Bring Human Rights Home Campaign: A Story from Poland
“Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23
Iwona shows pictures of the children she used to teach. She smiles affectionately. She describes how she loved her work, and never experienced any problems. Until an unexpected shadow was cast over it.
When Iwona Podstawska was on maternity leave, a colleague told her she might not have a job anymore. Puzzled by this message, she contacted the social security services. They told her that, indeed, she was no longer registered as an employee. It turned out that her contract had been terminated. Soon Iwona found out that the same had happened to ten colleagues, all on maternity or pregnancy leave.
Left without a trace
Iwona was in a state of disbelief. Suddenly the teachers, all young mothers, were left without any income. They contacted the school to ask what had happened. To their surprise, both the principle and director claimed they themselves were the victim, blaming the private company in charge of the school’s finances. And now the company had ceased to exist.
The fired women got together and sought help from the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. They started a class action lawsuit. Three long, tough years in court followed. Although it was often difficult to attend the court cases, Iwona made sure she was at every single one of them.
At the beginning, school representatives took part in hearings, but soon stopped coming. Finally, the court decided that termination of employment was indeed unlawful, and they were officially still employees. The court also awarded compensation for gender-based discrimination.
But there was no one to pay it, and no one to take responsibility. The school had closed and the company was dissolved, its staff untraceable.
Worth the fight
It made the teachers’ victory bittersweet. But Iwona explains that the hardest thing was actually experiencing that the State offered no protection whatsoever against such malpractice. The Foundation’s lawyer Jarosław Jagura called it a ‘Kafkaesque situation’; the school denied any responsibility, the company had dissolved like it had never existed, and the benefit granting authorities were unresponsive.
Jarosław explains that in Poland, protection of women in the workplace is, in fact, fictitious. One in five women also experience discrimination after coming back from maternity leave. This is why Iwona persisted. She wanted to show employers that women will not just ‘lay down and die’, and warns people to check their contracts and investigate who their employer is. That is why Iwona feels their efforts were definitely worth it.
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