The Flood that Never Arrived: German Open Borders Too Late for Polish Workers

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Since May, Polish workers have had the freedom to seek employment in Germany without restrictions. But the expected onslaught of laborers never materialized. Many Polish view jobs in the neighboring country with disdain, withGermans suffering froma reputation for stingy wages and lousy working conditions.

A Polish construction worker in the German state of Hesse: Despite its newly opened labor market, many from the east are turning their nose up at Germany. Zoom
DPA

A Polish construction worker in the German state of Hesse: Despite its newly opened labor market, many from the east are turning their nose up at Germany.

When Janusz Bilicki looks out of his office window onto a Krakow's market square, he sees big potential. The hundreds of young, well-educated Poles there are perfect candidates for the European labor market.

But the 41 year old, who runs a private employment agency, says interest in his services is scant. Though he frequently receives requests from Germany for Polish workers, candidates often scorn the offers from their western neighbor.

"Anywhere but Germany," Bielicki often hears.

Five months ago there were high hopes -- and even greater fears -- when the German market was further opened to the residents of Eastern European countries. Economic experts were looking forward to the desperately needed skilled laborers, even as unions rang the alarm bells: Eastern Europeans would flow into the country by the hundreds of thousands, driving down wages and robbing Germans of jobs, they warned.

But it never came to that. Between May and August of this year, only 34,000 people came to Germany from the eight European Union member states in the east (Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary) for which temporary restrictions on living and working in Germany or Austria were lifted on May 1. In the four months before the rules changed this number was at 20,000.

Too Little, Too Late

Employment agencies in the east continue to search for specialists who might consider moving to Germany, but often without results. The problem is that German employers appear to have a bad reputation. Jobs in the states of Bavaria, Hesse or Lower Saxony are said to be grueling, low-paid and dead-end, with little chance of promotion.

Now Germany and Austria -- the only countries in the EU that insisted on a seven-year "protective ban" on the new EU member states from the east that joined in 2004 -- appear to be getting their payback.

"Germany effectively scored an own-goal on itself with the late opening of the labor market," says Tomasz Major, the head of a Polish professional association of employers, without hiding a hint of satisfaction. In the competition for the best minds in Poland, Germany arrived too late.

Instead, Poles went to Great Britain and Ireland in droves after their EU accession. When the labor market in those countries became tougher, a number moved on to Scandinavia or Switzerland. In the meantime, however, many have returned to their home country, where the economy grew by 3.9 percent in the past year alone.

Germany, Manor says, built up the "specter of the Polish cheap laborer," earning itself the dubious reputation of "an unfriendly country of wage misers" offering inhumane contract work with lousy accommodations and poor payment practices. Polish nurses, for example, prized internationally for their five-years of training, preferred to go to Switzerland. There they received 20 percent more salary and more comfortable working conditions.

In online forums, Polish workers also share their experiences of working in Germany. One woman called Monika from the Hamburg area wrote that she'd "had enough of Germany and this supposed paradise." Conditions for her family were worse there than back home, she said.

Learning From the Polish

Aside from its close proximity, Germany holds little appeal and many employers also expect perfect German language skills, says Arthur Ragan of Work Express, Poland's largest temporary employment agency. The company now categorically refuses to send skilled workers to Germany any longer. "No one risks stable employment in Poland for temporary work in Germany," he says.

This is partly because Poles can now expect to be paid appropriate wages in their own country. By May 1, at the latest, many firms raised their pay scale by 5 percent and improved their benefits, covering part of the costs for private medical insurance, for example.

The incentives for leaving Poland to take a job are continuing to diminish. According to polls, some 97 percent of Polish employers indicate that emigration since May 1 has been marginal. Some 26 percent of companies in manufacturing plan to make new hires in the near future, while 16 percent of all firms want to hire additional salespeople.

Buy contrast, the Polish demand for jobs in Germany is mainly isolated at the lower end of the pay scale. "That includes the uneducated who also have trouble finding anything here," says employers' association president Major. Those who will work for €2 an hour in Poland to provide support services will also go to Germany for €4, he says.

These low-end workers arrive in Germany as pseudo-self-employed, mainly working as cleaners, construction workers or agricultural laborers. Major estimates some 100,000 Polish workers are currently doing this kind of work in Germany. "They are competing with other immigrants," he says. "Domestic citizens wouldn't work for that kind of money."

One unemployment office in Merseburg, located in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, has already reacted to the situation with an unusual tactic. Young, long-term unemployed Germans have recently been sent to the Polish community of Milicz. There, they are expected to learn a disciplined work ethic and the value of waking up early from the Poles.

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