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Poles predict no mass migration to Switzerland

The Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science now has to share the skyline with western-style skyscrapers

The run-up to September's vote on opening the Swiss labour market to the newest European Union members has been dominated by fears of a flood of immigrants.

But when swissinfo travelled to the Polish capital, Warsaw, it seemed that most Poles were in no hurry to pack their bags and head for Switzerland.

It’s now more than one year since Poland was admitted to the EU, marking the start of a new era for the former communist country.

While the Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science still dominates the Warsaw skyline signs of western investment are everywhere to be seen (see related item).

Traditionally Poland has been a major exporter of labour to the West, although emigration was restricted under communism. Now the doors to Europe stand open again.

On September 25 Switzerland will decide whether it too will open its doors to migrant workers from Poland and the other nine new EU member states. Opponents have warned of cheap labour pouring into Switzerland from the East and driving down wages.

With unemployment running at 18 per cent, Poland has a vast reservoir of skilled workers.

But observers say the Swiss have nothing to fear by opening up their labour market: although many Poles are looking West the majority are staying put. The mass outflow of skilled workers, which some had expected, has failed to materialise.

Construction work

Although there are no accurate statistics for the number of Poles who have moved into other EU member states since accession on May 1, 2004, the Polish Ministry of Economy and Labour estimates that there were 500,000 working in the EU in the second half of 2004, 320,000 of them in Germany.

But the ministry’s Magdalena Sweklej points out that 80 per cent of these are seasonal workers, spending three months abroad – working mainly in construction and agriculture – and then returning home.

“The first year [of EU membership] shows that the potential for mobility is not as high as some politicians in western countries feared, and it’s more or less comparable with the EU average,” Sweklej told swissinfo.

She pointed out that under transitional rules Switzerland agreed last October to let in 700 workers from the new EU countries on long-term (five-year) work permits. Statistics show that only 20 per cent of these permits have been allocated.

“If Poles decide to work outside Poland they mostly go where their friends or families already work, and the most popular direction is Germany or the United States.”

Despite the popularity of Germany, the country has restrictions on the number of migrant workers it accepts. Britain, Ireland and Sweden have no such restrictions and have welcomed large numbers of Polish drivers and construction workers as well as IT specialists, doctors, dentists and nurses.

But Sweklej, who heads the division for free movement of workers, is not worried that the steady stream of workers leaving could turn into a flood.

“There is always the rule that the number of people working in a country is equal to the number of people needed by employers,” she said.

Britain, Ireland and Germany

Katarzyna Kawka, who helps Poles find work in Europe through EURES – the EU-funded job mobility portal – says it is above all the under 25s who are looking to relocate abroad. These are people with language skills but with little work experience.

Kawka – one of two EURES advisers in Warsaw – counsels between 80 and 250 clients a month.

“Mostly I am asked about England and Ireland and sometimes about Germany,” Kawka told swissinfo. “Nobody has asked me about the possibility of working in Switzerland yet, but maybe there will be more interest after the vote on extending the labour agreement.”

Kawka says that if Switzerland wanted to bring in skilled workers from Poland it might face stiff competition.

“As far as I know Switzerland is looking for high-level specialists, and those kinds of job-seekers either find work in Poland or in another country of Europe.

“I think interest in working in Switzerland will increase a bit, but finding workers who comply with the requirements of the Swiss labour market will be more difficult.”

Signs of improvement

Analysts agree that the days of big Polish migrations are over. Poles who move abroad are usually only going for the short-term gain, and plan to return home once they’ve earned some money or acquired valuable work experience.

According to Rafal Kiepuszewski, the head of the English Service of Polish external radio, Radio Polonia, many Poles are also looking around and deciding that home is not so bad after all.

“There is no climate of hopelessness. Everybody sees that there is an improvement. The economy is growing again and that means there will be fewer people looking for jobs abroad.”

Kiepuszewski says that the Polish media are unlikely to show much interest in the September 25 vote in Switzerland – whatever the outcome. “If the vote were to be held in Germany,” on the other hand “there would be a lot of interest”.

Domestic concerns – such as joblessness and tax policy – weigh more heavily on Polish minds. And with parliamentary elections taking place in Poland on the same day that the Swiss vote, attention will be on national rather than international news.

swissinfo, Morven McLean in Warsaw

Poland has a population of 38.5 million (UN, 2005)
The jobless rate stood at 18 per cent in June.
It has been falling since reaching a peak of 20.7% in February 2003.
The economy is growing twice as fast as that of the euro zone.
The leftwing government is expected to be trounced by the centre-right opposition in elections on September 25.

In August a report by the civil rights watchdog European Citizen Action Service, which analysed official data from 20 out of 25 EU countries, showed that the level of migration from new member states to old was well below 1% of the labour force.

In early June Germany’s DIW institute said that in the year since May 2004 around 150,000 people had emigrated from the ten new member states to the other 15. Around a third of this number had gone to Britain.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR