Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 12:31 UK

In search of Europe: Poland

Ambitious Poles see EU enlargement as an opportunity, not a threat, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports, as he tours the continent ahead of next month's European elections.

On the ferry between the UK and Sweden I ran into one of the truck drivers making the crossing. He was, he said, earning £14 an hour for his trips. But he was being undercut by Polish drivers who would work for £7 an hour. What was he to do?

BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

His plight was one of the reasons to be in Bialystok, northeastern Poland, headquarters of Adampol, one of the country's biggest transport companies.

Adampol shifts new cars around Europe and out to the East - through Belarus and Ukraine and out into Russia.

The company has been around since 1990. But it was in May 2004, when Poland joined the EU and the border control came down, that the company boomed.

"It's like explaining to a blind man what the day looks like," says the company's ebullient boss, Adam Byglewski, as he tries to illustrate how life changed after Poland's accession to the EU.

Adam Byglewski, head of Adampol freight firm
The opening of borders boosted business for Adam Byglewski

"It was like someone waved a magic wand - not only that the queues disappeared but that we could drive to Lithuania, to Germany, to the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Overnight, queues of two three or four days just disappeared."

So what would he say to the trucker on - a rough exchange - 17 euros an hour, threatened by a driver who'll do the job for nine euros?

"Perhaps we can't expect an English or a Polish driver to understand," he says. "Perhaps we should just say that in a while that Polish driver will head home and he'll earn an 17 euros hour, and [the British trucker] may be earning 19 euros or get back to 17 euros. I don't know. I haven't got an easy answer."

As many as 2.5 million Poles may have left Poland in the past five years to find jobs abroad, there are no decent statistics.

The movement of people - the speed and scale of which can only be compared in Europe to the end of World War II - distorted the country's economy, leaving it short of everything from labourers to teachers to doctors.

Tales of two-year waiting lists for plumbing jobs are legion.

The exodus also slowed internal reform. When all the people with get up and go have got up and gone, there is less pressure to change the pace of regulatory bureaucracies.

Dobrawa Piekos, hairdresser in Warsaw
Dobrawa Piekos has put skills learnt in the UK to good use back home

But people are coming back to Poland with new skills learnt in foreign capitals.

In a high-ceilinged apartment in central Warsaw, Dobrawa Piekos blow-dries a customer's hair. She spent three years learning her trade in London and has now set up a high-end salon that employs eight.

Dobrawa's House of Hair is a funky outfit, with fake zebra skin wall coverings and bright red chairs facing tall mirrors.

I ask Dobrawa what she makes of the complaints about the number of Poles in Britain - and the call for "British jobs for British workers".

"British people, I've got nothing against them, but I do think that they don't respect jobs," she says. "They are too fussy. They would love to be put on a high position and get good money for less hours and everything. In my country, everything that we have is made by hard work."

The trucker on the ferry didn't fit that description of a work-shy Brit. But it's something you hear from a fair few foreigners who have worked in London.

Jonny Dymond in Poland: "Nobody appears to give much of a damn about the vote coming up"

There is of course another side to the coming and going of Polish workers over the past few years. People like Dobrawa Piekos come back not just with cash saved, but with new skills too, that builds an economy back in Poland.

Mateusz Matula and Jacek Mlodawski spent time working and saving in Ireland before they came back to found an internet business. It now ships contact lenses around the country.

Almost drowning in the cardboard boxes that only recently contained the PCs that litter their office building, they talk about how the Poles that have fled will return.

"What can I say to British people," Mateusz laughs. "Don't worry, it's just temporary. And if Poland as a country will grow it will good for Britain as well.

"We will be good a market for British products. Nowadays we can't afford British products. It's too expensive for us."

So will there come a time when British people might come to Poland in search of work?

"Maybe it will be possible in the future," says Jacek. "But I think it will be ten years or twenty. With every step people in Poland have problems with tax officials, with the inspection of labour, so it is not so easy to start a business here."

"But I believe that the situation may change."

No topic has come up more often on the European "campaign trail" than this one: the growing pains of enlargement are wrenching ones, for both "donor" countries like Poland and recipients like Britain and Ireland.

Some would argue that the "big bang" approach was not such a smart one, given the huge disparity in living standards between East and West, and the rise of cheap travel.

The Poles I've spoken to would disagree. It has liberated them, and allowed them to kick-start businesses back in the home country.

But I still can't think of a smart answer to the trucker I met.

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany

Jonny's response to your comments:

Let me start with a couple of responses to challenges over statistics or comments made in the article.

Jan in Warsaw, I know of no reliable statistics about the exodus of workers; the figure of 2.5 million was quoted in a reputable Polish newspaper recently. I'm pretty sure I qualified the figure in some way, if not, the normal apologies - I should have done. I know that many emigrants return to Poland - I quoted some of them in the piece. As to the question of waiting lists for services, I was quoting directly from what Poles I talked to had told me. On a previous visit (to Wroclaw), I visited a hospital whose children's ward was stripped of staff because of the exodus, and talked to the mayor who was trying to lure Poles back because there were such labour shortages. I don't make up stories.

Peter in Bialystock, please forgive the phrase "huge disparity in living standards". It is a combination of journalistic abbreviation and a whiff of purple prose. But there is not yet in Poland the kind of large, (still) very well-off, middle class that exists in the UK; and Poland still has a large rural population that may well enjoy living in the gorgeous Polish countryside but is by many standards not well-off. Which is why so many left for the UK. It was not for the great weather after all.

I think some correspondents are being a bit hard on the British and are lurching into the kind of stereotyping that journalists are so often accused of. There are millions of British citizens who work very hard for not very much. It is grotesquely unfair to label the British en masse as work-shy welfare scroungers. Christopher Chadwick in Warsaw suggests that "my" trucker move countries. This is the logical endgame of the single market. But is it realistic to expect people to just up sticks in the face of sudden economic challenges? That is the more American way, but do most Europeans want to become more like the US? I suspect most people rather like being a bit more rooted; it may be more economically inefficient, but it may lead to happier and more settled societies.

As to the pay that truckers receive, I would quite like them to be decently remunerated; from where I sit, in the shadow of trucks rumbling around Europe, it is a pretty tough, lonely job.

Thank you as ever for your time and thoughts. Onwards to the elections!

Here are some of your comments on Jonny's feature:

British people want easy jobs for good money. The Poles will do any job to earn any money. Poland is not a struggling economy, in a few years Poland will be one of the strongest in Europe. Not because of the EU but because the Polish feel they have something to prove to the west.

I have served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq in the British Armed Forces, I don't want to live in the UK again. I'm stationed in Germany but Poland is where I will live and work when I retire from the Armed Forces.
John, Hanover, Germany

I am a Polish student in the UK, this year studying in France. My generation takes a full advantage of our parents' decision to vote 'yes' in 2004. We are mobile, multilingual and seek opportunities to gain best education and skills.

Each year I see more and more Poles coming to my town in the UK, not to take anyone's jobs, but to learn, despite the fact that public higher education is free in Poland and it costs us a lot in the UK.

Our parents have gone through the economic transition and their experience has shaped our attitude to work. We understand well that in today's world you have to be highly competitive, not sit where you are waiting for someone to give you a job.
Ola, Strasbourg, France

Firstly, I'm not British and I'm not Polish either. But reading this article really made me laugh. It seems that the good old British moaning about the weather is gone, and now they found something else to moan about: Polish/foreign immigrants!

Secondly, the reason for the economic/financial situation here in the UK is nothing else but greediness and laziness. Brits want high standards of living and they took money on credit, money they did not have and they cannot possibly and realistically pay back. And I fully agree with Matt and those who refer to the Brits' work ethics as being poor and pathetic: they would rather go and sign at the Job Centre and take the taxpayer's money than do some of the jobs that Polish and other foreign workers do here. And this mentality can be found throughout the social classes, just think about the MPs' expenses scandal now.

Thirdly, fair play to the above Brits who live abroad now and who have the commonsense and the guts to write what they wrote. Their opinion is not biased and people should take notice of them.
Claudia, Gloucester, UK

The European Union is not only a political and economical institution, it stands also for 60 years of peace and the embodiment of 27 countries working together to achieve this. So I think we all have to make some sacrifices, even if it means working for less money.
Max, Lyon France

The whole argument from the British protectionists and UKIP is flawed and ridiculous. Not only does the UK gain way more jobs in free access to European markets than it loses from migrant workers, but the more developed "rich" countries are NOT paying out huge, disproportionate sums to the new members. Look it up - the single biggest recipient of EU funds is France, who's hardly in the poorhouse.
Kent, Athens, Greece

Not so long ago I bolted Miami for a month of holidaying in Europe. I rented a car and passed those 29 days listening to the radio whilst behind the wheel. Talk radio was buzzing with lots of chat; much of it was about how to "game" the unemployment compensation system. It seems that (to the delight of all callers) by travelling from country to country within the E.U. one can live without much in the way of actual work. I never heard this in America.
Geoff, miami, fl.

There won't be a smart answer to this question as long as the employers measure wages against the local cost of living and not against performance. I freelance from my Polish home for agencies and end-customers practically all over the world. Never seen one ready (from the start) to pay me the same rate as they pay to my counterparts in the UK, Japan or Sweden. Only after heavy bargaining I manage to persuade some of them that the same quality of service merits the same pay level. And those are world-class multinationals - what sort of thinking do you expect from a small employer located at the back of nowhere? BTW, let's face it - does your driver truly believe his Polish counterpart should get the same pay as he does, or would he just like to push the underpaid competitor out of the market and leave him jobless so that he himself could thrive?
Iza, Poland

Thirty years ago we moved our headquarters from "expensive" Liege, Belgium to "cheaper" Hounslow, UK. Secretaries were half the price in Hounslow. But we joked that you needed twice as many to get the job done! Most things are cyclical.
Headhunter, Long Island, USA

I live and work in Poland, and I am a British national. Yes the pay is poorer than the UK, but everything is relative, food and beer is cheaper but houses and cars are on a par with Scotland, maybe not London. Therefore should I be regarded as a Brit taking a Polish person's job? One has to remember that there is a large number of British expats all over the world, therefore it is my opinion that jobs are not a divine right in your own country, you have to work hard and look hard to get a job, no one should expect a greater salary because they are British.
Graeme Stewart, Warsaw - Poland

Interesting article. I have been a great EU supporter since we went in. Of course then you had to meet certain (high) economic standards to join. I can't help now feeling a chill wind as the more prosperous members are required to fund more & more members like Poland, Romania etc. to the affluent position Eire, Spain et al reached. They say it will benefit us all, well all I have seen in 30 plus years is benefit to everyone else, and it's now wearing thin.
dan d lyon, behind the wire

It is not true that 2,5 million Poles left the country. Where did this poor author find such statistics? It might be (though it is hardly believable) that this number of people took some jobs abroad, but even if they did so, migration is temporary - people go and come back. And in the meantime they do work down here, they do use their social benefits, and they do have a life.

Second, it is not true that Poland suffers from shortages of labour. Last month's unemployment report spoke of some 11% jobless rate. Two months waiting for a plumber can only happen in author's imagination.

Third, there IS a smart answer to that trucker driver out there: try harder man, and stop crying. Poles are competitive because they can actually do the job, not just because they are cheap.
jan kowalski, Warsaw, Poland

I would like to express my concerns about the "British jobs for British people" slogan that I have recently seen in the streets of London.

I understand the campaign was created as a response to the impact of recession, but I would like to remind the British that the capitalist system was created and largely propagated by the Anglo-Saxon nations of the world.

I consider extremely frustrating (and ridiculous) that the British are now blaming the immigrants for the negative consequences of a policy that they have defended for years. Marcos Menezes, London

The trucker is only part of the problem. Foreign workers take about 75% of their earnings home, they put a strain on public services and are willing to work for less. British people have worked for decades for their rights and salaries.

Everyday I listen to British people complaining about this. One day the workers will actually do something about these problems, I hope, like rebel or something.
Susan Strong, Hereford

From an economic point of view (and ignoring linguistic and cultural difference) your British trucker should move to live in Bialystok, where his lower Polish salary might afford a higher standard of living than he currently enjoys in Britain. That would be a challenging option, but possible and perfectly legitimate.

I am a Brit who has moved to Poland in search of work. Initially I worked as a language teacher, but now I've learnt to speak Polish and look after myself here, I'm looking for work with a local employer as an accountant.

Since the recession is less severe in Poland than the UK, I'm fairly convinced I'll succeed in the end. I think that Poland has very good prospects now it's joined the EU, and I see that as an opportunity for me too.

However it is hard to convince Polish employers to trust a foreign worker. Inferiority and persecution complexes run deep in the Polish psyche. They'll take time to lift.

The Poles that speak to foreign media aren't necessarily typical. Many people here find it hard to understand foreigners. There's a tendency to think that a Brit who's left the gold-paved streets of the UK must be crazy or a loser. That prejudice is unwarranted and unfair, but it's real nonetheless.
Christopher Chadwick, Warsaw, Poland

Why should a lorry driver earn £14 per hour? It's a low-skilled job requiring no higher education. The vicinity of minimum wage sounds far more reasonable for that type of work. If lorry drivers earn £14ph, then no wonder that everything in the UK is far too expensive. The sooner he is undercut and put out of business by less arrogant and demanding drivers, the better for the rest of us.
Robert, Pontypridd, UK

The Poles have got it spot on. The work ethic of the UK is quite frankly pathetic. People want a nice cushy job, where they can engage as little brain and energy as possible for the most amount of money.

Which is why there is all this fear-mongering going on back home. There's no mention in this debate over the EU that the UK gets 3 million jobs from EU Membership, and that the sovereignty we lose to the Commission and the ECJ are only over very stringent economic issues that we reluctantly grant the EU competency over. It's called subsidiarity. The principle is alive and well, and so is the EU.

Shame on Labour for devaluing the EU in the eyes of the British public. And shame on the British public for embracing the blind, dogmatic rhetoric of UKIP.

In case you haven't realised folks, the Empire is gone, and we are America's poodle, presiding over an Anglo-American economic system that is broken and inefficient. Our salvation lies in being a strong, prominent and leading player within the European Union. Yes the EU has its major problems, but you can only change things from the inside.

We get a superb deal being in the EU. All the other member states know this, so why can't our bone-headed population get their heads round it!
Matt, London/Vienna, UK/Austria

This article omits the amazing fact that Poland has avoided recession and has the highest GDP growth in the EU, mainly because its banking sector is relatively old-fashioned, small and risk-averse. Profit from the country's massive new export market in the EU is also keeping Poland out of recession. Politically, unlike CEE peers, the Poles have also matured: both the nationalists and ex-communists are are a thing of the past. Now a responsible, free market and pro-EU government is doing a good and popular job to the envy of western European peers.
Peter Hawkins, London, England

Next time you come to Poland, stay a bit longer. Your mention of two-year queues for plumbers and the "huge disparity in living standards between east and west" doesn't sound like the Poland I've been living in for the past decade as an ex-pat Brit. Also, starting a business here is easier than in most EU countries. It took me about three days. On the other hand, you can wait years for planning/building permission. I was very lucky to wait only seven months. Anyway, next time you're in Bialystok, join me for szarlotka and kava in Wedel's.

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EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
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CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
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GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
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