Eastern Europe's Exodus: Going West for the Good Life

By Jan Puhl

Hundreds of thousands of young Eastern Europeans are moving to Western Europe in search of better money, better career prospects and better lives. Things are moving too slowly for them back home and a growing number are unwilling to stay.

A Polish delicatessen in London's Hammersmith borough
REUTERS

A Polish delicatessen in London's Hammersmith borough

Thirty-one-year-old Maciej Olczyk never feels homesick. He's just left the office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill -- his new employer. Olczyk's been working for the London branch of the famous architectural firm for three months. His is one of the top addresses in the business -- the company's designs have included Chicago's Sears Tower and Dubai's seven-star Burj al-Arab Hotel. Olczyk and 10 of his colleagues are currently working on a skyscraper project for the Docklands, London's fashionable office district along the Thames River. The skyscraper will be 130 meters (427 feet) tall.

Olczyk is in a great mood as he walks past the Master Gunner pub on City Street. "We often go here with our colleagues," he says, trying hard to make his English sound nasal. He wants his Polish accent to disappear. "We're an international company. I work with people from all over Europe." Olczyk is from Warsaw, and London is still new to him.

Olczyk has just signed the contract for his new apartment -- 750 (€1,100) a month for two large rooms in a good neighborhood. The architect now earns four times what he was just recently earning back home in Warsaw. His wife Ania and their infant Max plan to follow him to London in April: "Of course I miss both of them, but it was still the right decision to come here. We're not planning to go back anytime soon."

When Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, Hungary and Slovakia joined the European Union (EU) three years ago, their accession triggered an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe who made their way to the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden -- the countries that immediately opened their borders to immigrants from the new member states. Countries that share borders with Eastern Europe, like Germany and Austria, on the other hand, have shielded themselves from the flow of employment-seeking immigrants by means of interim rules that remain valid until 2011.

The Labor Ministry in Warsaw estimates that 2 million out of a total of 38 million Polish citizens are currently seeking their fortunes outside their home country. Ireland alone is home to 196,000 Polish workers. More than 60,000 Latvians and tens of thousands of Lithuanians have also turned their backs on the Baltic in search of opportunities for a better life they couldn't find at home. It's a mass migration on a minor scale.

Those leaving Eastern Europe belong to the most economically important layers of society. Most of the immigrants are younger than 35, and one-fourth have completed their higher education. They want more money, a nicer apartment, to establish a career faster, better daycare and schools for their children, good universities and well-equipped hospitals. One consequence is that both Poland with its 14 percent unemployment rate and Slovakia, where the rate is 13.3 percent, now suffer from a lack of qualified workers.

Migration on a historic scale

Olczyk recently returned after many weeks to Warsaw for what will probably be his last visit for a long time. Despite the recent economic boom, his neighborhood, south Warsaw's Bemowo, hasn't changed much -- at least not outwardly. The Communist-era concrete apartment blocks have remained the same, there is no historic center and there are no bars or restaurants. A McDonalds has opened in the bleak cityscape -- a container-like concrete and corrugated iron construction that fits in well with the general ambience.

Maciej Olczyk lived here in a 30-square-meter (323 square feet) apartment with his wife Ania and their infant Max. To the left, there is a kitchen with two hotplates. There are books stacked from the ceiling to the floor and a computer with an extractable keyboard stands on a shelf. The second room served as both a bed and a living room for the couple and their baby.

Olczyk earned 3,000 zloty (€780) in his Warsaw office -- a good salary by Polish standards, but his salary in London is 2,000 (€2,930). "Of course the money was an issue," he says. "It's that way for most people. But to me, it was also about my career. There was nothing new I could learn in Warsaw."

Last autumn he plucked up courage, booted up his computer and began searching the Internet for work abroad. He had success with his first job interview. "We're about 30, which means we're a little behind. Those who are now 40 profited most from the fall of the Iron Curtain in Poland," Olczyk says.

Back then, during the early 1990s, the economic boom in Eastern Europe began. Foreign companies and privatized Polish companies hired entire classes of university graduates directly off campuses. "These people are still young today," he explains. "They're blocking the way up for those like us who have followed in their footsteps."

Poland struggles to find qualified workers

Twenty-five-year-old Tomasz Gawlikowski had better luck. The psychologist works for the personnel consulting firm Kadry Polskie in Opole. Callling him a "head hunter" would be an exaggeration. Gawlikowski sits in the offices of Warsaw's employer's association and recruits workers for domestic and foreign companies. "We have problems finding welders and other qualified workers," Gawlikowski says. "It takes weeks because they're all in England."

In his desperation, Gawlikowksi will sometimes even call up priests, since they often keep good tabs on the ambitions of the younger members of their congregations. Or Gawlikowski will send recruiters to football clubs, where they can distribute application forms among the fans. But it's a tough sell. "Young Poles are leaving the country in droves," he laments. "There's enough work here, but the wages are not keeping step with the rise in prices. Those new to the labor force must work especially hard, and they earn terrible wages."

Gawlikowski is trying to convince employers to pay better wages and offer services such as assistance in finding an apartment or planning a career. "The hire and fire mentality of the 1990s is outdated. Polish workers want to be courted," he says.

The situation in the public sector is worse. Even the miserable wages of Western nurses are attractive to trained nurses from Eastern Europe. And doctors can easily earn 10 times more than they do back home.

Highly specialized doctors such as Roman Brazdil, the director of an anesthesia department in Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic, can earn as much as €1,000 ($1,334). His clinic is freshly renovated and meets modern Western standards. Still his colleagues don't seem to want to stay. "After university, it takes someone another six years before they can really work independently. And then they leave," Brazdil comments dryly.

A dramatic migration

He employs Slovakians to fill the gaps. Slovakia is also an EU member country, but wages there are even more depressed than those in the Czech Republic. "The world is witnessing dramatic migration in the health sector: Doctors from Germany, France and England are going to the United States; the Czechs and the Poles are taking their place; and they in turn are replaced by Bulgarians and Romanians."

Conservative estimates suggest that 200,000 Bulgarians will make their way to Western Europe during the coming years. EU regulations allow them to live and work wherever they want, now that Sofia has become a member state.

But the British have had enough for now. They've closed their labor market to Bulgarians and Romanians. Trade unions and critics don't feel the United Kingdom could stomach another wave of cheap immigrant labor.

Ironically, though, studies on the business cycle confirm that Britain's strong economic growth of 2.7 percent is largely due to the inflow of immigrants. The immigrants didn't exactly depress wages, but they did prevent them from rising rapidly. They also boosted domestic demand and paid taxes. More importantly, they took jobs that the British were no longer willing to perform.

Britain's Polish enclaves

Poles and Czechs can be met anywhere in England. They drive buses, iron people's clothes, keep parks tidy, clean windows and tap beer.

Small Polish enclaves are emerging all over the place, including London's Hammersmith borough, where you can easily find Zywiec beer, Wedel chocolate and pirogis stuffed with sauerkraut. Banks and telephone providers woo new customers in Polish and Czech. In the Cheshire County, the A49 motorway to Manchester now features direction signs in Polish.

Thousands of Poles work for mobile phone provider Vodafone in Crewe. In Northern Ireland, the newly created Police Service of Northern Ireland is filling its ranks with Poles: There are not enough native Catholics to meet the 50 percent quota fixed during the last peace agreement.

With each passing day, Olczyk feels more and more at home in London. Sometimes he goes out to the Green Leave, a chic Indian restaurant, where he likes to order exotic dishes. And then, with chicken tikka and papadam on the table, he starts philosophizing.

Even though Poles still like to describe themselves as patriotic, they've probably had enough of their own country, he says.

"We had the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. Then came communism with its economy of scarcity and the wild transition period that came with the fall of the Iron Curtain. That's deeply ingrained in our memory. We just don't want to stay at home and wait for things to improve. We want to finally enjoy the good life."

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