By profession, Miroslaw Majewski is a waiter. But seen in strictly Marxist ideological terms, he is either a freak or a parasite for, at the age of 42, he is unemployed.

In theory, unemployment does not exist in a communist system -- and this is proclaimed as one of the virtues of the planned economy. In practice, it does, as the throng of Poles looking for a job at Warsaw employment office on a recent Saturday morning made plain.

Some, like Majewski, had worked abroad and would only take a job paying what they regarded as a decent salary. Others, like an economist who gave his name as Andrzej, had been declared "redundant" and were looking for new work commensurate with their qualifications. Still others, like Bogdan, a truck driver fired because of drunkenness, were virtually unemployable.

The numbers of people out of work in Poland and other East European countries bear no relation to the army of unemployed in the West. But, except in Yugoslavia, with its liberal free market economy, unemployment statistics are not published. So it is difficult to gauge the extent of this theoretically impossible phenomenon.

At the same time, socialist unemployment can take a different form than that under capitalism. The long welfare lines of Western Europe and the United States are concealed in underemployment. Millions of people are engaged in unproductive jobs where both their output and their pay are low.

As a saying popular in many Eastern European countries goes: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."

Unemployment is likely to become a more pressing issue for Eastern Europe, however, as the region's leaders grapple with economic reforms whose starting point is the desire to promote greater efficiency by introducing market mechanisms. This means measuring profits and losses in decisions about whether to increase production in a factory or close it down along with the jobs it provides.

Although guaranteed jobs have been one of socialism's most attractive selling points, particularly during capitalist recessions, a full employment policy has its drawbacks.

The most obvious failings of central planning, drawn from Eastern European experience, include how labor productivity and poor work discipline, unprofitable investments, and general lack of flexibility in the economy. Some expanding industries, meanwhile, suffer from chronic labor shortages because there is no easy and efficient way of tapping the surplus workers trapped in unproductive areas.

The stories of several Polish workers encountered at random at the Warsaw employment exchange illustrate both the advantages and disadvantages of the socialist approach. Some of the Poles were reluctant to give their full names.

Leszek used to work with his father, a private building contractor, before the father died last year. It proved impossible for Leszek to run the business alone, and he has been out of work for almost five months.

Most Polish economists agree that the country is desperately short of private artisans -- and an effort is being made to increase their number. But, in practice, Leszek said he found it very difficult to get hold of the basic materials and manpower he needs to run his business. Without his father's influential connections, he said, he had to resort to the black market to acquire things like concrete and steel.

Now, he is looking for a secure state job in a construction market that has been largely frozen during Poland's economic crisis. In the meantime, Leszek draws no unemployment benefits. Since accepting minimal social security money from the state might mean being forced to take a job he does not want, he lives off his savings and occasional cash earnings from odd jobs on the side.

Krzystof Kaleta, 27, said he has moved from another town and wants to find a new job with a construction company in Warsaw. As a skilled metalworker, he expected little difficulty finding a position paying around 8,000 zlotys ($250 at the official exchange rate), high by Polish standards. He has worked in the West, but said it was easier to find work in Poland.

Waiter Miroslaw Majewski, on the other hand, complained that the only jobs he could find paid around 4,000 zlotys a month. He preferred to hold on until he found one paying at least 6,000 -- which he considered the minimum to look after a wife and family.

Completely unskilled, Marek said he has tried a succession of one-day jobs like street cleaning and working at a gas station. He said the only way he could make enough to live on was through the black market or by petty pilfering. Most profitable of all was truck driving, since he had been able to sell some of his load en route to shops, sharing the proceeds with the manager.

These interviews suggest an economic system that functions on two levels: one, the official low wage, low productivity economy, and another huge unofficial economy which obeys the laws of supply and demand. Unable to make a decent living from an "official" job, many Poles do something else on the side.

A worker can therefore be "underemployed" if he is unable to find adequately paying work, or if the job he is assigned does not match his qualifications. A center for social research attached to the independent Solidarity union maintains that, by this definition, many university graduates are "underemployed." As many as half Poland's graduate chemists, for example, do not find jobs in their field.

One principal objective of economic reform in Eastern Europe is to eliminate the black market by applying market laws to the official economy. But, if reforms are carried through vigorously, then there is a danger of unemployment in the Western sense.

Yugoslavia, which is not a member of the Warsaw Pact, underwent a major economic reform in the late 1960s. Unproductive factories were closed down, the labor force and bureaucracy streamlined, and the central planning apparatus was largely dismantled in favor of the price system.

Yugoslavia was in the fortunate position of being able to export much of the resulting surplus labor to Western Europe. By the mid-1970s, 1 million Yugoslavs were working abroad.

Recession in the West, however, forced many of them home, and unemployment now runs at nearly 800,000 or 13 percent of the labor force compared to less than 6 percent in the early 1960s, and Yugoslavia has been obliged to adopt social security legislation similar to that in the West.

Within the Soviet Bloc, only Hungary so far has introduced major price reforms. But it has done so in a slower, less radical fashion than Yugoslavia and managed to avoid large-scale unemployment. Workers have been transferred from one industry to another, rather than being dismissed altogether.

But after more than 12 years, Hungary's economists still have not solved the dilemma of what to do when a firm consistently loses money. If market principles were applied, it would go bankrupt.In practice, the state almost always intervenes to save the workers' jobs.

The advantages in human terms of the Hungarian compromise are obvious. But so are the drawbacks. In a recent newspaper interview, Labor Minister Ferenc Treton complained the work efficiency was not satisfactory and that too many workers were still tied down in unprofitable, futile, and frequently even senseless jobs.

Treton criticized the fact that many workers took advantage of the government's commitment to full employment by constantly changing their jobs.

The unemployment dilemma has become central to Poland's attempts at economic reform. Economists believe that it is even more acute here since, unlike Yugoslavia, Poland is not in a position of being able to export surplus workers to the West. And, unlike Hungary, which enjoys a food surplus, Poland is attempting to introduce reforms at a time of grave economic crisis marketed by huge foreign indebtedness, successive harvest failures, and a collapse in confidence between the authorities and the work-force.

All Polish economic experts agree that there are numerous prestige projects, undertaken during the 1970s, which are uneconomic and should be scrapped. But when, for example, a program of layoffs was announced last year at several mines in the Lublin coal basin in eastern Poland, it was fiercely resisted by the local Solidarity branch.

Solidarity's advisers acknowledge that economic reforms are essential. But they claim that they can be implemented without leading to significant unemployment in the Western sense.