Global Economics

What If Britain's Poles Went Home?


The Polish government's new plan to lure migrant workers back home may already be working, a setback for many British employers

The house in a swanky north London neighbourhood is a half-finished shell. Walls are exposed, wires hang loose, and taps are not yet connected to the mains. There's another six months' well-paid work left to finish this major refurbishment, but the builders have upped sticks overnight and taken a better offer. Remarkably, that better offer is back in their native Poland. Could this be a sign of a massive "drain drain"? An example of Britain's army of Polish plumbers and builders heading back to eastern Europe? Having conquered our kitchens, are the Poles about to return home en masse, leaving a trail of dripping taps?

Jane, the 33-year-old owner of the half-built house, is at loss for words—as well as builders. "They called to say they wouldn't be coming back on Monday," she says. "I've no idea what I'm going to do. They were great—very punctual, very hard-working."

How quickly the (kitchen) tables seem to have turned. It was only four years ago that Poland joined the EU, and promptly saw a mass exodus of its skilled labour. Spearheaded by the fabled Polish plumber, hundreds of thousands flocked to the open arms of Britain and Ireland. No one has the foggiest exactly how many eastern Europeans have come to Britain since 2004, but the best guess is around a million—of whom around half are Polish. It's been the biggest migration to this country in centuries—and a tad more than the 13,000 a year predicted by the Government.

Yet just as we've started enjoying the benefits of this mass immigration—and taking for granted having an insatiable supply of reliable, tea break-shunning builders—it might be back to the Yellow Pages. And back to putting the kettle on.

Last week, the Polish government unveiled an audacious plan to lure skilled workers back home. The newly elected Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, who swept to power six months ago with a pledge to encourage migrant workers to return, announced that he planned to run adverts in English and Polish language newspapers in this country.

At the same time, a "handbook for re-emigrants" is to be given away with Polish newspapers and at cultural centres in the UK. It will advise Poles how to find accommodation back home, and apply for special resettlement loans. It will also tell about a series of measures aimed at encouraging them to return—including a five-year amnesty for migrant workers who have failed to pay tax at home while working abroad.

Tusk was responding to acute staff shortages in Poland's building and hospitality trades, which are of particular concern in the run-up to the European Football Championships in 2012, which the country will jointly host with Ukraine. Some 200,000 extra workers are needed to build new stadia.

And the signs are that his campaign could already be working. Last year, according to officials, the number of Poles registering to work in the UK fell, for the first time since the mass immigration began, by 10 per cent.

The figures are supported by a welter of anecdotal evidence that the Poles are indeed going home. There's the head of a construction firm in London who says 30 per cent of his Polish workers never returned back to Britain after the Christmas break. Or the budget airline (SkyEurope) which has withdrawn its Polish routes. There's the fish farm in the Highlands struggling to recruit new workers. And a local migrants' advice committee group in Derby which says 500 of the city's 6,000 Poles have returned. Jane and her unfinished house are not alone.

Nowhere does the fear of a sudden return to eastern Europe strike more deeply than in the countryside. In the low-lying Fens, a tractor chugs through a field followed by half a dozen workers stooping to pick vegetables. The only person who's British is the tractor driver. The rest are all from eastern Europe. This is the face of the modern British countryside, where workers from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland prop up our beleagured agricultural sector.

Among those doing the back-breaking 60 hour week is a former nurse from Riga who is earning six times her hospital salary. She mimes giving an injection, then points to the crop: "good work" she laughs. Next to her, a car-sprayer from Vilnius, who says he is making £2,000 a month with overtime. And there are no complaints from a security guard who has just arrived from rural Poland. "It's wonderful here. I think this job isn't that hard, plenty of people work in harder jobs."

In the whole of the 10-hour shift I observe, there was just one fleeting tea break. Stakhanov would've been proud. Almost as proud as the Lincolnshire farmer whose veg the eastern Europeans are picking.

"They're keen to work, they get on with the job. Bit hard to understand them, mind," he shouts over a portable TV blaring out R&B hits in tractor cab. Five or six years ago, those following in the wake of his tractor would have been a mix of students, immigrants and some locals. Now he's all but given up trying to use local lads. "In my experience, the English people don't really want to do it too much," he adds. "These eastern Europeans want the work and they're keen to work, they'll keep working till dark...."

On this farm there is still a steady flow of eastern Europeans willing to do the work—though they could do with more labour. But the fear that they might return home, leaving him to rely on locals, fills the farmer with dread. "The problem is that on the farm it's a manual job; people don't want to do it no more."

It is the same nervous message in farms and factories all around immigrant-rich East Anglia. Down the road from the farm, at Stamford Stone, huge blocks of limestone are being cut with precision. Forklift trucks whizz about. Lorries come and go.

Four years ago, a couple of job-hunting Lithuanians evoked the spirit of Norman Tebbit: they got on their bikes, cycled a few miles out of Peterborough and knocked on the doors of businesses to offer their services. One of the firms they pitched up at was Stamford Stone, where the boss, Ivor Crowson, was struggling to find people who could be relied on to turn up on Mondays. Crowson gave the Lithuanians a go. Now nearly half his workforce is from eastern Europe.

"We used to suffer absenteeism, particularly on a Monday. If people had been up too late the night before they wouldn't turn up and when you're trying to operate a production system and somebody doesn't turn up it used to cause an awful lot of problems."

Impromptu three-day weekends are now unfeasible round here. "In fact, if somebody did want a day off, I'm sure they'd find somebody—a relative or a cousin—who'd fill their place in for the day if necessary. Though that that doesn't often occur."

As if on cue, a strapping Lithuanian stone-cutter solemnly attests: "Of course I like hard work. I not like sit somewhere and read newspapers. Every Lithuanian guy likes work."

Not surprisingly, employers see the eastern Europeans as economic manna from heaven. They talk darkly of their farms and factories not being able to survive if the migrants head home. But there is also a social cost for those parts of the country which have been on the receiving end of this massive wave of migration. In Peterborough, around one in 10 residents are new arrivals. With not enough central cash to recognise the real scale and impact of the immigration, services in Peterborough are creaking under the strain.

The fallout is tangible: schools where barely a child has English as their first language, GP surgeries struggling to cope with hundreds of extra patients, and councils dealing with complaints over overcrowding, noise and new arrivals who don't understand the colour-coded niceties of wheelie-bin recycling.

If Peterborough's got its troubles, so, too, has Poland. The overnight exodus of skilled labour means employers there have for years been having to draft in their own foreign workers from places like Ukraine. There's even a contingent of North Koreans who've been brought in to work at the Gdansk shipyard—the birthplace of Solidarity.

But these welders might be heading back to Kim Jong-il sooner than they think. Just as the number of Poles registering for work here is falling, the Polish labour ministry reports that an increasing number of businesses are managing to recruit their countrymen back. The main pull is, of course, money.

Despite its brain drain, Poland's economy has been growing at a rapid rate—some 22 per cent, cumulatively, in the past four years (twice the rate of ours). Unemployment is down to 10 per cent (half of what it was four years ago). Wages are rising, as is the strength of the Polish zloty. A pound was worth more than seven zlotys when Poland joined the EU in 2004, but today it's down to under four and a half. That's a whole lot less of a reason to stay to do our plumbing and fruit picking. The editor of a London-based Polish newspaper recently said she thought that if the pound fell to three and a half zlotys, 70 per cent of our Poles would pack their bags.

For many who are returning, the equation is probably quite simple. The gap between what they could earn here and at home has narrowed—and perhaps they've earned enough here to put down a deposit on a place in Poland before the property market there starts to go through the roof. They'd also be returning to a Poland with a somewhat more liberal government than the one they left a few years ago—and a society which still has a strong emphasis on family togetherness.

Are we on the verge of a modern-day Summer of Discontent—with unpicked crops rotting in our fields and taps dripping uncontrollably? A vision of suburban dystopia it may be, but one, I sense, that won't come to fruition. The government figures show that despite that 10 per cent fall, some 214,000 eastern Europeans applied to register to work here last year. Hardly a trickle.

And what the figures don't reveal are the deep roots that many Poles are putting down in Britain. Over the past few months I've met many young families with children at British primary schools who are determined that their kids will finish their education over here. These families are here for the long haul.

"I've a flat here now and my children are with me," one eastern European mother told me after one of the Polish services at the Catholic church. "They're at school and have made friends. So I couldn't go back to Poland now—even if the situation there improved very quickly."

The mums in Peterborough have even set up an Associa-tion of Polish Women. "The ladies are very enthusiastic. They really want to integrate and show the locals about Polish culture and tradition," says Cat, one of the organisers. "They also really want to learn about English culture because they say, 'this is our home right now, and in order to make this a home for our children we need to learn more so our children can integrate and understand'."

Cat is striking example of the allure of social mobility which might encourage many Poles to stay put in Britain. She arrived here with a smattering of English and took a job packing chickens. Her English is now flawless enough to work as an official translator (and marry a local).

Even for those who've yet to reach chicken-packer status, that allure of opportunity seems enough to keep them in Britain. One evening in the centre of Peterborough, I came across a mobile kitchen with volunteers handing out soup to a dozen or so homeless people—all eastern European. Slovakian, Polish and Lithuanian men who were prepared to sleep rough in Britain in the hope of finding something rather than return home. "It's all right here, you know," shrugs a young Lithuanian.

The real pinch may well be felt in the run-up to 2012. That's the year that Britain stages the Olympics and Poland co-hosts the European football championships. If wages in Poland rise enough to attract home serious numbers of those hallowed hard-working eastern Europeans, we'll be in deep trouble.

The construction industry is already warning that we need another 182,000 workers just to pull off the London Olympics projects—including 15,000 more plumbers. Forget the athletics. Our greatest Olympic triumph might be training 15,000 homegrown plumbers. Lord knows how anyone will get a leak fixed when 2012 kicks in. We may soon be rather nostalgic for the days when we had Poles on tap.


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