Supposedly there’s no shame in hard work, and yet work is such a complex notion in today’s world. On one hand, it is supposedly the employee’s market, on the other the work is becoming more and more precarious. Olga Gitkiewicz takes a closer look at what work means in Poland at the beginning of the 21st century but also traces back her family roots, and their work, in Żyrardów, a city built to house workers of the textile industry.
Starting with the title, it is part of a proverb that would be equivalent of ‘there is no shame in hard work’, the title is the ‘no shame’ part. I had this book in Kindle, bought in one of the non-fiction sales. This is Gitkiewicz’s first book, and I’ve got her second one, Nie Zdążę, from my mum. As usual, the book had to wait for me to go on vacation, when I dip into my Kindle TBR, favoring physical books when I’m at home.
The book revolves around two strains. One is the fact that Gitkiewicz herself comes back from Warsaw to Żyrardów, her hometown. That’s where her mother and grandmother worked for the textile industry, the biggest, if not sole, employer. They worked their entire life in the same place and worked hard. But there was stability to it, that now feels so unfamiliar. The second strain consists of the current stories of workers in Poland. A woman working in a home appliances factory, who kills herself, possibly because of mobbing, an owner of a construction company hiring people illegally and taking no responsibility for their safety, corporation employees. We have here the whole spectrum.
Through the numerous examples, Gitkiewicz tries to paint a picture of what work means in Poland and how that meaning has evolved since the beginning of democracy. How it got more and more precarious, how the safety was withdrawn and how we all roll with it. Because no one really knows what to do. On one hand, there is no shame in hard work, on the other work can become dehumanizing. So where really is the border? This is what the book is trying to explore.
While tracking her family roots Gitkiewicz also tracks changes in the approach to work and the relationship between employer and employee. How even when it is supposedly an employee’s market the power remains firmly in the hand of employers. She also compares worker strikes that took place in Poland throughout the 20th century, their reasons, and achievements.
It is a fascinating book because the subject matter is so easy to relate to. We all work, and even if we’re lucky enough not to be affected by mobbing of the precarity of work the mechanisms are recognizable. What is also interesting is the way people perceive work, in Poland work is perceived as a toil, hardship of sorts, something to be endured. I still remember how shocking it was for me when I visited Iceland, and there the work is perceived as something to take pride in, it is shameful to not be working.
Since then I started more carefully observing attitudes to work in different countries and it is a fascinating topic. It is interesting how for example Americans are very hesitant to take longer periods of time off, and when I mean longer I’m talking of anything above 1 week, which in Europe is relatively normal. Another interesting thing I noticed is that in the UK waiters in restaurants are usually very young, it is perceived as a temporary career, while in Italy you often find people in their fifties being waiters, because it is a respectable work.
It’s a fascinating topic because it permeates our lives and Gitkiewicz does a very good job of shedding more light on it and showing us different perspectives.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska