Wednesday, March 09, 2005

From Poland for temporary work

Workers of the world

More than 73,000 people from Poland have signed up to work in Britain in the past year. And they are doing the jobs we don't want to - plumbing, cleaning, building and driving. Stuart Jeffries reports

Guardian 9 March 2005

"Female wanted for massage work," says the advertisement in the newsagent's window. "No experience necessary. Earn up to £400 a day." A man with a luxuriant moustache elbows his mate in the ribs and points at the ad, and soon a ripple of giggles passes among the 30 or so Polish men and women noting down details of vacancies from the shop window in Hammersmith, west London, on Monday morning.
What's so funny? "In Warsaw you could move that decimal point over by two digits and that would be a reasonable daily wage," says Karen, aged 25. Come off it - £4 a day? "Does that surprise you? But I wouldn't do that kind of work for any money. Massaging? No. I have my dignity." And so do two other Polish women who have put a notice in the same window: "Two girls looking for full-time job. We are interested in everything. Except nudity. Telephone Henni on ..."

This is the Sciana Placzu, the so-called Wailing Wall, where all kinds of Poles gather to look for work. It is a venue better known in Poland than in Britain, and one of the first ports of call for Poles newly arrived from the motherland. Here you will find PhDs scribbling down details for work in catering and cleaning, for ironing opportunities and for the seemingly unlimited chances to deliver pizza takeaway leaflets that west London has to offer. You will also come across immigrants with next to no English or skills. One man takes a note of an ad that reads: "Newspaper distribution. Every day work. Start tomorrow. Bad English no problem." Like most of the ads, it doesn't say what the hourly rate will be. There are many builders, carpenters, and plumbers; there's even a film-maker here who is making a picture called Postcard from London, about two Polish girls who come from Warsaw to the Sciana Placzu. "These two girls idealise London. They come here hoping to become part of the arts scene and become cleaners instead," says Ania Dykczak. "It's partly about the shattering of illusions, but it's also about what drives young Poles to come here in the first place. The Polish government is still very corrupt and a lot of the money from the EU is not going to the people. One thing that is driving younger people to leave is that you still have to suck up to the older generation. Communism may be dead but the old school is still very much alive and that's very dispiriting if you're young and at the bottom of the food chain."

Ania, 27, is a Polish-born but Cambridge-educated artist who, by her own admission, has not suffered at the fuzzy end of Europe's economic lollipop. Most Poles who come here have been driven by economic imperatives. Indeed, since Poland joined the EU last May, 73,545 Poles have signed the British government register of migrant workers: nearly half of that figure is made up of new immigrants, while the remainder overwhelmingly consists of hitherto illegal workers who have registered to legitimise their presence in Britain. Poles are by far the largest national group to have come from eastern Europe in the past year - there have been 20,000 from Lithuania, 13,500 from Slovakia, and 9,000 from Latvia. According to the Home Office, only 21 of the 133,000 east European migrant workers registered have signed on the dole. So much for those pre-accession stories of Britain being flooded with east European benefit scroungers.

"I am not here to claim benefits," says Radek, 25. "I am here to earn money. As much as I can make and then go home. At home, unemployment is 20 to 25% and the wages are very low. So it's obvious why I came really. But there is another reason: I want to get away from parents for a while. At home, you have no work, no money and so you have to live with parents. This is not good for 25-year-old man." He notes down the number of a builder from the Sciana Placzu who is looking for plasterers, kitchen fitters and electricians. "I can do all of those," he says. What sort of training do you have? "I studied at Poznan technical college as an electrician. I have a qualification." But what about the plastering? "I can do that. I am not trained to, but I can pick it up. I am flexible worker. Not like British men."

And there is something in this. Newly arrived Poles, like many immigrants to Britain before them, are often doing the work that Britons seemingly no longer want to do. For example, when Tesco needed 140 new lorry drivers recently, it hired Poles because of the dearth of British applicants. Similarly, when Aberdeen city council recently sought to hire brickies, plumbers, joiners and electricians, they scoured Eastern Europe for labour, allegedly because there were not enough local people.

Metropolitan dinner-party conversations - long dominated by middle-class people bemoaning the impossibility not just of finding a decent plumber/carpenter/builder within the M25, but one who is temperamentally able to return phone calls - have taken a bizarre new turn. "We can get a new kitchen installed before Easter thanks to this lovely chap from some Polish town with oodles of unlikely consonants and not one vowel! A Lech Walesa lookalike did a superb job of grouting the bathroom and did it ever so cheaply!"

To test this point, I note down the number for a Polish carpenter from the Sciana Placzu, and call on him to come round and give me a quote for a little cupboard I would like in the the downstairs loo. Of the four people whom I ask to present their professional credentials, he is the only one who returns my call, let alone turns up. And when he arrives, he suggests that if I want the room repainted that he can do me a special deal. Cash in hand. No questions asked. There is only one sticking point: Can we take your picture for the newspaper piece we're doing on Polish workers in Britain? "Don't be silly," he says. "Don't use my name either." But he does concede that he is making a great deal of money from such jobs. "I am not taking work from British men, though," he insists. "They don't want to do these jobs in the first place. But if there is competition with them, I think I win sometimes."

Why are such Polish workers becoming so successful in British home repairs? Is it just because some of them are working off the books and thus can easily undercut the competition? "Not at all," says Justina Jacob, of the Polish City Club, an organisation established last June with the support of the Polish Embassy to represent the growing number of Polish finance workers and lawyers in London. "One reason is that under communism there were really excellent colleges to train men and women in manual professions like these. So you have very good, well-prepared craftsmen, and also a tradition of people going into those kinds of work."

Ever since the novelist Joseph Conrad, Britain's most eminent Polish immigrant, wrote, in a letter to a compatriot who had also chosen to settle here, that, "When speaking, writing or thinking in English, the word 'home' always means for me the hospitable shores of Great Britain," hundreds of thousands of Poles have settled here. Thousands came after the first world war, many of them prisoners of war formerly held in camps in Alexandra Park and Feltham. In 1940, after the fall of France, the exiled Polish government and at least 20,000 soldiers transferred to London. Many remained after a communist government was installed in Warsaw. Few managed to have their professional qualifications recognised and so a majority worked in manual trades. Indeed, the existence of so many Polish social groups and businesses (especially building firms) has helped new Polish economic migrants to find it easier than other ethnic groups to live and work in Britain. The vast majority of Poles live in London; but of those who remain, most seem to end up in the Midlands

But recent Polish immigration has also caused a range of problems, perhaps mostly poignantly for Poles themselves. "We help a lot of Poles who sleep rough in London when they first arrive," says Jan Moktzycki, president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. "If a newly arrived Pole tries to check into a homelessness shelter they will be told that they cannot stay because they are not allowed to receive benefits, which includes staying in a shelter. I think that is inhumane." Moktzycki has written to immigration minister Les Browne, calling for a change to these regulations.

Then there are issues of worker exploitation. "Many Poles get taken on in casual work and the conditions are pretty dreadful," says Union of Construction, Allied Trade and Technicans spokesman Jonathan Green. "The big issue in the building trade is non-payment of wages, and some Polish builders fall prey to that."

Ucatt also points out that there have been cases where agencies have preferred to hire labour from Poland rather than indigenous workers, and that eastern European workers have been hired at rates below industry norms, at a time when construction companies are reluctant to take on new apprentices - all of which causes resentment.

The influx of Poles is not confined to those who work in manual trades. "I am part of another Polish invasion," says Rocksana Ciurysek, 30, a derivatives trader in emerging markets for Merrill Lynch who has been working in London for the past six months. What brought you to this overpriced, dirty, rain-soaked corner of the world? "There simply aren't these opportunities in banking in Poland at the moment - I'm working in an exciting area that even my mother, who has an economics qualification, doesn't really understand. It's cutting-edge stuff and I'm well remunerated for it." Surely the high cost of living here eats disturbingly into that salary? "It does, but I'm still very comfortable financially here. At least for the moment." And London is "one of the most exciting cities in the world. I came here to study English and found it culturally really thrilling." It is a cultural life to which the Polish contribution should not be underestimated: last month, for example, Polish-born film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski won best director at the Baftas and his film, My Summer of Love, won the best British award.

But Sciana Placzu, for example, is under threat from local councillors who think that it is patronised by people who are a public nuisance. Conservative councillor Greg Hands claims that residents need to be protected from the scores of people - overhelmingly Polish immigrants - who gather outside the newsagent's. They block the pavements, litter the street with beer cans and wine bottles, and make passers-by and residents feel threatened, he says, adding that there have been cases of public urination nearby. The only negatives I can report from several trips to the Sciana Placzu are widespread taciturnity, outré facial hair and vodka on the breath of some of the men. Yet Councillor Hands is now lobbying the police to establish a dispersal zone, in accordance with the provisions of the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Asbos for immigrants: there's nothing so warm as a good old British welcome.

As if to return the compliment, nobody I spoke to at the Sciana Placzu intends to live here permanently. In that sense this most recent wave of immigration to Britain bears scant similiarity to previous, post-colonial waves, whereby various ethnic groups - Caribbeans, Africans, Asians - sought to settle down and stay in the mother country. Many of the Poles working here now have no such allegiances. "Poland has always been in my heart," says Ania Dykczak. "I went back to Poland once to find a boyfriend to fall in love with and I did. He's a film director and I'm marrying him later this year. I have a romanticised view of Poland, it's true, but I want to live that easier, more fulfilled life, with a house in the city and a second home in the forest. I can have a wonderful lifestyle there, but not in London. I think a lot of Poles ultimately feel the same way."

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