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Czechoslovakia Table of Contents



In 1984 workers made up about one-half of the economically active population and were beneficiaries of policies geared toward maintaining the people's standard of living. According to many observers, Czechoslovakia's internal stability rested on an unspoken bargain between workers and the ruling KSC: relative material security in return for acquiescence to continued Soviet domination. Given the persistent economic problems the regime faced, it was a delicate balance. Much of working-class life reflected the regime's efforts to increase labor productivity without precipitating major labor unrest.

Virtually full employment did not make the task easier. In 1984 nearly half the population worked. Some 85 percent of working-age women were employed (not including those on maternity leave), and there were almost 141,000 full-time university students. Working age for women was from fifteen through fifty-four, and for men it was from fifteen through fifty-nine. The proportion of pensioners who had returned to work rose from 12 percent in 1966 to 23 percent in 1983. By the end of the 1970s, the labor shortage was extreme enough for officials to call for greater efforts to employ "internal reserves" of labor, i.e., the partially disabled (of whom nearly one-third were already employed), full-time students, and farmers (during agricultural off-seasons). "Voluntary" brigades of students and apprentices supplied agricultural (harvest) and other labor during summer months.

In Czechoslovakia, as in other socialist countries, virtually full employment often disguises underemployment. Large numbers of people work in positions below their qualifications. This is the result of different factors: some people are reluctant to move to other parts of the country to find work; politically and ideologically "objectionable" people must often turn to menial work; and politically "correct" people hold jobs for which they are not fully qualified. At many enterprises, instead of streamlining operations and dismissing employees whose job performance is unsatisfactory, managers merely shift workers to other positions or juggle employment statistics.

The party's compulsion to avoid labor unrest, enterprise managers' need to meet (or at least approach) production quotas, and a pervasive shortage of labor define the social dynamics of the workplace. Workers have relatively secure employment and income but lack sufficient consumer goods to absorb their income (the rate of saving is extremely high). Nor do workers have a substantive role in organizing work; Ota Sik, noted economic reformer during the 1960s, characterized the Czechoslovak worker as "alienated from the production process, from the fruits of labor, and from the management of industrial enterprises."

Workers' complaints have changed over the years as labor has become more scarce. In the 1950s real wages declined, resulting in periodic work stoppages. The 1953 currency reform sparked protests and demonstrations in major industrial centers that were little short of riots. Throughout the decade, party leaders complained about workers' "trade unionist" and "anarcho-syndicalist" attitudes and their "take what you can" mentality. Those arrested in the 1953 demonstrations were denounced as "bourgeois elements dressed up in overalls." During the Prague Spring, workers organized to support demands for political liberalization and more representative trade unions.

By the late 1970s, forced overtime had become the workers' most insistent complaint, followed by poor working conditions. These complaints were coupled with steadfast opposition to linking wages with gains in productivity. Workers most frequently called for compliance with the labor code, which limited compulsory overtime (the maximum workweek was supposed to be forty-six hours) and provided for work safety regulations.

One solution to the labor shortage was foreign manpower. For a long time, Poles provided the largest percentage of foreign manpower. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the proportion of Vietnamese workers grew rapidly. By the end of 1982, there were approximately 26,000 Vietnamese workers in Czechoslovakia, about 0.3 percent of the total manual work force, including apprentices. Reasons given for the rapid expansion of the Vietnamese contingent ranged from the Czechoslovak government's interest in training qualified labor for a friendly socialist country, to repayment of Vietnamese war debt, to the labor surplus in Vietnam. Problems arose as the number of Vietnamese increased drastically and as a program of merely hard work replaced what was to have been a program for training the Vietnamese in work skills.

Other foreigners who worked in Czechoslovakia came from Cuba, Laos, the Mongolian People's Republic, and Hungary. Poles and Hungarians generally worked in their respective border areas.

Most women in Czechoslovakia work, a reflection in part of the labor shortage and in part of the socialist belief that employment for women is the answer to inequality between the sexes. Although women in Czechoslovakia have had a long history of employment (they were over one-third of the labor force in 1930), the postwar surge in female employment has been truly dramatic. Four-fifths of the workers who entered the labor force from 1948 through 1975 were women. By the end of 1976, about 87 percent of working-age women had jobs; in 1984 about 90 percent of women in their reproductive years were in the labor force.

In 1983 women remained concentrated in the traditional fields of female employment. In retail sales they represented 75 percent of all employees; in mass communications, 65 percent; in health care, 80 percent; and in social work, 87 percent. These differences persisted despite concerted efforts to improve women's educational status and in spite of the wide range of protective legislation covering women workers (see Health and Social Welfare , this ch.).

Women's salaries have lagged behind those of men throughout the socialist era. As late as 1986, women's earnings averaged two-thirds of those of men. In December 1986, one-fifth of all employed mothers earned less than Kcs1,500 per month, while the average salary for all workers at that time was given as Kcs2,800 per month. Only 6 to 7 percent of middle and upper management positions were held by women.

A number of factors account for this continuing inequality. Traditional sexual stereotypes have persisted, socialist rhetoric notwithstanding. Women faced handicaps in the workplace because of their traditional role in child rearing (what regime apologists have dubbed "woman's triple role" of mother-worker-citizen). Czechoslovakia offered ample maternity leave, and women did not lose job seniority by taking it. Nonetheless, employers anticipated that women not only would be absent from work to have children but also would bear the primary responsibility for child care within their families. (In contrast, officialdom has made no mention of man's triple role of father-worker-citizen.) Women's anticipated but unpredictable absence from the workplace influenced employers' allocation of jobs. Women themselves frequently complained about the dual demands of home and work forced upon them. Czechoslovakia's underdeveloped service sector, the general lack of convenience items, limited child-care facilities, and the traditional division of labor within the family all complicated working women's lives in the 1980s. (Men maintained the traditional view that housework and child rearing is "women's work" and often refused to help.) Employed women spent four to eight hours each day on household duties, above and beyond their time at work.

Data as of August 1987

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Czechoslovakia Table of Contents