European Affairs

Polish Migrants to Britain: Pros and Cons     Print Email

Tomasz ZalewskiIn our era of globalization and free market dogmatism, emigration is widely deemed a creative force. Labor flows between countries re-equilibrate labor markets in ever-broadening integrated economies such as the European Union.

Poland is a case in point. Since it joined the EU in 2004, up to two million Poles have left the country for jobs in Western Europe. This migration has alleviated Poland’s high unemployment, helping to cut the rate from 18 percent to around 15 percent. It has also filled gaps in the recipient nations’ labor markets. And the billions of zlotys transferred to Poland by its émigré “guest workers” undoubtedly bolster the Polish economy – in the same way that Mexico benefits from transfers of funds home by Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

The positive consequences are mainly economic and often proved short lived for Poland. In the longer run, the phenomenon has major disadvantages, especially when viewed in a broader, socio-cultural context. Polish “economic emigrants” tend to be young entrepreneurial types ready to take risks for a better life – the kind of people needed right now in Poland to help build a capitalist economy. Take the Opole region in southern Poland, traditionally one of the nation’s richest areas (including under communism), thanks to a strong work ethic and inbred business sense among the people. Now many workers from there have migrated to Germany. They provide the largest flow of repatriated euros of any region in Poland, so Opole is still comparatively well-off. But without these transfers, Opole would have slumped to become one of the nation’s poorest regions. Local entrepreneurship has collapsed and the cheap local labor has disappeared. So once-thriving local business has become uncompetitive.

The exodus of young workers also increases the strains on the state-run program of health care and pensions that covers most Poles. The system relies on contributions from workers and from employers to pay for its outlays. But this pay-as-you-go system (as distinct from systems relying on pension funds invested in stocks and bonds) faces a long term dilemma: as more Poles retire and need to be paid benefits, there are fewer working Poles to pay them. It’s a scissors effect: as more Poles live longer, fewer Poles are being born. Today, five working- age people support one pensioner; in 2020, there will be only three people contributing for each pensioner. This budget strain increases as emigrants depart from the workforce in Poland. Sooner or later, as the government looks for funds for pensions, it will have to raise taxes or reduce social spending – steps that would push more people to emigrate.

Of course, the drain on the social security budget and the labor shortage are often related thanks to the craftiness of individuals who want to beat the system. Construction workers are a skilled group in demand in Poland and also a large contingent on the unemployment rolls. This apparent paradox is explained when you realize that many Poles who have emigrated and work abroad, keep themselves registered on the unemployment rolls in Poland so that they can continue to enjoy the benefits.

Another damaging aspect of current emigration is its brain-drain dimension. In contrast to the early 20th century when Polish emigrants generally were poor, uneducated peasants who went to America for unskilled jobs in mines, meat-packing factories and steel mills, today’s exodus to Western Europe and the U.S. involves a quite different category of Poles. Many are university graduates, with degrees as doctors, scientists, engineers or computer specialists. They leave because unemployment in the 18- 24 age-group is the nation’s highest – up to 40 percent. Salaries are low in Poland’s state-run health service; scientific research is under-funded; there are very few opportunities for professional development. The emigration of these people is an enormous loss for Poland. As Jerzy Regulski, a prominent economist who belongs to Poland’s delegation to the Council of Europe, points out: “ There is a direct, obvious correlation between migration and lack of development” in economies such as Poland’s.

Proponents of emigration have a ready reply: many emigrants will ultimately return, repatriating skills and experience that can improve their home country. But will they? And which ones will? Many of the most talented will succeed in their new countries and stay there. Recent data show a decrease in transfers of money to Poland, suggesting that more emigrants are bringing their families to their new homelands for good.

Meanwhile, Polish “guest workers” bear an enormous burden due to their unnatural situation in being separated from their spouses and children. Many such families break up. Some people emigrate as couples, leaving their children behind in their grandparents’ care. Many such youngsters end up growing up on the streets: the Polish press is full of stories about teenage crimes committed by youngsters whose parents are working in Germany, Great Britain or Ireland.

It is another hidden cost of the “healthy” movement of labor from one country to another.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.

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