News - March 30, 2006

In the News / Polish migrant labour

Since Eastern European countries have joined the European Union, all EU countries now have to decide on whether to open their borders, allowing cheap labour to enter, especially from Poland. Last Tuesday the Dutch government postponed the opening of its borders until May, as the government remains undecided on the issue. Polish labour is perceived as a threat to the unskilled labour market in Western Europe, but what does a Pole think of the matter?

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Agnieszka Kowalska shares her ideas on the EU, free trade and migration with conviction. A passion for travel took her not only to summer schools in England. She has also had seasonal employment to the US and Northern Ireland as well as England. She has firsthand experience of earning money abroad, but has also learned to appreciate the idea of having a place to call home.

Since September she has been doing a double MSc degree in Development Economics in Wageningen and International Trade Relations in Poland. Holland feels good she says, ‘Lots of things are similar to Poland, people are friendly, and I still enjoy a kind of excitement when I walk along the street here.’

‘In Poland we chose for the EU,’ she says, explaining her view. ‘We held a referendum and the majority of the population was in favour of joining the union. Membership is really good for us, not only in terms of finding work in other EU countries; we also stand to gain a lot in terms of agriculture and free trade.’

There are already a lot of Poles working in western European countries. Most have the necessary work permit, but some work illegally. Western wages are high compared to Polish wages, and according to Agnieszka many Poles are willing or at least claim to be willing to work in countries like Germany, Holland and Great Britain. ‘You can earn good money there; within a month you earn back what you have invested in a ticket and housing, and the rest soon mounts up in Poland. A lot of young people, especially students, work abroad as well; in the summertime we have four months’ holiday. Opening the borders means it becomes easier to earn good money, and so it is a big issue for young people.

But the Poles are not the only ones who stand to gain. Many of my German, English and even Dutch friends tell me that Polish people are regarded as hard workers in their countries. And besides this we have more to offer than just unskilled labour. My English teacher at the summer school I attended in Britain went to a Polish dentist because of his good skills. Good nurses and doctors are in demand.’ For the lower income jobs in England she sees the recent raising of the minimum wage as an indication that it is still demand for labour.

That many low-income workers in the Netherlands fear unfair competition from Polish workers who are willing to work illegally for much less than the legal minimum wage, Agnieszka regards as a matter of legalisation. ‘Look at the way soft drugs are legalised in Holland. This is the best way to solve this kind of problem; by legalising you get rid of free-riders in my opinion.’

She understands the fear in Holland though: ‘It’s Poland’s big population that worries people, but in the end I don’t think that many Poles will come. It takes much more than a ticket to decide to go and work in another country. You have to be strong and capable of creating your own new world. I’ve heard stories of people who have tried, but went back after one month. Time will tell. If you migrate you leave a lot behind that you can never regain working abroad.’

Martijn Vink