Poles Working Abroad: Sources of Guest Worker Discrimination

by Alicja

Nowadays more and more Polish people emigrate to foreign countries. The main reason of this increasing tendency remains finding a better paid job. According to Central Statistic Office, in 2011 about 2060 thousands of Polish people emigrated temporarily for more than 3 months. People, who moved to the foreign country or left Poland for less than 3 months, were not included in those statistics. Nevertheless, the amount of Polish people emigrating from Poland is significant, therefore I decided to look closer to their situation abroad.

I assumed that Polish people have to deal with inequality or even discrimination at work. My research question was:

  1. In what way Polish workers are discriminated when working abroad?
  2. What is the reason of discrimination of Polish workers abroad?

My first idea of checking the situation of Polish workers abroad was to ask Polish workers themselves how they feel about working in foreign countries. I chose three Polish people who had experiences in working abroad and asked them about their impressions.

My first interlocutor has working experiences in Denmark. He started working in a contruction industry a couple of years ago. He estimates his job positively. In his case, the money factor is important – he says that working abroad enables him to achieve certain level of living that he might not be able to achieve working in the same branch in Poland. He is not planning to come back to Poland in the nearest future. He did not say anything that would indicate discrimination towards him at his work place.

Another person I talked to has worked in Germany and The Netherlands. He worked in a construction industry and as a warehouse worker. Although he does not plan to move to a foreign country, he frequently goes abroad to work for a couple of months. In his case the reason to work abroad are obviously money but also the fact that he has problems to find a job in Poland. He also has not complained about the conditions he has experienced working abroad.

The third person I had a conversation with was a girl who worked in Germany as a chambermaid. She did not like the job itself but she was satisfied with the salary she got. She said she was not treated in any different way than other workers.

The general view of working abroad from what my interlocutors presented was certainly not negative. All of them underlined the importance of money they earned but none felt discriminated.

In an attempt to figure out what are the problems of Polish workers abroad, I started to read Internet forums for Polish people sharing their experiences about working in foreign countries. I have visited three forums and analysed a couple of threads in each of them. What was surprising, most of the opinions about working abroad were similar to those which the people I talked to had. Most of the people on forums went abroad to earn a bigger amount of money in a short time. Most of them were satisfied with the working conditions. What is interesting, some people underlined an important role of friends or family living in the country they worked in. They claimed they would not deal without their help.

Some of people, on the other hand, decided to use the help of Polish work mediation agencies. Surprisingly, if someone complained on something, it were those agencies actions. Some people maintained that they have been cheated by mediation agencies. They got a job on different conditions, lower salaries than expected etc.

Those observations overlap my own experience which I gained when I worked in The Netherlands two years ago. Back then my friend who lives in Holland helped me with finding a job. For that reason I worked on the same conditions as Dutch workers. During the time I was workig, a group of Polish workers started working in the same company. They found the job via mediation agency. What was shocking for me was that they earned about half as small amount of money per hour as Dutch workers. What is more, Dutch workers were ensured to be able to work for eight hours a day, while Polish workers who got the job via mediation agency could have been sent home after any amount of hours.

The mediation agencies often use the lack of knowledge of Polish workers to earn money on them. Foreign companies might pay the same amount of money per hour per person but mediation agency might pay the worker less, taking the rest themselves. Some of people who get cheated that way might not be even aware of that.

Another worrying conclusion drawn from analysis of the Polish workers forums is that Polish people often act against each other. Some people described the situation when they got help from foreigners, but could not get any support from other Polish workers. Some other wrote about the lack of Polish solidarity abroad, or even more – about those who reported on other Polish workers in order to reduce the amount of competitors at work.

The next step I took was to search for job offers abroad for Polish people. Most of them concern physical work: packers, warehouse workers, drivers, mechanics, plumbers, fruit pickers, cleaning people. They are mainly jobs that do not require high qualifications.

Another dimension of inequality towards Polish workers is, according to the article published in Science Nordic “Polish workers get stuck in stereotype”, that Polish workers often work on  worse conditions than citizens of the country, Norway in this case. The author of the article claims that the job Polish workers are able to find is often insecure. Although Polish people are thought to be good workers, employers still underline the importance of the fact that they do not ask too many questions about the job and are eager to work hard.

The stereotype of a Polish worker that is described in the article works in both ways: encourages employers to hire Polish workers because they are believed to be hard working on one hand, but on the other hand the reluctance to ask questions make the employers think Polish workers are unable to think independently enough to occupy higher positions at work.

To sum up, discrimination of Polish workers does occur. They can be discriminated in a number of ways. The offer of jobs available for Polish workers is usually bordered to some specific areas. Polish workers often experience “glass ceiling” – some of the positions are not available for them as they are believed to have less skills than other workers. Those assumptions are often based on a stereotype, which does not have to be true.

Another way of discrimination are worse, less stable job conditions. As described in the article, Polish workers often work on short-term agreements, while among Norwegians this type of agreement is not very popular. This shows that Norwegian employers offer worse work conditions for Polish workers, even if the salaries remain relatively high.

The discrimination might be also a result of the lack of solidarity between Polish people. This kind of attitude might result in worse position of Polish workers.

Another reason of discrimination might be a specific economic situation in Poland that causes many people to work abroad and agree on better paid but requiring less qualifications jobs. Foreign employers use those specific conditions and offer Polish workers less stable, but still quite well paid job.