Posted on July 18, 2023

Poland Doesn’t Want Migrants, but These Foreign Workers Are Welcome

Andrew Higgins, New York Times, July 15, 2023

Determined to resist a European Union plan to spread the burden of migrants and asylum seekers around the continent, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, says his country wants to ensure that “Poles can safely walk the streets,” so it will not take in foreigners it does not want.

At the same time, in central Poland, a tiny village with only 200 residents is preparing for the arrival of 6,000 workers from Asia at a vast, newly built housing compound. The workers are needed by a petroleum company controlled by Mr. Morawiecki’s right-wing government.

The state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen needs them to build a new petrochemical plant that is vital for its expansion plans. Around 100 have already arrived, and the rest will follow soon, vastly outnumbering residents of the village, Biala.

“Some people say this is a bit too much and are worried,” said Krzysztof Szczawinski, the elected head of Biala and one of five local farmers who agreed to lease their land for the new housing compound and construction storage.

But because the workers are expected to leave when their work is finished, he added, “there is no real negative feeling,” even though voters in Biala mostly support Poland’s conservative governing party, Law and Justice. That populist political force came to power in 2015 by taking a tough stand against foreign migrants seeking work.

The gulf between the government’s diatribes against unwanted migrants and the open-armed approach to foreign workers reflects a wide chasm separating the imperatives of politics and economics in Poland and many other European countries.


Rejecting the European Union’s efforts to get member states to take in some of the migrants arriving in Greece and Italy by sea from North Africa, Mr. Morawiecki has denounced what he called a “diktat that is aimed at changing Europe culturally.”

For Orlen’s expansion plans to stay on track, however, cultural differences have had to be embraced.

The foreign workers’ compound in Biala was built in only a few months from 2,500 modules that look like shipping containers with windows. It has four separate kitchens to meet the distinct and decidedly un-Polish dietary needs of the workers — Filipinos who share the Roman Catholic faith of most Poles but not their taste for cabbage and potato, Hindus from India, and a large contingent of Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkmenistan who do not eat pork, a Polish staple.


Neither the governing Law and Justice party nor the main opposition force, Civic Platform, want to be seen as soft on immigration, but both want the economy to keep growing, which will require finding new sources of labor from abroad.

Poland has the biggest economy in Eastern and Central Europe (excluding Russia), but one of the fastest-shrinking populations among the 27 members of the European Union.


Orlen, which is controlled by a government notorious for stoking anti-foreigner sentiment, is now providing funding to support an anti-discrimination campaign sponsored by the local police force.

The campaign, called “Respect has no color,” is a far cry from the message embraced by the governing party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who ahead of elections in 2015 warned voters that his opponents would open the floodgates to migrants who carry “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe,” including “all sorts of parasites and protozoa.”


“This is a very big problem. You can’t change demographics,” said Piotr Poplawski, senior economist at ING Bank in Warsaw. The container camp for foreign laborers, he added, “is for now an exception but will most likely be the future” as Poland looks abroad for new sources of labor.


Marek Martynowski, a Law and Justice senator representing the region that contains the new plant, said his party welcomed foreign workers so long as they entered legally and were not “young men who come here looking for social benefits.”


The opposition has also seized on immigration to score political points, accusing the government of whipping up alarm over migrants while quietly enabling a large influx of foreign workers from countries like Pakistan, Iran and Nigeria.