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Skilled migrants start looking to Eastern Europe

Jo Harper in Warsaw
July 18, 2023

Poland and Hungary continue to oppose the European Union migrant quotas. But despite their anti-immigration rhetoric, skilled migration from non-EU countries is growing.

A Hungarian police car patrols near the border fence between Hungary and Serbia
Countries in Europe's east have built fences to keep migrants out. Now they realize they need them for their economiesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Vojinovic

"I could not have imaged three years ago that I would be sitting in Warsaw drinking Polish beer," says Shourya Singh, a risk management consultant from Varanasi in northeast India, who works at Ernst & Young (EY), a professional services company, in the Polish capital. 

Shourya told DW that he was headhunted by an international staffing agency via LinkedIn and worked on a contract for Dutch bank ING before joining EY. 

Shourya's story is not uncommon. 

Abraham Ingo, a 20-something from Namibia who works as a credit risk model developer for a large bank in Warsaw, says the move to Poland has opened up a whole new world.

"My experience working here has been really amazing. The company I work for has a great work culture, a diverse employee base and great management. This experience in Poland has helped me grow and will enable me to contribute much more to Namibia in the long run," he told DW.

A picture of Shourya Singh
Shourya Singh says in Poland he's got more Indian friends here than in IndiaImage: Privat

CEE transformed

Change in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries (CEE) has been remarkable. Most EU member states in the former communist-ruled region have moved at breakneck speed from developing to developed market status in the 19 years since their EU accession.

This of course brings serious investment, but also some of the afflictions of Western economies: aging populations, labor shortages, fast-rising wages and the need for labor immigration

The shortage is most acute in economic sectors such as industry, medicine, transportation and information technology (IT). 

A group of Polish workers at an assembly line of VW in Poznan and manufacturing VW mini-trucks
Western companies producing in Eastern Europe find it harder to recruit skilled workersImage: DW/A.-M. Pędziwol

Demographics tell the story

The shortage is the result of demographic changes, mainly an aging population and emigration, coupled with unprecedented economic growth. 

Most countries in the region have experienced shrinking populations over the past 15 years. Data from the EURopean Employment Services (EURES) — a network that aims to facilitate the free movement of labor in the EU — shows that almost all CEE countries experienced a decline in population between 2010 and 2021.

Migration and low fertility rates are expected to mean the working-age population (aged 20-64) in CEE countries will shrink by about 30% by 2050.

Over the last decade, the dependency ratio — the ratio of the number of people of nonworking age to the number of people of working age — has grown. According to Poland's social security office ZUS, in order to stop growth of this ratio, the number of foreigners of working age will have to increase annually by 200,000 to 400,000 people in Poland alone.

Indians in Poland: Needed but not loved

Green transition reshaping labor market

"The context of the green and digital transitions must also be considered," Nadia Kurtieva, an expert at Poland's Lewiatan Confederation, a business organization, told DW. 

"These twin transitions are reshaping the labor market by creating new job opportunities and influencing the types of skills and expertise that organizations require," Kurtieva said, adding that, however, there was "a notable shortage of workers with the necessary skills" to meet these demands.

Some CEE countries also face extensive shortages in their domestic markets due to emigration of certain occupations already in short supply. 

According to the World Bank, Slovenia had the highest net-migration figure in the CEE countries, winning 4,568 people in 2021. Net migration is an annual ratio taking both immigration and emigration into account. Romania had the lowest with a loss of 12,724 nationals. 

The situation has changed following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has had significant consequences for labor supply in the region. Currently, Poland hosts the highest number of refugees from Ukraine, estimated at 1 million.

Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland by night.
The influx of skilled workers from Ukraine has provided some relief to sectors facing labor shortagesImage: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The influx of foreign workers

In 2021, the Romanian government approved an increase in the number of visas that could be granted to foreign workers for 2022 to 100,000. Foreigners represent only 1.1% of employees in Romania.

Romania's government said this year it is again ready to accept 100,000 non-EU workers in 2023. After Bulgaria, Romania opened its doors for Bangladeshi skilled workers, with jobs in the farm, construction and service sectors.

There are over 4.7 million people working in Hungary and, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH), 85,000 foreigners are working in the country.

But the domestic labor market will soon need 500,000 additional workers, according to the minister of economic development, Marton Nagy. Hungary has expanded its list of non-EU countries from which it is legal to recruit labor, although tightened the terms on which they can stay. Now, the government said that at least 3,000 active job orders await Filipino skilled workers in Hungary.

And it's a similar situation in Poland. Tomasz Danel, vice-consul of the Polish Embassy in Manila, told the Philippines-based online news portal The Freeman that Poland needs construction workers, welders, pipe fitters, drivers and other blue-collar workers. "Poland is becoming more and more popular among Filipinos as a destination for work and the number is growing every year," Danel said.

A study conducted by the Polish Economic Institute and BGK, a Polish development bank, showed that every fourth company in Poland employs foreigners who are not EU citizens. 

One example is a so-called container town, a container housing project for foreign workers — mainly from Asia — at a large petrochemical facility being built by state energy firm Orlen near Plock in central Poland. Up to 6,000 foreign workers from Turkey, India, Pakistan, Korea, Spain and the Philippines will live there while working on the project. Planned recreational facilities include a cricket pitch.

In the Czech Republic, almost a million foreigners worked there as of the end of December 2022, according to official government data — 15% of the adult workforce. Just under half were from EU countries

Jan Rafaj, vice president of the Czech Union of Industry, said that companies in Czechia lose 30,000 to 50,000 workers a year due to retirement. "The domestic labor market cannot cope without foreigners," he told DW.

In most CEE countries, integration remains an issue. That doesn't bother Shourya, though. "I don't see many professional downsides, except for the language," he told DW with a smile. "And Google Translate helps, of course."

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

Romania hopes to attract foreign workers