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My friend once told me, “Be more wary of the tax office than of the police.” In retrospect, it seems to me that he forgot to add that no one had ever won with the Polish Social Insurance Institution, ZUS for short in Polish. I had no idea what kind of institution it is. This sounds strange but that was really the case at the time. I had never been employed on a full time basis. Common sense told me: “Dude, what is a social insurance pension for immigrants?”

Over five years ago, being in a hurry, I took the wrong train. This sometimes happens when you are late but know which platform the train departs from. The train was supposed to have gone to Zakopane. It turned out that that it was an express to ZUS. That’s how troubles began, much fuss about with money and insurance.

It has always puzzled me why insurance is obligatory. Why can’t you insure yourself there where you want or put aside a sum of money on your bank account to use in the event of an illness or accident. Some procedures, however, have to be completed “ex officio.” That’s always the case when something is regulated by laws and regulations.

Social Insurance Institution. In Polish, ZUS for short. I am allergic to the very abbreviation, so popular in Poland. By no means is ZUS brave. Not all artists know that their performances are treated as a form of economic activity by ZUS. It’s enough that you are on the register of artists held by the Ministry of Culture (you don’t have to either have a NIP or REGON number or keep the books as is the case with a typical economic activity). As for me, ZUS told me to pay the insurance contributions for the previous years. A considerable sum of money had accumulated in no time (I wish it had been the Polish national lottery). Even installments were of little help because the law prohibits spreading payments over a period longer than five years. It is something that is called “voluntary” health insurance! A social security fund, health insurance, a labour fund … I don’t remember how many times I had to fill in, with capital letters and numbers, the blank spaces below these phrases sounding like
a mantra

For several days, I was considering an idea of bringing the case before the European Tribunal of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Something was definitely amiss with my case. Finally, my warm feelings towards the country on the Vistula River prevailed. I didn’t want to do anything against the country that had received me so warmly some years ago. After all, when any case is brought before international institutions, the image of the country gets tarnished to some extent. I had to pay even though the validity of the request made by ZUS was doubtful. The case, however, was later brought before the European Commission on the request of ZUS after I had submitted an application for redemption of the debt. Halfway through 2014, I already see the end of the stairway or maybe it’s the terminus of the train I wrote about in the beginning. At this point I finish my personal story.

I’m thinking of making use of my six-year-long experience: various contacts, meetings, appeals, applications for spreading out the payments, submitted to ZUS. I’m thinking of piecing it all together in order to organise meetings with international students and immigrants all over Poland. These will be workshops, during which I will talk about my own ignorance in the face of the significance of the situation. In fact, ZUS and the tax office are both equally inaccessible.

Every student and immigrant (if he or she works) is obliged to secure himself or herself. In the beginning, it is obviously far more important to complete formalities required to obtain a visa and register our residence. An official announcement published by ZUS is as follows: “If a person insures himself or herself voluntarily, he or she is required to report to ZUS the fact of having concluded a voluntary health insurance contract with the provincial division of the National Health Fund (NFZ for short in Polish).” That’s what I did a few years ago, believing that I would be paying insurance contributions from that moment on. It turned out that ZUS had charged money even before it even learnt about my existence. That’s what immigrants should strive to avoid. It’s not worth their nerves, a constantly empty bank account and unnecessary installments. I will talk to them about health insurance. Similar meetings, workshops and panels will be particularly helpful for those who are responsible only for themselves (have no children and spouse, and are in good health for the time being). These people probably are not especially interested in matters concerning insurance.

I think that workshops concerning such questions as why the social insurance system is so important, how and where you can insure yourself in Poland, whether you can check if the employer has insured the employee (something that is particularly important for footballers playing in lower leagues), to what benefits an insured person is entitled to and how old-age and disability pensions are granted may prove very useful. Even ZUS itself could be willing to send its experts to answer questions of young immigrants. Someone should explain to them that it’s beneficial for them to pay insurance contributions. I’m curious what percentage of immigrants takes into consideration the perspective of spending their retirement in Poland. We can fall ill or have an accident today or tomorrow. Retirement is a marathon. We don’t always think about how our life will look like in 20 or 30 years’ time.

There is, however, one privileged group of foreigners who are not subject to social insurance. These are citizens of foreign countries (this turn of phrase sounds better than the word “immigrants” although it is the proper definition of a foreigner!) whose residence in Poland is not permanent and who are employed at foreign diplomatic representations, consular posts, international institutions or in special missions. Those who study at state higher education institutions have the problem off their heads. At every such an institution, there is some nice person (a deputy dean for students’ affairs) who helps with all matters concerning social assistance. The situation looks much glimmer when it comes to immigrants working illegally, for instance at markets. I’m curious how much immigants know about ZUS.

By Mammadou Diouf

Translation: Anna Orzechowska