Hela at the folding machine, staying there after regular hours to get the job done. One earns so little she cannot make ends meet. She spends whole days worrying about her husband who cannot walk and is stuck at home alone. The other likes her job, she is satisfied with her wages, but she cannot even take sick leave so she keeps destroying her already bad health.
I met great people in the laundry room, and a very supportive team. It was a beautiful and important job that I did, even though it was physically challenging. In three weeks, I earned 8106 crowns (£280) of take-home wages, which I had to collect in person because Natasha told me they do not send payments to accounts, but only pay in cash. The difference in wages was a clear breach of the Labour Code, because employees on the same workplace doing the same job have a right for the same reward.