Britain loses its allure for Polish migrants

For targeting your audience, you can’t beat the billboard at one of London’s airports welcoming freshly arrived Poles with an offer of a bank account designed just for them.

But for placement, the ad by Natwest Bank doesn’t score as high. These days, it might reach more Poles if it were in the departures lounge.

For most of the last five years, Britain shone like a beacon for the people of Eastern Europe, a land bursting with opportunities for anyone with marketable skills or simply a willingness to work hard. Newly allowed to live and work in other countries of the European Union, as many as 1 million Easterners fetched up on these shores -- the largest, most concentrated wave of immigration Britain has ever recorded.

Most of the newcomers were Poles, and although the “Polish plumber” and the “Polish builder” became almost instant icons in the popular imagination, the migrants fanned out throughout society, landing jobs in shops, hospitals, information technology firms, investment banks, restaurants, pubs, painting companies and the like.

But now that Britain has fallen headlong into recession and the pound has plunged in value, some of the Eastern Europeans who came in search of better prospects have started heading for the exits.


At the same time, the number of new arrivals has dropped drastically amid forecasts that Poland’s economy will outperform Britain’s this year. Some Polish employers and towns and even the Polish army have launched campaigns to lure home their compatriots.

“There are more going back than coming in,” said Jan Mokrzycki, who heads the Federation of Poles in Great Britain.

The group has been around since 1946, but its scope and profile increased sharply after Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and Britain became one of three EU members, along with Ireland and Sweden, to open its doors to Polish workers right away.

The federation’s online “survival guide” to life in Britain is now in its fourth edition. Polish is now heard everywhere: on buses, on sidewalks and in establishments that were once known for hiring backpackers and other young people from English-speaking countries of the British Commonwealth looking for temp jobs.

“In London, you used to go into a pub and you were likely to be served by an Australian. Now it’s a Pole,” said Tim Finch, the head of migration-related projects at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

That may be less likely now. Last year, 165,000 East Europeans -- most of them Poles -- registered to work in Britain, a 24% drop from the 218,000 new arrivals the year before.

More tellingly, the number of migrants in the last quarter of 2008, when the British economy had already entered full-blown recession, was down 47% from the same period in 2007.

“There are still economic opportunities if you want to look for them,” Finch said, but “the consensus is the trend that’s already started [will] continue, that you’ll see fewer people registering, fewer people coming in general.”

Those who do make the move will find a different world from the one Piotr Maslak encountered as a member of the leading edge of Eastern Europeans who came here in 2004.

“I came on 19 March, and 20 March I started a job,” he said.

As a driver in Poland he made about $440 a month; here he works in a warehouse east of London, making the same amount per week. It’s enough for Maslak, 30, who is single, to save some cash to send to his family in their village 350 miles outside Warsaw.

Unfortunately, the money doesn’t go as far as it used to. When Maslak first arrived, one British pound was worth about seven Polish zlotys; now it’s less than five, another reason why Britain does not seem such an attractive option as before.

Still, Maslak wants to remain in London as long as he has a job. Mokrzycki, the federation chairman, said that hundreds of thousands of Poles have put down roots in Britain and are not yet ready to return to their homeland or seek their fortunes elsewhere.

“Most who have got jobs here or just have connections and family and own houses are not going to uproot a second time,” he said. “Many tend to decide to ride out the recession.”

That a noticeable number have left -- no exact count is available -- seems obvious to Kris Ruszczynski, the owner of a small construction firm here.

Back when the economy was at full tilt, he never had any trouble rustling up migrant workers. Now Ruszczynski, who was used to workers knocking eagerly at his door in London, has become the supplicant instead, forced to journey back to his native land to scrounge up more hands.

“We don’t have so many people around, so I need to go back to Poland to pick them up,” he said. “But it’s a very difficult situation, because they are not trained to do what I want.”

In November, a potential contract landed on his desk, but a vigorous hunt both here and on a trip to Poland for the 10 workers needed came up short, an unheard-of situation during the high tide of Eastern European migration to Britain.

Ruszczynski’s competition for recruits now includes Polish companies. Poland is set to host the Euro 2012 soccer championship and needs construction workers. Polish software firms have sent delegations to London to persuade their compatriots to return.

“People with skills have found good jobs” back in Poland, Ruszczynski said. “If I’m prepared to retrain people, then yes, I can find people willing to come, but the process of getting someone to move from Poland to the U.K. now, it’s at least six months to get that person adapted to the British way of working.”

If the Polish economy sours, if re-integration proves harder than imagined or simply if they want their children to grow up with advantages such as learning English, then some of those who have returned may well wind up in Britain again, Ruszczynski said.

He’ll be waiting.




Europe or bust

In advance of this week’s summit in London of the world’s leading industrialized and emerging nations, correspondents fanned out across Europe to provide four snapshots of the economic crisis on the continent. The series will continue Wednesday.

The series is available online.