by Jakub Jedras
16 June 2004
Thousands of job-seeking Poles headed to England, Ireland, and even Sweden as soon as their country joined the EU in May. But thousands have also returned home empty-handed.
WARSAW, Poland--They were young, old, and middle-aged. Some had a university degree, others only a few years of schooling, some none at all. They came from big cities, small towns, and rural villages. But they all believed that if they left Poland they would have a better life. So within a month of Poland's accession 1 May to the EU, according to the Polish Foreign Ministry, 15,000 Poles had left the country and scattered to Britain, Ireland, and Sweden.
In the United Kingdom, at least, their arrival was not unexpected. After his meeting with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 6 May in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that "British society is getting older and older and we need young, educated people to work." He added that "a lot of Poles" meet Britain's employment needs and criteria. The sound of a starting gun could be heard from Sczcecin, on the country's German border, to Brest, on Poland's border with Ukraine.
Most Poles arrived in the United Kingdom hoping simply to find a minimum-wage job, which pays £4.50 ($8.24) per hour. But that proved too ambitious for 8,000 of them, who returned to Poland within a matter of weeks, courtesy of a bus or train ticket that in some cases was paid for by the Polish consulate in London.
Not surprisingly, the quickest returnees were those who didn't speak English. "There is a lot of work and I would [have found] it, but I couldn’t even introduce myself to an English employer,” a Pole named Marek told the Lodz regional daily newspaper Dziennik Lodzki. "If my family hadn't helped me, I would have to wait for a return bus to Poland in the park or at Victoria Station.”
"If you can’t [speak] English, don’t even come and try to find a job. It was impossible even [before EU accession] for those who were looking for an illegal job,” confirms 26-year-old Beta, who found her first job in London in 2002 as a part-time receptionist in a medical center. Now she wants to find a better-paid position.
The Polish newspapers have been full of articles offering advice to people who want to start a new life in the U.K. "If the only person in England you know is Prince William (from television), don’t go there,” wrote the Metro newspaper, a regional edition of the national daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Other media have cautioned U.K-bound Poles that it is critical to know someone who is already living and working there, even if they're doing so illegally. Tomek, a 27-year-old Pole who has lived in London for three years, told one Polish newspaper reporter, "It is just easier. You can use the web of contacts of your buddies or family who live there.” Beta weighed in with a story that warned that most Poles take too little money with them, around £100 or £200. "It is, without a doubt, too little. Life in London is so expensive that £500 is the absolute minimum."
Indeed, an international human consulting resources firm recently rated London the second-most expensive city in the world to live in, just behind Tokyo, in its annual rankings.
GOVERNMENT: START THE JOB SEARCH AT HOME
Whether they're taking hopeful Poles to the U.K. or bringing disappointed ones back, the transcontinental bus lines have done a booming business since 1 May. Polish ticket offices are crowded with would-be travelers, and there is usually a two- or three-week waiting period for a London-bound bus seat. At around 80 euros, a bus ticket is by far the cheapest way to get to London. And although many passengers buy one-way tickets, their optimism soon proves unrealistic. "In buses from London I recognize passengers who I carried to Great Britain not more than several days ago,” bus driver Krzysztof Serde told Dziennik Lodzki.
The same is true of the two budget airlines that began operating a Poland-London route this year, Air Polonia and Sky Europe. The cheapest tickets are sold out through August, even though the media have warned their readers that July and August are the most difficult months to find good jobs in Britain because of the wave of students who are also seeking employment at that time.
But hopes aren't the only things that are high for the Polish citizens who enter the U.K. The stakes are, too.
After they have exhausted all legal avenues for finding work and have come up empty, the lure of the con man can be strong. These are groups of Poles who take advantage of their beaten-down countrymen and women by offering them a job in exchange for what they call "a small commission." Determined, desperate, and naive job-seekers agree to pay, but after handing over what is often their last money, they are left high and dry or learn that the job involves toiling in subhuman conditions that more closely resemble slavery than the legal job of their dreams. In extreme cases, the con men are actually traffickers who keep their "clients" locked in small rooms, stripped of their passports, and forced to write their families in Poland for money.
The victims of these grifters are usually the most disadvantaged job-seekers, the ones who have no English-language skills. They're not hard to find: on many days thousands are drawn to the Polish Social Cultural Center in London’s Ravens Court Park, and the so-called "Wailing Wall," where new job announcements are posted, most written in Polish. But some estimates say that more than 80 percent of the ads are fake announcements from con men.
The Polish consulate says it does its best to help the most desperate job-seekers--even loaning them money for return tickets to Poland. So do Polish churches in London. But back home, the Foreign Ministry tries to head off the problem before it happens with pleas for citizens to conduct their EU job searches at home, with the help of local employment offices and the Internet. British and Irish headhunters and employers enthusiastically back that advice and have even created special websites to help Poles in their search for a better life (www.britainjobs.pl and www.irelandjobs.pl.).
Jakub Jedras is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw
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