Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Gazeta article, English text

So Poland is facing a “Labour shortage”. True, in that Polish employers can’t find the staff they need at the wage they can afford to pay. There is also a “shortage” of large houses in central London that I can buy on a journalist’s salary. There is a “shortage” of luxury sports cars, Rembrandts, Caribbean islands…you name it.

The truth is that life is full of things that are not available at the price we would like to pay—or that we have got used to paying.

The market has a partial answer to this. It is a fair bet that if Polish hospitals paid American salaries, it would be no problem to attract plenty of nurses, doctors, technicians and cleaners.

But of course the state (or rather the Polish taxpayer) cannot afford to solve the problem just with money.

Neither can Polish private-sector employers. Particularly in lower-skilled sectors, they are increasingly finding that the wages needed to attract enough workers are not matched by those workers’ productivity.

So what to do? Imagine a maths teacher in Poland earning €500 a month, considering moving to Britain. The chance of earning £2,000 a month is one reason to move. Others include: quality of public services; quality of management and workplace relations; prospects for training; leisure opportunities; optimism about the future.

At the moment, all of these count against Poland, creating a “premium” for living and working in, say, Britain and a “discount” for staying at home.

As a Briton, I am not proud of my country’s health, education, transport, policing and other public services. They are run-down, badly managed, overcrowded and complacent. Still, I recognise that compared to most post-communist countries, they are pretty good. If you get ill in Britain, the National Health Service offers world-class medical care for free. That is not the case in Poland.

Then comes the quality of life at work. Polish employers—especially in the public sector—have largely missed the management revolution of the past 40 years. Information is guarded jealously; status counts for a lot; initiative is discouraged, or even punished. “A boss is someone in a big office who shouts at people”. I personally don’t find British management particularly good (compared, say to the way Scandinavian companies are run). There are authoritarian, secretive, temperamental bosses. But I reckon they are rarer than in Poland.

Then there is relationships with colleagues. Britain, along with some other north European countries scores highly in polls about “public trust”. Relations in the British workplace tend to be amiable—more so, perhaps, than in a large Polish bureaucracy.

Next comes education. Polish employers tend to be rather poor investors in their staff. In Britain, particularly in the public sector, on-the-job training is part of the system. It doesn’t work very well (indeed a lot of it is a complete waste of money) but it does offer room for an ambitious newcomer to learn some more skills. Rather more importantly, Living in Britain is like taking thousands of hours of free-of-charge language lessons. Poles who work in shops or restaurants quickly polish their accent, stretch their vocabularly and improve their understanding of the world’s most important business language. You don’ tget that at home.

Living abroad is more fun, too. London is probably the most interesting city in the world. Polish cities are great, but they don’t compare. Polish small towns can be pretty dull (which gets back to the poor state of public services). Even a small provincial British town will have more in the way of nightlife, sports facilities. Particularly for young people, that matters

Finally, there is the question of optimism. People will put up with a lot if they think that life is going to improve. If they feel pessimistic about their country, or their own chances there, they tend to be more willing to consider radical changes, such as moving abroad. Despite Poland’s strong economic growth rate, robust democracy and strong international alliances, the country’s incompetent and quarrelsome politicians have failed to communicate to the voters a feeling that Poland is on the right track.

Put all these factors together, and it is easy to see why Polish public services are finding it hard to keep staff. They offer ill-paid badly managed jobs with few prospects, where connections matter more than talent. Quality of life inside and outside the workplace leaves a lot to be desired. Prospects elsewhere are bright. As the brightest and best people leave, conditions become steadily less attractive for those left behind.

That is the bad news. The good news is that all these problems are soluble. Polish public services could improve sharply if they were better managed. 20 years since the collapse of communism, it is astonishing that so many are run without the interests of the “customers”—ie the patients, pupils, and other citizens—in mind. Estonia has revolutionised its public services by a mixture of decentralisation, liberalisation (meaning competition) and most of all e-government. It is remarkable that a country as poor and backward as Georgia has been willing to take the Estonian example on board, and launch its own radical public-sector reforms, and Poland has shown so little interest in the subject.

Good public services are not just attractive to their users. They also find it easier to attract and keep good staff. Teachers like working in a well-run school. A good school makes every parent in the locality think twice about wanting to work abroad.

Poland stands before an important choice. Either it makes a serious effort to make itself attractive for its own people: not just paying them decent salaries, but offering high-quality public services, if not immediately, but at least as a realistic prospect in the coming years. The aim is to tempt tens of thousands of migrants who have left provisionally to come back, enriching the country with their newly acquired skills, languages, outlook and experience. This is already happening to some extent in the private sector: people who have made some money abroad are coming home to pursue business opportunities that they have spotted. But it is not yet happening in a big way in the public sector.

If Poland fails to do this, it faces a much bleaker prospect: a vicious circle of declining public services where the best people leave, the management worsens, and quality of life for everyone declines. The example of southern Italy shows what problems bad government can create: entrenched corruption, depopulation and hopelessness.

Only Poland can solve this problem. European Union structural funds make the solution easier, but they do not substitute for the political will and imagination needed. Democratic pressure over the past 20 years has not really persuaded politicians that this matters. But now millions of people are voting in a different way: with their feet. That should signal the urgency of the task.


Unknown said...

congratulations! sad but true

Michael Dembinski said...

An excellent piece covering many of the points that the British Polish Chamber of Commerce has noted. One thing missing in terms of getting Poles to return is the issue of double taxation.

Although the Polish and UK governments have signed a new treaty, which came into force on 1 January 2007, Poles who've worked in the UK for the past five years can be liable for back Polish tax on return - even if they've paid UK tax. This is major disincentive to coming home. Given that the top (40%) tax bracket kicks in at around 13,000 quid in Poland (compared to 39,835 in the UK), a Pole earning an average UK salary can be assessed for back taxes in the order of scores of thousand zlotys for the tax years 2002-06.

PiS deputy Aleksandra Natalli-Swiat, chairman of the parliamentary public finances committee, has told the BPCC that a tax amnesty for those years would be 'unfair to Poles who have returned and have already paid their tax'. However, Poland's skills shortages will become so grave (EU projects, Euro 2012, rapid economic growth etc), that repaying a few hundred or a few thousand returnees their double tax will be a small price to pay for attracting home hundreds of thousands of skilled and experienced workers from the UK.

Michael Dembinski, BPCC

Michael said...

“As a Briton” you right..;)))
Dude who u trying to full?
Get back to school, take some “English as a second language” class..;))) your analysis are poor as your writing stile.

Unknown said...

The quality of public services in Poland leaves much to be desired. Examples are legion: one needs to queue for at least three months to have his/her eyes tested by an eye doctor, schools are overcrowded, badly equipped and hammer a lot of useless information into students' heads, setting up a company takes a month, not to mention receiving a permit for building a house, which borders on a miracle and can only be speeded up by bribing an official. In the public sector Poland is still a banana republic.

Michael said...

Dear mr Lucas, we thank you for the great job you've been doing for us. The unwavering dedication ,with which you are imposing the image of the Liberal western Democracy, as being arrogant, self-promoting ethnocentric club for the major assholes who suffer from the genetically unmodifiable superiority complex ( previously known as White Man's Burden), truly burned itself into the mid of the average Russian citizen. As result, the word “democracy” causes variety of the reactions in the midst of Russian society, ranging from uncontrollable projectile vomiting ( cleansing digestive system of the Russians of the remains of Polish... errr beef ) to wide spread panic and profound need to copulate ( thus solving the demographic problem) . It is the people like you who ensure future rise of the Evil Empire it is indeed has been gone for too long. Accept this small token of our appreciation in the the form of the very special tea “Polonez” -feel free to share it with mr.Berezovskiy -tell him that we remember him fondly. Yours truly - Bloody Gebnia.

P.S try not to run around public places a whole lot after you consumed the tea.

Unknown said...

Dear Edward, this confirms my own observations. I posted a short article about this some time ago in our newsletter:

Martin said...

Problems? 'Soluble'?

Like Askit powders?

Anonymous said...

You express the reality of life in Poland almost exactly as I see it as a Briton who has lived in Poalnd for 20 years or so. You also put your finger on why it is so frustrating.
I would adjust the balance of optimism and pessimism slightly. As regards public services, I see a glimmer of hope of their becoming more user-friendly. I think slightly more effort is being made on the customer's behalf in the Health Service, starved of resources though it is, Tax Office and even that bastion of bureaucracy the National Insurance (ZUS). I don't think their employees have much hope of an end to the drudgery, however. On the other hand, the lack of vision and political will to seize the opportunity the country still has leads me to feel greater pessimism than optimism overall.

T said...

I have to agree with you bar the fact that the NHS offers "world-class" health care. It doesn't and I believe that even the Polish system is better. The waiting rooms in Poland may be less shiny, but the service is ultimately better.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr Lucas,

I cerainly agree with many of you points ( maybe with the exception of the NHS offering 'world-class' healthcare and London being such a high-quality place to live ). However you do not offer any specific solutions. Poland is considerably larger and much more difficult to reform than such a tiny nation as Estonia. How can a country change the mentality of all the mangement staff who have been 'raised' in a particular way of managing? Send the of to a training? Psychoanalysis? I don't believe there is a simple solution. There is also the issue of different mentally and culture. Poles just don't go around saying everything is lovelly and great even if they are in a good mood. It's just not the way we are. I find it nice in London that people smile and say amiable things to each other on the street and in the office, but I also feel there is a down side to this- you don't REALLY know what they are thinking. Everybody seems to pretend they like you and it's only at times of conflict that you really learn what they think. I think I would prefer a little bit more sincerity.

(Economist living in London)

Anonymous said...

The health and education services were mentioned in your article as two of several areas in which Britain offers a better deal. the comparison is not always that simple, as indicated by the last two comments.
Medical care in Poland is, as far as I can judge, at least as good as in Britain, but the real point is that it comes at a price. The health insurance currently stands at over £30 for a self-employed person (on Polish pay!), but the real crunch, particularly for the elderly or in cases of serious illness, is paying the full price for prescriptions. These are not always cheaper analogues either and can consume the lion's share of a state pension.
Education is not free either as all textbooks (and stationery)are purchased by parents and usually have to be bought new even where there are several siblings, as they are changed from one year to the next, often according to the whim of the teacher.
These costs, borne by the user, of state-run services would not be unacceptable if salaries, especially those of state employees, were commensurate.
At first I thought that the Polish headline missed the main point of the article, but now I'm not so sure. Poland has opportunities, but first the sums must be done and the state sector reformed if young people are to be induced back.

Edward Lucas said...

Edward here. I agree that if you have money, a lot of things in Poland are better value than in the UK. My point was that British public services are free at the point of consumption (education, health particularly). Plus subsidised prescriptions.

I don't have a solution for Poland's public services, but I think a necessary condition is political leadership.

I can assure you that I am a native speaker of English. I did write the text in a way that would make it easier to translate, which may explain some of what seems like awkward phrasing. I didn't consider at the time that anyone else might read the English text.