Polish workers hope arrival of new factories will push wages up

THE Procter & Gamble plant in Lodz is a massive facility housing a Gillette shaving products factory in a special economic zone on the south-western suburbs of the Polish city.

It opened last year, replacing jobs from Gillette plants shut down in Berlin, Isleworth and Hemel Hempstead in England, and a smaller facility in the centre of Lodz.

In 18 months, Procter and Gamble will move another 280 jobs from Ireland to yet another Lodz plant, one hour’s drive from the city centre at Alekxandrow Lodsky.

The existing €120 million facility will house some 2,500 workers, producing shaving products for the African and Asian markets.

There are few parking spaces, despite the enormous site, and few cars use the spaces that exist. Most workers travel by public transport and city officials have assisted by extending several bus routes to serve the factory.

Among the workforce is Lukasc Skowerski, the only employee approached who was happy to give his name. Others either spoke anonymously or declined, apologetically explaining that they were “not allowed”.

Lukasc, in his late 20s, is a computer scientist but works as a translator at the factory — providing directions to the largely non-English speaking production line staff.

“It’s not precisely what I am trained to do but they needed someone to speak English and also to have a technical sense. I translate between the Polish and English mechanics and engineers, and I also prepare the instruction manuals,” he explained.

Lukasc has worked at the plant for just over seven months, and is on his second six-month contract.

He is optimistic about getting continuous, and would like to stay in Lodz.

“The salaries would be better outside Poland. They are of course less than in Ireland. But I think Gillette is a good development for the city. I don’t know if they will raise salaries to keep workers here. Maybe. If they don’t need me to translate any more, I hope I can use my computer skills instead.”

Through an interpreter, a middle-aged married man who moved with Gillette from its original small factory in the city said he was happy there, but he had higher expectations for his own son, a physicist.

All his son’s friends were moving to Silicon Valley in California and he expected his son would join them. He added that personally he would be happy just to get as far as Ireland.

“I would like to improve my language,” he explained, losing his shyness and breaking into smooth English.

“I started learning five years ago in a private school. If I would like to upgrade my position in this factory, it depends on my English.”

He considers himself lucky that he has been able to get a job that utilises his skills. He graduated in the early 1980s from the University of Lodz with a degree in statistics, and is now responsible for analysing production data, but he still thinks a lot about moving at least temporarily to Ireland to save some money.

“I think many people stay in Poland because they have family and friends and parents. Very often they are afraid to go abroad because going abroad is a risk. I don’t know if I have courage,” he said.

Another man, aged around 50, works on the production line, having moved from the city’s Indesit manufacturing plant where he earned 1,100 zloty per month — €330.

He is earning “a little more” at Gillette, he said through an interpreter, and the work was more interesting. “At Indesit I had one minute to insert 20 components,” he said, doing a screwdriver motion.

The new job was not ideal for him because of his age but his wife earned just 600 zloty or €160 per month (less than the Polish minimum wage) working in a supermarket, so he had little choice.

He hopes new factories might increase Labour demand and wages in Lodz, but wonders why salaries are so low when Gillette products cost the same there as in Western Europe.

Oil of Olay products, which will be produced in the Aleksandrow Lodski plant, also currently cost the same in Lodz as they do in Nenagh.

Proctor & Gamble would not discuss their Polish operations and turned down a request to visit the Gillette plant.

“We are very aware what a difficult time this has been for the employees in the Nenagh area and we don’t think it would be appropriate to provide comment [on] the new operation in Poland,” said spokeswoman Marian Baker.

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