Monday

5th Dec 2022

Old boy network seen as alive and well in Poland

  • Warsaw: The Zus controversy has prompted widespread debate (Photo: Sebastian Deptula)

Taking part in a public competition to chair one of the biggest national institutions in Poland – the Social Security Office (Zus) - Katarzyna Kalata, a 31-year old expert in law and social security with a PhD, did not expect to cause such a storm.

Zus employs 46,000 people and oversees a sum of money equal to half of Poland’s budget. It is responsible for paying out pensions, disability, and sickness benefits and is often criticised as being inefficient, bureaucratic, and corrupt.

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The chair is appointed by the prime minister after three candidates are chosen in an open competition and recommended to the PM by the labour minister.

For years, Zus was governed by “political” candidates despite having the legal status of an independent institution. The last chairman, Zbigniew Derdziuk, was previously a minister in Donald Tusk’s government. Others such as Marek Wypych, Aleksandra Wiktorow or Sylwester Rypinski (accused of corruption) also had clear political affiliations.

This time was meant to be different. The aim was to “find the best professional, an independent expert” as a government spokesperson put it.

It turned out that after two stages of recruitment there was only one candidate left: Katarzyna Kalata.

She was one of five to fulfill the entry criteria on education and job experience and the only one who passed a knowledge test.

"It was a very detailed exam on matters of law, administration, finances. I wouldn’t pass it myself," Jeremi Mordasewicz, a former member of the Zus supervisory board, admitted publicly.

Kalata then did well in the psychological tests conducted by an external company. She gave many interviews on how she would improve Zus.

But then her successful march to the Social Security Office ended.

Behind the closed doors

A three-hour long oral exam in front of a five-strong commission felled her.

"It was behind closed doors. No note-taking. No recording. Nobody was taking minutes," she told EUobserver.

The commission's president, Marek Bucior, told media after the exam that “the candidate’s level of knowledge was embarrassing”.

The main reason for not appointing her was lack of experience in governing such big institution. Kalata claims she was "meant to fail".

"If her knowledge was so embarrassing why did they keep her there for three hours? The behaviour of the commission members was unacceptable. They were laughing at what she was saying, suggesting that she was 'being silly' and asking whether she really has a PhD," Magdalena Matusik-Bukowska, Kalata’s spokesperson, said.

The labour ministry says that none of this really took place.

"Maybe indeed nothing happened," centre-left Polish MEP Krystyna Lybacka, told this website. "But this is not the point. How can we know that? Where is transparency in the recruitment process for such a high profile public post?," she added.

Political playground

"The role of the Zus chairman is purely political," said Robert Gwiazdowski, an expert from the Adam Smith Centre, a Polish think tank. "Kalata’s biggest problem is not having a prime minister’s cell phone number."

The labour ministry rejects the accusation. "The political affiliations of the candidates do not play any role, nor do their age or sex," said ministry spokesperson Janusz Sejmej.

But the Kalata issue is a part of a bigger problem: the lack of transparency in public institutions and discrimination against women.

Women not only earn less than men in the same job but they are also not hired to management as often as men.

According to a report from the Supreme Audit Office, this is the case for 80 percent of women employed in the public sector.

"They [women] are not members of so called “old-boy networks”, which in Poland have a lot to do with political affiliations. That is how non-transparent recruitment procedures reinforce women’s discrimination on the labour market," Aleksandra Nizynska, head of the gender equality observatory at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, said.

The same applies to the private sector.

Only one sixth of companies on the Warsaw Stock Exchange have women in their supervisory boards or in management. In France, by contrast, more than 30 percent of companies listed on the Cac40 have woman managers.

Across the EU as a whole, the amount of women on the board of directors grew by 8 percent between 2010 and 2014, but by just 3 percent in Poland.

"It is hard to judge whether it was discrimination this time. But it shows a pattern and it proves that we still have a lot to do in the area of transparency and gender equality," the MEP, Krystyna Lybacka, said.

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