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Looking west for work

Young Poles drawn to wealthy European nations leave skill shortages in their wake, putting their homeland's economy in jeopardy.

January 21, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Wroclaw, Poland — Copernicus Airport. 12:52 p.m.

A former Polish soldier arrives from Ireland, where he waits tables and studies computers. He shimmies through customs and tows his suitcases out sliding glass doors, just as two lovers with new passports step to the ticket counter for a flight to the British Midlands and jobs in a cookie factory.

Babies wail, duffel bags zip shut, tears fall on winter coats. Every day is like this. Poles come and go, ferried across Europe on budget airlines to new, unsure lives. Married and single, college graduate and high school dropout, they make up a large part of the continent's growing class of economic migrants.

"My company went bankrupt, and there's no future in my town," said Monika Przebieracz, conversing in Polish while standing in the departure lounge with her fiance, Dawid Dorociak, a thin man with matted hair and a pewter stud in his eyebrow. "But how will we manage in Britain? What about the language?"

"This is our first time on a plane," said Dorociak said, listening to the rip of tickets and the thunk of passport stamps. "We land in Not-ting-ham."

Then, as if mimicking phrases from a Berlitz book, he added in English: "Thank you, thank you, thank you very much."

The expansion of the European Union has loosened borders and increased opportunities for Poles and other Eastern Europeans. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, between 600,000 and 2 million of its people have slipped away to foreign lands for work, mainly in Britain, Ireland and Sweden. They've left behind shriveling villages, high unemployment and low wages. Although many find only modest jobs as laborers and waiters, they are fattening their bank accounts while blending into new cultures.

Their journeys add a distinctly European spin to the global movement of job seekers. The World Bank estimates that expatriate workers sent $250 billion to their poorer native countries in 2005. Poland's economic emigrants funneled home $7.4 billion that year, $2.6 billion more than three years earlier, the Polish central bank says. The real amount may be double the official tally. It's never fully counted because much of it arrives stuffed in bags and billfolds.

It would seem a dream fulfilled for Poland. It's also a caution to be careful what you wish for.

Through decades of communism, Poles longed to be part of capitalist Europe. Now this nation of 39 million is losing citizens to Western prosperity when it needs them to fuel its own economy. Foreign companies are expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs here in the coming years. Major European manufacturers are planning to build new facilities in Wroclaw.

But with some of the nation's best-educated and youngest workers opting to leave, who will work here? Who will be the bricklayers, the computer experts, the dentists?

*

Meet Pawel Romaszkan, a broad-faced man with a gargantuan mission: bringing the Poles home, preferably back to Wroclaw. Officials say the future of this city of 640,000 people near the German border, where an elegant town square evokes bohemian shabbiness mixed with communist neglect, depends on it.

"We're trying to build a brand-name city. We've attracted companies like Philips, Siemens, Volvo and 3M, but we must have workers," said Romaszkan, who visits Polish community centers in London and pubs in Dublin trying to woo back his countrymen.

"If we can get a few to return, others will follow.... A monthly transportation pass in London costs about 100 pounds. That's equivalent to a mortgage payment on a small apartment in Wroclaw."

Romaszkan knows the alleys where Polish workers sip Guinness in Ireland, the British churches where they say rosaries and offer confessions, the Internet cafes where they find out who died, who was born and whose heart was broken. He also knows that just by looking into people's eyes, you can tell whether they have moved beyond your grasp.

"For many Poles, London is a magical city," he said. "I talked to one computer specialist who's been offered a job in London that pays twice what the mayor of Wroclaw earns. This guy told me, 'I'm not coming back.' "

In 2002, about 300,000 passengers traveled through Copernicus Airport; in 2006, the number was 700,000. The increase in part reflects a high unemployment rate and salaries that are a quarter to a half of going rates in Western Europe. Many foreign corporations moved east to save money and have been reluctant to raise wages. Competition for labor has gradually begun to increase pay, but Poland's economic growth is in jeopardy if there are not enough of the right kinds of workers.

Growth accelerated after the end of communism, then slowed. Since 2004, the economy has regained some momentum, expanding 5.2% last year. Although that is more than 2 percentage points higher than the average of the more developed EU economies, it is lower than that of other new EU members.

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