Poland Needs Migrant Workers. The Pandemic Has Kept Them Away.

Despite the government’s anti-immigration rhetoric, many Polish businesses rely on workers from other parts of Eastern Europe.

A guard patrols Poland's border with Ukraine.
A guard patrols Poland's border with Ukraine in Korczowa, Poland, on March 28. Omar Marques/Getty Images

WARSAW, Poland—In late May, a Ukrainian plane landed on the Warsaw airport’s idle runway. An ambulance hurried across the apron. Each of the arriving 178 Ukrainians were ushered through checks—temperatures first, then papers. Six buses were waiting to take the workers to houses and hostels around Poland, where they would spend a mandatory two weeks in quarantine before taking up jobs in manufacturing and logistics.

After the Polish government introduced some of Europe’s toughest lockdown measures in mid-March, an estimated 150,000 of the million or so Ukrainians living in Poland—its largest migrant group—left the country. But now, as the Polish economy begins to recover from the recession induced by the pandemic, businesses are scrambling for the foreign workers they have come to rely on, seeking ways to either bring them back or find replacements. The difficulties they are facing in doing so have exposed the limitations of Poland’s short-sighted migration model.

In recent years, Poland has become the European Union’s largest importer of foreign workers. In 2018, the most recent year on record, Poland issued 635,000 first-residence permits, a fifth of all such documents issued in the bloc. Since 2014, nearly 2 million Ukrainians have taken up roles in agriculture, construction, production, and logistics.Businesses are scrambling for the foreign workers they have come to rely on, seeking ways to either bring them back or find replacements.

They are the ones who have kept Poland’s economy humming, despite an aging society, plummeting birth rates, and large numbers of Poles emigrating to other parts of the EU for work. As a result, the unprecedented wave of arrivals has been widely accepted by Poles—in contrast to other Western countries where immigration has conjured up native resentment.

These economic imperatives have at times clashed with the hostile anti-immigrant attitude taken by members of the nationalist ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. The Polish government under PiS has been at loggerheads with the EU over Brussels’ position on accepting asylum-seekers within the bloc. In early June, along with six other member states in Eastern Europe, Poland railed against the “cultural experiment” of relocating “illegal immigrants” inside Europe ahead of the EU’s new Pact on Asylum and Migration expected this summer.

But after borders closed this year, many have had trouble entering Poland. International air and rail travel, which have been suspended since mid-March, are only gradually being restored. Many land border crossings remain sealed off, and open ones often allow only passenger cars to come through, said Tomas Bogdevic, director of Gremi Personal, the recruitment agency that organized the recent flight. “As you know, not everyone has a car,” he said. Other crossings have been costly to reach with much of Ukraine’s internal connections suspended, and many migrants are grappling with the problem of where to spend the two weeks of mandatory quarantine upon arrival. The Polish consular system has also halted the flow of workers, having only resumed issuing visas May 4 and prioritizing a handful of sectors.

Some businesses have leaned on idle workers already in Poland. “Heading, gutting, filleting, and smoking,” human resources chief Martyna Lukomska said, listing jobs at the BG Production salmon processing plant. The company in the seaside village of Ustronie Morskie has plugged gaps with 180 workers from Indonesia and the Philippines who were let go from warehouses and restaurants during the pandemic. “The agencies we work with transferred the workers from IKEA, KFC, and McDonald’s to us,” Lukomska said. She has also been working with the seaside hoteliers chamber to borrow furloughed cooks and cleaners.

Farmers have felt even greater urgency to recruit seasonal farmhands. One blueberry producer from the southern village of Olchowiec hires 800 workers every year. Back in 2014, 90 percent of them were Polish and just 10 percent were Ukrainian. By last year, almost all came from Ukraine, the company’s hiring specialist, Yosyp Gusak, told Foreign Policy. This year, a completely new group has joined the berry farm: A 10th of current pickers are students from India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda who had their university courses moved online because of the coronavirus. “When they have classes, they leave the field for an hour or two and then return to work,” Gusak said.

More than a quarter of foreign workers in Poland met the growing demand by changing their employment sector during the first month of the pandemic, according to a survey by EWL recruitment agency. But replacement workers are only some consolation. “It is not just numbers that matter but also the skills,” said Agnieszka Kulesa, a labor economist at Warsaw’s Center for Social and Economic Research. “When Poles travel to Germany year on year to pick asparagus, they become more efficient than a novice German worker would be,” she said. British farmers have flown in planes of Romanians to train their green native pickers this year. “Speed really is of the essence when it comes to strawberries,” Kulesa said.The pandemic also laid bare some of the deeper issues of Poland’s management of migration.

The Polish government appears to have taken note and recently loosened quarantine rules for foreign farmhands, allowing them to begin work right away under special sanitary conditions. On May 28, a drive-thru testing site opened for seasonal workers in Grójec, the apple-growing capital of Poland. Seasonal workers will receive state-funded tests, which have not even been granted to teachers, who returned to schools in late May. “I think this emphatically shows the situation on the labor market,” Kulesa told Foreign Policy.

While the gaping seasonal holes have been plugged, the pandemic has also laid bare some of the deeper issues of Poland’s management of migration.

The current system is geared primarily toward short-term work. Citizens of Ukraine and five other former Soviet countries can work in Poland for up to six months without a visa. This has always been a concern for business leaders. The country’s overreliance on a single source of foreign workers meant that its labor force could easily dry up if the political, economic, or social conditions changed. This is precisely the problem that the pandemic exposed.

When the pandemic broke out, many foreign nationals rushed home over fears of being stranded in Poland jobless and penniless. The potential impact on businesses that rely on short-term labor forced the government to extend legal stays. “Poland is repeating the mistakes of Germany’s guest-worker programs in the 1970s by treating migrants as [temporary] labor,” said Cezary Kaźmierczak, president of the Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers.

But the nature of migration to Poland is changing. Last year, the government granted almost 40 percent more work permits to Ukrainians than the previous year, allowing for stays of up to three years. Many of those migrant workers, however, are moving into higher-paid sectors such as industry and services, and the share of Ukrainians working in agriculture in Poland halved in the four years after 2014.

“Many of them are working below their qualifications, which leaves them with a lot of room for promotion,” said Tomasz Wróblewski, president of the think tank Warsaw Enterprise Institute. Last year, a record number of the new companies registered in Poland were set up by foreigners. “Such workers are incredibly valuable, and the government should be doing all it can to retain them in Poland,” said Wróblewski, who suggests creating a path to achieving full settlement rights.

Yet the question of integrating newcomers continues to be swept under the rug. After coming to power in 2016, PiS annulled the previous government’s migration policy document and began working on its own blueprint, with a focus on repatriating the Polish diaspora. However, a leaked draft of the interior ministry’s new migration policy stirred up controversy over extensive assimilation plans, a chapter on the risks of Islam, and the suggestion of a special tax for the childless. “Everything was meant to happen quietly,” Kulesa said. “When the project became loud, the government abandoned its plans. Since then, it has fallen silent on migration.”

Meanwhile, according to Wróblewski, German companies are beginning to reach out for Ukrainian workers trained and working in Poland. “We are repeating the same mistakes made with our own citizens”—who went westward after Poland joined the EU in 2004—“by educating them and then letting them go,” said Wróblewski, referring to foreign student visas lapsing once they conclude their studies at Polish universities.

Administrative bottlenecks have also stopped more workers coming from further afield. Poland has taken in 36,000 Nepalese, 20,000 Indians, and 18,000 Bangladeshis in the past three years, but recruitment agencies are reluctant to bring over more because of the cost and logistical difficulties of importing workers from so far away. “We wait long for documents, and then there are the cultural and linguistic differences that make contact harder,” said Bogdevic, the director of recruitment agency Gremi Personal. Poland has six consulates to service around 40 million Ukrainians but just two in India to service the 1.5 billion people there and in neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal. Whereas some regional governments have mediated between employers and the countries that send workers, Kulesa said, in Poland, the drawn-out process is still the domain of recruitment agencies.Poland will rely on its migrant workers more than its conservative government would like to admit.

For the foreseeable future, Poland will rely on its migrant workers more than its conservative government would like to admit. “The economic growth over the past decade may not have been possible without these foreign workers,” Kulesa said. A new report by the National Bank of Poland estimates that Ukrainian workers have increased the effective labor supply in Poland by 0.8 percent each year between 2013 and 2018. That has translated into 0.5 percentage points more growth per year, or 13 percent of Poland’s economic growth in that period.

A popular line of argument in many corners goes that if cheaper workers are kept out, then Polish wages will rise. However, for as long as Poland’s economy remains labor intensive, cheap work has kept its exports competitive. That has helped to cushion the blow of the latest crisis. After the pandemic, there will still be plenty of such jobs that Poles simply do not want to fill, Kulesa said. “The 3 D jobs: dirty, dangerous, and difficult.”

Even as Poland’s migration politics remain a mixture of short-termism and naivety, Ukrainians look set to continue coming. Ukraine’s recovering war-torn economy has been hard-hit by the pandemic. “A lot of medium-sized companies have gone bust,” Bogdevic said. “Wages are still up to six times lower than here. Many people still want to leave for work.” Four out of 10 passengers on the first flight came to Poland for the first time, and the agency has since flown in two more planes of workers. “We decided at noon,” Bogdevic said, and “a day later, 100 people had already signed up.”

Maria Wilczek is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw, Poland. Twitter: @mariawilczek

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola