Staying on in a 'small paradise'
'People in Poland are so stressed and so afraid of losing their jobs. Here it's the opposite, it's so relaxed . . Sometimes too relaxed,' says Kasia Wodniak, above left, with Fr Jaroslaw Maszkiewicz, Tomasz Bastkowski and Aneta Oczki, in the Polish Chaplaincy, St Audoen's Church, Dublin 8.
Despite falling immigration from eastern Europe, many Poles are still choosing to come here simply because they like the way we live. Have they not heard that Ireland is in a state of collapse? asks KATHY SHERIDAN
THE NUMBER of foreign nationals registering to work in Ireland fell by half last year. Hardly startling news, given the international coverage of our economic collapse. But what isstartling, you might think, is that anyone would want to come here at all. Poland’s ambassador to Ireland, Tadeusz Szumowski, believes the figures reflect a growing realisation that Ireland is “no longer the land of milk and honey”.
Nonetheless, nearly 14,000 of his fellow citizens still made the move here. Did they miss the news? That’s entirely possible, says Mariusz, a Polish resident living in Co Kildare: “Nobody on Polish television is talking about the Irish economy, so Polish people don’t know how bad things are here.”
Piaras MacEnri, lecturer on migration at University College Cork, suggests that Poles are continuing to come because particular economic niches have developed for certain nationalities. “There are no Irish people working in horticulture any more, for example,” he says. “That’s because a particular niche becomes exclusive to foreign workers because it offers such poor terms and conditions of employment – and sometimes downright exploitation – that it becomes so persistently unattractive that it never reverts to the native population.”
Yet there is change in the air. Just one-sixth of the total of almost 80,000 new registrations in 2009 were Polish. The only notable rise in EU12 (new member state) nationals registering here was among Latvians, who had an annus horribiliseven worse than ours. By contrast, the number of Romanians registering for PPS numbers in 2009 fell by more than half, yet, anecdotally, it is they who are the subject of speculation when it comes to jobs. Romanians are free to travel throughout the EU, but have no right to work where they choose.
“The Romanians who arrived most recently are where the Polish people were six years ago,” says Mariusz. They have no bargaining power and are undercutting other migrant workers, he alleges, accepting rates well below the minimum wage, in a classic race to the bottom. “I have no problem with them, I really don’t. That’s how we were just a few years ago. But if they arrive right now, what are they going to do? Poland is Manhattan for Romanians. What do you think Ireland is to them ?”
MacEnri describes a phenomenon of “multiple subcultures”, which, extrapolating from international statistics, may comprise one-tenth of the migrant population.
He believes that there is “a whole underground of Romanians . . . being drawn into a whole black-market scene”. But the regulatory system is so inadequate that such situations are allowed to develop and persist, exacerbated by the new religion that a job must be held at any price. In such an atmosphere, concerns about labour law and workers’ rights “have fallen right off the agenda”.
Meanwhile, although many Polish workers have opted to go home to an expanding economy, there is also anecdotal evidence that numbers have returned to Ireland. At an estimated 200,000, they are still by far the most numerous among the EU12 citizens living here. The question is why? The answer, they say, is that Ireland is a far gentler, friendlier, more open, more relaxed and more people-centred place to be. The view of a jumped-up, swaggering, exploitative Celtic Tiger is not borne out by our Polish co-habitees.
“If we had the same situation with migrants in Poland as you have had in Ireland, it would be Armageddon,” says Tomasz Bastkowski, principal of the Polish Saturday School in Dublin.
“Ireland gives everything for the people; if you have trouble, Ireland helps you. In Poland, if you have trouble, you have worse trouble,” says Margareta, a 32-year-old former banker from Kracow turned hard-working cleaner, who arrived here six years ago.
“In the east, Caesar is the most important. The further west you go, the more important the citizen becomes and you are the most western in Europe,” says Fr Jaroslaw Maszkiewicz, chaplain to the Polish community in Ireland.
“The human being is at the centre of your law,” adds Aneta Oczki, manager of the chaplaincy office. Oczki once astounded a Polish friend by mentioning that a passport could be applied for and received by post in Ireland.
“Last year, my son was born here and the Coombe hospital did everything for the registration,” says Bastkowski. “In Poland, it will take you two months to fulfil those procedures.”
A 173-page tome produced by the Polish government for returning migrants is presented as a case in point. “It’s like entering a different world,” says Oczki.
Take the Irish gardaí. According to Bastkowski, “they are for helping people. In Poland, they are for catching people.”
Take the Polish education system. “In Ireland, a child is taught that he is great and can be absolutely anything, even Superman,” says Oczki. “In Poland, the primary school is a rat race and is all about levels.”
“Polish people are so surprised by Ireland. When they return to Poland, they might get a higher-paid job, but mentally they have difficulty adapting,” says Kasia Wodniak, an adviser on social and legal matters at the chaplaincy. “I have a friend who is working in financial services who went back to Poland. She says that people in Poland are so stressed and so afraid of losing their jobs. Here it’s the opposite, it’s so relaxed.” The group exchange amused glances, then Wodniak adds: “Sometimes too relaxed.”
THIS IS THEdownside. They speak in wryly amazed tones about the “attitude to duty” here: the repairmen who fail to turn up as promised; the public transport timetables that bear no relation to real time; the five buses lined up while drivers chat and eat sandwiches and then all pull out together. “It just wouldn’t happen in Poland. Bus times are to the minute. It’s the order. A bus driver wouldn’t even think not to go. People would shout vulgar language and wave their fists at him if he didn’t.”
The endless crisis around the snow here strikes them as hilarious. In Poland, it’s minus 20 degrees and life goes on. “Here, you have minus two and it’s a cataclysm. I have an Irish boyfriend, and last week he said we should get in supplies so we don’t have to leave the house for the weekend,” says Wodniak, as everyone else rocks with laughter. “In Poland, within two hours of a snowfall, surfaces are being cleared of snow. In Ireland, it’s what, one,two three days? Are they serious? They don’t do anything on New Year’s Day because it’s a holiday? So ambulances are going round the city all the time for injured people.”
It wouldn’t happen in Poland “because everyone is responsible for their own bit of footpath, and that solves the problem of estates. If someone falls, it comes out of your insurance”, according to Fr Maszkiewicz. Here, they all note, as with much else, “the balance of duty lies with the Government. Nearly everything is for the people, for the individual.”
Thus the gentler life for the Irish resident. Bastkowski, a teacher educated to masters level, raises his eyes at the notion that welfare benefit can yield more than a working wage. The temptation to scam the welfare system is always there, say Mariusz, which worries many migrants, as it could taint them all. When benefit was paid into bank accounts, it meant that people could effectively live in their native country in relative luxury. “It was so simple. But that’s gone now, to no surprise,” he says. But, he adds, the employee-subsidy scheme, in place to keep jobs and companies afloat, also lends itself to abuse. “A person on short time has only to write that he worked four days rather than two and he will get more money from social welfare. There are gaps still.”
But they are being tightened rapidly, says Wodniak. “The department is becoming much more careful, much more restrictive.” Some migrants living here as long as five years are being denied jobseeker’s allowance on the basis that they are not “habitual residents”.
Even well-qualified teachers in Poland earn less there than they would on social welfare here. Ah, but Poland is much cheaper to live in, surely? Not at all, the Poles say. The price of petrol is similar or higher in Poland and food costs much the same if you shop in Lidl or Aldi (which almost all of them do), according to Oczki, who adds that clothes, shoes and electrical appliances are cheaper in Ireland (although alcohol and tobacco are dearer).
For those in rented accommodation here, the recession has been fruitful in ways: the rent on Bastkowski’s family home, for example, has fallen from €1,500 a month to €1,000.
Although some of the Poles I spoke to have lost their jobs, one has set up his own business and others are enthusiastically involved in several projects. One, Margareta, the former banker, wants to go back to Poland sometime.
“I’d like to go back and work in a bank again,” she says. “I have friends and family in Poland. I would like a home.”
Her husband is far from keen. It’s a vignette that is being played out all over the country.
“You don’t know it, but you are in a small paradise,” says Fr Maszkiewicz.
Some names have been changed