Filling Poland’s labour gap

Welcome to the EU. Ukrainian citizens arrived at Lech Wałęsa Airport in Gdańsk as part of the first official visa-free flight on the Gdańsk-Kiev route. Thanks to the new visa-free regime, Ukrainians can enter the EU without visas and move freely within the Schengen area.

Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, some two million Poles have moved west for work. In recent years, though, the country has become a destination for workers from further east, above all from Ukraine.

Today, Ukrainians are a visible presence on the Polish labour market, from seasonal agricultural labourers to specialists. In 2017, Polish employers filed 1.8 million requests to hire people from outside the EU, of whom 1.7 million were Ukrainians – one-third more than the previous year. As Europe grapples with migration, Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has sought to recast the Ukrainians as refugees. Speaking in the European Parliament in 2016, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydło spoke of “one million refugees from Ukraine.” Despite protests by Ukrainian officials, members of PiS have continued to use the phrase to justify Warsaw’s refusal to take in refugees from the Middle East as part of the EU’s relocation programme. “We already contribute a lot to easing tensions on the eastern flank of the European Union,” Mateusz Morawiecki, who replaced Szydło as prime minister in December, told CNN during the World Economic Forum in Davos, defending his government’s stance on refugees. “There is a huge population coming from the Donbass area to Poland. These are homeless people, these are people whom we treat as refugees,” he added.

Yet a quick check on the Polish Office for Foreigners’ website shows that Poland granted just 56 Ukrainians refugee status in 2017. In the years before, even at the height of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, the numbers were much lower. Instead, Ukrainians are powering the Polish labour market. Like other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Poland already faces a labour shortage. According to one forecast, assuming a similar pace of economic development and demographic trends, Poland will be short of five million workers by 2050. Unemployment has crept down in recent years, falling to its lowest since the end of communism in 1989. In December 2017, it was 6.5% overall, 3.7% in the western region of Wielkopolska and an even lower 1.4% in its capital, Poznań. Polish companies are hungry for workers. As many as 19% intend to seek out employees from Ukraine in the near future, according to a report by Personnel Service at big companies, it is a staggering 42%. Demand is highest in the production sector, extending to services and retail.

A younger complexion

Meanwhile, migration from Ukraine to Poland has been changing. For years, women and men from western Ukraine have been coming to Poland to work, often for seasonal jobs in agriculture, which meant returning home between gigs. A report on Ukrainians working in Poland published by the National Bank of Poland (NBP) in 2016 indicates that this is changing. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has triggered a new wave of migration, it argues. For over 40% of the Ukrainians surveyed in 2015, it was their first time working in Poland. Of these “new” migrants, almost 60% were men – who had previously accounted for a minority of Ukrainians working in Poland. The new arrivals are younger, too, with an average age of 33, a decade less than among the more experienced migrants. The NBP also noted a marked shift in where people were moving from: whereas, before 2013, just 6% of Ukrainians working in Poland hailed from eastern and southern Ukraine, that proportion had risen to 28% after 2014.

The share of highly-educated Ukrainians in Poland has been rising, too. Some Ukrainians move to Poland to study; of the 72,000 foreign students at Polish universities, over half are Ukrainians. Of the Ukrainians already working in Poland, almost half (44%) have university degrees, according to a report by OTTO Work Force, which recruits workers from Ukraine. Fewer than one-third work jobs that reflect their level of education, but the proportion has risen significantly. “The number of people employed according to their education indicates that employers are using Ukrainian migrants’ potential increasingly effectively,” said Tomasz Dudek, Operating Director for Central and Eastern Europe at OTTO. The company has three recruitment offices in Ukraine – in the cities of Lviv, Ternopil and Vinnytsia – which recruit over 100 workers, ranging from production workers to senior specialists, to work in Poland a week, according to the company. OTTO organises their transport, helps find accommodation, deals with formalities and provides Ukrainian-speaking coordinators. As advantages, it cites access to specialists who are difficult to find on the local market, motivated workers, and Ukrainians’ linguistic and cultural proximity to Poles.

Inter-Enterprise Trade Union of Ukrainian Workers was established in Poland to protect the rights and interests of employees.

Rising wages, more money home

Regardless of their level of education, Ukrainians primarily move to Poland for the higher wages. With Ukraine’s economy struggling, well-paid jobs are scarce, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, wages in Poland have been rising – including among Ukrainians. According to a report by Upper Job, another recruitment intermediary, a Ukrainian manual worker could expect to earn 12 zł an hour in Poland in mid-2017, one-third more than two months earlier, and three times as much as in Ukraine. Wage expectations rose by at least one-fifth among plasterers, bricklayers, drivers, kitchen aids and hospitality workers from Ukraine, too. As Ukrainians’ wages in Poland have risen, so has the amount of money sent home. In the third quarter of 2017, transfers to Ukraine amounted to 3.2 bn zł, according to the National Bank of Poland. This does not include money moved abroad through informal channels.

At the same time, Ukrainians have been spending more in Poland, too, becoming a growing group of consumers. According to the Central Statistics Office, they spent 2 bn zł on goods and services in Poland in the first three quarters of 2017. With this number set to rise, companies have been competing for Ukrainian customers. Mobile operators offer special deals for calls to Ukraine. Play, a mobile operator, has a helpline in Ukrainian. Banks are paying attention, too. In November 2017, Credit Agricole launched a new deal for Ukrainians, advertising attractive prices for bank transfers to Ukraine. The paperwork to open an account can be completed in Ukrainian, alongside Polish, English and French. “[Our] offer in foreign languages is a natural reply to the growing number of foreigners in Poland. They are our potential clients,” said Marcin Data, director for savings products and daily banking at Credit Agricole, adding that the bank’s current campaign focuses on Ukrainians. Raiffaisen Polbank, which claims to have over 42,000 Ukrainian clients, enables new ones to make one free bank transfer to Ukraine every month. Meanwhile, PKO Bank Polski is preparing to launch its popular IKO banking app in two new languages, Ukrainian and Russian.


Yet legal barriers remain. Right now, employers are grappling with new Polish regulations on hiring foreigners from outside the EU introduced at the start of 2018. Experts warn that the more bureaucratic procedure could scare off employers, such as farmers hoping to hire a few people to pick fruit. Recognition of Ukrainian qualifications is another problem. In theory, Poland is short of nurses, as many prepare to retire or have moved abroad, seeking better wages. According to a report by the Institute for Public Affairs (ISP) in Warsaw, the main obstacle preventing Ukrainian nurses from working in Poland is having their qualifications recognised.  Potential preschool teachers from Ukraine face similar barriers.

‘One in ten people living in Wrocław is now Ukrainian. 48% of Ukrainians plan to stay in Poland for good, 38% more than at the end of 2015.’

Despite demand for simpler procedures, the number of Ukrainians working in Poland is expected to continue increasing, with social and economic implications for both countries. Already, according to one study, one in ten people living in Wrocław is now Ukrainian. According to the report by OTTO Work Force, 48% of Ukrainians plan to stay in Poland for good, 38% more than at the end of 2015. Those who eventually return to Ukraine will bring with them new skills, contacts and experience of working in an EU country, valuable assets supporting Ukraine’s economic growth and westward course. Meanwhile, if more young Ukrainians start to settle down in Poland and start families, the repercussions will extend beyond the labour market. Polish policy-makers at the national, regional and city level would do well to think ahead.

Annabelle Chapman is a Warsaw-based journalist. Her articles from Poland and Ukraine have been featured in The Economist, Foreign Policy, Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, among others. In Warsaw, she is also a English-language editor at Polityka Insight, a think-tank. She has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and a master’s in Russian and East European Studies, both from Oxford University.

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