Reacting to the recent report by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee of the strains imposed by immigration, commentators on the BBC, and even members of the Committee such as Clare Short, immediately reached for the role of “Polish plumbers and Polish waiters” in driving down the wages of British workers. This is just the latest example of the unreasonable and ill-informed comment about Polish immigrants which has recently begun to circulate.
From Question Time to Panorama, these attacks on the Polish community in the UK have been particularly prevalent on the BBC. For the liberal elite who now realise that immigration is an issue which must be discussed, Poles are a soft target. Were the Pakistani or Chinese communities to be attacked in this way, accusations about racism would be levelled from bodies representing these communities. However, with no high-profile, national organisation to represent their interests, white Poles are constantly the target of reports about the problems of immigration.
It is worrying to note the anecdotal evidence suggesting that there has been a rise in the number of racist attacks against Poles in the past year.
It is important to remember that the relationship between Poland and Britain is a strong and proud one, no more so than during the Second World War. In the Battle of Britain, around 150 Polish airmen flew with the RAF, and were responsible for an astonishing 12 per cent of total victories. Following their involvement during the war, many Poles settled in the UK, particularly in west London where they had been based. They opened businesses and integrated well into the local communities.
Now, if the BBC wants to talk about Polish immigrants, I’m more than happy for them to point out some of the actual facts about these hard-working people coming to the UK for relatively short periods of time to work and to fill gaps in the labour market.
According to evidence submitted by Dr Stephen Drinkwater of the University of Surrey to the House of Lords Select Committee, migrants from Poland have a higher employment rate than those from the other Eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004, with 84.3 per cent in employment, compared to 73.1 per cent.
When compared to migrants from non-EU, non-English-speaking countries this rate looks even more favourable, with only 50.1 per cent of these migrants in work. The statistics also point to Poles working longer hours and for less pay than their counterparts from other countries. While commentators might want to believe that Poles are stealing the jobs of British workers, we all know that there are certain, essential, jobs which the indigenous worker simply refuses to do.
The Polish Labour Force Survey suggests that 66 per cent of Polish migrants to the UK in 2006, and 77 per cent of those coming in 2005, were short-term migrants, ie they were staying for between two and 11 months. Despite coming here for short periods, Poles integrate well and contribute to their local communities. They also contribute substantially to the Exchequer, and their talent for entrepreneurialism has led to the opening of countless Polish businesses which have added to the rich variety of shops in high streets throughout the UK. Even Andrew Green of Migrationwatch has said that Poles are “cheap, flexible, over-qualified [and] motivated workers”.
Those working in the agriculture and construction industries are beginning to grow concerned that shortly the tide will turn and large numbers of those who came over in 2004/05 will return home. As the Polish economy grows, and the exchange rate continues to worsen for Poles, fewer people will want to come to the UK, and I suspect we will see UK workers and businesses moving to Poland to work and invest in the growing country.
Unlimited immigration is, of course, wrong, but I think we have to bear in mind the facts when making comments about individual groups. Poles work hard and are, currently, essential to the operation of many businesses throughout the country. It is time the BBC focused their attention on other groups who are less deserving of our hospitality, rather than picking an easy fight with our loyal and historic friends.
What the critics fail to explain is that we have now reached a point where more Poles are returning home than are coming over and the tide has turned so that there are fewer and fewer Poles in the country as of the beginning of this year. When many of them have gone we will miss their hard work and contribution.
The article was published in The Independent in April 2008. Link.