Sunday, 24 June 2012

A city of contrasts

An opportunity of doing somebody a service, driving the newly built motorway, popping over to Łódź and being reimbursed costs of petrol could not be missed. Oddly enough with hindsight it turned out I was not the only one to visit Łódź yesterday – fellow blogger Michael and his son took the same journey, also by car.

I haven’t checked how long it took my to cover the distance between the suburbs of Warsaw and “eastern centre” of Łódź, nor the time needed to get there. I think it was roughly two hours each way, minority of which was spent on the new 93-kilometre long A2 motorway. Getting to the motorway from Łódź is not a nuisance, but reaching it in Warsaw is a bigger challenge. I decide to take the simplest route, namely: Puławska -> Rzymowskiego -> Marynarska / Hynka / Łopuszańska / Kleszczowa -> Chrobrego -> Dźwigowa (the infamous tunnel under the tracks after years of repair was opened on 6 June) -> Połczyńska, and from there I turned onto S8 expressway, which in Konotopa transforms into S2 expressway and then before Pruszków the road narrows from three to two lanes (fairly enough) and receives a status of a motorway. A2 between Pruszków and Stryków near Łódź will become a toll road in 2014, the toll is expected to be 0.10 PLN / kilometre, which is still a reasonable charge. Motorway operated by the Polish state will have toll caps imposed by the EU, while operators of those built under public-private partnership are given a free rein to rip the drivers off.
Getting to the motorway from the southern fringes of Warsaw will be facilitated, when S2 expressway, linking junction Konotopa west of Warsaw and ul. Puławska is completed. Judging by the photo taken today, even next year completion is not feasible. The sluggishness of both general contractors of the Southern bypass of Warsaw is mind-boggling for me. How come Gdaka (stands for National Road and Motorway Agency) has not put its foot down – construction of A2 motorway got under way a year later then works on S2 and the former is finished, while progress on the latter is more than a crying shame.

The traffic, as indicated on Michael’s photo (I haven’t taken any snaps, driving and taking photos at the same time is anything but prudent, there are plenty of shots on a relevant Skyscrapercity forum), was kind of sparse, as heavy vehicles are not allowed to take this road. Borderlines between sections are easily recognisable – the one between D and E sections can be distinguished by different colour of noise barriers, the other middle section – C and the longest and closest to Łódź – A, are marked by sights of unfinished infrastructure, speed limits and lack of the last layer of Tarmac (only section A). I didn’t drive fast (110 – 102 kmph) to keep the petrol consumption rather low (with headwinds on my way to Łódź it wasn’t low despite my efforts and due to air-con turned on), but didn’t let the car move below 100 kmph and found the speed limits unjustifiable. 100 kmph on section C is laughably low, 120 kmph would surely be more appropriate and 100 kmph instead of 70 kmph would be reasonable for section A given the quality of tarmac laid there. Driving too slow on a high-speed-motorway is dangerous as well and can distract a driver. You are more likely to cause an accident when you drive 70 kmph than if you drive 120 kmph, as the faster you drive (within reason), the more attention you have to pay to driving and with mere 70 on your speedometer, you run a risk of falling asleep behind the wheel.

In spite of being formally unfinished, the road’s beautiful, but driving it I couldn’t resist from pondering upon the misery of companies that have built it and who have paid the ultimate price for this contract. Chinese contractor has gone bankrupt and left Poland in mid-2011, lead co-contractor DSS has gone insolvent many months ago, hundreds of subcontractors have not been paid by the contractors, several have been declared tax criminals (they had issued invoices which had not been settled, but had been obliged to pay tax on their revenue) and lost all their personal assets just not to go to prisons. CEO of Strabag, contractor of section D moaned about loss incurred on the contract as a whole.

Unlike in Warsaw, the motorway doesn’t take you to the perimeters of the city. You slip off in Stryków and then head for Łódź via National road number 14. This shouldn’t take you long and soon will you be able to reach your destination. In terms of friendliness to drivers, Łódź surely beats Poznań, Wrocław and Gdańsk. Signage is well-visible and with a map on my knees (I haven’t upgraded to GPS) I could easily find where I am and where to go. Having dealt with what I’d been requested to do, I drove north towards Plac Wolności and left the car for half an hour to stroll down ul. Piotrkowska, the city’s pride and joy and pedestrian precinct.

I parked the car at the corner of ul. Pomorska and ul. Wschodnia (look at this place in Google Earth Street View) and realised why Łódź should not host football fans for Euro 2012. Not the obvious reason that the city doesn’t have a splendid stadium, not even how it looks, but who you can meet there. Just upon leaving the car I was accosted by a “car-minder”. It functions very simply – the car park is formally unpaid and not guarded, but some dirty, unemployed, often disabled people offer to take a look at your car while you’re away. I politely turned down this offer and walked away. Some ten minutes ago I recalled my father’s friend once told such person to f*ck off and when the returned, the car-minder was gone, but a dent on his brand-new Opel’s boot door was left…

I decided not to worry about my nine-year-old, not insured against theft and other damages car. A car, as any other device should serve you, not the other way round. I wandered to Plac Wolności (a blend of architectonic styles – pre-war tenements, communist-era blocks and a new building of a brokerage firm – who allowed for this?) and then south down ul. Piotrkowska, stared at mostly dilapidated buildings to come to a sad conclusion there is not much to take delight in. Façade of one tenement has been renovated, but pieces of plaster are falling off the other’s wall. Front façades are clean, but while peeking into the gates you see squalid backyards. It was Saturday, but I couldn’t spot many tourists. Most people hanging around were locals, most of who couldn’t boast about high social status, nor haven’t taken a bath and changed their clothes for at least a week.

Over the last decade the city has made a stride, but still lags behind most bigger cities in Poland. In terms of population it probably is still the second biggest one, despite rising outflow of inhabitants, mostly to Warsaw, but the quality of the population leaves a lot to be desired. I was near the centre of Łódź, quite near splendidly renovated Manufaktura shopping mall and on the high street and was confronted with dreadful poverty. As I was driving back towards road no. 14 I again glanced at ramshackle buildings and their God-forsaken dwellers and I began to ask myself whether I was the second biggest city of Poland or Romania. Bleak is the city, with huge districts of poverty from which no one will lift their residents and huge estates of panel-building blocks, some refurbished, some not, but all looking equally gloomy. The latter reminded me of Bemowo in Warsaw, I wonder why I find Bemowo so depressing, while in Ursynów, which has a quite similar architecture, I feel well…

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Football championship musings

More careful readers are wondering why this post has appeared at all. I was going to be on holiday, yet for the whole fortnight preceding the outset of it, I had been struggling problems with sore throat, then I came down with laryngitis (the prescribed antibiotic did not cure me), which eventually morphed into a fully-fledged bronchitis, with typical symptoms, such as wheezing in the chest and high fever, in the eve of my departure.

So eventually, instead of setting off to get some rest and enjoy sightseeing, I ended up stranded at home and for three days even in bed. I wonder why some people call it “leisure”. You feel off-colour, dizzy, your activities are confined to reading books and newspapers or watching films. Admittedly, touching the culture is highly commendable and even recommendable if in your everyday hustle you have little time to do it, so staying in bed gives a chance to catch up. Inactivity tears me apart!

I got a sick leave, so holidays I took at work will be cancelled and I will be entitled to take days off later. As for now, I am on my way to recuperate for good and plan to set off again on Sunday. Unfortunately I will also have to return on Sunday to fulfil all my obligations at work. But I will manage to squeeze my plans into that short period anyway.

Being on a sickie also helped me avoid all tribulations triggered in Warsaw by Euro 2012. I did observe the football craze last Friday, on inauguration day. Hundreds of fans were hanging around the centre of the capital from early morning. In the afternoon the city was full of fans, dressed in white and red attires, most heading towards the National Stadium or the fan zone. Fortunately I was not attacked by anyone, as inadvertently I was wearing blue jeans trousers and a blue shirt with white stripes, so I was clad in colours very similar to the Greek flag.

The worst day during the championship in Warsaw was supposed to be Tuesday, when Russia : Poland match was played. Before the sporting events, Russians fans decided to march collectively towards the stadium. Some said this parade was held to commemorate 400th anniversary of siege of Moscow, but Russians have not screamed out any political mottos. The Group was attacked by Polish hooligans (not mistake for football fans) and eventually 184 persons, including 156 Poles, were detained. Some have already faced charges.

It was not meant to be an uneventful day, but unlike many commentators, I realise it could have been much worse. Widespread riots have not broken out, relatively few innocent people have been injured, I have not caught out any reports of shop windows or cars vandalised. Polish policing forces and true football fans have risen to the occasion. Both Polish and Russian fans merrily celebrated the 1:1 draw until late night – this is how the football fiesta should look.

Nevertheless, I am still appalled by the atmosphere that surrounded the game. Many Poles’ attitude towards the event was that it was a matter of honour to beat Russians, our ever-lasting enemy and tormentor. The key goal was to wpierdolić ruskim (literally and to put it mildly, ‘to beat up Russians’), both on the football stadium in the match, as well as to show the Russian football fans they have not come to a friendly country. Some hools did manage to demonstrate their hostility towards Russian football fans, but generally relationships between the two nations have not been shuttered in the wake of reprehensible incidents.

The political backlash has also made my hackles rise. Generally the match had a political and historical setting and given the rancour between the two countries, this was hard to avoid. But reactions seem inappropriate to me.

Deputy Mariusz Błaszczak from PiS pointed out that rowdy Russians have provoked a scuffle. OK, taking into the stadium a huge “THIS IS RUSSIA” transparent was out of place, but the very march had no political purport. If there was a sporting event in Russia on 15 August, Poles should also be granted a right to stage a march. Even if Russians were to demonstrate their superiority over Poles, the best way to cope with such acts is to let them pass unnoticed. Do not respond, if the have a peaceful character!

Major of Warsaw apologised to all football fans for misdeeds of Polish hooligans. Agreeably, a proper official gesture following the street battles. But why the hells has prime minister Tusk apologised to president of Russia for the hapless goings-on? Such acts of violence do accompany football matches, so why hell should this become a topic of official talks between the statesmen? Is the foreign policy towards Russia indeed run on knees?

In ancient times wars and conflicts were suspended during Olympic games. Now animosities are unlikely to be shelved. Instead the atmosphere of impending clash is being heated up by sensation-chasing media and politicians who never miss the opportunity to play on voters’ emotions… This will take generations to change.

For an optimistic ending, Poland still stands a chance to stay in the championship, if our team wins with Czech Republic on Saturday. This is conceivable, and if it happens, despite my lack of faith in the Polish team, I will be immensely proud of them.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Time to take back the prophecy of doom

OK, Poland has not made such significant stride in infrastructure development, as Mr Tusk had promised in his inaugural speech in November 2007, but the progress is visible. Almost all roads, planned to be finished before the football championship, are still under construction, some long behind schedule, but road-builders have pulled up their sleeves and prepared a huge surprise for motorists.

A lot is being built in Poland, but every observer’s eyes have been focused on the 91-kilometre long section of A2 motorway linking Warsaw to Łódź and then with the European network of motorways. At the beginning of April, in my road construction programme summary I wrote:

A2 motorway – great to have a toll road (with some short free of charge sections) all the way from the German border east to Stryków, where on a big junction A1 and A2 one day will meet. But then in Stryków masses of football fans travelling from the western Europe will end their journey via up-to-the standard roads and will continue the drive to Warsaw through old, congested National Road 2. There’s no chance that two out of five sections of A2 between Łódź and Warsaw forsaken in June 2011 by bankrupt Chinese companies will be finished, or at least passable. Funnily enough, two sections near Warsaw are almost finished, so there’s a contingency plan that they are opened, as scheduled (the one closest to Warsaw even one month before deadline), but does it make any practicable solution. The motorway would end in the middle of nowhere somewhere near Grodzisk Mazowiecki. For the locals – a great link to the capital, for transit traffic – a useless facility..

Given the progress of works at that time, I could not believe this road would be opened just before Euro 2012. I am not ashamed of my lack of faith in road-builders. I dare to claim my pessimism was fully justified. Only as time went by, it faded and gave way to glimmers of hope in completion before the sports event. A2, being one of very few roads planned to be opened before Euro 2012, was divided into five sections, marked with letters from A to E (A – closest to Łódź, E – closest to Warsaw), each built by a different lead contractor and set of subcontractors. Works kicked off late – in autumn 2010. This delay in putting together all the necessary documentation and obtaining all official permits meant deadline for completion was very tight. Tenders for two sections were won by a Chinese consortium COVEC. The Asian company bid to build a motorway at dumping price and hence beat all competitors. The contract in Poland, deliberately quoted much below real costs, was, in COVEC’s plans, a way to get foothold on the European market. Unfortunately, COVEC’s financial planners have overestimated financial strength of their company and in mid-2011 the bankrupt Chinese contractors left the unfinished road, unpaid subcontractors and guarantees issued by Chinese banks with which the Polish government still hassles. Construction works have been halted for two months, before resumption in late July 2011. Section A was taken over by Eurovia-led consortium, while building of section C, with the biggest delay, was conducted since then by Dolnośląskie Surowce Skalne. The latter firm has also overreached itself. It caught up with many works, but due to liquidity problems filed for insolvency in March 2012. Its bankruptcy was formally declared in April. From March the hapless section has been under administration of Boegl a Krysl (Czech-German enterprise). Guys worked night and day, weather permitting, to make the road passable in early June. Almost nobody believed in success; many pointed at potentially poor quality of hastily done works (time will prove these concerns right or wrong), others yelled the road would be only “passable”, not completed and hence dangerous for users.

According to official declarations, the motorway would not be opened before Euro 2012 and in mid-May the transport ministry presented official detour guidelines, showing how to pass by the unfinished section C. These were contingency plans…

Opening festival began in the third decade of May. Section E to Pruszków was opened on 23 May, its extension, section D to Grodzisk was opened on 29 May, section A and short part of section B (only the latter has been completed, most of section A lack the last layer of stone mastic asphalt) was opened on 3 June and 6 June went down in history as the day when the whole motorway passable. Laying the last layer of tarmac was finished on 5 June, then construction crews assembled signage, crash barriers and painted lane-dividing lines. So drivers can enjoy a problem-free, hour-long journey from Warsaw to Stryków near Łódź, but sections A and C will have to be finished after the football championship (which does not mean any closures).

Despite everything, against all odds, football fans travelling to the capital of Poland from western Europe by car will get to Warsaw in a civilised way. They will surely end up in a traffic hell in Warsaw, but who cares?

Last days also saw the completion of part of S8 expressway in northern Warsaw and opening of two S5 and S11 sections near Poznań. Yesterday southern bypass of Gdańsk was thrown open, making a great alternative to ever-congested notorious ul. Kartuzka. Next openings are scheduled for July and then by the end of 2012 Poland is going to have a much broader network of expressways and motorways. Unfortunately this year there is no chance that part of Warsaw’s southern bypass is finished. Construction of this short expressway got under way a few months before works on A2 started. A2 is now at use, while S2 and S79 have one-year delay and its contractors are still taking their time.

It has to be noted the government-funded infrastructure development programme has brought the construction industry to its knees. The best example of this collapse are bankrupt DSS (general contractor of A2 section C) and PBG (general contractor of the National Stadium in Warsaw) and its two subsidiaries that filed to bankruptcy this week. All companies profit and loss accounts would show they are profitable (albeit with significant margin squeezes), but further analysis of their financial statements draws to a conclusion liquidity squeeze (late payments from Road Construction & Administration Authority / over-competitive prices) killed them and their subcontractors, who have fallen victims of co-operation with reputable industry players.

Corporate bonds issued by these companies hit valuation of many “safe” investment funds, write-downs on loans granted to them are hitting many banks, for many meaning nine-digit losses and being a substantial drag on profitability. The bank I work at is quite conservatively run and it least is not considerably exposed to the ailing sector, so at least it spares my colleagues and me troubles.

I must say the football championship does not rub off on me. I do not root for the Polish football team (although as a Pole I wish them well), I have not bought any Euro 2012 gadgets, I generally find the whole event a nuisance rather than a reason to be excited…

I’m off for holidays for two weeks. The computer stays at home, so expect the next posting with holidays coverage (or something else, provided a noteworthy event occurs) around 24 June

Sunday, 3 June 2012

How it feels to be made redundant

As they were taking you on, good times were rolling. Returns were high, risks were underestimated, salaries and bonuses were enviable. Then the housing bubble in the United States burst and fallouts flied even to Poland. The industry faced a slowdown and felt the pressure to economise. To make things worse, just before the outbreak of the crisis your company was about to fully merge with another one. Unfortunately, due to Competition watchdog’s objection, the takeover was only partly brought off, the buyer picked the best divisions and rest was put up for sale. It soon found a new owner; the sucker was ready to pay over the odds for the piece of shit which used to be one of the leading and most reputable players on the market.

The new owner introduced its principles and began to turn the business around, despite really adverse market conditions. Faced with the choice either to shape up and keep your mouth shut, or to ship out and begin to look for a new job, on the market flooded with supply of similarly profiled professionals. You soldiered on and they appreciated your effort. Soon you got promoted and received a pay rise, while over 10% of the staff were laid off during the first wave of employment restructuring. Then ensued the second wave of lay-offs. Several people around were fired, but this was not your problem. You held down the job and performed well, so you did not need to be afraid.

As the economic recovery begin to fade and sovereign crisis in Europe loomed more perilous, your company, despite everything, announced expansion plans. The whole market learnt who was going to be the growth leader, competitors looked with some disdain on your company and slowly began to downsize to retain profitability during economic slowdown.

Reality check came a few months later. There have been some mistakes regarding the strategy made, but executives found the scapegoats in those who had been fired some time earlier. Review of recent performance figures proved the growth strategy fizzled out (unless you define growth as shrinking). Time to bite the bullet has come…

Hearsay over the third wave of cutbacks had been heard long before, but the press release saying this would happen and unveiling details of the plan was issued during the trading session. Shares of you company soared at the news of cost-cutting plan, but retreated to pre-news level by the end of the day. After all investors and speculators know this boat is bound to sink.

Following the lay-off announcement and recent 10 PLN pay rises, motivation among the staff fell dramatically. Nobody felt what they were doing was making sense, the company was going nowhere. Instead, everyone began to fret over the imminent job loss and make fun of the under-performing business.

In a message to employees the executives promised people will be notified in advance of their redundancy, treated with dignity and will receive the proper support and a generous severance package.

As time went by, only the very last promise has not been gone back on. How your fateful day looked depended on your position.

If you were a rank and file, head of your department took you to a room where you also met your HR manager. They told to sit back and handed you an envelope containing all documents linked to job contract termination. They informed they were too many of you in the team and you were selected to continue your career outside this organisation. You could either agree on a conditions proposed by the company or leave with no severance package. So you agreed obediently and got informed by when you can still work and hand your duties over to another employee and sign up for a course “how to write a CV successfully” (you had not been on the market for over 10 years so you did not know or have forgotten how to do it).

If you were a manager, you the invitation for a meeting when they were giving you notice looked similar. Severance package also did, but managers were given a very short deadline by which they had to pack their stuff and go away. Usually it takes two days to close their duties and say goodbye to your colleagues, then you can take your due days off and are requested not to come to work at all. You are still paid and are not allowed to take up a new job with a competitor, but your employer clearly tells you they do not want to see your face any longer. Slap on the face slightly worse than 10 PLN pay rise.

You colleagues seem to sympathise with you, but deep down they are happy it is you, not them. After all they are no irreplaceable people, those who stay on will have it much worse since now. The company has to grow anyway, only labour force harnessed to propel the growth will be less numerous. This is not the tragedy, they will have to work even longer and harder, in other words, more efficiently. Touch luck…

While you are gone you realise you are out on the limb – nobody needs you, market is full of professionals like you, fired by other companies in the industry. Your severance package will help you scrape along and keep paying off your mortgage for a few months or even a year, if you decrease your standard of living. What then – who cares… Maybe on the occasion of the next wave of lay-offs, set to come next year, somebody will mention you and wonder how you are doing.

To make it clear, I have not been fired and I have been told I will not lose the job under restructuring programme this year. But next year opportunities may unfold, with a more generous severance package…

Any similarities between real companies and event are totally accidental. The story is an absolutely fictitious figment of my imagination…