Thursday, May 11, 2006

Poland survey chapter 5: Migration

A country to run from

May 11th 2006
From The Economist print edition

But only for a while

TURN off the main road anywhere in Poland, drive for a bit, and you will find yourself in a different country. The roads become worse, sometimes abominably so. The one-storey log cabins and horse-drawn carts of Poland's rural past make an appearance. More commonly, you will see roofless concrete shells, the ruins of communist-era collective farms or tractor stations. Nearly 15m people, over a third of Poland's population, live in the countryside. Some 5m of them work on 2.5m farms. Life is dull and bleak. Mains sewerage is a rarity, as are reliable public services of any kind. There are few non-farming jobs. It is easy to see why people might want to leave.


See you later

Nienadowka is a village in Poland's dirt-poor south-east corner. Social life, says Roman Nowinski, a sardonic dairy farmer, revolves around going to church and talking to the neighbours. Of the 2,800 inhabitants, a tenth have already gone to work abroad since Poland's EU entry opened the doors to legal migration to Britain, Ireland and Sweden. “They laid on courses for us farmers to learn English,” recalls Mr Nowinski. “It was very handy.”

In some parts of Poland, EU membership has been a boon for ambitious farmers wanting new machinery to modernise and expand. But there is little sign of this in Nienadowka, where tiny plots are inconveniently scattered around the village. Mr Nowinski's annual subsidy for his 10.5 hectares (26 acres, large by local standards) is 4,500 zloty. He gets 0.63 zloty for each litre of milk, 15% less than before EU entry; if he produces more than his 16,000-litre annual quota, he is fined. “This isn't farming,” he says. “This is just existence.”

But even in the boondocks, things are stirring. A few kilometres away is Smak-Eko, a small meat-processing plant but a big local employer with 150 workers. The co-founder, Eugeniusz Bernat, who returned to Poland after a spell in America, says EU money helped his firm meet new hygiene rules. He wants it to be a niche manufacturer of organic products, but does not expect it to be easy. “Look!” he fumes, brandishing a report on deregulation by the Adam Smith Centre, a Warsaw-based free-market think-tank. “No fewer than 40 state institutes with the right to inspect and check a business!”

The mayor of Sokolow Malopolski, the town that includes both Smak-Eko's plant and Nienadowka, is Andrzej Ozog. He was 26 when he was elected, the youngest mayor in Poland. Like many Poles, he regards national politics as a tiresome sideshow. “I belong to no party,” he says briskly. “I just want to know when we are going to have a state that is transparent, honest and efficient.” He is doing his bit by making it easier for citizens to deal with the town hall online: internet connections, he says, are more common than mains sewerage. He hopes EU money will fix the drains, and pay for a sports centre too.

Unemployment in the region remains high, at well over 20%. And from the regional capital of Rzeszow, a bumpy hour away by road, it is just two-and-a-half hours by plane to London. Ryanair, an Irish low-cost carrier, started flights to Rzeszow and half a dozen other Polish regional centres in October last year. Most days, the plane is full—in both directions.

One regular passenger is Justyna Dudek, a 27-year-old single parent who is moving to England, at least for a year, maybe more. It is not just that she is dissatisfied with the net salary of 800 zloty a month she gets for teaching English to teenagers. She also finds Polish workplaces much less appealing than those she has tried in England, including a bar and a travel agency. “Employers treat you differently. Here you are no one; there you are someone.” Abroad, relations with colleagues are better, too: “Here, everyone is much more stressed: if people get a good offer, they cheat on their friends.”

Half her former pupils are working in England already, she says, “and the other half are planning to go.” One reason for the exodus is poor Polish universities. There are islands of excellence, such as Warsaw University's institute of computing science. But they sit in a sea of mediocrity: undemanding, riddled with cheating, overcrowded and complacent. Mr Marcinkiewicz says reforming them is a priority, but it is hard to see Polish universities becoming dynamic, open and globally competitive soon. Until they do, many students will head abroad.

That raises two big questions: what is the effect on Poland of so many of its most enterprising people leaving? And what can the country do to tempt them back?

Jacek Bachalski, a politician and educational entrepreneur, holds out his hand to illustrate a lasting memory of an early trip to Britain. “The immigration officer rubbed his fingers against mine to see if they were rough. He was trying to see if I was really a bricklayer, not an undergraduate.” In the 1980s, Mr Bachalski was one of the few lucky Poles allowed to go West. When communism collapsed, there was a new obstacle: Western countries toughened their visa policies. Plenty of Poles still went, but most of them had to work semi-legally. Pawel Kaczmarczyk of Warsaw University says that migrants in those days tended to be low-skilled workers from the provinces. For them, even a job in the black economy was better than staying home.

Since the late 1990s, migrants have become younger and better educated: half of all Poles under 24 have some sort of tertiary education. In countries that still restrict Polish access to their labour market, such as Germany, the typical migrant comes for a seasonal job in agriculture. In Britain, one of the countries that has fully opened its doors, most Poles find jobs in business administration.

“The way it works is like this,” says Ewa, a graphic designer. “You start off in a bar or restaurant. You get to know the customers and find out what they do. When you find one who has the kind of work that you like and can do, you make friends with them and try to get introduced to their boss. Then you persuade him to try you out for a week, even unpaid. And because you are Polish and have good skills and work hard, you will get a job. Maybe even your new friend's job,” she laughs.

The benefits to western employers of getting well-educated and enthusiastic (if occasionally unscrupulous) Poles to work for them are clear. But what does it do to Poland? The big worry is that the outflow may drain the country of its best brains, especially in industries where the salary gap between east and west is large and the skills are readily transferable. The Polish media regularly feature stories about the effects of this brain drain, particularly on hospitals losing their best doctors.

In reality, though, the communist health system provided too many doctors and hospitals, so there is some spare capacity. But it also seems that supply is keeping pace with demand: there are actually more doctors practising in Poland now than there were two years ago. On the whole, says Mr Kaczmarczyk, Poland has a “brain overflow” (an excess of well-qualified people), largely thanks to the demographic effect of martial law, imposed by the country's communist rulers in 1981-83. Perhaps out of boredom, perhaps as a sign of patriotic resistance, Poles started producing more babies (see chart 5). That generation is now entering the workplace.

Will the huge number of Poles who migrate in search of better jobs eventually return home? Many people initially plan to go abroad only for a short time to earn some extra money, but months may stretch into years, even a decade—though for this generation of Poles probably not much longer than that. They are not fleeing totalitarianism or foreign rule. Low-cost flights and an open labour market make it easy to go back and forth.

Work abroad is often less comfortable at first and, without the family, lonelier than at home, so having raised the money to buy a house or set up a business, people generally want to come back. The Sokolow police chief's cousin, Elzbieta, is working as a secretary in London to improve her English; she hopes to return home to run a property business.

Another advantage of working abroad is that it brings new skills, not only in foreign languages but in other know-how. Watching the way a Western workplace operates can be a life-changing education. “The first thing you notice is that everything is organised as it should be. There it is clear and here it is grey,” says Ms Dudek, the English teacher. That matters: Polish management is still often weak, especially in “soft” departments such as sales, marketing and personnel. “The Polish idea of being a boss is still sitting in a big office being rude to people,” says one long-time British observer of Polish business.

Migration also deepens the talent pool for employers in Poland. Guy Simmons, who runs a chain of hotels in eastern Europe for Domina, an Italian hotel company, says the number of Poles working in hotels in Britain and Ireland has made it far easier for him to hire staff who understand about service quality. “It's drained the market of some of its best talent, but when they return, which they almost always do, they bring all that experience back,” he says. Other hoteliers agree. Maryla Koralewska, director of human resources at central Warsaw's Marriott, says Poles who have worked abroad have better “contact skills”, knowing how to greet guests and recognise regular clients.

Mr Bachalski, who now runs a successful chain of private colleges, sees a deeper effect. Working in foreign companies, he says, helps Poles shed their instinctive distrust of authority. “We learn to respect good management, and we lose our complexes.” Ewa agrees. “Before I came to London, I thought I was a very special person from a very special country, and nobody would understand me. Now I think that I am like anybody else. It doesn't matter where you come from or who your friends are. What matters is how hard you work and how good you are.”

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