Beneficial immigration Print E-mail
September 2007 Politics

Polish immigrants have changed the UK's economy - and the look of Britain's cities - By Vanessa Quick

In the past four years, about two million workers emigrated from the Eastern European EU member states to the UK. Almost half of them are from Poland. In the beginning, builders, decorators and plumbers arrived. But now, a significant number of university graduates and professionals are crossing the English Channel, too.

This February, the boiler in my temporary London apartment broke down. After a few phone calls, an efficient, polite young man knocked on the door - Vlad, the Polish plumber. Vlad, 27, studied engineering in Warsaw but retrained as a plumber when he heard that there was a shortage in the UK. He arrived in 2005.

The Polish plumber has come to symbolize the Western Europeans' fear of an invasion of cheap Eastern European labor threatening their jobs. The phenomenon was named "plumber phobia" by Pascal Lamy, the French head of the World Trade Organization. In no time at all, however, the Polish National Tourism Office turned the cliché upside down with a poster depicting a hunky plumber inviting French tourists to visit Poland, and him at home.

The Polish plumber debate soon took a positive note, with Western politicians declaring them very welcome, and even needed. The media changed track as well - Polish plumbers are now perceived as affordable and reliable, as opposed to their British counterparts.

In fact, the conservative daily, The Telegraph, cheered the invasion in an opinion piece in June 2005: "Without the Polish plumber and his apple-cheeked cousin, the Polish cleaning lady, our radiators would harbor dust-bunnies, and skeins of Andrex [toilet paper] would float like seaweed through our drawing rooms."

This is also how British businesses perceive immigrant labor. According to a survey of small and medium-sized businesses conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce and published this year, more than three quarters of employers believe immigration is beneficial to the economy. Asked their reasons for employing immigrant workers, companies rank skills and attitude far higher than wage costs, which was ranked high by just 6 percent. Impressed by foreign workers' skills, they want the government to smooth the way for more to be employed.

It is estimated that over the past four years, about two million immigrant workers came from the Eastern European EU member states to the UK. Of this figure, almost half are Polish citizens. The first wave of immigrants, like Vlad, found work as builders, decorators and plumbers but there was also a significant number of university graduates and professionals who, provided their English was up to scratch, found work in their professions relatively easily.

Katarzyina, 37, is a dentist who came to England two years ago and found work in a dentist's office in Bristol. "I had worked as a dentist in Poland and tried to stay but it was too difficult to make enough money," she said. "I had to work extreme hours just to meet my basic needs. I came to England and the process was fairly straight forward, though I did have to pass special English language tests and certify my degree."

Ania was an English language teacher in Poland. "The main reasons for my move were not purely economic but that did play a big role," she said. "As a teacher in Poland, I was earning around £200 (?295) a month. I am now earning a lot more as a translator and interpreter, and still have time to pursue my other interests."

But for every Polish or other Eastern European professional who was lucky enough to find work in their field, there are many others not so fortunate. Andrzej, 28, is a graphic designer looking for creative work - at the moment he is supporting himself by doing painting and decorating jobs.

"I am confident that soon I will be able to find something in my profession," he said. "It takes time to get used to living in a new country. When I first came here, I had to spend all my time just figuring out the basics: how to rent an apartment, how to pay the bills, where to buy what... I've been here for six months, and in those months, I think I have learned more about how to get good work."

Most of the immigrants from the new EU member states are in the so-called invisible sector: They work in food processing and as seasonal agricultural staff. According to Home Office figures for the past year, 82 percent are between the ages of 18 to 34, and 56 percent work in factories. But British cities also have a highly visible Polish presence - every London cafe or restaurant seems to have Polish staff.

With the burgeoning Polish population, British businesses have spotted a gap in the market. The Centre for Economics and Business Research believes the average Polish immigrant worker has a disposable income of between £6,000 and £7,000 a year and that the market is worth about £4 billion annually.

Supermarkets now stocks items familiar to every Pole: Winiary packet soups and stock cubes, Pudliszki ready meals, as well as sausages and sauerkraut. Borders became the first bookstore chain to introduce a Polish language section. Branches in London's Oxford Street, Southampton and Birmingham have been stocking over 100 books in Polish since July.

The do-it-yourself store, B&Q, has dual-language signs in selected stores to help Polish builders find what they need. A Polish university is setting up a satellite branch in West London to allow the booming number of Poles who earn a living in Britain to continue their studies here as well.

Pairing immigrants with jobs has become good business in the UK. Polish Express, a Polish language newspaper, organizes monthly employment fairs at which about 40 recruitment consultants and employment agencies search for suitable candidates.

The Reading Chronicle became the first newspaper to produce a Polish edition: The "Reading Kronika" has seven pages and is sold in Polish delis, shops and clubs across Berkshire. Several banks have introduced dedicated Polish bank accounts in the UK offering both current account services and access to customers' funds in Poland.

Local authorities have caught on: Thames Valley Police is looking for Polish speakers to join their call centers and answer emergency telephone calls. In Cheshire, and some other areas, road signs are in Polish.

Even Glastonbury festival, that great British institution, hosted two Polish bands this year, Poise Rite and Habakuk. They performed on the left field stage in an event organized by the GMB union, in order to highlight the plight of the immigrant workers who are having trouble obtaining the basic employment rights. In the words of the Polish consul-general, Janusz Wach: the life of Polish immigrant workers in the UK is not always "hunky-dory." They face big challenges.

- Vanessa Quick is a Bristol based journalist and filmmaker.

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