British shopping giant attacked over Polish working practices

By Ecumenical News International
August 24, 2007

Britain's supermarket giant Tesco is again under fire from Polish church and trade union officials after it ignored a new ban on trading during Roman Catholic festivals, and remained open on a holy feast day - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.

"When will the exploitation of employees end?", Alfred Bujara, an official from Poland's Solidarity trade union, said to Poland's Dziennik daily newspaper on 20 August 2007. "None of these insatiable giants, with their headquarters abroad, would dare open their shops on a festival. But here in Poland it's the order of the day."

The trade unionist was speaking after Tesco, despite a new law barring supermarket trading on holy days that are public holidays, opened its stores on the 15 August - the Feast of the Assumption.

A Polish spokesperson for the company said that the new law did not come into effect until September. The official added that closing Tesco stores or shortening shop hours would have "caused disruptions".

Other retail companies at shopping centres, however, including the US-owned Cefic, said they had observed the impending ban out of respect for religious and national traditions in predominantly Catholic Poland. "We support the ban on feast-day trading, and resolved to give our employees a day off," said Karolina Leszczyk, a Cefic spokesperson.

Under the new law, passed in July, trading is to be banned on 12 days of the year, including holy feast days such as Easter, Pentecost and All Saints Day, as well as Poland's national constitution and independence days.

The latest criticisms about Tesco in Poland follow complaints about low pay and excessive hours among Tesco's 25 000 Polish employees, and objections about staff being denied Sundays off and the opportunity to observe Catholic traditions.

In Poland, Tesco reportedly has six million customers weekly, and it has acquired 280 supermarkets as well as about 30 petrol stations since opening in the former communist country in 1995. Tesco plans to open more outlets in Poland after acquiring the French retailer Leader Price a year ago.

A Tesco Web site in Poland said the company has "a strong track record of bringing benefits locally". It said its stores in the country, which claimed record profits in 2006 of 6.5 billion zloties (US$2.3 billion), were all managed by Polish nationals and brought "opportunities to thousands of staff" through "significant investment in training and development".

Members of Poland's centre-right governing coalition, however, have threatened to restrict the size of the company's supermarkets and ban it from small communities, after accusing Tesco of degrading the local environment by destroying private shops and creating only low-skilled jobs.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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