January 22, 2013 5:01 pm

Poland braced for fresh exodus of workers

When the financial crisis hit Europe five years ago, Poland’s economy continued to boom and the flood of young Poles heading west slowed to a trickle. But with the economy now weakening, the country is bracing itself for a new exodus.

“Of course I love my country and it was very hard to leave,” says Sylwia Dolhinko, 32, who left home a year ago to work in Britain. “But I saw that I would have to go if I wanted a normal life.”

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Ms Dolhinko found a job in a factory in Yorkshire after she followed her husband, a mechanic, to the UK. “In Poland I would have only found work as a hairdresser or a shop cashier,” she says.

The couple’s move is a harbinger of a new migration of Poles seeking to try their luck in western Europe. Their home town of Monki, northeast Poland – where every second household has someone who has worked abroad at least once – is a symbol of the nation’s itchy feet.

Poles have long migrated to escape political and economic troubles. Since it joined the EU in 2004, some 2.1m people have pulled up their roots.

Poland’s economic boom began to stem the tide of emigration but it has now been hit by the slowdown in the eurozone, its main export market, and by a slump in domestic demand. Unemployment stands at 13.3 per cent and economists forecast it will reach 14 per cent in 2013.

In 2011 about 60,000 more Poles left the country than returned home – the first net increase in emigration since 2007. With 2013 economic growth forecast at an anaemic 1.6 per cent, the outflow is likely to accelerate.

Krystyna Iglicka, a demographer at Warsaw’s Lazarski University, predicts that between 500,000 and 800,000 Poles will leave during the next five years.

“The situation on the Polish job market is terrible and Poles have always treated emigration as a way of improving their lot,” she says. The main magnets for migrants are Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway.

Poles apart

Fiat, the troubled Italian carmaker, announced last month it was cutting 1,450 jobs from its factory in southern Poland, a step that is having a ripple effect as parts suppliers lay off workers. “We are expecting a flood of unemployment,” says Katarzyna Ptak, director of the employment office in Tychy, site of the Fiat plant.

Despite economic problems in many west European countries, Poles are still willing to travel because even salaries at the bottom end of the scale in western Europe are much higher than back home. The National Bank of Poland found that the average Polish migrant earns just over €2,000 a month in western Europe while in Poland they would make a quarter of that.

In the year ahead it is likely that more people from Monki, the population of which is just 10,000, will follow Ms Dolhinko out of Poland. The local unemployment rate is about the same as the national average but salaries are low and jobs tend to be in retail or at the local dairy.

“Nothing indicates that unemployment will drop next year – we are seeing a real slump in new job offers,” says Agnieszka Chodkiewicz, at the local employment office. “I think young people are likely to continue leaving.”

In Monki’s town hall, many staff already have family or friends living abroad.

Malgorzata Maciorowska, a secretary, lists five close friends who are now scattered across the EU. “My people are in Belgium,” says a woman dropping off some papers.

Deputy mayor Andrzej Zdanowicz’s daughter has been in London since 2009. “She doesn’t want to come back,” he says glumly.

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