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24th Feb 2020

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Poles still heading abroad despite economic conditions

  • Polish bakery in Dublin - the economic crisis has not stopped the exodus (Photo: infomatique)

Poland has been a relative bright spot in the dreary economic landscape of the European Union. But Poles have mixed feelings about life in their country and many are still going abroad to work.

Poles emigrated in their droves when their country joined the EU in 2004. By 2007, the peak emigration year, almost 2 million of them had left to find work elsewhere in the EU.

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Many had taken advantage of Ireland and the UK's open-door policy to workers from the new eastern member states. Estimates suggest that in 2007, there were about 700,000 Poles in the UK and about 200,000 in Ireland – numbers far greater than had been predicted by politicians or experts.

The following year, the picture started to change. "In 2008-2009, a significantly lower emigration of Poles was recorded and also an increase in the number of workers returning to Poland," says a report by Institute of Social Policy at the University of Warsaw.

The figures coincided with the beginnings of the economic downturn. And many thought it marked the start of a trend. So figures published by the UK's statistical office last month came as something of a surprise.

They showed that the number of Poles emigrating to the UK rose again in 2010, having dropped the year before.

Justyna Frelak of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs suggests the figures could be due to the realisation that things were not that great in Poland after all: "Maybe some returned and it was not that easy from them to start life in Poland. It could be they are stuck in a trap. They decided they wanted to have a proper job in Poland, after having worked in a job for low qualifications, but they couldn't find it so they are moving back to the UK again."

She pointed out that many of the emigrants came from the poorest parts of Poland, places that remain poor despite the economic upturn felt in Warsaw and other well-off cities.

Sabina Wasik, who lived in Ireland for four and a half years and returned to Poland in 2008 only to head back to Dublin once more earlier this year, agrees that Poland's economic performance is too patchy.

The 32-year old said she found her "dream job" when she returned to Poland working in a TV station: "The problem was that it was low paid even though it was the most prestigious media company in Poland."

"The economy, that's really a stereotype," addd Wasik. "Everyone talks about Poland's economic growth, but people can't feel it in any way."

Wasik who worked as a waitress, a journalist and now as a museum guide in Dublin says that "lots" of her friends have had similar experiences. "They returned to Poland and then went back to Ireland again," she said. She suggested that an emigrant's sense of being a stranger in one's own country after a certain time abroad is also a factor.

Others have returned to Poland but have mixed feelings about the changes they see.

Krzysztof Kowalik, manager of two bars in the town of Lublin in southeast Poland, said: "the economic situation and the situation of the citizens is much better."

But the 32-year old, who spent four years in London, added that while things are "changing, it is in a bad way."

"Warsaw is quite similar to London now. People maybe don't have as much money but they work long hours each day, they don't have time for themselves. It is only rushing and shopping," he explained.

Having worked abroad can be a strong advantage when you return. Tomek Grela, a 29-year old investment banker, says he came back to Poland after two years in the UK, because "being a Pole with international experience, you can really sell that in Poland. Being a Pole in the UK didn't really have any benefits."

"There is a definitely a lot of opportunities here. Looking at my friends who are in London with me, I would say 60-70 percent came back."

Grela said he plans to stay in Warsaw and points to the number of the international companies that have their headquarters in the Polish economy as a sign of the good times, present and future.

A bright spot but ...

Poland has been the envy of others for being the only EU country not to have gone into a recession since the global financial crisis began. This year its economy is expected to grow by 3.9 percent.

Much has been due to luck. Poland is outside the eurozone. The floating zloty has helped cushion the country from the effects of the crisis and kept Polish products competitive on the global market. Politicians in Warsaw, while still keen on entering the single currency, are no longer in a rush to do so.

The country also benefitted from the fact that Germany, which gobbles up a quarter of Polish exports, weathered the economic downturn well. A smallish banking sector meant that financial institutions did not lend excessively - the cause of economic collapse in Ireland, once a model for Poland.

EU money helped too. With €67 billion in structural funds due to make its way to Warsaw by 2013, public spending in Poland has been kept high.

But there are potential problems.

Unemployment is now at 12.6 percent while the budget deficit is forecast to be 7.6 percent of GDP. Public debt is close to 55 percent, the level at which austerity measures must be taken under Polish law. And the government has promised to reduce the budget deficit to the three percent of GDP required under EU rules by 2012.

In addition, the country would be vulnerable if Germany were to have a sudden economic slowdown. Meanwhile, experts note that some of Poland's growth could be due to one-off projects such as stadium-building or the massive infrastructure plans related to the hosting of the Euro football championships next year. Warsaw is rushing to complete 1,800km of motorway ahead of the event.

In the future, government spending on infrastructure and social programmes are expected to take a hit, says Anna Ruzik-Sierdzińska from the Centre for Social and Economic Research.

And the EU money - with many other member states struggling with austerity measures and slow economic growth - is unlikely to flow as generously post-2013, when the new, post-crisis EU budget takes over.

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