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THE REALITY OF WORKING DURING THE COVID-19

In our conversation with dr. hab. Adam Mrozowicki, we ask him about how it is to work during a pandemic, how trade unions relate to great politics and whether a Pole can handle every situation.

For the project “COV-WORK: Socio-economic awareness, work experience and coping strategies of Poles in the context of a post-pandemic crisis” (UMO-2020/37/B/HS6/00479), researchers received a grant of PLN 1 207 277 from the National Science Center. Scientists from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Wrocław and the Collegium of Economics and Social Sciences of the SGH Warsaw School of Economics collaborate on the project. The University of Wrocław is the leader of this project, and the manager of the leader is dr. hab. Adam Mrozowicki, professor of the University of Wrocław from the Institute of Sociology, head of the Department of General Sociology, with whom we talk about the awarded project.

Please tell me about the project.

– We set ourselves the goal of examining how the experience of the socio-economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the durability and change of Poles’ thinking about the economy and society. We want to check how the crisis situation influences the economic awareness and life strategies of working Poles, especially those employed in critical sectors like education, health care and social assistance, and logistics.

Our basic hypothesis is the belief that the pandemic acted as an accelerator of changes that had been observed before. We argue that the pandemic will rather amplify negative trends in the labor market such as precariousness of employment. At the same time, it will accelerate the automation and digitization of work, which may have a positive effect. However, we will not go in the social and protective direction. The “anti-crisis shields” proposed by the government clearly support employers to a greater extent, and  employees to a lesser extent, especially those on civil law contracts or the self-employed. Their relevance to social innovation, for example in creating green, low-carbon jobs, appears to be limited.

How will you study these changes?

– We will conduct quantitative research using CATI techniques and panel questionnaires – in 2021 and 2023 – on 1,200 people in the first sample, and at least 600 in the second sample. We will do biographical research – we will collect life stories of people working in the industries we are interested in – we have 90 biographical interviews planned, this is extensive research, we will obtain several thousand pages of transcripts. We will also conduct focus group studies of a “foresight” nature – we want to check how employees and management in these industries imagine the future after the pandemic. We will also deal with critical discourse analysis, i.e. we will check how the media presented the significance of the pandemic for the economy and the labor market, especially in these three industries that interest us. In fact, we could write a methodological manual from this project [laughs].

Tell me more about your research partner, the SGH Warsaw School of Economics.

– Since the 1980s, the team from the SGH Warsaw School of Economics has been researching socio-economic mentality, i.e. ideas about a well-organized economy. Therefore, in the project they will deal with socio-economic awareness, while we will deal with biographical research and critical discourse analysis; focus studies will be “joint”. Simply put, they will do quantitative research and we will do qualitative research. Scientists from the SGH Warsaw School of Economics are primarily economists and therefore this is a truly interdisciplinary project. We also have one more partner in the project – the team of “ResPecTMe” led by prof. Valeria Pulignano, who received the ERC Advanced Grant. We are now writing together about the situation of couriers in a pandemic situation.

Where does the “post-pandemic” appear in the name of the project? You have an optimistic approach …

– When writing the project, we did not know how the reality would change – the prognostic tools do not always work, the situation surprised us all, although perhaps less scientists than the government [laughs]. We treat the phenomenon of the crisis as a phenomenon extended over time. The concept of “post-pandemic” allows us to look into the future and consider to what extent the phenomena that occurred during the pandemic will stay with us for longer. Where possible, we planned the research as longitudinal, panel studies to take full advantage of the four-year period we have under the NCN-funded project and to be able to see how the life strategies of the respondents and their socio-economic awareness develop over time. We are also thinking about the period when the pandemic will begin to end. And we are not interested in the health crisis, but in the socio-economic one.

Forecasts for the European Union predict that the level of economic growth from before the pandemic will return most quickly in 2022. However, we are less interested in the recession itself or the increase in unemployment, which is not that large, but in the deterioration of the quality of work, e.g. work intensity, working time, forms of employment, remuneration or the relationship between work and non-work life. The deterioration of the quality of work, and thus the process of precarization, affects not only people who, not of their own choice, work under civil law contracts and on false self-employment, but also stable employees. In a context of relatively low unemployment rate, the threat of precarisation is as worrying as the prospect of losing a job.

The quality of work in a pandemic is declining – subjectively and objectively. Our work-life balance is deteriorating, there is a clear intensification of work among those who have it. New divisions have emerged regarding exposure to health risks among people who cannot work remotely. Real wages fell during the pandemic. We will keep our jobs, but if after the pandemic nothing changes, and there is no counter-movement, these jobs will be considered of lower quality.

Can you count on such a counter-movement?

– This project is a continuation of the previous “Young precarious workers in Poland and Germany: a sociological comparative study of working and living conditions, social awareness and civic activity”, also financed by the National Science Center in the consortium of the University of Wrocław and the SGH Warsaw School of Economics. Prof. Juliusz Gardawski, project manager, analyzed the research results once again and stated that the most clear viewpoints are the ones defined as pro-employment, including, for example, employment guarantees based on an employment contract for those who expect such contracts. On the one hand, the quality of the labor market is deteriorating, but on the other hand, although Poles have a lot of very liberal economic attitudes, they, especially the young, are starting to think pro-social. We called this mindset the vision of national pro-development capitalism, and it seems to us that it will grow as a result of the pandemic. Thus, there is a discrepancy between the expectations of greater regulation by the state and the deregulation processes that are taking place in the real economy. And the discrepancy can create tension. And this is also what we want to investigate in our project.

Is the current situation difficult to study? Humanity is now faced with such a pandemic for the first time.

– Yes, this is something new. But in Poland we have been dealing with a creeping crisis on the labor market for 30 years. The “creeping” crisis is one that we have tamed. Nowadays, it does not rely on recession indicators, but on precarization processes. For years, Poland has been a country where one third of employees worked on temporary contracts – the highest rate in the European Union. We have normalized this situation by not opposing it openly at all.

So, paradoxically, was it easier for us to cope with the situation caused by the pandemic? Poles are just used to figuring things out as they go?

– Yes, this is our biographical capital, that is, the mental resource that we derive from our past experiences. It allows us to cope and be resilient. This means that under the influence of external factors, we bend, but do not break, and return to the starting point.

We, Poles, have acquired such collective resilience. First, as a result of the experience of shock therapy, the so-called Balcerowicz’s plan, then a long transformation that worsened the quality of work of many social categories. The pandemic crisis is therefore another building block to the crises we have already dealt with. It is not a very optimistic vision …

But it does bring a bit of optimism. Because at first glance, these studies show nothing good for ordinary employees. Loss of jobs as a result of automation, work control by artificial intelligence algorithms, precarisation … Did the pandemic accelerate it all?

– The crisis is an accelerator of these changes. It is a moment when there is not so much a revolution in the labor market, not a breakdown and return to the previous state, but a deepening of trends that we have already observed before. Trends related not only to changes in the organization of work, but also our strategies of coping with the crisis. I think we will manage to capture changes in social awareness.

Published by: Tomasz Sikora

29 Dec 2020

last modification: 6 Jan 2021