Behind the Iron Curtain part 8 – Work vs. Employment

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

In the Czechoslovak Socialist republic everyone had a right to work. That is, everyone was entitled to be employed and make wages that guaranteed you shall be able to live off of them.

That sounds good on paper, but it did not work out so well in praxis.

First problem was that whilst there was some possibility of improving your income through work if you were a good worker and happened to be paid not per hour but per manufactured piece (or mined tonnage etc.), this was very strongly discouraged. The norms were still being evaluated and re-evaluated so if people worked too hard and earned too much, they would be re-adjusted so their income falls. This has led to peer pressure against too “hardworking” people to keep their heads down and not exceed the norms too much. Some minimal income was guaranteed, wo why work too much? If you do, you will have to keep working hard but you will not get more, so why bother? That was the general consensus among the populace. Nobody feared unemployment or not making enough money, and everyone knew that their chances at making more are abysmal, so people generally skived off of work left right and center. In trying not to get anyone too rich, the regime only succeeded to keep everyone poor (with exceptions, on that later).

Since It was not possible to keep an eye on everyone everywhere, the supervisors often did not even try. Greater care was taken to make the numbers look good on paper than to do good work, since it was easier. There were of course companies and individuals that did a good job. Some such companies were kept as the forefront for the regime and occasionally some random worker who exceeded the plan was paraded around as a PR stunt. I saw a discussion with one such worker on TV towards the end of the regime where the reality of this state of affairs was mentioned – that a lot of produced pieces was junk that once written into the glowing reports went not to the shops, but on the scrap pile. This was huge problem that has caused a lot of economical damage to the regime and has led to significant waste of resources.

Another problem was that it actively discouraged improvement and development. In the town where I live there was a small factory that has manufactured computer monitors. Our class was one day on an excursion in there and one moment stuck in mind. It was when the foreman was showing us a piece of new equipment, an automatic soldering table that was capable of soldering all components on a circuit board in one go in a bath of molten tin. He said “but we cannot use it too much, because otherwise we would not have work for all the women in soldering department”. To which our teacher, a bit zealous communist, replied with a sneer “but some capitalist would lave to have it so they could lay off those women”. The foreman looked baffled and not to pleased with this comment, but did not reply. As a child I could not put my finger on exactly where the problem lies with this reasoning, but it felt wrong. We were taught that advances in technology are a good thing, and making work for people easier is a good thing, but here people had to do manually work in an environment full of poisonous fumes even though the work could be done by a machine? It did not feel right. Well we need to keep those buggy whips manufacturers employed…

From that stems the fourth problem. A lot of work done was “work for work’s sake”. Not only was employment guaranteed, but unemployment was illegal. In order to achieve the nearly 100% employment, even with a lot of people skiving off and not working their best as a rule, there was an awful lot of busy but ultimately pointless jobs around. I remember how my brother finished his machinist’s education and went all giddy to his first job. He was actually looking forward to it. He came home all downcast and disappointed after his first day – he was given a stack of notebooks, a pencil and a ruler and he had to draw lines in the notebooks. Completely pointless task, but the factory – coincidentally the same one as in previous example – just did not have anything better for him to do.

Fourth problem was the widespread corruption. Most jobs that required higher education (like a physician, or a teacher) were assigned centrally so that availability of some services is evenly distributed. Not a completely bad idea since distributing these works purely on market basis means that countryside is without schools and doctors. However the implementation was deeply problematic, since party membership and family histories were a part of the consideration for who gets assigned where. So the countryside was sometimes stuck with teachers or doctors who were sent there as a form of punishment for not being subservient to the regime enough – and that was better option than those being sent there for mediocrity or incompetence. And the good spots were reserved for the competent – and, more importantly, the well-connected.

All in all this has led to the regime not progressing economically too much and average people were not particularly well-off. It tried to hide this behind the iron curtain, but some people did manage to visit western countries and word of mouth spread their experiences. And when the iron curtain fell, we could go and see for our selves the reality.


  1. says

    This is really interesting.
    So, the idea that socialism destroys the desire to work harder to please one’s masters has some truth to it.

  2. says

    I do not think It was not about pleasing od not pleasing one’s master. I think that the lack of any real motivation with immediately foreseable results had more to do with it. The notion that no matter what you do, you won’t get anythingn much out of it for yourself. People are selfish, they want to show off, to have shiny and beautiful things, to aspire to have more money than their neigbour etc. When they know that working won’t lead to those things, mostly they won’t work.

  3. Crimson Clupeidae says

    I new some people who grew up in East Berlin. They had some similar stories. I remember them telling about the cars.

    Apparently, new cars were produced at a fixed rate, much lower than ‘free market’ demand, so they would get sold new for the fixed price, and the price would immediately increase by about 40% as soon as it was used and could be resold. When the wall fell, many of them were abandoned near the border.

Leave a Reply