Despite its rich multicultural history, Poland has refused to welcome refugees. A recent national poll showed that 52% of Poles are against accepting refugees, 18% accept temporary relocation, and support for permanent settlement is on the verge of statistical error. This is a change of mindset, fuelled, inter alia, by the xenophobic rhetoric of the current government and the irrational fear of imminent terrorism widely purveyed by the media. It casts a shadow on the admirable job behind the scenes, performed, despite a lack of official engagement and support, by NGOs and civil society representatives.
The government does not pay its dues under international agreements and fails to act with common decency. Right now, there are approximately 1500 Chechen refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border trying to apply for asylum every single day. Of these, only a handful per day is allowed to do so. The rest have been living in limbo for over three months. The policy of the Border Guard has suddenly shifted for unknown reasons. What we do know is that human rights are being violated, as confirmed in the Ombudsman’s special report in September.
Though we have seen gestures of solidarity, with clothes and food collections being extremely popular, these one-off events have no influence on public opinion. Arguments supporting the idea of welcoming refugees are predominantly rational, based on legal agreements and calculations, or are seen as such by people who oppose welcoming refugees. Unfortunately, there is ample proof that rational arguments are losing out to emotional ones. One of them is Brexit and the campaign leading to the vote on June 23. Another is the high mobilisation of right-wing, nationalist sentiments across Europe. Fear is a strong emotion and modern politicians know how to use it for their own benefit. One of the biggest components of fear is the Unknown.
If we look closer at separate poll findings, one statistic stands out. A striking 66% of Poles say they have no contact with foreigners whatsoever, while only 28% claim they do. Most of them in their households (52%) or at work (35%). This fact needs to be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. There is still an untapped potential for multicultural encounters and interactions in Poland. The easiest and most natural way to do so is to promote integration in the labour market.
Let’s take a closer look at that market. The unemployment has just hit a new low – 8.4% – for the past 25 years. There is an evident shortage of labour, wage pressures are rising and, at the same time, business is discussing with the Ministry of Labour a new law regulating access of non-EU foreigners to the labour market. The government’s approach to the new bill has, so far, been shaped by the necessity to implement Directive 2014/36/EU on the conditions of entry and stay of third-country nationals for the purpose of employment as seasonal workers on the one hand, and by the pressing need to eradicate underlying structural flaws leading to the abuse of foreigners on the other. The proposed solutions look a lot like the old ones, with just a few added tweaks. Third-country nationals are invited to take on seasonal short- or mid-term jobs, but they need to agree on a shuttle life style adjusted to the expiry dates of their visas. A permanent work or stay permit is still hard to obtain without strong employer support.
What the government lacks is a vision, or as some Polish professors would put it, a “migration doctrine” and the understanding that good migration policy could prevent a looming demographic catastrophe. For the past three years the number of Ukrainians applying for work visas has risen exponentially. This year, experts estimate that over one million people will seek seasonal employment in Poland. While the government refuses to tackle this challenge head-on, this is the moment for business to step in. And there are plenty entrepreneurs willing to.
Employers unanimously complain that finding qualified employees for the available positions gets more difficult every year. They see great potential in Ukrainian labourers, but also specialists. One obstacle is tortuous regulations, with the diploma recognition procedure taking up to two or three years or more. There are well-known cases of experienced Ukrainian doctors or nurses who were refused recognition of their diplomas. They were advised to attend university course all over again, if they really wanted to perform their jobs in Poland.
The pressure of business to liberalise the law regulating access to the Polish labour market is unprecedented. And it is not driven by the hope of finding cheap labour that can be employed with worse conditions than Poles or even abused. Given the competition, employers are ready to provide equal conditions of employment. This is a great opportunity to aim high in setting standards for foreigners’ employment in Poland.
It was great to read Masha Volynsky’s text, featured in this column a month ago, about the partnership forged between Czech NGOs and the Chambers of Commerce. It would be great to see a similar initiative in Poland – learning from the experience of our southern neighbours.
This column is part of a project Social Europe runs with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung offices in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
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Teresa Teleżyńska is writing her master thesis in Sociology on migrants on the Polish labour market. Throughout Autumn 2015 she volunteered on the Balkan Route and engaged in a number of pro-refugees initiatives.