Since Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, Poles have become one of the most visible groups of migrant workers in Europe – yet Poland’s history of migration far precedes this. Sociologist Sylwia Urbanska discusses the political currents underpinning Polish migration, its gendered nature, and the evolving experiences of Polish migrants.

Green European Journal: What is the Polish experience with migration?

Sylwia Urbanska: In Poland, we have a long and varied history of migration. In addition to political exiles – from after the uprisings that aimed at independence; post-World-War-II migrants or activists of the Solidarity movement who escaped in the 1980s from repercussions of the socialist regime; the exile of Jews and Roma due to discrimination – we have in parallel a deep-rooted tradition of migration for the sake of economic survival. Although it is worth remembering that the latter has – as in the case of women and non-heterosexuals fleeing domestic violence or discrimination – also a political background. For example, some women see migration as an opportunity to overcome violent or oppressive marital or familial relations, gendered normative expectations, the economic and cultural difficulty of divorce, and the prevalence of conservative social legislation.

Poles have been migrating for much longer than most other Europeans. What were the trends in the 1990s, and in the post-EU-accession years?

After the collapse of the socialistic regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, neoliberal transformations created new patterns of migration from Poland. After 1989 migratory movements became more intense and more geographically dispersed, and were directed not mainly towards the USA, as in the socialistic era, but mostly towards Europe. They are also characterised by the intensified migration of women that outnumbered men, and migration mostly of people from working classes. Both groups were drastically affected by the transition to market economy.

To understand the scale of the problem, it should be mentioned that soon after 1989 about 60 per cent of Polish society found itself living below subsistence levels. The transformation affected especially working-class women, who were employed as factory workers and farmers; women from villages, small cities, and peripheral regions of Poland, mostly in the eastern and, in particular, south-eastern parts of Poland; low-skilled women; woman under 24 or older than 50; single mothers and mothers in large families. These groups faced prolonged, structural unemployment, comparatively lower wages than men, and no public support for children. They were confronted with a lack of economical perspectives offering an escape from poverty.

This migration took place under conditions of illegality until 2004, the year of Poland’s accession to the EU, and subsequent years, once markets were opened to Polish workers. The situation was changed by the accession to the EU, soon after which only in 2005-2007 2-3 million people left Poland. In turn, the free movement of labour opened opportunities for new types of migrants – young people and families with children, because previously only one person left the household. From then, we could speak about mostly young, unemployed but also educated people for whom migration was a way to achieve better economic conditions, gain freedom from patriarchal culture, and have the possibility to have a child, which they could not have afforded in Poland.

How did this trend relate to supply and demand in other countries?

Migration of (un)documented workers, mainly from the poorer region of Central and Eastern Europe, is a response to various European crises, including a major crisis in the care sector that began in Europe in the 1970s. The reasons were neoliberal cuts in the public-care budget, commercialisation of the sector, the low prestige of care work or physical work in general (such as agriculture, manufacturing, and construction industries). Developed industries used the difficult economic situation of poorer countries, and benefited from the cheap work of migrants. In many cases, the illegal status of migrant workers allowed for keeping low wages for care or other forms of physical work.

To what extent can we say that there is a different form of female and male migration (or experience of migration)?

The experience of migration is highly gendered, especially when we compare the consequences suffered. Migrant parents who ‘left their children behind’ in Poland, and in particular migrant mothers, started to be seen after the mass outflow of 2004 as a new type of social deviant. Numerous politicians, priests, social workers, pedagogues, therapists, and lawyers expressed publicly the concern that the absence of the mother is dangerous for the health of affected children, but also a threat to families and to the reproduction of the nation. Actions – such as the public shaming of transnational mothers, quantitative evaluations of the scale of the phenomenon among children in schools, or plans to enroll the children of migrants into psychosocial supervision – implicitly equate economic migration with parental desertion, ignoring the fact that it is an escape from poverty,  and not proposing a real improvement of life outside the conservative gendered social control. It is interesting to note the class dimension of this ‘moral panic’, which stigmatises exclusively migrating from smaller cities or rural areas and spares more privileged migrants such as managers or “Eurocrats”. Feminisation of migration has opened gendered moral backlash in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe who also became big exporters of migrant women workers, such as Ukraine.

How prepared are female migrant workers for the situation that awaits them in the new country?

Departure from the country to work abroad has traditionally been carried out through a personal migrant network of relatives or friends who helped in the first days abroad. Currently, the entry process is highly commercialised and has passed to ethnic business, specialised recruitment agencies for care workers, as well as seasonal workers in agriculture, the construction industry and manufacturing.

What about the children in such a migratory situation – are they left behind in Poland, or can they travel with their working parents and integrate into a new society?

The free flow of labour allowed families with children to bring their children with them. For many families, it is the best option, also because of better living conditions, access to public care, social benefits, better education, as well as medical and healthcare infrastructure and more. Post-accession migrants also say that migration is what allowed them to have a family at all. But of course, we can speak about different family situations and strategies, which depend on the specifics of work sectors. Some employers, for example, prefer employees without families, such as farm workers or 24-hour care workers.

How reactive are migrant workers (especially female migrant workers) to changes in the labour market, and changes in the nature of work itself? Will there be need for them, with increased robotisation and other changes?

Most female migrants work in the big and constantly widening European care sector as cleaners, nannies, as well as carers of older and ill people. The care sector is, of course, changing but not the nature of care work itself, which is traditionally time consuming, involves both close physical relations with another person and a need for emotional work. Thus, this sector is driven by changes but not so much in the specifics of work itself: giving a bath to old, sick, or disabled people is still physical hard work and care requires constant 24-hour presence. However, some of its sectors are changing, for example the cleaning sector which is increasingly taken over by agencies, such as Titres service in Belgium. They mediate the relationship between the employer and the cleaning worker; and although they are offering some work guarantees, they are also depersonalising the care relation and are driving the expertisation of the area.

We also observe the increased specialisation of the care market according to ethnic and racial criteria. Stereotypical ideas about the caring skills of different immigrant communities often decide who will look after children or elderly relatives, who will be allowed to clean up the intimate spaces of the house, and who will wash only public spaces, like shopping centres at night.

What are the safeguards for these people? Who is taking care of their hospitalisation?

Prior to the opening of the EU labour markets, migrants were often working illegally, and therefore they were left alone in a grey zone. Only some volunteers from the streams of political migrants (post-war, post-Solidarity) have benefited from organised help, which usually focused around the network of Polish Catholic Missions. However, the overwhelming majority of migrants suffering from diseases and accidents – which were frequent in the construction sector – could only count on themselves, or, in some cases, on the help of relatives from the migrant network.

Illegality more often exposed migrants, especially women, to thefts, burglaries in rented rooms, but also to sexual abuse. Half of my surveyed Polish female workers in Belgium were attacked and robbed at least once, without the possibility of police protection. The opening of markets, as well as improved labour regulations in the care sector, radically changed the situation. It must also be said that many people have received protection and guarantees in the field of human rights, unavailable in conservative Poland, such as the protection of women against violence, the possibility of entering into a civil solidarity pact (PACS), access to safe and cost-free abortion – which is banned in almost all cases in Poland – or reimbursement of in vitro treatment costs.

How common is it for people from Poland to work as posted workers? What kinds of protections do they get? What is it that protects them from being forced in a situation of bogus self-employment and/or becoming undeclared workers?

Poland is the biggest exporter of posted workers in the EU to the transport, construction, and care-work industries. Every fourth employee posted in Europe comes from Poland, which amounts to about 500 000 people a year. Demand for and the popularity of Polish employment agencies that posted employees is associated with low labour costs, which are often not even reaching the minimum wage in the posting country. Some of these countries do not provide adequate protection. Of course, the EU changes in the law of posting workers are not good for entrepreneurs, increase labour costs and bureaucracy, but are good for the employee – a migrant worker has to receive the same salary, bonuses, and employment benefits as a local worker. The direction of change is good but there is the risk that entrepreneurs will want to pass these costs on to employees.

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