October 19, 2007


As the Poles Get Richer, Fewer Seek British Jobs (JULIA WERDIGIER, 10/19/07, NY Times)

[B]ritain may soon face a novel immigration problem. As Poland’s economy has improved this year, immigration has slowed, which economists say could cause labor shortages in British industries.

When Poland and nine other new members, most of them former Communist countries, were admitted to the European Union, many West Europeans feared an influx of cheap labor. In May 2005 in France, opponents of a new European constitution used the labor threat — personified by an archetypal “Polish plumber” who would steal French jobs — to help defeat the proposed constitution in a national referendum.

But Britain, along with Ireland and Sweden, welcomed workers from the new European Union members — partly because they took physically demanding, minimum-wage jobs that many native-born Britons snubbed and partly because a wide range of industries in this country were suffering labor shortages.

Today, the reputation of Polish construction workers, nannies and caregivers is so high that other East Europeans sometimes say they are Polish to increase their chances of being hired. At Strathaird Salmon, a fish farm in Scotland, more than a third of the employees are from Poland.

Immigration opponents were correct on one point: on average, Poles earn £7.30 ($14.93) an hour, compared with £11.10 ($22.70) an hour for Britons, according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a British institute.

In some regions, Britons worry that immigrants are pushing up housing costs and crime rates. The Polish influx was much larger than the government anticipated and unlike most previous waves of migrants — from South Asia and the Caribbean, for instance — the Poles did not restrict themselves to the cities.

Some settled in remote towns of East Anglia and the Midlands, areas with little experience in immigration, where there have been some complaints of school overcrowding and a lack of personnel able to teach children whose native language is not English.

But a decline in Polish immigrants could be a bigger problem than a surplus. “People still come,” said Ania Heasley, who arrived from Poland 16 years ago and now runs a recruitment agency, “though with less hurrah and enthusiasm because they have realized the cost of living here is higher than they thought and if you don’t speak English you will only get a low-paid job.”

In addition to a better economic climate in Poland, Britain is also something of a victim of its Polish immigrants’ success. Many who started in low-skilled jobs have improved their English and moved up the career ladder. Many Poles now reject lower-paying jobs, or team up with trade unions to ask for better pay and benefits.

This could present problems for British employers, which have relied on immigrants to fill certain unappealing jobs. The National Farmers’ Union warned last month, for instance, that there are few alternatives to immigration if Britain is to prevent a labor shortage that could damage agriculture.

...but they aren't about to fix your plumbing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2007 2:31 PM
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