Poland is a republic with a multiparty democracy. The bicameral parliament consists of an upper house (Senate) and a lower house (Sejm). The president and the Council of Ministers headed by the prime minister share executive power. In the parliamentary elections held on October 13, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party retained its majority in the Sejm but lost its majority in the Senate. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) conducted elections observation. Finding there was overall confidence in the election administration, it admitted polls occurred amid “deep political polarization” and stated that “media bias and intolerant rhetoric in the campaign were of significant concern.”
The police force is a national law enforcement body with regional and municipal units overseen by the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Border Guard is responsible for border security and combating irregular migration; it reports to the Ministry of Interior and Administration. The Internal Security Agency (ABW) has responsibility for investigating and combating organized crime, terrorist threats, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) is responsible for combating government, business, and financial corruption and may investigate any matter involving public funds. The prime minister appoints and supervises the head and deputy heads of the CBA and ABW, which also report to parliament. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: criminal defamation penalties; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of ethnic minorities.
The government took steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses. There were no reports of security force impunity.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech, including the dissemination of anti-Semitic literature and the public promotion of fascist, communist, or other totalitarian systems, and intentional offense of religious feelings.
Violence and Harassment: On February 14, the Katowice regional prosecutor’s office discontinued its investigation into Piotr Wacowski, a cameraman for private television news channel TVN, who was suspected of propagating fascism. The case was related to an investigative report by the journalist showing members of the Pride and Modernity Association dressed in Nazi uniforms and celebrating Hitler’s birthday in 2017. The prosecutor’s office stated it could find no evidence Wacowski had committed a crime.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The constitution prohibits censorship of the press or social communication. Nevertheless, laws regulating broadcasting and media prohibit, under penalty of fines, license revocation, or other authorized sanctions, the promotion of activities endangering health or safety, or the promotion of views contrary to law, morality, or the common good. The law also requires that all broadcasts “respect the religious feelings of the audiences and, in particular, respect the Christian system of values.”
Critics alleged persistent progovernment bias in state television news broadcasts.
Libel/Slander Laws: Defamation by print and broadcast journalists is a criminal offense and includes publicly insulting or slandering the president, members of parliament, government ministers and other public officials, the Polish nation, foreign heads of state and ambassadors, private entities and persons, as well as insult or destruction of the national emblem, the flag, and other state symbols. Defamation outside the media is punishable by a fine and community service. The courts rarely applied maximum penalties, and persons convicted of defamation generally faced only fines or imprisonment of less than one year. The maximum sentence for insulting the president is three years’ imprisonment.
The Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and the Association of Polish Journalists reported that journalists convicted of defamation had never received the maximum penalty. According to the association, however, the criminal defamation law may have a chilling effect on journalists, especially in local media, since local authorities may use the law against journalists. Media owners, particularly of small local independent newspapers, were aware that potentially large fines could threaten the financial survival of their publications. According to Ministry of Justice statistics for 2018, the most recent data available, courts convicted one person of insulting the president and three persons for insulting constitutional organs of the government. In 2018 the courts fined two persons for public defamation through media using the public prosecution procedure, when a private person presses criminal charges against another person. In 2018 there were 116 convictions for criminal defamation through media using the private prosecution procedure.
On November 26, the Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office discontinued its prosecutorial investigation into a historian, stemming from a 2015 newspaper interview where the historian alleged that Poles killed more Jews than Nazis in occupied Poland during World War II. The Katowice District Prosecutor’s Office stated it was not its role to settle issues of an historical nature.
On February 12, the Lodz District Court fined investigative reporter Wojciech Biedron 3,000 zloty ($762) on charges of public insult of a judge for inaccurately reporting that a court had initiated disciplinary proceedings against the judge. Several journalists criticized the judgment as overly harsh and disproportionate to the offense.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The 2015 antiterrorism law permits restrictions on public assemblies in situations of elevated terrorist threats. During the year there were no cases of the prohibition of a public assembly due to an elevated terrorist threat.
In December the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office decided to discontinue its investigation into an attack on counterdemonstrators during the November 2017 Independence March. The office stated that continuing the case was not in the public interest and that it was unable to identify the perpetrators of the attack. On February 13, the Warsaw Regional Court struck down an earlier decision by the Warsaw District Prosecutor’s Office to discontinue the investigation and ordered the office to reopen the case. The Prosecutor’s Office had previously asserted the attackers’ intention was to show dissatisfaction and not to physically harm the 14 counterdemonstrators they confronted.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. In addition to guarded centers for foreigners, the government operated 11 open centers for asylum seekers with an aggregate capacity of approximately 2,000 persons in the Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lublin areas.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Some incidents of gender-based violence in the centers for asylum seekers occurred, but UNHCR reported that local response teams involving doctors, psychologists, police, and social workers addressed these cases. UNHCR reported no major or persistent problems with abuse in the centers.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees.
On April 17, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, a Warsaw-based NGO, published a report criticizing the government for restricting access to the asylum procedure. The report covered the situation on the country’s eastern border between 2015 and 2019 and stated the Border Guard at times arbitrarily refused the right to submit an application for international protection at border crossing stations.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The EU’s Dublin III Regulation, to which the country is subject, recognizes all EU countries as safe countries of origin and transit. The regulation also authorizes the governments of EU member states to return asylum seekers to the countries where they first entered the EU. The law permits denial of refugee status based on safe country of origin or safe country of transit but includes provisions that allow authorities to consider the protection needs of individuals in exceptional cases.
Freedom of Movement: Authorities placed some asylum seekers in guarded centers for foreigners while they awaited deportation or decisions on their asylum applications. Border guards may place an individual in a guarded center only by court order. The law prohibits the placement of unaccompanied minors younger than 15 in guarded centers. Border guards typically sought to confine foreigners who attempted to cross the border illegally, lacked identity documents, or committed a crime during their stay in the country.
Employment: Asylum seekers are not allowed to work during the first six months of the asylum procedure. If the asylum procedure lasts longer than six months, they may work until the asylum decision is final.
Access to Basic Services: Asylum seekers faced language and cultural barriers and had limited access to higher education. Children in centers for asylum seekers had free access to public education, but those placed with relatives in guarded centers for foreigners did not.
Temporary Protection: The government also provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
Corruption: The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and criminal prosecutions for official corruption occurred. There were reports of corruption that resulted in legal action.
On January 11, the Przemysl Regional Court sentenced former head of Podkarpackie Province Miroslaw Karapyta to four years in prison for rape and corruption. The court found him guilty of nine charges, including two cases of attempted rape, accepting a personal favor in the form of sexual intercourse, and accepting expensive gifts in return for favors. Karapyta pleaded not guilty and appealed the court’s ruling.
On January 28, the CBA charged the former defense ministry’s spokesperson and a former member of the parliament with exceeding their authority and improperly managing military contracts in order to obtain financial benefits worth more than 90,000 zloty ($22,900).
On March 18, a regional court in Tarnow found the former Rzeszow appellate prosecutor guilty of accepting bribes and abuse of power and sentenced her to a six-year prison term. The verdict was subject to appeal.
Financial Disclosure: Various laws oblige elected and appointed public officials to submit financial statements concerning their financial assets, real property, stocks, and bonds. According to the NGO Stefan Batory Foundation, the CBA was able to screen less than 1 percent of all financial disclosure statements filed by politicians and senior officials. With the exception of certain situations provided for by law, the regulations protect information included in financial statements as “restricted access” information that may be made public only with the written permission of the provider.
After completing an audit of Supreme Audit Board head Marian Banas’ required financial declarations, on November 29, the CBA notified the Prosecutor’s Office of potential crimes committed by Banas related to false property declarations, concealing a property’s actual status, and undocumented sources of income. On December 3, the regional prosecutor’s office in Bialystok opened an investigation. The prime minister and other leaders of the ruling Law and Justice Party called on Banas to resign but, at year’s end, he had not resigned. Banas denied the allegations and sued the media outlet that uncovered the reported improprieties for defamation.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The law entrusts the ombudsperson and the government plenipotentiary for civil society and equal treatment with the task of “implementing the principle of equal treatment.”
In cooperation with NGOs, the ombudsperson processes complaints, conducts investigations, institutes and participates in court proceedings, undertakes studies, provides other public bodies with advice, proposes legislative initiatives, and conducts public information campaigns. The ombudsperson has no authority to mediate disputes between private entities, even in cases of racial discrimination. The ombudsperson presents an annual report to the Sejm on the state of human rights and civic freedom in the country.
The government plenipotentiary for civil society and equal treatment has a mandate to counter discrimination and promote equal opportunity for all. The plenipotentiary implements the government’s equal treatment policy, develops and evaluates draft acts, analyzes and evaluates legal solutions, and monitors the situation within the scope of application of the principle of equal treatment. The plenipotentiary is subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office, did not have the same institutional independence as the ombudsperson, and did not have a separate budget.
Both chambers of parliament have committees on human rights and the rule of law. The committees serve a primarily legislative function and consist of representatives from multiple political parties.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the rights of workers to form and join independent trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides legal measures under which workers fired for union activity may demand reinstatement. Individuals who are self-employed or in an employment relationship based on a civil law contract are permitted to form a union.
Government workers, including police officers, border guards, prison guards, and employees of the supreme audit office, are limited to a single union. Workers in services deemed essential, such as security forces, the Supreme Chamber of Audit, police, border guards, and fire brigades, do not have the right to strike. These workers have the rights to protest and to seek resolution of their grievances through mediation and the court system.
Trade unions are registered when at least 10 eligible persons adopt a resolution to form a trade union. Newly established trade unions must appoint a founding committee consisting of three to seven persons. A new trade union must register with the National Court Registry within 30 days of the resolution. The court may remove a trade union from the registry only if a trade union adopts a resolution to dissolve; is no longer able to operate due to the bankruptcy, liquidation, or reorganization of the company in which the trade union operated; or if a trade union has fewer than 10 members for more than three months.
Legal strike ballots require the support of the majority of union voters. To allow for required mediation, a strike may not be called fewer than 14 days after workers present their demands to an employer. The law obligates employers to report workplace group disputes to district inspection office in their regions. Cumbersome procedures made it difficult for workers to meet all of the technical requirements for a legal strike. What constitutes a strike under the labor law is limited to strikes regarding wages and working conditions, social benefits, and the trade union rights and freedoms of workers. The law prohibits collective bargaining for key civil servants, appointed or elected employees of state and municipal bodies, court judges, and prosecutors.
The penalties for obstructing trade union activity range from fines to community service. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation efforts were not adequate, and the small fines imposed as punishment were an ineffective deterrent to employers. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. Unions alleged that the government did not consistently enforce laws prohibiting retribution against strikers. On April 10, the international company Orpea disciplinarily fired Anna Bacia, a physical therapist with 16 years of experience, who was a chairperson of the trade union representing company workers. According to All Poland’s Trade Union, the dismissal, which happened shortly after she revealed her trade union activity, was illegal because she was protected under the law on such activity and the trade union did not approve her dismissal.
Trade union representatives stated that violations of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining occurred. While many workers exercised the right to organize and join unions, many small and medium sized firms, which employed a majority of the workforce, discriminated against those who attempted to organize. The government enforced applicable laws, but penalties were insufficient to deter violations.
Labor leaders continued to report that employers regularly discriminated against workers who attempted to organize or join unions, particularly in the private sector. Discrimination typically took the forms of intimidation, termination of work contracts without notice, and closing of the workplace. Some employers sanctioned employees who tried to organize unions.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Nevertheless, forced labor occurred.
The government effectively enforced the law. Penalties for forced labor violations were sufficiently stringent to deter violations. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, the government assisted in removing 109 victims from forced labor.
There were reports that foreign and Polish men and women were subjected to forced labor in construction, agriculture, and restaurants, and children were subjected to forced begging (see section 7.c., Child Labor).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 16, with exceptions in the cultural, artistic, sporting, and advertising fields when parents or guardians and the local labor inspector give their permission. The labor inspector issues a permit on the basis of psychological and medical examinations. Child labor is not allowed if the work may pose any threat to life, health, or physical and mental development of the child, or may conflict with the child’s education. The government effectively enforced applicable laws, but penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Some children younger than 18 engaged in hazardous work in agriculture, primarily on family farms. Migrant Romani children from Romania were subjected to forced begging. Commercial sexual exploitation of children also occurred (see section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation in any way, directly or indirectly, on all grounds, in particular on the grounds of race, sex, color, religion, political opinion, national origin, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or trade union membership, and regardless of whether the person is hired for definite or indefinite contracts, or for full- or half-time work. The law does not specifically prohibit such discrimination based on language, HIV-positive status, gender identity, or social status. According to the Polish Society for Antidiscrimination Law, by law the accused must prove that discrimination did not take place. In the case of labor contracts that are protected by the labor code, antidiscrimination measures are adequate, and judges know how to apply them. These protections do not cover civil contracts, which fall under civil law, and according to the Society, it is difficult to prove discrimination through the civil procedure. The government enforced applicable laws, but penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, age, minority status, disability, political opinion, sexual orientation and gender identity, and trade union membership. Discrimination against Romani workers also occurred (see section 6).
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The national monthly minimum wage and the minimum wage for formal work agreements meet the social minimum monthly income level. There is no minimum wage for informal work agreements. The government effectively enforced wage laws, but penalties were not sufficient to deter violations; there were reports of employers withholding wages or underpaying laborers under informal work agreements, particularly Ukrainian migrant workers in the construction and agriculture industries.
The constitution provides every employee the right to statutorily specified days free from work as well as annual paid holidays.
The law defines strict and extensive minimum conditions to protect worker health and safety and empowers the National Labor Inspectorate (NLI) to supervise and monitor implementation of worker health and safety laws and to close workplaces with unsafe conditions. Workers could remove themselves from situations that endangered health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, and authorities effectively protected employees in this situation. While the NLI’s powers are limited to the formal economy, one of its responsibilities is to inspect the legality of employment, which can contribute to limiting work in the informal economy and ensuring employees who are hired in the informal economy are provided with appropriate occupational health and safety conditions.
Resources were inadequate to enforce effectively minimum wage, hours of work, and occupational health and safety in the formal or informal sectors. The number of labor inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations.
According to the inspectorate’s 2018 report, the most frequent labor rights violations concerned failure to pay or delayed payment of wages, failure to pay for overtime work, and failure to sign a labor contract in situations when the job performed constituted regular labor. Most wage payment violations occurred in the services, construction, and processing industries. Seasonal workers were particularly vulnerable to such violations. The national inspectorate’s report did not cover domestic workers because inspectors could only conduct inspections in businesses, not private homes. The second most common problem was inaccurate timekeeping records for hours worked.
Employers often ignored requirements regarding overtime pay. A large percentage of construction workers and seasonal agricultural laborers from Ukraine and Belarus earned less than the minimum wage. The large size of the informal economy–particularly in the construction and transportation industries–and the low number of government labor inspectors made enforcement of the minimum wage difficult. The Main Statistical Office definition of informal economy includes unregistered employment performed without a formal contract or agreement and is not counted as a contribution to social security and from which income taxes are not deducted. According to the Central Statistical Office, in 2017 (the latest year for which data were available), 5.4 percent of workforce (880,000 persons) worked in the informal economy.
Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.
The NLI continued a public awareness campaign to lower the number of work-related accidents in logging and timber companies and conducted a “Work Legally” public awareness campaign promoting legal employment. In addition, the NLI continued a prevention and information campaign “Construction Site. No More Accidents!” that targeted construction companies and included training on work safety standards for employees and employers. The NLI implemented its “Respect Life–Safe Work on Private Farms” campaign and visited many private farms to assess safety conditions and organized a number of competitions for individual farmers.
Employers routinely exceeded standards limiting exposure to chemicals, dust, and noise. According to the inspectorate’s 2018 report, inadequate training of employees, the poor quality of job-related risk assessment tools, and inadequate measures by employers to prevent accidents were the leading causes of workplace accidents.