Josef Středula: Czech Unions, Migrant Workers, and the Future of Work

What is the future of unions, and of work in general, in the Czech Republic today?

On this new episode of Talk Real, Studio Alarm brings you an interview with Czech union leader Josef Středula. Jakub Ort, editor at Studio Alarm, asked him about the problematic situation immigrants face in the Czech job market, and on the importance and capabilities of unions, and the future of work in general.

Do Czech unions support workers from abroad?

Workers from abroad often suffer from precarious conditions, like being employed through agencies. Our stance is that if someone lives and works here, they should live and work under the same conditions as any Czech citizen. We’re very sensitive when it comes to someone offering demeaning working conditions. Just today I saw a job advertisement that I would call outrageous; it was advertising a vacancy for a miner to work in four shifts in a mine for 15,000 gross. This is an unacceptable offer, which is why I told the management to advertise it themselves.Usually an offer like this is amended to “we are willing to employ foreigners.” And this is where the situation gets worse.

It’s not the foreigners who are to blame. It’s the employer who offers and organizes this kind of work. And these are the employers we focus on.

The Ministry of the Interior doesn’t only raid workplaces, but also the boarding houses. Several non-profit organizations criticized the Minister of the Interior for criminalizing foreigners by talking about them exclusively in connection to criminality instead of working conditions. Is there anything the unions can do about this?

I recently watched a raid on the news, which included two statements. One was by a foreigner saying “my boss took away my papers so now I don’t have them.” I assume the police have some information about who this is about. The second statement was made by a police spokesperson who claimed that “their friends brought them the papers.” Given the first statement, we can assume someone took away the person’s travel papers, and there is no reason for that if those were faultless. So the focus needs to shift to the person who took their papers – who is it, and why did he do it? It’s the employer’s responsibility.

And since the reports are about illegal accommodation, it’s not always easy to realize boarding houses are illegal since they try to disguise this fact.

Then there is the matter of fitting in with locals, breaking down barriers between people. There are numerous factors contributing to this perception of workers. But the worst is the employers’ stance: they could hire them as full-time workers, but they don’t. They use mediators, agencies that want to make money with workers no matter how.

Talking about the automation of work, how will the ethics of autonomous machines be integrated into society? Is this something Czech unions are concerned with?

Yes, definitely. This is an important question. More than 50 percent of industry jobs in the Czech Republic are threatened today. So we need to start thinking about the future: if all these people lose their jobs, what will they purchase the product the machines make with? How will they pay for social and health insurance? Who will pay it? Will there be any pensions? How will education or defence be financed? The entire relation between work and the taxation system will change. For example, we want to investigate the possibility to tax robots and make them pay for social security. Profit cannot be left in the hands of the employer alone, the entire society needs to benefit from this. It’s an entirely new type of society.

Is a universal base income a realistic solution?

That’s not as simple as it might seem. Five or six years ago some politicians tried to establish something similar, but with the aim of cancelling social security and dividing the money between everyone. This was debated, for example, in Switzerland, but the project was rejected. They just wanted to keep economical divisions and keep giving social security to those who are in need.

I think we are headed towards general unconditional wages. But the question is when and how resources will be handled, and who will pay for it, and what we will be able to exchange for it.

theologian, Charles University in Prague