THE LIMITS OF WORK
Labour: Our Life
In 2017, more than 20% of people worked in the Czech Republic for less than 83 CZK (3,2 EUR) per hour. Minimum wage was the fifth lowest in the EU – 11.000 CZK (425 EUR). Journalist Saša Uhlová has decided to go after those workplaces, hard physical works, which provide unworthy circumstances to their employees. She disguised herself and with a hidden camera on her head started out to find out the truth that people were afraid to talk about publicly. Apolena Rychlíková made the documentary The Limits of Work from these footages combining them with everyday scenes from Uhlová’s life and her commentary. We had a discussion with the journalist and the director of the documentary screened in the Labour is Our Life section of the Verzió 15.
Did you know each other before this project?
AR: We have known each other for about six years, we met during another action. This project was originally Saša’s idea, she wanted to do it for many years, and after she left her previous job, she decided to do it, and she asked me if I was interested in making a film out of it. So, we decided to do it.
What was your motivation, Saša?
SU: I felt that there was some kind of lack of information about these people’s life and work, because the media in the Czech Republic used to write only about success stories, and they were not so oriented on the working class and the poverty. We wanted to understand the mechanisms in the Czech Republic, and maybe in all the post-communist countries. We wanted to look also at the dark side of the capitalism, not only the bright one, the privileged people. It is one of the most important topics around the world right now.
Nobody wanted to speak about these problems, because people were afraid, so I decided to go there myself and make this undercover research. I did it so because I was also afraid of the conflicts, and I wouldn’t be able to speak about working condition problems with anybody.
What were the reasons for this fear?
SU: When you look at the communication at workplaces, there are different elements that are problematic. The first one is on terms of relationships, for example, you are in daily work with the same people, so you don’t want to disturb relationships with colleagues; you are close to each other and to your bosses, too. Not even the bosses are the responsible ones for this lack of assertive communication, though, to be honest. The second thing is that there is no safe place for people at workplaces like these to talk about problems, there are no whistle-blowers. And the third one is that they are afraid of losing their jobs. They have to go to work every day, even one day of skipping work or being ill is a financial problem for them, because they have to pay their rents. It’s not like that that one day you quit your job and the other day you get another one. Very often, they don’t have internet, smartphones, they have less opportunities and tools in their hands to find a new job, with no education.
Does this have to do with the Eastern European mentality that you have to appreciate if you have a job?
SU: It is not only connected to the Eastern European mentality, but also to the financial crisis that happened ten years ago. Many people lost their jobs, and after that, they started to do anything, because they needed to do it for existence. Even though we are ten years after the crisis, there is still some fear of a new crisis coming, so people are glad that they have at least some work, and it doesn’t matter what kind of work it is, and they don’t believe that they would find a much better job. People think that every job has some kind of problems. These people are not encouraged by the media that they should stand up for their rights; on the contrary, people are blamed for their situation. If you strike, it means that you are problematic. There is a law regulating the working conditions, but ordinary people are not aware of the existence of this law.
What was the reaction of the media or the government to the documentary in the Czech Republic?
AR: The film was finished before Saša had her first article published. The Czech public TV, which also produced my film, made some shots about Saša, and the biggest dailies wrote articles about her. The undercover method she used is not very common in our country. So they started to call her, interview her – ever since really. People from the work places that she worked at wrote her many emails saying and thanking that somebody gave their dignity back, because before that, they were treated as non-successful people. The social political party also reacted on some level, but we didn’t want to address political parties with this documentary, these facts were quite obvious to every politician, and they didn’t do anything about it. We went to the European Parliament two times to talk about working conditions and low-paid jobs. More than 60.000 people saw the film or read Saša’s publications before she had her book published, with the same title as her publications: Heroes of Capitalist Labour.
The media was quite open then to what you did.
AR: Yes, we were lucky in a way. I wanted to make the film in cooperation with the public TV, not to have it only in the cinemas, so that it would reach a broad audience for free.
Was it easy to get this film in the public TV?
AR: In the beginning, yes, but then there were some problems. The middle management of the TV started to panic. It was probably connected to the Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, because Saša used to work in one of his factories during her undercover work. So they wanted me to delete the names of the companies. But Saša made thousand of interviews, everybody knew where she was, so it would have been quite awkward to see the names deleted in the documentary, but published in her articles. Finally, they let the film be screened with the names of the companies.
So it was good that you “double-documented” it.
AR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
What was the worst work that you did?
SU: The chicken factory. Putting the chicken meat pieces into boxes; it was cold, 8 degrees Celsius, people yelling at each other all the time. Nobody was able to stay there for more than three months.
You did a very brave thing, Saša.
AR: She was the best person to do this work. In one day’s time, she was already able to genuinely belong to the place, and she eventually started to be afraid of losing her job. She even stayed one extra month as a cashier, because she didn’t want her colleague at that time to take shifts of 14 hours instead of 8 hours because of her quitting. And she was also afraid of the management, since it is a very bad position to quit jobs often and after a short time. And everybody was fed up with her, starting a new job every month. So her fears became real…
SU: My husband told me all the time: “This is not your life”. But I didn’t accept it. It was real for me!
What message would you like to send to public?
AR: This year will be the 100th year since we have 8-hour working. The world has changed so much in this one hundred year. There would be a need to talk about what work really means. According to us, it is not normal to work so much. We would like to live and earn for a normal, ordinary life by working 6 hours per day for 4 days a week.
That’s a nice vision. Was there any job in the undercover that was more than 8 hours, Saša?
SU: Yes, I had 12-hour shifts, and it was very common at almost all workplaces to work more than 8 hours in a row: in the supermarket, the chicken factory, the laundry. Nobody cared.
Then first, we have to reach the 8 hours for everybody, and then the 6 hours.
AR: Yes, and at least abide by the labour law.
Interview and translation: Enikő Nagy