For the past two years I’ve been working in an industrial laundry, an Austrian business located here in Bratislava (Slovakia). There are about 120 of us employees. It’s a very modern laundry, and a large part of our work involves running different machines. My job, though, involves folding by hand—bathrobes, fitted sheets, hospital gowns, etc.—to get them ready for shipment to hotels and hospitals.
The first thing I found surprising was the screens set up at each workplace. They showed, by means of percentage points on colored diagrams, each worker’s production rate. On the side it showed the standard rate, that is, the number per hour of towels, pillow cases, and sheets we are expected to hang or feed into the machine. Unfortunately the figures don’t take into account the pauses in production caused by the machines breaking down, nor any other unforeseen circumstances. I wanted to keep up with the standard, in order to be a good worker and not lose my job. At the same time, I wanted to have some kind of relationship with the other workers, a bit difficult for me because I am a foreigner, from Poland, and I speak with a different accent. The work is fast, and there’s not much time for conversation. However, something happened which showed me early on what was most important. One day I noticed I was the only one who had not finished my quota of work, and I had to stay on longer. I didn’t want to ask for help, because I didn’t want to lengthen anyone else’s workday. The Gypsy people with whom I worked, seeing that I hadn’t been able to get everything done, all came to help me finish. They showed me that it’s possible to find joy in one’s work, not only in keeping up with an often inflated standard, but especially in relationships and in the fact of doing the work together.
There are about forty men from the prison who also work with us, watched by four guards and under the control of surveillance cameras. At the beginning the company set strict limits on how much contact we were permitted to have with them, going to the point of forbidding all conversation. However, it became clear after a few weeks that it was not possible to work together like that, and we began talking to each other. One day, one of them, Luke, asked me right at the beginning of the morning to come closer because he wanted to tell me something important. He started by saying that he’d read an illustrated Bible that someone had lent him. He had been fascinated by the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. He had been particularly impressed by Jesus’ non-judgmental attitude toward the woman, and by how he had not had recourse to violence against the people who wanted to stone her. Luke’s need to not be judged, and to refrain from using violence against others, made me think again about the importance of how I look upon the other person with whom I work or live. Too often, in our hurry, we can look at the other through the lens of their failings, their limitations, and not see above all the human person.
There are also some Ukrainian women who were welcomed by Slovakia when the war broke out. Some of us started getting nervous. Would there be enough work for everyone? Would some of us get laid off? All these fears created resentment and hostility toward these new employees. I wanted to get to know the Ukrainian women, but it wasn’t easy because they worked together in a separate group, and only spoke their own language. One summer day we were all tired, with the high temperatures in the laundry. We were suffocating, and didn’t have any strength to work. At times like that, candies are useful. So, we started trading sweets—they gave us their Ukrainian ones, and we gave them our Slovakian ones. Simple little acts, like giving a candy, or a smile, helped us create relationships in a very tense and difficult environment, and helped us get over our fears.
The ordinary encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is similar, because it begins with Jesus’ request, “May I have a drink” (Jn 4:7). The simplicity of an encounter between one human being and another, without prejudice, reservations, fear, etc. becomes the foundation of a true relationship.