Poles Depart

14 November 2007

Poles Depart

A Dutch MP looks into the consequences of mass emigration for Poland and its people

On 1st May the borders of the Netherlands were thrown open to workers from Poland and other countries which joined the European Union in 2004. According to reports, the Dutch sorely needed this immigrant labour. But what has this wave of migration meant for these workers' country of origin? Dutch Socialist Party (SP) Member of Parliament and labour affairs specialist Paul Ulenbelt, along with Bart van Kent who works for the SP's parliamentary group in The Hague, went to Poland and spoke with large numbers of people who were in a position to answer this question, one which has attracted far less attention in the mainstream media and from the left than have the implications of the same people's arrival in western Europe.

by Bart van Kent and Rob Janssen

Paul Ulenbelt with Ferroxcube employees

Praca w Holandii is Polish for 'Work in the Netherlands'. Banners and billboards carrying these words festoon the streets of Opole, a town of some 100,000 inhabitants in southern Poland. The area around the station alone is home to around forty employment bureaux offering jobs in the Netherlands – and nowhere else. Almost all of the Netherlands' major agencies are represented. After accession to the European Union in 2004, restrictions meant that initially only people with dual citizenship with an EU country were able to go to work in the Netherlands, though because the southern Polish region of Silesia was part of Germany until 1945, it is not unusual for people to have both Polish and German nationality. The outflow thus began in earnest from day one. Since 1st May 2007, however, people from Poland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have had the right to work in the Netherlands, no longer needing a special permit to exercise this freedom. The vacancy ads now make it clear that a Polish passport alone is sufficient, and the outflow has become a veritable wave. There were already problems for the Polish labour market even in the face of the dual nationality requirement, with large-scale recruitment to jobs in the Netherlands of drivers, health care personnel and building workers. Estimates put the number of Poles living in the Netherlands prior to the lifting of restrictions earlier this year at 150.000 – clearly big business for the employment agencies, which makes it all the more striking how candid these agencies' employees are in expressing their concerns about labour migration. Prezemyslaw Osuch, for example, who works for Adecco, one of the major firms involved, said that “In the short term it's good for your income if you go to work abroad, but in time it takes its toll on family life. It's better to stay in Poland.” Olsok Grazyna, a manager of a bureau belonging to another firm, APN, spoke openly about the “many relationships which fall apart through long absences while Poles in the Netherlands jump into bed with each other.”

Olsok Grazyna's office is full of football trophies, reminding us that the European Championships – the Euros - are scheduled to be held in Poland and the Ukraine in 2012. A casual remark about this led Olsok to reveal that he could see difficulties ahead. “The building of the stadiums for the Euros is a big problem. There aren't enough building workers and other skilled people to build them or to put in place infrastructure such as roads and hotels. Bringing labour in from the Ukraine isn't a straightforward solution either, because they're building six stadiums there too, with all the rest of it. There are voices raised in favour of farming out the building work and flying in Chinese workers to do it. The government has already asked UEFA to postpone the deadline for completion of the stadiums by a year.”

“Divorce was hardly known here; now it's increasing hand over fist”

The growing shortage of labour in Poland itself is one problematic consequence of the outflow to the Netherlands. But it is not the only one. Nariusz Jarzomber, journalist for the regional newspaper Nowa Trybuna Opolska: “If both parents work abroad this often creates problems. The number of divorces is increasing strongly. It's also not good for children's development if they don't often see their parents. Of course, as far as income goes there are positive effects, but I am extremely worried about the country's future. It's principally highly skilled personnel who are leaving for other countries. There is now a shortage of building workers, but soon there will be shortages beginning to effect other groups of workers, such as medical staff.” Waldemar Musiol, a priest from Bisdom in Opole, confirmed Jarzomber's interpretation. “Financially things are better for people who go to work abroad, but the social consequences are major. In the past divorce was hardly known here; now it's increasing hand over fist, especially amongst young people, who haven't been married long before one of the partners goes to work abroad. Working abroad is disadvantageous for the children, for family ties and social cohesion. There are many smaller villages here in the district where people have left en masse."

These pronunciations confirmed what SP Member of Parliament Paul Ulenbelt has long observed. "The consequences for this country are tragic," he says. "As well as shortages on the labour market, families are being torn apart, villages emptied and kids ending up in children's homes. For the SP that was an important reason behind our opposition earlier this year in parliament to the unrestricted opening of the borders. Of course, pressure from workers in the Netherlands played a major role, but in parliament the SP was the only party which took an interest in the consequences for the migrants' country of origin."

The new Philips' factory in Wroclaw will probably hire Chinese workers

The journey from Opole to Warsaw was an exciting one. On four occasions Paul Ulenbelt and Bart van Kent were witnesses to car accidents, and twice they narrowly escaped being involved in a collision themselves. “Looking at this from the standpoint of the European football championships I can foresee big problems with this pitiful road network," says Maarten Goslings, director of an information technology firm in Warsaw. “There are four times as many accidents per kilometre here as there are in the Netherlands and proportionally four times as many people again are killed in them." Goslings, who has been in Poland since 1990, notes that the country suffers from a serious shortage of IT personnel. “People well-trained in information and communications technologies can earn €5.000 per month gross in a number of top positions. There's no export of these people to the Netherlands or to England. Doctors, on the other hand, are,increasingly becoming 'export articles', going principally to Ireland, the UK and the Scandinavian countries.” Goslings has personal experience of the shortage of building workers. Waiting for a house which still has to be completed, he is on a list of people waiting for workers with the necessary skills to become available. "I think the contractor is going to be hiring personnel from the Ukraine," he says.

The Dutch ambassador, Marnix Krop, and economic affairs attaché Frank ter Borg are clearly pleased that a member of their country's parliament has come to Warsaw, noting that "this is the first time that an MP has visited us." According to Frank ter Borg , one-and-a-half to two million Poles are employed abroad, mainly in the UK, the Netherlands and Ireland. Finding building workers is becoming increasingly difficult, despite the fact that upwards of a million workers from the Ukraine are now working in Poland, most of them in the building sector, service industries and agriculture. “People here talk in terms of a 'physical labour market'," he says. "If you need a plumber, you go the place where buses from the Ukraine arrive and look for one." Ambassador Krop believes that the stadiums for the European championships will be ready at the last minute, adding, however, that "how these stadiums and the infrastructure will actually proceed and who is going to build them is another question."

Krop en Ter Borg review a number of statistics. Despite the fact that wages in Poland differ hugely between regions, with employees in Warsaw receiving on average 176% of the average for the EU-27, while those in the countryside of eastern Poland scraping along on a mere 30%, there is almost no internal labour mobility. An unemployed worker in eastern Poland would rather try his or her luck in the Netherlands than go to Warsaw. This can be discerned from the unemployment figures. In Warsaw only 3.5 % of the workforce is unemployed, while 300 kilometres (+/- 200 miles) away the figure can reach as high as 25%. LG Philips is building a factory in Wroclaw, but is unable to recruit staff in the broad vicinity. According to Ter Borg, the factory will be staffed with Chinese workers. As far as health care is concerned he notes that "wages (in the sector) are pitifully low. Departments are being closed in hospitals because of shortages of personnel. A doctor earns between €300 and €400 a month. They augment their income with direct payments from patients and by working in private clinics, or working abroad during their holidays.”

Eighty kilometres from Warsaw lies Skierniewice, a town of some 15,000 inhabitants. In 1997 Philips relocated a factory from the Netherlands there. But things went wrong: nobody would take a job on the projected wages, the factory went bankrupt, and it is now in the hands of the Taiwanese firm Ferroxcube, though it still has a Dutch director, Gerry Monkhof. “Something over five hundred people work at Ferroxcube," he says. "In the last six months twenty percent of the employees have left for other countries, or to work in building because the shortage of labour in the sector has led to wage increases. Wages at Ferroxcube have risen by 10% this year as we try to hold on to staff." He takes a glum view of the future. Competition from China is murderous, he complains, and expects that within a year as a result of these wages the factory will either go bankrupt or move to China itself. A Ferroxcube employee says that in her village it is easy to see who has worked in the Netherlands. "They have better houses and better cars," she says, adding that one of her colleagues will be going there soon as well. "His wife is a qualified dentist and is no longer applying for jobs in Poland. As soon as she's found a position her husband will be going with her, and Ferroxcube will no longer have a sales manager."

“Why import staff, while positions for medical students are subject to a freeze?"

The expectation is that the outflow of highly skilled personnel will in the near future take on ever greater proportions. The European Commission has even prepared a proposal to issue a so-called blue card, which will make it easier for people from outside Europe to enter the EU to work. Brussels refers to this as the 'battle for brains', but Paul Ulenbelt has another name for it: migration apartheid. “Because you are in fact selecting people on the basis of their level of education and training," he explains. "I find that really dreadful. And another thing, these ‘brains’ are desperately needed in the countries from which they come. Removing them can in my view be compared to the plundering of a country for its raw materials. I'm often asked whether it shouldn't be for these people themselves to decide where they want to make their future? My answer is that whichever way you look at it most people are happiest in their own countries, and Dutch firms don't bring Poles, Czechs or Lithuanians here in order to offer them better prospects for the future. It's nothing to do with the people themselves. It's all about keeping wages low. A system that drags people all over Europe – well, I'm against it, and when they get to the Netherlands or to England, they often face exploitation, poor housing, friction with the local population, and what have you. Does the Netherlands need skilled personnel? Certainly. But can you explain to me then why there is a freeze on places for medical students, while we at the same time need a 'blue card' to bring people from outside the EU? It's a question of investing in our own country, and this goes also for less skilled work. If we continue to bring ever more cheap labour in from abroad, modernisation of the economy will take a back seat.”

In the meantime Poland busies itself with the problem of the building of stadiums for the European championships. In the streets, in cafés and restaurants, everyone has an opinion. With the eyes of the world on them, after all, all appear convinced that a solution will be found. Polish politicians are well aware of the problem and are looking for 'creative solutions', which sometimes look for all the world like the panic that can break out in a team's defence under relentless pressure from superior opponents: a parliamentary proposal to oblige all Poles working abroad to return to put in a day's building work, for example. Pawel Nasilowski, acting director general of Polish prisons has even suggested that 20.000 prison inmates could be set to work on the stadiums and accompanying infrastructure, though shocked, apparently, by the media attention which this attracted, he has been reluctant to repeat his proposal publicly. An amusing soap episode, perhaps, but emblematic indeed of the complex problems which the outflow of Polish labour is provoking in the country.

You are here