Polish Migrant Workers Feel The Chill

Polish migrant workers feel the chill

By Jonathan Guthrie
Published: December 20 2008 02:00
Last updated: December 20 2008 02:00

Polish workers now quitting the recession-blighted UK will tuck into their festive dish of carp this Yuletide safe from the censure of Britons, who prefer turkey. In Poland, carp are food, especially at Christmas.

But in Bedford, Poles who caught and killed the delicacy were branded “barbarians” by the local newspaper, according to Urszula Jukes, director of Access Europe, a local recruitment business.

Mrs Jukes, 35, blames the media for a broader deterioration in the never very cordial welcome the UK has extended to its 800,000 Polish migrant workers, 9,000 of whom live in this comfortable market town.

“They wrote that Poles were only here to claim benefits, which was untrue,” says Mrs Jukes.

When the UK opened its borders to European Union accession countries in 2004, the strong economy lured an influx of eastern European job seekers.

“How dare they come over here, doing work Britons do not want for less money than Britons would demand,” was the refrain of comedians parodying a reaction of mingled xenophobia and gratitude.

But now Poles are at the bleeding edge of the downturn, concentrated in badly hit sectors such as construction, often as vulnerable subcontractors and agency workers. A reverse migration has begun.

The income of Access Europe, which finds jobs for skilled Polish technicians, is down 40 per cent.

“We have noticed a cooling towards migrant workers, with employers worried that British employees may resent them,” says Mrs Jukes.

She expects 200,000 Poles to flee the UK over the next year. She will stay, being deeply rooted. She hates carp and will celebrate Christmas by eating beef with her English husband.

Stephen Brookes, an Englishman married to a Pole, will compromise with carp on Christmas Eve and turkey on Christmas Day. He runs the Bedford branch of Quest, another recruitment agency. This is responsible for the local phenomenon of the 5am Poles, crowds of workers that gather early outside Quest's offices to catch minibuses to low-paid jobs in factories and warehouses.

Mr Brookes says: “The recession means Poles are less impressed with the UK than they once were.” Radek, a mournful man attending mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a church for Polish Catholics, concurs. He claims the big electronics company he works for is sweating its employees to compensate for falling orders.

“In the last few weeks and days they have made us work harder and harder. We feel like slaves,” he complains.

A large Woolworths warehouse near Bedford that employs several hundred Polish workers is set to close in January. “Everyone is feeling poorer because of the recession,” says Eliza Chudzinski, 26, waiting for customers at her Polish delicatessen, which sells borscht, Krakow sausage and an array of pickles.

An advert in colloquial Polish on a nearby phone box urges migrant workers to send their “cabbage” – or money – home to dependants using Western Union.

But the value of those remittances wilted in the first half of the year when sterling fell about 18 per cent against the zloty. The pound has since rallied against the zloty because the outlook for the Polish economy, while still positive, has weakened. Unemployment is meanwhile higher than in the UK and wages are lower.

The result is that some UK-based Poles who had planned to leave are sitting tight. “We feel trapped,” says Pavel Cup, 32.

He decided to decamp a few months ago when work as a builder dried up. He accepted an offer for his Bedford home that was 62,000 less than the asking price. Now he is in two minds. “I spoke to builders in Poland recently who reckon there are 20 men available for every vacancy there,” he says. “The bad times are coming to Poland too.” Mr Cup has three children but “no money to pay for Christmas”.

His only consolation is that the British winter will be warmer. The mild weather contrasts with the cool emotional temperature of the British.

“People here are friendly, but it is hard to make friends,” says Marcin Struglik, a school caretaker, savouring the paradox along with a Lech beer in the Jan III Sobieski, a Polish pub. Polish expatriates talk of their hometowns as if they were baggy old overcoats: threadbare but warm and comforting.

To many Poles, the UK seems frostily individualistic, confusingly heterogenous and oddly indifferent to newcomers.

Bartek Gajpa has had enough. The barrel-chested builder waits at Victoria Coach Station in London to begin the gruelling 28-hour road journey back to Przemysl.

He has been in the UK for two years, has learnt almost no English and is carrying a shoulder bag a Briton would consider too small for a day trip. His ticket is one-way.

“England no good,” says Mr Gajpa. “No more work. No more money. Going home.” He will surely tuck into carp with relish this Christmas.

Additional reporting by Andrew Fagg

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