Poland frets over foreign workers as economy slows

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Trade unions in Poland are calling for restrictions on some foreign workers, partly to make room for thousands of Polish workers expected to lose their jobs in other parts of the crisis-hit European Union.

Tens of thousands of workers from nearby ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine flocked to Poland during the boom years, which are now ending as the global economic crisis takes hold. 

Demand was particularly strong after Poland joined the EU in 2004, triggering an exodus of at least a million Poles to Western Europe, mostly to Britain and Ireland, in search of better-paid jobs there. 

“The Polish government should consider limiting the inflow of foreigners because there cannot be wage and employment ‘dumping’,” said Jan Guz, head of the OPPZ union, which has over a million members. 

“We are not talking about Germans or other European Union citizens […] We are talking of Ukrainians, Belarussians and Chinese […] Employers tend to pick them because they work for peanuts,” Guz told Reuters. 

The union’s concerns mirror those of other countries. In Britain, protesters demanding ‘British jobs for British workers’ have complained about foreigners, including Poles, undercutting local workforces by accepting lower wages. 

Poland’s labour ministry says up to 10,000 Ukrainians and Belarussians are employed legally in the country at present, but says it does not know how many more may be working on the black market. 

Many urban middle-class Poles employ Ukrainians and Belarussians as baby-sitters, cleaners or for other menial work. 

Though Poland’s economy remains more robust than many amid the global recession, foreign workers say they have started to feel the change of climate. “There is much less work now,” said Oksana, 32, a Ukrainian who works in Poland legally as a nanny for two children. 

“There also seems to be more competition for (menial) jobs from Polish women who live in villages around Warsaw. And that’s something new […] And there are still Ukrainians coming in. It is simply much worse in Ukraine. There are no jobs there.” 

Ukraine, which is not in the EU, has been hammered by the global crisis due to its heavy reliance on exports of steel and chemicals, with industrial output down more than 30 per cent. By contrast, Poland still expects to see modest growth this year. 

Poles returning? 

“We need to find more jobs here in Poland because many Poles will be coming home [from Western Europe],” said Guz. 

Many Poles in Britain and Ireland found work in sectors such as construction, which have been especially hard hit during the recession now afflicting most of Europe. 

Migration statistics within the 27-nation EU are imprecise because of free movement of people across national borders. 

However, a recent poll in Ireland showed a third of that country’s estimated 200,000 Polish immigrants plan to leave Ireland within a year, though not necessarily to go home. 

Unemployment in Poland edged up to 10.9 percent in February, according to labour ministry data published last week, up from around nine percent in 2008 but still only about half the level seen as recently as 2004. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.) 

Throughout the EU, the first to be hit by job cuts appear to be foreign workers. In the UK, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for "British jobs for British workers," but similar outbursts of job market nationalism have emerged as far away as Romania (EURACTIV 17/02/09). 

A FT/Harris survey published yesterday (16 March) revealed that 79% of Italians, 78% of Britons, 71% of Spaniards, 67% of Germans and 51% of French people would back proposals to ask jobless immigrants to leave the country. 

The attitudes revealed by the survey fuelled concerns among mainstream parties in the UK that the economic downturn will prove a recruiting agent for the far-right British National Party, the Financial Times wrote. 

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