Monday, November 20, 2006

Poland faces worker shortage as too many head west

Judy Dempsey in the International Herald Tribune, writes that a Polish nurse is running for Parliament in Iceland. A British labour union is establishing a special section for Polish immigrants. The Catholic Church in Ireland is going through a revival as Poles flock to Sunday services.
New Polish-language newspapers are flourishing in Britain and Belgium, France and Sweden, Ireland and Germany, catering to Polish craftsmen, engineers, teachers, nurses, plumbers, architects, maids and drivers. These newspapers are the lifeblood for newcomers seeking to find cheap housing, ferret out Polish food shops, and meet teachers to learn their new language.

This is the "second" Poland, a diaspora of 800,000 Poles estimated by officials here to have left the country since it joined the European Union in May 2004. The exodus is believed to be one of the single biggest migrations by Europeans since the 1950s, when a wave of Irish crossed the Atlantic to escape poverty.

Dempsey says that this incredible movement of people has created a labour shortage so severe that Warsaw may not be able to spend the money that is due to begin arriving from the European Union for projects like improving roads and the water supply. The reason? A lack of manpower.

"The money is there but so is the problem," said Bartlomiej Sosna, a construction analyst at the consultant group PMR in Krakow. "Now that we are in the EU, we have a fantastic opportunity to improve our infrastructure because we are due to receive billions of euros starting in 2007. But how?"

The IHT cites the Polish Transport Ministry, which has already allocated €30 billion, or $38 billion, to be spent from 2007 to 2013 on a road and motorway construction program, some of it financed by EU funds, which will start flowing in January.

"We do not have enough workers to build the roads," Sosna said. "If we don't take up the EU funds over a certain period of time, we will have to return them to Brussels. Do you know what this means? There will be a delay in the modernization of our country. And that would have negative repercussions for investment."

Given the unemployment rate in Poland of 15.2 percent, one of the highest in the EU, Dempsey says that it is puzzling why there is a labour shortage in the first place. But as hard as employers advertise, they cannot find enough workers in the construction, engineering and medical fields.

"In some cases, the construction industry cannot offer tenders because they have not yet found enough workers," said Marcin Kulinicz, an immigration expert at the Labour Ministry. "But consider these statistics: Last summer, 61,700 bricklayers were registered as unemployed," he said, out of 100,000 construction workers on the jobless list. "So on the one hand, the industry says it does not have workers. On the other hand, 100,000 say they have qualifications as construction workers."

While construction workers have quit Poland to work abroad, lured by higher wages - yet they register as unemployed back home in order to remain in the state health insurance system and receive other benefits.

President Lech Kaczynski has criticised this practice and the costs to Warsaw, during his recent state visit Britain. He lambasted Poles for drawing unemployment benefits back home while enjoying good wages outside their country.

To be sure, there is genuine unemployment in Poland, especially in eastern areas suffering from a depressed economy. But in much of the country, the economy is booming.

With the economy expected to grow by 5 percent this year, according to the Economics Ministry, and the baby- boom generation of the early 1980s now in the labour market, there should be ample work, and workers to do the jobs.

Krystyna Iglicka, a migration expert and sociologist at the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, says Poland's education system failed during the 1990s to train enough skilled workers, including engineers and craftsmen.

"The trendy professions were marketing and services, not focusing on vocational or technical skills," Iglicka said. "Vocational and technical schools were closed, teachers were made redundant. We are now paying the price. There is a shortage of skilled people in their twenties."

So critical is the shortage of welders and shipbuilders for Poland's shipping industry that Poland and Germany are close to an accord to allow skilled ship workers from northern German ports who are unemployed to go across to Poland to work.

The government is also granting work permits to skilled and unskilled labourers from its eastern neighbours in the hope of wooing Ukrainians and Belarussians to Poland, where wages are two or three times higher than at home.

However, the work permit system is regarded as a fiasco and last year, only 2,697 Ukrainians and 610 Belarussians took up the offer of work permits, although the Polish authorities issued a total of 10,304 such permits to foreigners.

Migration experts say the low number is hardly surprising.

"Polish labor costs are too high," he said, "so Ukrainians prefer to go south to Spain and Portugal. Employers here say it is now not worth their while to hire on the official labor market. Some resort to the black economy to employ Ukrainians, or Poles for that matter," Iglicka said.