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Poles in Scotland

An article about Poles in Scotland

Young Poles have come to Scotland in their thousands with the promise of a better life. Now, after only a few years, many are moving on. So where does that leave us?

SCOTLAND has been good for Agnieszka Siedlaczek, a 28-year-old hairdresser who runs her own salon in Edinburgh. In four years in the capital, she and her builder fiancé have earned enough to build a house back in their home village of Ustron, in Poland. She is not alone. So far this decade, almost two million Poles have left their home country, and around 70,000 ended up in Scotland last year.

The bulk of the young Poles that have come here in the past few years have come for economic reasons: some for better job opportunites and some simply to earn more. Many have more than one job and are willing to adapt to work in whichever field there is most demand. Hence, so many young Poles with degrees are working in supermarkets, construction and hospitality.

Mariusz Zuk, 37, a painter and decorator from Wrclaw, in south-west Poland, came here four years ago for two months, but ended up staying. "The plan was to go back but I haven't done that yet," he says. In Poland, Zuk ran an independent estate agency and clothes shop. "It was perfect, but then more chain shops came so I joined a friend here." His reasons were a mixture of economic and personal. "At first I worked in a sweet factory, but that went bankrupt. So, because I had worked in Germany as a painter and decorator, I did that here. After a while I decided to become self-employed."

Zuk is typical of many young migrants who sought opportunities in Scotland. However, the tide seems to be turning. Employment agencies in the north-east say that the number of Eastern Europeans looking for work has fallen by a quarter. So why are so many of the Poles who have come here in the last few years now leaving? And what will this mean for Scotland's economy?

SIEDLACZEK and her fiancé, Klaudiusz Jasinski, a builder, plan to return home next spring to get married. "We came to earn some money, and it's a better life here," she says, "but I want to go back because I miss my family and friends." Work isn't something Siedlaczek and 32-year-old Jasinski are afraid of, clocking up six-day weeks and long working hours in the salon and on building sites. "It's a lovely country, the people are friendly and we feel comfortable here," says Siedlaczek.

But however much the couple like Scotland, their plan was always to return to Poland – although that doesn't mean that Siedlaczek will be relinquishing her hold on the heads of her Edinburgh customers. "I have lovely girls here working for me and they can run the business without me here all the time," she says.

Now that the economic gap between the two countries has decreased and conditions have improved in Poland, Siedlaczek says many of her Polish friends and customers are also returning to their homeland. "The wages are better here and my fiancé is guaranteed work, but the bills are high. Many young Poles who come into the salon talk about going back. They miss Poland," she says.

Another young Pole who thinks the draw of family and friends will entice him back home is 30-year-old Jakub Bogaczewicz, a marketing and management graduate from Rzeszow, 200 miles south of Krakow, who has been in Scotland for nearly four years and has set up a web design business. "Gaining general knowledge and language skills comes before economic reasons," he says, "but my goal is to set up a small office next year and have a manager here while I live between Poland and Scotland."

Michael Dembinski, of the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce in Warsaw, says, "What we are seeing is pendulum or turnstile migration, where people are moving backwards and forwards; it's commuting rather than traditional migration."

The Scottish government's Fresh Talent Initiative is well known in Poland, and Poles are aware of incentives encouraging them to move here. "Free tuition fees for EU nationals have been a big factor in people going to Scottish universities rather than English ones," says Dembinski. But the most significant factor in determining the flow of migrants, according to Dembinski, is the strength of the zloty. "In 2004, £1 equalled 7.15 zlotys and today it's 4.11. In real terms, people are only earning twice as much as in Poland, whereas before it was six or seven times."

However, although the Polish economy is booming, growth is patchy, and those returning are going to the big cities rather than the country districts of the south and east, where unemployment can be at 30%. "If they migrated from one of those areas, the message will be 'Don't come back'," says Dembinski. But in Gdansk and Krakow there is a desperate skills shortage in IT, accountancy, call centres, semi-skilled areas, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Dembinski also points out that young Poles are popular with employers because they are often highly educated (70% have English as a second language), very motivated and dynamic. It is these attributes that have made them so valued in their adopted home and have seen so many setting up their own businesses.

While some Poles wish to split their time between here and Poland, others want to return home permanently. Jakub Frejlich, a 25-year-old economics and law graduate, worked for a telecoms company in Edinburgh in 2006 and has now taken a job at the Warsaw stock exchange. "My primary reason for going to the UK was economic, but I chose Edinburgh because I wanted to spend time in a nice place," he says. "It was one of the best times in my life. Scotland is beautiful and I made a lot of good friends."

Financial factors may have enticed many to come here, but builder David Dawidczyk, who came to Scotland three years ago, says it's not as simple as that. "I was a little bit disillusioned with the reality of working here, because the assumption was that you cannot make any money in Poland whereas if you go abroad you will be rich. That's not true, because the cost of living is higher here. Also, we speak a different language, the culture is different and it takes time to adjust. It's not what I expected."

But the reason he has now decided to quit Scotland is purely economic. "The ratio between the Polish and Scottish currencies is becoming smaller, so there's no reason to work here," he says. "I can make the same money at home."

In 2007, 2,000 Eastern Europeans registered for National Insurance in the Highlands, but unofficial figures suggest that a quarter of them have now left. Joanna Napiorkowska, a 29-year-old from Lodz, plans to go home in time for her 30th birthday after two years in Inverness. She has been working as a nursery nurse, cleaner and sales assistant, as well as setting up the free Polish-English newspaper Gazeta Z Highland a year ago. She says, "It has had good feedback from both Scots and Poles, and I hope I can use this experience at home. I came here for a new experience, to see another culture and country, and for economic reasons. Our economy in Poland is improving and I think I will have more opportunities there," she says.

Hays, a UK-based employment agency, has launched a scheme with the Polish Chamber of Commerce to ensure that foreign work experience will count in the Polish labour market. Agency director David Trotman says, "There has been a definite downturn in new applications from Polish workers, which supports the idea that greater numbers of Poles are returning home or deciding not to look for work in the UK."

This should help ease the labour shortage, especially in crucial sectors like construction. In addition, migrants sent 40 billion zlotys, almost £10 billion, home in 2007, and the infusion of money would surely increase if more Poles returned permanently with their accumulated savings.

Driven by economic necessity, the Polish government is beginning a major effort to pave the way for emigrants to return. It has sponsored advertising campaigns abroad and set up internet-based job banks. "Four years ago, the debate was on the advantages of migration and what the government could do to make it possible for Poles to work all over Europe," said Justyna Frelak, a migration specialist at Warsaw's Institute for Public Affairs. "Now we are talking about the costs of migration, for family, for children, for Poles abroad, and about the labour shortages that result."

Since 2006, unemployment in Poland has dropped to about 8% from 14%, and the economy has grown at a steady pace – 6.5% in 2007. With billions in EU money pouring into the country, largely earmarked for infrastructure projects, building companies are desperate for workers. Poland's construction industry is also booming thanks to the country co-hosting the 2012 European Championships with Ukraine, and the need to improve road and rail links in preparation. "Last year salaries increased by 12.8% generally in Poland, and by 30% in construction alone," says Dietkow.

THE pioneers of reverse migration are not yet making a significant impact on statistics, but across Europe the possibility of returning to Poland is now the talk of the diaspora, a group knit together by low-cost airlines, cheap mobile phones and the internet.

Marcin Zochowski, 28, worked for a year in Scotland as a carpet layer and carpenter before heading home to Warsaw. Although he has now returned to his homeland, he plans to still work in Britain or Ireland from time to time, seeking to maximise his earnings as well as his time with his wife and baby daughter. As a construction worker, he sees ample opportunities. "I will travel back and forth for work," he says. "I have a family, so it makes sense to work a month and then come back."

In Inverness, where many of the Polish community work in the fishing and catering industries, there is an air of caution over whether there will be sufficient well-paid jobs in Poland to attract them back. Zosia Wierzbowicz-Fraser, of the Inverness Polish Association, says, "The ones thinking about going back are the young, single ones, looking for a better life. Families with children and older people will tend to stay. It won't be a mass exodus, but it could have an impact here on smaller industries."

Mark Sutherland-Fraser, who runs recruitment agency Czech Match, based near Tain, says businesses in Scotland could be facing serious workforce shortages by next year. "More and more people have been returning to Poland since the tail end of 2005, but in the last six to nine months there are far fewer Poles doing the jobs we can't get Scots to do," he says.

And while the future looks bright for the young Poles who are returning home, Sutherland-Fraser fears their departure will leave huge problems in its wake. "Last year there were five Polish people for every job, and now there seems to be five jobs for every person. Wages in Poland have doubled, and I think the effect here will be quite devastating."