Posted on June 26, 2007

With Its Workers Over Here, Poland Turns East To Get The Country Rebuilt

Kate Connolly, Maseeh Rahman, and Krzysztof Dzieciolowski, Manchester Guardian, June 25, 2007

When Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, quipped recently that he was having trouble finding a decorator, the joke was not lost on a nation that has waved goodbye to hundreds of thousands of westward-bound handymen in the past three years.

But for those in his government responsible for building a network of football stadiums fit to stage a major championships, this is no laughing matter. Poland has five years to regenerate its tired communist-era grounds ready for the 2012 European football championships. But in a country already clattering along with growth rates of around 7%, you just can’t get the staff. London’s 2012 Olympic headaches look trivial by comparison.

And so Poland has started to look elsewhere for the bricklayers, roofers, fitters, crane operators and bulldozer drivers who can throw up three stadiums, hotels, airports and hundreds of miles of motorway in quick time. It has found the answer: India.

“There are severe discrepancies in our labour market,” said Poland’s labour minister, Anna Kalata, who recently travelled to New Delhi to sign a memorandum of understanding with India to entice workers to come to the former eastern bloc country to fill the gaping hole. “The need for labour is particularly acute in the construction sector in the run-up to Euro 2012, and we need you,” she told Indians. “The fact that the Polish economy is growing at a rate of over 7% is making the problem even more acute.”

Hundreds of thousands are expected to take up the challenge, even though many will have only a tenuous grasp on where Poland is. One Indian newspaper has predicted: “Poland is to be the next hot destination for Indian workers.”

Order book

It’s not the first case of Poland sucking in overseas labour to fill glaring domestic shortages. Up in the port city of Gdansk, 200 Azeris and Tajiks have been taken on by Poland’s largest developer to keep on top of a formidable order book. “It’s a brilliant idea,” said Jacek Bazan, of JW Construction, referring to the overture to India. “The situation here will only get worse as more skilled workers go to work in western Europe, and who do they expect to build the infrastructure, roads, hotels and stadiums in time for 2012? Once we have more people we’ll be able to forge ahead with new projects and create a few hundred jobs at least,” he said.

Indian construction workers have a history of proven flexibility, with thousands heading to the Middle East in the late 1970s and 1980s to service a construction boom. But demand for them has slackened since countries there started giving preference to workers from within the region, such as Yemen.

In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 31-year-old master mason Mekulal Kachwaha, whose family have worked in construction for at least three generations, welcomed the news of the new opportunity. Although he had never heard of Poland, he would gladly go to work there. He would be the first member of his family to achieve the Indian worker’s dream: a job abroad.

“Only one worker in our village has so far made it abroad—to Saudi Arabia,” Mr Kachwaha said. “He’s doing very well, and comes back regularly to see his family.”

Better future

“If the money is good, I’ll definitely go. By doing that, I’ll be able to ensure a better future for my children. Moreover, it’ll be an opportunity to see the world, something that a poor man like me cannot otherwise dream of,” he added.

He said he hoped to at least double his current monthly wage of 10,000 rupees (£125) which he earns working as a foreman in Delhi. In fact, in Poland he would have the opportunity to earn several times his present salary, Polish wages in the sector having doubled in the past year in response to the shortage and a building boom.

Between 800,000 and 2 million Poles are estimated to have left the country since it joined the EU three years ago, including perhaps 400,000 who came to Britain. So when the country won the race to host the 2012 European championship along with Ukraine, joy was tempered with concern at the enormous task ahead.

A key adviser to the 2012 bid says structural preparation is “grossly behind schedule”. The country needs to build 600 miles of motorway, five airports, new hotels—there are only 11 five-star hotels in the whole country—and three new stadiums, as well as modernising another three.

The shortage is so dire that the authorities are even reportedly considering using up to 20,000 convicts, under armed guard, to kick-start the construction. The problems are manifest in Warsaw, where construction projects dot the landscape but work proceeds at a ponderous pace.

Some still hold out hope that at least some of the emigrants will return, enticed by the ever-increasing wages, so that the country can avoid turning—for the first time in its history—into a land of immigration. “But these hopes won’t be fulfilled as long as the west remains more attractive,” said Emil Szwezda, an analyst.