Myroslava Keryk: We Do Not Recognize Poland

We have been observing a general decline in the popularity of other nations amongst Poles, even those traditionally liked by them, such as Americans or the French. It seems to me that this is the aftermath of the policy of Polish authorities, says Myroslava Keryk in an interview with Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: In 2017, Poland became a global leader in importing foreign short-term workforce, surpassing the United States. This is largely due to immigration from Ukraine. According to data of the National Bank of Poland, there was an average of 900,000 employees from that country in the previous year. Is the presence of almost one million Ukrainians temporary and will they start going back home once the economic indicators there improve?

MYROSLAVA KERYK: Usually, when the economy grew stronger, many migrants returned to Ukraine and the number of those leaving the country declined. This was the situation prior to 2008 and before the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The profile of this migration is also important. Around 70 percent of Ukrainians emigrating to Poland leave the country for a short period and do not intend to stay there for good. They leave their homes behind, they usually do not bring their families with them.

Polish regulations also make it easy for them to take up seasonal work. Obtaining long-term employment is more difficult, the procedures drag on, and more and more documents are required. The practice often is that Ukrainians spend half a year in Poland and half a year in their home country.
One factor which makes them return is the fact that many Ukrainians migrants have good jobs, education and skills. When they come to Poland, their status decreases and they do not want this situation to be permanent.

For those who want to remain permanently, working below their qualifications is merely a stage on the way to a better position in another industry; it is to help them learn Polish and acclimatize.

Or perhaps Ukrainians treat Poland as a stop on their way to the West? According to this year’s OTTO Work Force report, 37 percent of temporary workers from Ukraine are considering moving to another country and 40 percent of those want to go to Germany. With the current low exchange rate of the hryvnia, they make on average three or four times more in Poland than in Ukraine, but why haven’t they traveled to Germany and other Western countries in larger numbers?

The openness of the Polish market for seasonal work has been an important factor, for in Germany Ukrainians mostly worked illegally.

German authorities are liberalizing their labor code, however, and the situation will change. Perhaps more Ukrainian citizens will go there, but so far most Ukrainians in Poland only speak about moving further West.

German authorities are liberalizing their labor code, however, and the situation will change. Perhaps more Ukrainian citizens will go there, but so far most Ukrainians in Poland only speak about moving further West. In Germany you earn more, but the costs of living and of visiting your family in Ukraine are higher, so in the last analysis you can save more when working in Poland.

Another incentive to stay in Poland is provided by such factors as geographic proximity, a similar language or migration networks. Some Ukrainians may move to Germany, but I think that around 300–400 thousand people will continue working in Poland regardless of the condition of the Ukrainian economy or the popularity of other destinations.

A report of the Polish government’s Centre of Eastern Studies states: “For now, no major geographic reorientation of Ukrainian migrants from Poland to other EU countries can be observed, but it is clear that the main potential rival of Poland here is the Czech Republic.” The Czech Republic is also close, is also wealthy, is also Slavic-speaking, so perhaps some Ukrainians will set their sights on this country?

According to official statistics, by the end of 2016 almost 110,000 Ukrainians legally worked in the Czech Republic. The authorities there try to put constraints on the influx of economic migrants and impose quotas, but these quotas are lower than the demands of the labor market, which is about 150,000. There is a plan to raise them once again, but they will still be too low.

The Czech Republic has long been an important destination for Ukrainian migration and people usually remain there for longer than in Poland, that is for a year or two. But the Czech labor market is much smaller than the German one, so it has a smaller potential for absorbing Ukrainians from Poland.

Economic migration also generates significant problems for Ukraine itself. According to estimates of the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, more and more Ukrainians will leave in the coming years, including an increasing number of highly qualified specialists. According to an analysis of the Ukrainian Central Bank, in 2016-2017 the country lost up to 8 percent of its labor force from 2015. There is a shortage of people of working age.

The problem does exist, but the Ukrainian government has not been addressing it for long and only made mention of the emigrants before elections. It was only last year that they began to speak more about the problem of the scale of emigration.

And is there a shortage of labor?

Yes, for example of drivers, employees in the service sector and industrial workers. Politicians continue saying that Ukrainians should come back home, because it is their patriotic duty, because there is a war going on, but they do very little to encourage Ukrainians to come back. They put off this problem for later. Meanwhile, Ukraine is in a demographic crisis, the population is rapidly declining.

It is estimated that the population of Ukraine may decrease from the current 44 million to 36.4 million by 2050.

In Ukraine, discussions are underway whether to encourage citizens of other countries to come to Ukraine.

The Czech Republic has long been an important destination for Ukrainian migration and people usually remain there for longer than in Poland, that is for a year or two.

International corporations also move there, providing an alternative to leave for the West. Regional authorities are seeking foreign investments; Lviv has the ambition to become a regional IT center.

The yearly volume of foreign investment in Ukraine is about one billion dollars (after the deduction of funds laundered by oligarchs through investment). In contrast, money transfers just from Poland were three billion dollars in 2017 and are increasing.

Yes, the amount of transfers is traditionally higher than that of investment, this is nothing new. In this sense, we are a typical country of emigrants. In the Philippines, also a country of emigrants, they turned this fact into a sector of the economy. They support those who go abroad, they strive to protect their workers’ rights in the countries they emigrate to, and so on.

There are tens of thousands of Ukrainians studying in Poland. Surveys show that most of them intend to stay in Poland after graduation or move further West. Only a small percentage plan to go back to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Kiev does not treat transfers from emigrants as a contribution to the domestic economy and the authorities do not understand that these people should be supported.

But the brain drain does not concern only qualified workers, but also students who can later find employment in Poland. Ukrainians constitute more than half of the foreign students in Poland.

There are tens of thousands of Ukrainians studying in Poland. Surveys show that most of them intend to stay in Poland after graduation or move further West. Only a small percentage plan to go back to Ukraine and these numbers are steadily decreasing. Moreover, Poland is just one of the many countries to which they emigrate.

A significant number of Ukrainians have good experience with working in the Czech Republic or in Poland. Does this translate into an increase in appreciation of the West and into a pro-European orientation?

It is difficult to say, for there is no research on that. And it is a very individual matter. Some are satisfied, but others fall victim to Polish employment agencies, which send them to the Czech Republic without the necessary permits and with Polish visas. The migrants go there convinced that they are working legally, until they are arrested and deported. And they may have worse experiences and associations with these two countries.

Or another example: we investigated cases of exploitation of Ukrainian employees in the V4 countries and Ukraine. There was an interesting case of a Japanese company which opened its branch near Lviv. One would assume that a Japanese company would offer its employees high Japanese standards, but it adapted well to local conditions – work quotas were extremely high, you had to stand for ten hours without the possibility of sitting down even for a moment, etc.

People who have worked in such conditions are already used to being exploited when they go to another country. They are offered lower rates than Polish employees. They work legally, but are inadequately protected, because they usually use the services of an employment agency. This means that formally they are not employed in the same place in which they actually work, and this means a lower level of labor rights protection, fewer opportunities for promotion, lower bonuses and other benefits in comparison with workers employed directly in the company they work for.

To what extent do the Ukrainians in Poland take part in ordinary social life – go to cafes and cinemas, make friends with Poles – and to what extent do they live in their own “ghettos”? Are they merging with the Polish social landscape?

It depends on their plans. If they come for a few months, then they focus exclusively on work – twelve hours a day and six days a week, sometimes more. After twelve hours of work they have neither the time nor the strength for integration or anything else. In general, they live in employee hotels for Ukrainians and only have contact with Poles at their workplace, if at all.

According to a survey by Fakty.com.ua, 77% of them are engaged in physical labor, only 16 percent go to the services sector and just three percent do white-collar work. This means that most of them have only limited contact with the client, they often meet only Ukrainian workers and a Polish engineer or foreman on the construction site or in the factory hall. Other Poles do not see them.

Of course, those who decide to stay permanently live a different life. They find a job which does not take up twelve hours of their day, they learn the language, they meet more Poles, and they try to participate more in social life.

In general, they live in employee hotels for Ukrainians and only have contact with Poles at their workplace, if at all.

They do go to cafes, but initially, a “cost-free” mode of spending free time is popular – walks, visiting free cultural institutions, spending time in parks. And even if they often go to a Ukrainian doctor or hairdresser, they do not create ghettos, they do not isolate themselves.

Here we come to a difficult question. Post-war Poland was an almost mono-ethnic country for decades. According to a poll by the Centre of Public Opinion Research from 2016, the number of Poles hostile to Ukrainians was higher than those who like them for the first time in many years. At present, less than 25 percent of Poles are fond of Ukrainians and as many as 40 percent have a hostile attitude to them. How is Polish society coping with the changing ethnic landscape and the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens?

It is a wider trend. We have been observing a general decline in the popularity of other nations amongst Poles, even those traditionally liked by them, such as Americans or the French. It seems to me that this is the aftermath of the policy of Polish authorities. They focus of course on refugees in what they say, but it will rebound on other incomers, including economic migrants from Ukraine.

We must remember that this change of mood in Poland is a new phenomenon. Prior to 2015, when Law and Justice came to power, Poles supported helping people fleeing from wars. The rhetoric used by some media or tolerating the existence of extreme-right forces such as the National Radical Camp resulted in an increase in hate crimes based on racial or ethnic prejudice.

According to a report of the Ombudsman, almost every fifth Ukrainian in Poland has fallen victim to persecution based on ethnic factors. This often eludes statistics, however, because only five percent of such cases are reported – three percent to the police and two percent to non-governmental organizations.

Ukrainians often have bad experiences with the police. In Ukraine, it is avoided at all costs, for you could expose yourself to harassment, extorting bribes and so on. But crimes against Ukrainians in Poland are quite numerous, from the assault of nationalists on a religious procession in Przemyśl in 2016 to manifold cases of minor assaults, acts of aggression and threats. Do Ukrainians feel threatened?

I have seen that they are not afraid to speak Ukrainian in public, for example, in trams. I have the impression that two years ago such incidents were particularly rampant, but now their number has slightly decreased. The fears to a larger extent concern intellectuals, social activists, people who follow social tendencies. We do not recognize the country which we have come to. But this is not reflected in the lives of people who are here for a short time, they still do not have this feeling. Often experiencing acts of aggression, they think: we work here, we have fewer rights, we came only for a while. They think that you have to just grind your teeth and persevere.


Myroslava Keryk

is a historian, a specialist in migration issues and the Ukrainian community in Poland, President of Nasz Wybór [Our Choice] Foundation and editor of a monthly with the same title. She obtained her MA in history from the Ivan Franko L’viv National University (Ukraine) and the Central European University in Budapest (Hungary). She was a professor at Lazarski University (Warsaw). In her activities, she combines efforts to integrate the Ukranian community in Poland together with scientific researches in the field of migration

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