Polish immigration has very much been the flavour of the last few months. And it does appear that thereís a genuine phenomenon here, not just something talked up by the press. Which makes a fucking change, from the same newspapers that would have us believe you canít leave the house without being a victim of crime, or that 'political correctnessí means that Father Christmas is now an illegal immigrant.
Itís common to hear people speaking Polish in many parts of the country, as well as seeing Polish products and newspapers in shops. And on the whole, the reaction to Polish immigration has been positive. Itís seen as a good thing because it fills gaps in the UK workforce (a view endorsed by the CBI), and Poles in particular have been praised for their willingness to work hard, and, in the case of craftsmen, their skills and professionalism. However, the good news story does occasionally seem a bit too good to be true.
This week the BBC reported on a recruitment fair in London for Poles, saying 'the UK is in the grips of an extraordinary revolutioní. The BBC report suggests that Poles are becoming more 'visibleí and taking on a more diverse range of jobs - instead of just bottom-of-the-ladder manual jobs like picking fruit, Poles (and other Eastern Europeans) are entering the mainstream of the workforce.
For many this is true, but the reality doesnít seem to quite match up to the idea that Poles are getting decent jobs. The BBCís report highlights one guy, David, who is handing out flyers at the employment fair. In Poland he was a teacher, taking home the equivalent of £200 a month; in the UK, he is getting £600 for handing out flyers. Meanwhile the actual employment agencies at the fair acknowledge that many of the jobs on offer are not fun fun fun. One recruiter comments: 'The work can be difficult - sometimes itís a job in the food industry where people are working up to 10 hours in a chiller, for instance.í
Thereís a term for handing out flyers and working in chiller rooms: itís 'shit temp jobsí. Itís almost as though the eagerness to find something positive has led people to gloss over the reality of the work that Poles and other immigrants are actually doing.
And accompanying the influx of Poles has been a strange romanticisation of them, coupled with a demonisation of the British workforce. A whole narrative of 'hardworking Poles, lazy Britsí has sprung up. Itís a bit insulting to both parties. At a trivial level, the 'hardworking Polesí clichť shows a certain distasteful disdain for these hardworking little chaps. In a discussion about Polish workers on the BBCís site, one individual makes a familiar point:
'Have to say - we had Polish decorators who did our house. They did a fantastic job - ever so diligent. They hardly took a break all day (they even refused cups of tea - they allowed themselves one cup in the afternoons only) and finished the job in less time than they quoted.í
Well, great. Itís good to get work done properly and on time, but thereís a slight longing for all workers to be automata. Curse the British and their tea breaks! This newfound love of the Polish nation also manifests itself as contempt for Brits. Comments on the BBC story typically run like this:
'I welcome the polish [sic] community and wish them all the best. Let them show our British workforce what it is all about!í
'It is just a shame that idle British unemployed/workers moan that they have a hard time of things.í
Itís a bit of an insult to all the Brits who work perfectly hard. Thereís also a difference in circumstance between Poles and Brits. Many Poles intend to make some money and return to Poland, profiting from the massive disparity in wages. Good for them, but itís a totally different situation to a British person contemplating taking a dismal job for ever and ever and ever.
And underlying the whole 'hardworking Polesí narrative is some very harsh economic reality. The fact is that wages in Poland are *terrible*. As a result, £600 handing out leaflets obviously has some appeal, compared with £200 a month for being a teacher. However, the sums donít really add up. The problem is that £600 doesnít go very far, given the costs of living in the UK. (Adam, the Polish guy interviewed by the BBC who is earning £600 a month says he is living 'very cheaplyí with his sister.)
Thereís also a question about what happens to Poles in the longer term. Doing a crap job for a while is something most people can put up with. The question is whether they can move on from this. If they canít, then in the longer term then Poles and other immigrants will find themselves stuck in a rut, getting shitty jobs done at minimum cost to employers.
Thereís also the claim that Polish immigrant workers (and others) are *not* competing for jobs with Brits, because they are doing the jobs no one else wants to do. There are some questions to be asked about this assumption. In economic terms, filling workforce gaps in the economy is a good thing. Notable examples are the shortages of teachers, engineers and doctors, and for employers and qualified immigrants who are prepared to move to the UK, this is an excellent opportunity. And in purely economic terms, the UK economy benefits from people doing the lousy, badly-paid jobs that no one else wants to do, but need doing.
The problem is that thereís a reason why people donít want to do shitty jobs.
The 'benefits cultureí certainly exists, but shitty jobs have a number of drawbacks. By definition the work itself is grim. Often, the work is provided by agencies, which frequently means temp work, or short-term contracts with no job security. And above all, thereís the money. At the bottom of the employment scale, wages can be incredibly low relative to the cost of living, and have been for some time. One of the reasons people choose to live on benefits is that it offers a certain security - that and the fact that thereís not much point spending 40 hours a week in a terrible job for £20 more than what youíd get on benefits.
Where this relates to cheap immigrant labour is that while most Poles (and other immigrants) may not be competing directly against unskilled UK workers, they *are* helping to keep wages at the minimum level. There isnít an easy answer to the problem of low wages, but itís no wonder employers welcome the Polish workforce.
Of course, you can argue that anything that benefits the economy benefits all of us, or that higher wages will cause inflation, but thatís cold comfort to the millions of people on or around the breadline. (And in the same week that we saw yet more Polish success stories, another report was published highlighting the record levels of debt in the UK. The worst debt tends to affect the least well-off, which makes it hard not to conclude that many people are acquiring terrible debts just to exist.)
Undoubtedly immigration is having massive benefits, both for Poles and other immigrants and the UK as whole. Itís just a shame that the whole issue is too often reported as though the interests of employers are automatically the same as those of the workforce. Theyíre not, unless someone magically discovers a way to have a decent standard of living handing out leaflets.