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UK workforce: Polish essential workers mull exit

Jo Harper
November 23, 2022

One in three Polish key workers in the UK are planning to return to Poland or are undecided about staying in a country becoming increasingly hostile to them.

Clinical staff wear personal protective equipment as they care for patients at the Intensive Care unit at Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, United Kingdom
For Polish workers the feeling of belonging to the UK, of being welcomed and feeling at home diminished significantlyImage: Neil Hall/AFP/Getty Images

Varsovian Dorota and her teenage daughter moved to Peterborough in eastern England in 2019. "I thought that England was the country that would change my life," the 44-year-old woman from Poland told DW.

And in many ways it did.

"My daughter went to school and I got a job at an Amazon warehouse. We stayed for 11 months and barely made ends meet," she said.

Varsovian paid £475 (€520, $518) a month for a room where she slept with her daughter, while her job at the Amazon warehouse earned her £1,275 take-home pay a month for sometimes a 50-hour week.

The town of Peterborough she said was "rough and a little pathological." She's now "happily back in Poland" working as a home help. "My quality of life is better here."

A study by researchers from Middlesex University, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Sheffield found that Dorota is not alone. The study surveyed 1,105 Polish key workers working in health and social care, transportation, education and childcare, utilities and goods manufacturing.

The researchers found that 28% of those surveyed believed that they had been discriminated against in the workplace. Polish health and social care workers told them they had been treated unequally compared to other migrants.

More than half of the respondents, 55%, said their mental health had deteriorated — 31% "significantly" and 24% "somewhat" —  during the pandemic, while 40.2% found themselves in a worse financial situation.

Eastern Europeans 'not welcome in UK'

Unwanted at work

Middlesex University researcher Kasia Narkowicz said that among the Polish essential workers "many of the Polish key workers spoke of feeling discriminated against and unwanted at work and in their communities," she told DW.

The group of researchers said in their report that those interviewed felt the UK government's rhetoric on immigration is "hostile and inflammatory" and would carry with it risks for further attacks on migrants.

"We know that there is a shortage in essential work sectors that will most likely need to be filled with migrants. The question for future research is how many migrants from Poland and Eastern Europe will be interested in filling these gaps," Narkowicz said.

It is estimated that almost a million Poles lived in the UK before the Brexit vote in 2016. Evidence suggests that around 200,000 members of the Polish community have now left the UK.

About 11% of migrants in Britain work in the transport sector, 10% in agriculture and 9% in the health sector. Poles make up more than one-fifth (23%) of all migrants from the EU in the UK.

The National Health Service (NHS) publishes data on the nationality of its employees. In March 2021, about 10,500 Poles worked in the NHS, the fourth most numerous non-British nationality after Indians (30,000), Filipinos (25,000) and Irish (14,000) employees.

"Their decisions to leave solidified during the pandemic, although they have swelled since Brexit when they realized that their position in the UK was more precarious and the perception of them as hard-working had become much more unstable," Narkowicz said.

"The economic crisis and what is happening now is likely to exacerbate it even more," she added.

The 'wrong' Brexit

A Polish shop in Stockport, England
Polish jobs in the UK contribute a diversity of products to people that would not be otherwise available as well as employing people and paying taxesImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/J. Nicholson

Brexit supporter Lord Simon Wolfson — the chief executive of the clothing retailer Next — recently called on the UK government to let more foreign workers into the UK, saying post-Brexit immigration policies were hurting the economy.

"This is not the Brexit that I wanted," he told the BBC.

The same could be said of many others who didn't vote for Brexit.

A UK hauler Danny W. Poole & Sons, for example, recently launched legal action against the government's immigration rules, after being advised by the Home Office to move to Poland to avoid border delays. The company's EU drivers have been facing long delays at the UK border, despite driving UK-registered trucks and holding British National Insurance numbers and paying taxes in the UK.

Meanwhile, staying in Britain after Brexit has not been straightforward for EU citizens. EU nationals have had to apply for residency via the UK's EU Settlement Scheme.

"From our study, it seems that Brexit was a catalyst. Poles working here started thinking seriously about moving back," Narkowicz said, adding that "over 50% of survey respondents said that COVID-19 impacted their decision to leave" and many mentioned Brexit in the interviews.

Krzysia Balinska, coordinator for Polish Migrants Organize for Change (POMOC), says the difficulties many have encountered have played a key part in the decision to leave the UK and go home.

"A critical issue for the Polish people after Brexit is the lack of clarity around the EU Settlement Scheme. Even people who received the Settled Status from the Home Office are facing difficulties that did not exist before Brexit," she told DW. For instance, people are asked to prove their immigration status when applying for jobs, trying to obtain a mortgage or before receiving health care.

Polish economy and calls to come home

The current state of the Polish economy is also playing a role in many Poles' decision to return. A rising standard of living, wages and employment opportunities in Poland are reasons why Poles decide to move home, the survey found.

The former Polish ambassador to the UK, Arkady Rzegocki, in 2020 called on his compatriots to return to their home country. "We are waiting for you with open arms," he said.

Key considerations for Poles to work abroad are wages, distance from home and accommodation on the job. Against that backdrop, Germany has become a more convenient choice than the UK. Therefore, German companies, especially in health care, logistics, construction and manufacturing, are increasingly turning their attention to skilled Polish workers leaving the UK.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

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