Polish citizens are currently allowed to work and settle almost everywhere in the EU. The only two countries which still make use of the so-called 'transition period' and require work permits from Polish citizens are Germany and Austria.
Reporting about the European Commission's latest report on labour migration in Europe, Polish daily Rzeczpospolita noted that Poles who leave their country to seek job opportunities abroad are better educated than the national average.
Indeed, by early 2008, 2.3 million Poles had spent time abroad for a period of longer than two months. A quarter of these were university or college graduates, whereas the comparable ratio for Polish society as a whole is 14.7%. It is thus not out of place to describe the phenomenon as a "brain drain", specialists said, with the young age of the emigrants (half of whom were younger than 29) suggesting that many of them may be lost to Poland forever.
The Polish Economy Ministry cites the following main consequences of labour migration:
- A decrease of the country's population, as emigration adds to the general, natural negative trend, and;
- periodic destabilisation of workforce structure in terms of age and education.
On the positive side, money transfers from emigrants to their families are the second-largest source of finance for the country's development after direct investment, the ministry notes. It also estimates that Poland's GDP would now be lower had the recent emigration not taken place.
However, the economy ministry's report neglected to focus on the sociological or psychological consequences of migration, including for instance the phenomenon of so-called 'Euro-orphans': the significant number of children whose parents are both abroad, and who are taken care of either by grandparents or by elder siblings. Many are also left in Poland without any care at all.
Polish Minister for Labour and Social Policy Joanna Fedak, for her part, does not dramatise the consequences of labour migration.
"The phenomenon of economic migration is nothing new, and young people especially will be leaving their country in pursuit of new experiences or in order to master their command of a foreign language and increase their qualifications," Fedak told a recent debate organised by the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce.
Indeed, Poland has a migratory tradition dating back to 1608, when the first Poles arrived in North America. There are an estimated 22 million Polish Americans nowadays, representing 6% of the population of the United States. The main difference between the US and Europe is that returning home has never been an option for Polish Americans.
Michał Boni, the government's counsellor and expert on the labour market, told a discussion organised by Polish daily Dziennik of the relationship between economic migration and building of human capital.
"There is nothing wrong in the fact that one fifth of those entering the labour market pass their internship abroad," said Boni, adding that the key is to make people come back after a while.
The strategy of "I earn money there and I spend it here" has two sides to it, the expert added. On the one hand, the inflow of 14 billion zlotys from emigrants has a positive effect on consumer demand, but on the other, the Polish labour market becomes more passive as a result of emigration, which Boni said is a dangerous side effect.
Impact of the crisis
Experts at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy estimate that approximately half a million Poles will return or have already returned to their homeland as a result of the economic crisis. However, no precise data are available.
The government drafted a programme called the 'Return Plan' to offer support to those willing to return, as announced by Prime Minister Donald Tusk during a visit to London in November 2008. But it is questionable whether the programme has had any impact.
According to the results of a survey among emigrants, presented by the daily Gazeta, the majority of emigrants have no intention of coming back. They appreciate better living conditions and higher salaries in the West and would not take a chance by abandoning the positions they have found abroad.
In general, living standards and life satisfaction for those who leave the country increases dramatically, found the survey. Even the economic downturn does not appear to have incited many Poles to change their plans. Poles in Italy and Spain were the first to notice and suffer from the crisis, the research found, but 56% of the respondents there declared that they do not intend to return home as a result of the hardship.
Even those who say they will return frequently qualify this by adding "after retiring". According to the survey's authors, this suggests that the number of Poles who have already taken root abroad is greater than wishful-thinking politicians are perhaps willing to estimate.