Page last updated at 12:24 GMT, Thursday, 16 February 2006

Eager Poles find German jobs

Polish laundry
Towels from many Berlin hotels are taken across the border for cleaning
Poland's membership of the European Union has meant money-saving opportunities for some German firms, but many German workers feel their jobs are threatened, writes the BBC's Catherine Miller.

As soon as Genek Zelewski slams the doors of his lorry in Berlin, the race against the clock begins.

Every day, he picks up sacks of dirty washing in the German capital and drives it across the border to the Textil Fliegel laundry in Gryfino, northwestern Poland.

Within 24 hours, it has to be immaculate and back in the pristine dining rooms of Berlin's top hotels.

The company achieves its goal, through seamless logistics and an impressive, high-tech computer-controlled laundry.

But the real cutting edge is the dozens of Polish women, patiently folding towels and bathrobes and checking each piece of linen for the slightest imperfection.

The set-up caused outrage among German competitors and the Berlin senate even began an investigation into the company for "stealing" German jobs.

EU directive

But managing director Franz Josef Wiesemann says his company simply could not exist in Germany.

I lost my job because they took on Polish workmen who were much cheaper
Unemployed German

"It would be impossible. We couldn't just move the laundry across the border," he said. "Firstly, wages form about 40% or 50% of our costs.

"And then you need the right workers to get a certain level of quality - and we have those workers in Poland, we have workers who will work seven days a week, 365 days a year round the clock. And it would be incredibly hard to find workers like that in Germany."

Since Poland joined the EU, it has been free to export its products to all the member states. But there is still no internal EU market in services - everything from plumbing to physiotherapy.

The European Commission has proposed a directive which would make that possible, but it faces fierce opposition from Germany and France, who fear the impact of cheap competition on their labour markets. The European Parliament approved a watered-down version of the law at first reading on 16 February.

I think that for some German architects there could be possibilities on the Polish side as well
Jacek Lenart
Textil Fliegel has two separate, registered companies - one in Germany and another in Poland - and so avoids the restrictions. Mr Wiesemann says Germans are wrong to fear the impact of the services directive.

"Nothing will change. The Polish workers who want to work here are here already - those who are as inflexible as the Germans are will stay there," he says.

But not everyone has managed to negotiate the rules.

Jacek Lenart is an architect in the town of Szczecin (Stettin). Work is thin on the ground in this part of Poland and he would like to bid for jobs across the border. But under the current EU rules, he would have to go through a complicated registration process with the German Chamber of Architects.

"It's not working now. I know that some of our colleagues try to do it, but I think it's too complicated and time-wasting and it's not a straight line to the client."

Under the services directive he would automatically be able to compete for work across Europe and could take advantage of his relatively cheaper fees. But he thinks there is also an opportunity for Germans.

"At the start, we will work on our own levels, but I think that in the future prices will not be so different. And I think that for some German architects there could be possibilities on the Polish side as well, because we are expecting to invest a huge amount of money from the EU."

Job threat

For others, the EU's restrictions have left them in a strange half-way house. Maciej Frackiewicz builds made-to-measure wardrobes in the border town of Gubin. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004 he has been expanding into the German market, taking advantage of his cheaper prices.

Maciej Frackiewic
Maciej Frackiewic: Directive would allow firm to offer more services
He is free to export his cupboards because they are a product. But the carpentry work to fit them would count as a service. He is coy about how his business works, and says what he does is delivery - not a service.

"There's nothing wrong, we are simply taking the product from Poland to Germany. Sometimes my workmen provide other small services but that's their private business and I'm not able to control that," he says.

The services directive would allow him to legitimise that side of the business and take more advantage of a market clamouring for his skills.

"It would allow us to provide a range of services - the Germans are asking for these kinds of things. I think it's normal on the labour market. People are looking for cheap labour."

But on the German side of the border, the prospect of more low-paid workers turning up sends shivers through the people of Frankfurt an der Oder. Unemployment there is already over 17%.

"I'm a carpenter and it's really bad," says one young man outside the job centre. "I lost my job because they took on Polish workmen who were much cheaper. They sacked me this winter and I don't think they're going to take me back on."

"The more of them that come here, the harder it is to find work," says another. "Just go and ask anyone if they can get a job as a lorry driver - all the jobs are taken by Poles, there's nothing left for us."

Market solution

But Krzysztof Wojciechowski, of the town's Europa University, says that the arrival of cheap labour is not a plot to steal German jobs. He says the political debate pitting east against west has set the wrong tone.

"The process of globalisation is going on and the only reasonable attitude is to use it for the country and not to fight against it," he said.

"The governments try to create the image of institutions that can manage the process, but it's just home policy, not real influence on the economy. I think the opening of the market will be a solution - a solution for unemployment in Eastern Europe and for keeping the economy in Germany or France on the level of international competition."

But that is cold comfort to the people of Frankfurt an der Oder. They do not see an opportunity, but a nail in the coffin for an already desperate region.

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