Page last updated at 00:09 GMT, Tuesday, 5 May 2009 01:09 UK

Polish 'exodus' grinds to halt

By Ray Furlong
BBC Radio 4's PM programme

Sylwia Szewczyk and Tadeusz Pawlik
Tadeusz Pawlik says the job situation in Poland is even worse than in the UK

It is five years since EU enlargement brought a wave of Poles and other eastern European migrant workers to a Britain that was booming. But the recession has not resulted in a mass exodus.

In a conference room in a west London hotel, around 40-50 Poles have come to see a presentation by the mayor of Bydgoszcz, a town in central Poland.

Every month a different Polish mayor comes, hosted by an association of young Poles called Poland Street, to show people the opportunities that await them if they return home.

There's a slick video on the pleasures of Bydgoszcz - beautiful people in trendy cafes - but the audience does not seem too desperate to go.

"I've been here three years and I really enjoy London," says Marcel Gierlach, who works as an aviation engineer. "I'm just thinking of the future - to go back because of family."

His friend Magda Milosz says: "I want to go back one day. But I have a job so there's no rush."

If the mood among young Polish professionals is non-committal, it may be because most of them have good jobs.

But there's similar sentiment among some unskilled migrant workers who have become unemployed.

Family ties

At the Goodwin Trust community group in Hull, is 60-year-old Tadeusz Pawlik, who last year lost his job at a meat processing factory in Wales.

He spent all winter looking for work, drawing job seekers' allowance and borrowing money. Now he's got seasonal work weighing tomatoes at a nursery.

"I am worried I'll be unemployed again," he says, "but things are even worse in Poland. I don't want to go back."

FROM THE PM PROGRAMME

Tadeusz is divorced, so there are no family ties to pull him back.

Radek Sobota went back to Poland, in December, to be with his wife and daughter but is now back in Hull with them.

"I took unpaid leave from my job in Hull and spent two-and-a-half months looking for work in Poland.

"I went to a restaurant I'd once worked at, but they wouldn't take me back on. Then I tried others, but no-one was hiring," he says.

"So I came back to my old job in Hull as a butcher in a meat factory.

"It's full of Poles and other migrant workers because the English won't accept the kind of money and hard work that we do."

Benefit claims

At the Goodwin Trust Sylwia Szewczyk is as community cohesion co-ordinator.

"This week about 10 people have come saying they've been made redundant.

"Mostly they have no qualifications, they can't speak English, and they can't claim benefits. But they try to stay in the UK and it's quite difficult for them."

THE 'A8' COUNTRIES
Poland
Latvia
Lithuania
Estonia
Czech Republic
Slovakia
Hungary
Slovenia
(Nations joining the EU in 2004)

Unemployment in Poland is currently 11.1%, compared to 6.7% in the UK.

"They stay because they came to the UK to succeed. For them going back to Poland would be shaming," says Sylwia.

There's more than anecdotal evidence that Poles and migrant workers from other former communist countries are choosing to sit out the global downturn in the UK rather than returning home.

Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for last year show a 40% rise in income-related benefit claims, compared with the year before, from citizens of the eight eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004 - known as the A8 countries.

Tough competition

But the biggest impact seems to be increasingly tough competition for jobs rather than benefit claims.

Outside the Britannia job centre in Hull, there's a steady stream of people.

There are 28 people on job seekers' allowance per job vacancy in Hull - and you don't have to look far to find resentment.

"It gets people down, these migrants taking all our jobs. Added to the recession, it is one problem on top of another," says a man leaving the job centre.

He declines to give his name, but adds: "I want to work. I don't want to be on the social for the rest of my life."

Another man says there's a perception among employers that migrants work harder. He feels he was overlooked for positions in the past because he's local.

Radek Sobota and his family
Radek Sobota went back to Poland - and returned to the UK with his family

Two recruitment agencies said British people were starting to go for jobs which previously were only applied for by migrant workers. A third agency said it had not registered any such trend.

Job competition

The Centre for Cities, a think-tank studying the Hull labour market, reported recently previously long-term unemployed people in the city were not competing with migrant workers for jobs.

But Dermot Finch, director of the centre, says the recession is altering the picture. He says newly unemployed people are more likely to be in direct competition for jobs than was the case before the recession.

"What you're seeing is increased competition for the same jobs between Polish and British people," he says.

The centre spoke to 14 employers and 4 recruitment agencies in Hull and Bristol.

"There are lots of anecdotes about British workers being unwilling to take jobs seen to be beneath them. Employers report to us a work ethic and a flexibility that mean they're more adaptable," he said.

"It's hard to tell whether Poles are being more successful than indigenous people who have recently lost their job.

"But what is clear is that not every Pole is going home. The exodus story has been overplayed. More are hanging around than we think and they're trying their hardest to pick up work."

Employment mobility

So is the government concerned about large numbers of of unemployed migrant workers staying on? Not according to the DWP.

"Many people are finding it tough in this unprecedented global downturn," a spokesman said. "But there is no evidence that suggests migrants are being harder hit and claiming benefits."

MIGRANT WORKERS AND BENEFITS

Applications for Income Support up from 4,659 in 2007 to 5,053 in 2008, a rise of 8.5%

Applications approved for further processing up from 840 in 2007 to 993 in 2008, a rise of 18.2%

Applications for Jobseeker's Allowance up from 7,333 in 2007 to 8,183 in 2008, a rise of 11.6%
Applications approved for further processing up from 2,164 in 2007 to 2,741 in 2008, a rise of 26.7%
Source: Department for Work and Pensions

On the other hand, the government is doing what it can to prevent this happening.

It recently extended the Workers Registration Scheme, which among other things makes it harder for citizens from the A8 countries to claim benefits.

A presentation by Job Centre Plus for a seminar in the eastern Polish city of Bialystok in February reported Poles were not being driven home by the recession, and concluded with two points for future action.

"Must improve the way we communicate opportunities in Poland" and "challenge negative perception of the Polish labour market".

It's now possible for Poles who lose their jobs to browse for jobs in Poland, in Polish, on terminals at Job Centre Plus branches - and a spokesman for the DWP said it's preparing a "European Job Day" in Birmingham for later in the year "to promote job mobility".

It expects "colleagues from Poland will be heavily involved".

But if the response to the Mayor of Bydgoszcz's presentation is anything to go by, it won't be easy to persuade Poles their job chances are now better at home.

Hear more on the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 at 1700 BST on Tuesday 5 May



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