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Europe

Polish workers leave Ireland as economy wilts

Ireland saw huge immigration levels when the 'Celtic Tiger' boom was in full swing. But as the boom has turned to bust, many of the immigrants who have lost their jobs are choosing to return home.

Supermarket Polski Sklep in Ireland

Shops catering to Poles may find it hard to keep going

It is difficult to say exactly how many immigrants arrived in Ireland as its economy boomed in the middle of this decade, but according to James Wickham, a professor of sociology at Trinity College in Dublin, immigration figures were pretty high.

"The highest figure that I've heard is 200,000, which for a country of 4.5 million is, of course, pretty big," he said.

The numbers spiked as eastern European nations joined the European Union in 2004.

"Immigration was absolutely massive shortly before and above all immediately after accession," Wickham said. "Essentially what happened was that people from eastern Europe - above all Poland, but also Lithuania and Latvia to a lesser extent provided the labor for the famous 'Celtic Tiger' boom."

Polish and EU flags

The bulk of Polish immigration occurred around 2004

Supermarkets, delis, travel agencies and businesses aimed at Polish and Eastern Europeans have sprung up all over Ireland to cater for the immigrants who came seeking their fortune. At Polski Sklep, a Polish supermarket in central Dublin, every customer knows of people who have lost their jobs because of the recession.

Malgorzata Stankiewicz moved to Ireland in early 2007 when the economy was still growing and found a job easily. In retrospect, she says she might have misjudged the strength of the Irish economy.

"I think it wasn't as good as I heard about," she said. "But it was still good, I had a job, and I didn't have a problem finding it."

She then lost that job, and has now been unemployed for a year, although she is constantly looking for new work, sending out her résumé every day and honing her skills as much as she can.

She has several friends who were also laid off, and most of them went back to Poland to be with their families.

Reasons to stay

People like Malgorzata are not left to fend for themselves though. As Wickham explained, the welfare state in the Irish Republic has to provide for them if they stay.

A cramped office

Many Poles say the working environment is better in Ireland

"They are European citizens, they have every right to be here. They have exactly the same rights to social welfare benefits as Irish citizens do," he said. "At the moment our benefits are very high - they're very high compared to the UK, for example."

Beyond welfare provision, which is likely to fall during the government's austerity drive, there are other reasons for immigrants to stay. Wickham said his research shows Poles and other eastern European arrivals appreciate the way they are treated in the workplace if they can find a job.

"People found that compared to working in Poland, Irish workplaces were more informal, gave people more initiative. Irish workplaces are seen as more American - people don't stand on their roles and people reward initiative."

Changing trends

Agnes Kuzinska, who came to Ireland in 2006, admits she was drawn to Ireland by the good press it was getting back home.

"I came here because my friends were here and I had a good time, and people were more sympathetic, friendlier," she said.

But she points to a new trend among Polish migrants to Ireland: the temporary.

In the past it was thought that most Polish families who moved to the Irish Republic would stay. Now, according to Agnes, people are willing to move more than once.

"So many people go back to Poland. Stay here for a few years, then go back to Poland."

Author: Olly Barratt, Dublin
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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