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Exploding the myth of the Polish plumber

Polish plumber Stanislaw takes a break between jobs

(swissinfo.ch)

For some he's an honest worker, for others a figure of dread. Throughout Europe he has come to symbolise cheap labour from the East: the "Polish plumber".

swissinfo went to Warsaw to track down the real thing and find out whether the scaremongering was justified.

Will Switzerland really be flooded with plumbers from Poland if it opens its job market to workers from the new European Union countries? Or will the wave of construction going on across the former eastern bloc guarantee enough toilets and sinks to keep them busy at home?

The Saneco wastewater treatment company put me in touch with Robert, a 28-year-old plumber, who has been in the trade for seven years after switching from gardening.

He works in Warsaw where he earns between 1,100 and 1,500 Zlotys net (SFr424 to SFr578) a month.

Although his salary is close to the national average, it is not enough to be able to afford even a one-room apartment in Warsaw, which would set him back between 800 and 1,000 Zlotys a month.

Job satisfaction

But Robert, who is still single and lives with his parents, claims to be satisfied with both his work and his income.

He says that for now his thoughts are more on marriage than on work, but if a good job opportunity came along he would consider a temporary move to an EU country or Switzerland.

Robert would take on any work – he says he has a "golden hand" and will try anything - but he would only go abroad if he had a job offer first.

It was a similar story with Stanislaw, a 48-year-old worker with the Appa plumbing firm based in a sprawling suburb of Warsaw.

Stanislaw turned up for our late-afternoon meeting smartly dressed in black denim jacket and jeans, his greasy overalls discarded after the last job of the day.

Image versus reality

Chunky and rather forbidding, Stanislaw bears little resemblance to the image of the Polish plumber used on tourist board posters enticing visitors to Poland. But then, he is a real plumber.

Married with children, Stanislaw has been in the trade for 30 years. If he works a 60-hour week he can take home 2,500 Zlotys a month – twice what Robert earns.

Unlike Robert he has already spent time abroad, working for six years on contract jobs in South Africa and Germany. And he knows Switzerland a little, having paid a fleeting visit to Zurich in 1992, between jobs in Germany.

"I would like to go back again – as a tourist," he says.

Stanislaw is happy with the amount of work currently on offer in Poland. Since EU enlargement foreign companies have been hotfooting it into the country and the construction sector is booming.

He tells swissinfo he has all that he wants in Poland. Nevertheless he wouldn't rule out a job in Switzerland – if accommodation and health insurance were part of the package.

Stanislaw takes the negative publicity surrounding the Polish plumber as a compliment. "It's because we're so good at what we do that they're afraid of us," he laughs.

swissinfo, Morven McLean in Warsaw

In brief

The symbol of the "Polish plumber" was exploited by the "no" camp ahead of May's referendum in France on the European Union constitution.

French voters rejected the proposed constitution by a decisive margin.

The Polish tourist board tried to counter the negative publicity by launching a new poster campaign featuring seductive images of the "Polish plumber" and the "Polish nurse".

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