Ukrainian migrants on the Polish labour market

- Ukrainian migrant workers have been present on the Polish market since the beginning of the 1990s, attracted by wage differences and sustained economic growth. They continue to occupy certain niches on the market—construction, agricultural work, baby-sitting and house-cleaning—establishing their position through low cost and proven quality. - The migrants have filled up mainly the gaps in unskilled labour, which quickly emerged and deteriorated as native workers were scarce and unwilling to work at such low prices. For several years a definite majority of Ukrainian workers were employed irregularly, entering the country as ‘tourist visitors’ thanks to a visa-free agreement in force from 1996 to 2003. There was little interest in legalizing employment either on the part of employers (who would have had to bear high administrative and social security costs) or employees (who would have become uncompetitive). - Since 2003, two factors have influenced the increase of interest in the legalization of long-term residence and employment of Ukrainians. Firstly, a large-scale exodus of the Poles themselves exposed labour gaps in both the public and private sectors of the fast-growing Polish economy. This led to a series of initiatives, aiming to reduce the costs of the administrative procedure of employing foreigners and opening the most vulnerable sectors to third-country nationals. Secondly, Poland’s entry into the EU (2004) and Schengen (2007), which raised the entry barriers for visitors from non-EU states, might provide incentives for the Ukrainians intending to work in Poland to regularise their residence and employment. - While a significant part of the Ukrainian labour force remains irregular, Ukrainian migrants are increasingly present among legally employed service personnel (nurses, teachers), highly-skilled professionals (computer scientists, doctors, analysts) and managers. - The current challenges facing Ukrainian workers are different for the regular and irregular employees. Without a legally enforceable employment contract, the whole range of workers’ rights (guarantees of limited working time, vacation, medical examination, access to health care and social security) is not protected. As working without a permit is a criminal offence liable to sanctions both for the employer and the employee, potentially leading to the foreigner’s deportation and a temporary ban on re-entry, illegal migrants are under pressure to avoid contacts with state authorities and their own consular services. This results in the ‘invisibility’ of the situation of irregular migrants to labour inspectors, the police and trade unions. - The position of legally employed Ukrainians on the labour market is fundamentally safer than that of the irregular workers, additionally reinforced by their higher qualifications. However, they remain at a disadvantage in comparison to Poles due to the costly and complicated administrative procedure for the access of third-country nationals to the Polish labour market. On the one hand, the procedure is in line with comparable regulations in other EU member states, which seek the reasonable objective of preventing the imbalance on the domestic economy, and cannot be claimed to be discriminatory. On the other hand, the lengthy and unpredictable administrative practice forces the skilled Ukrainian migrants to accept worse conditions of employment. Their qualifications are sometimes not recognised, preventing migrants from working in positions matching their skills and making them agree to lower wages. Temporary contracts (limited to one or two years) hamper migrants’ settlement in Poland. - As increasingly more Ukrainians are interested in entering regular employment in Poland, the administrative disincentives to their sustained presence on the Polish labour market must be removed unless Poland is to lose the competition for skilled Ukrainian migrants with other EU member states. This would be particularly unfortunate considering the fact that the interviewed employees and employers generally report good relations and the absence of direct discrimination. Public opinion survey also points to the improvement of the image of Ukrainians among Poles, and today it is far more positive than a few years ago when Ukrainian migrants were present on the Polish labour market in much greater numbers.
Bieniecki, M., Frelak, J., Kaźmierkiewicz, P., & Pawlak, M. (2008). Ukrainian migrants on the polish labour market. Kiev: IOM.
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