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'Polish Builder' flees credit crunch

A growing number of Polish migrant workers are returning home amid a continuing financial crisis in the West, reports the BBC's Paul Henley.

Jozef Wojciechowski in his office in Warsaw
Jozef Wojciechowski is said to be one of the richest men in Poland

In recent years, the Polish Builder has become ubiquitous in Europe. He has been quite thin on the ground in his home country, however - until now.

"We lost so many of our skilled people," says Jozef Wojciechowski, chairman of the board of JW Construction, one of Poland's biggest building enterprises, specialising in luxury apartment blocks and high-end building conversions.

"Those people left the country, going after the money. It was an incredible loss for Poland and the economy. We heard about the slowdown in other countries, so we see some people coming back and we are waiting for them.

"They are very important to us. Skilled builders are hard to find. When you hear what is going on in the construction industry all over the world at the moment, I think the prospects for Poland now are pretty good," Mr Wojciechowski says.

'Blueprint for success'

The chairman is settled deep in a leather armchair in front of an ornate fireplace in an oak-panelled office in a vast concrete block on the outskirts of Warsaw, which is his company's headquarters.

Poles wait on a street corner for employment in London. File photo
Many Poles do not plan to stay much longer on London's streets

Everything about his ostentatious setting advertises wealth. His staff tell me, in awed tones, that he is one of the richest men in Poland.

And I have the distinct impression that, as Poland's economy continues to defy the global trend, he is something of a blueprint for success.

It seems an odd time to be talking of business and economic success. And indeed, no-one is predicting that Poland will ride out the financial storm unscathed.

But while the rate of growth for the national economy slows, it is at least still growing.

Unemployment has fallen from 2003 rates of up to 20% to near 7% now and jobs are still being created. Consumer spending, currently stalled by feelings of insecurity, has been extremely strong and continues to be underpinned by an influx of cash earned abroad.

It feels wonderful to be back
Karolina Potocka
former "temp" in Dublin

Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski says there are reasons for cautious optimism: "I think Poland has three advantages. It has, still, very rapid economic growth, it has a good macro-economic balance and it has very deep respect for property rights.

"Other countries have had far less economic balance than Poland in the run-up to this economic crisis. Many of them had higher inflation, much bigger debts.

"I think Poland has been burned through a series of financial crises under communism and since, and that has given birth to a sense of financial prudence and that is definitely paying off now. The Poles are hard-working and entrepreneurial. Most of Europe knows this now. But the sense of care and caution is the key," Mr Rostowski says.

'Going up the ladder'

Marta Wolek-Zebik is a psychologist by training, who works as a recruitment consultant in the Warsaw offices of the international recruitment agency Grafton.

Marta Wolek-Zebik
Marta Wolek-Zebik says Poles are heading back home in droves

"I think it was more or less six months ago that we realised we were starting to get so many CVs from Polish people living in England and Ireland," Ms Wolek-Zebik says.

"It wasn't just my division, dealing with administrative and legal positions. So many people were asking 'How can we go back to Poland, what is the situation on the job market at the moment?'

"And now they are coming back. Most of them don't want to go back to the jobs they had before in Poland.

"They want to use their experience to go up the ladder and the situation on the job market is so much better here. They are not necessarily going to earn less in Poland than they did abroad - not anymore," Ms Wolek-Zebik says.

'Attractive country'

Karolina Potocka, a 26-year-old sales assistant for a beer-making company in Warsaw, sums up the new hopefulness of returning workers.

A night view of central Warsaw. File photo
Warsaw is now a rapidly-developing modern capital

Until February this year, she was doing a two-year stint working in office jobs in Dublin, enjoying a good standard of living and learning English fast. But she felt the insecurity of the downturn there.

"It feels wonderful to be back," Ms Potocka says.

"First, I was really missing my family. But also I know that this was a good time to return, when I look at the economic crisis in Ireland and in the UK. And I think Poland will be a more safe country for earning a living and making a career.

"I think Poland can now really show how much we can offer to Europe. We still need six or seven years to grow every year. But we are becoming a really attractive country for living, not just for Polish people but for people from other countries as well," she adds.

The appearance of Warsaw in 2008 goes some way to proving her point.

Among the glass and steel corporate headquarters springing up between the grey communist-era concrete blocks, in the throbbing new city centre cocktail bars and the manicured public parks which were so recently little more than rubbish-strewn wasteland, it is easy to imagine that Poland's day is finally coming.

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