Polish workers: Help or Hindrance?
More than half a million Poles have entered the UK since joining the EU in 2004. Some people in Kent say they are taking 'our' jobs while others believe they are a vital ingrediant to a strong local economy. What do you think?
Every time a new wave of foreign workers crashes against our shores, various voices clamour for our sea walls to be strengthened and for fortress Britain to be defended at all costs.
With Polish migration to the UK since 2004, things are no different: "I'm not against foreign workers but I think jobs should be for local people," said one lady I spoke to in Sheerness. And this from an unemployed man in the same town: "It's unfair for the Polish people to come down here and nick our jobs when we want them - I've been unemployed for a while now..."
Colin: "They're working for less money."
Many certainly feel hard done by but is it really true that Poles are ousting British applicants from their intended jobs? And even if they are isn't that what EU membership is all about - fair competition and the free movement of peoples?
They won't stop working
Agnes Wrodarczyk, who runs a recruitment agency in Whitstable for Poles interested in working in the construction industry, believes Poles are simply meeting demand: "There's no proof that the Polish people who are coming over here are taking British jobs - they are taking jobs that were already available."
That's certainly a viewpoint shared by the Managing Director of WA Turner in Tunbridge Wells, a pie and sausage factory that employs almost 200 Poles, a third of its total workforce: "We could never employ enough local people, and have had to go further afield. Our Polish contingent have been very successful and are very keen."
And it's not just their eagerness to fill positions that others may consider undesirable, it's also the manner in which they work. According to Ian Bovington, Director of Rochester-based company Classic Filters, the Poles are always willing to go the extra mile: "The main thing is that they turn up for work every day, on time.
"They won't stop working. If they finish a job they will pick a broom up and start sweeping up - they just don't stop working."
Kent-based builder John Jacquin has employed both Brits and Poles, and knows which he prefers: "They [Poles] are very keen. If I say lift something heavy, they say 'how high?'.
"A lot of the British labourers I've used before aren't very interested in working."
Doing more for less
While the Polish work ethic is raising the bar, their willingness to work for less than their local counterparts is also causing friction, especially within the building trade.
In July 2006, a Home Office report warned of "potentially serious" consequences if EU migration was proved to be, or even thought to be, depressing wage levels for the low paid. Many believe this is already happening: "They're coming in and working for less money than the English are", said builder Colin Benningfield.
Another builder told me: "A lot of people turn you down because you want a lot more money than the Polish."
Many Poles work in construction
Certainly, many of Kent's Poles can afford to charge less for their time - they often live in shared accommodation, sometimes several to a room, keeping their overheads down.
Subsequently Poles can charge less for their work, whereas Kent's builders often need more cash just to support mortgages and families. However the argument is cyclical, for as the Poles settle here in Kent and aspire for houses of their own in which to support their own families, they too will demand higher wages, leaving the door open for the next generation of migrants - Romanians and Bulgarians - to undercut the labouring market.
What of the claim that British citizens are paying the price for the Polish influx - by supporting those who end up claiming benefits off the state? Well, the statistics do not support this line. 82% of Poles are under 34 and largely single, their demands on health services and school places are minimal, though that may change.
Furthermore to register for benefits in the UK you need to have paid NI tax for 18 months. In other words, you need to give before you can take.
Building the south east
Geof Brown from Chamber of Commerce and Kent University says there is a huge demand for Polish workers at the moment, especially in the south east: "This is a competitive world - this is a global market. Britain can't be isolationist and NIMBY about this.
"Businesses throughout the Thames Gateway are screaming out about skill shortages. Companies in Kent that I speak to are saying that Poles add incredible value. I would say up to 25-30% on annual turnover"
So are our builders just scare-mongering? Peter Taylor used to run a construction recruitment company and now runs a Polish bar in Tunbridge Wells. He believes the impact on the labouring market has been exaggerated: "I know a lot of English private builders who just don't have the time to do the jobs they've been asked to do and they are having to use a lot of Polish help just to get the work done."
But while most are glad to have Polish workers on their books it's unlikely the protesters will be silenced, especially not while the EU continues to expand.
Have your say
Have your say about Kent's Polish community on our message board. Are you a Pole with something to say about life here in Kent? Do you feel Kent has benefitted from recent Eastern European migration?
last updated: 03/04/2008 at 09:28