Poland’s economy needs foreign workers, and the country’s ostensibly anti-immigration ruling party knows it

A plan to make immigration the key issue of a forthcoming election has spectacularly backfired for Poland’s ruling party. Will it now admit that the country desperately needs foreign workers? 

When Poland’s ruling party decided to hold a referendum on the European Union’s latest proposals for dealing with migrants and asylum seekers on the same day as a parliamentary election, behind its thinking was the idea that immigration, and not the country’s stuttering economy, would dominate the election campaign. 

In recent weeks, however, the plan has backfired. The party, Law and Justice (PiS), has become embroiled in a scandal involving the sale of work visas. On September 14, seven people were charged over alleged irregularities. 

According to Eurostat data, Poland issued almost one million residence visas to non-EU nationals in 2021, a third of all those issued in the bloc. In 2022, it issued just over 700,000. Many of these were to people from Islamic countries, a demographic PiS has often demonised., a fact-checking organisation, says that in 2022 almost 185,000 people from Muslim-majority countries entered Poland while only 1,746 were denied entry.  

Media reports now suggest that Poland’s consular sections have issued some 350,000 visas to migrants from Asia and Africa in ways that “may raise suspicions”. Asians and Africans have claimed that they even are given instructions to speed up the process, with work visas issued in as little as six hours. Videos published on YouTube (such as this one) purport to show would-be migrants, or agents, opening envelopes containing pre-stamped and approved Polish visa applications that merely need to be completed with the applicant’s details. 

The country’s former deputy foreign minister, Piotr Wawrzyk, who was sacked on August 31, the same day that Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) carried out a search of the foreign ministry, is accused by the opposition of playing a central role in the visa scheme.  

On September 15 he was admitted to a Warsaw hospital citing “poor mental health”. He has been quietly dropped from the PiS list of candidates for the upcoming elections, scheduled for October 15. 

Other senior PiS figures are also implicated. Radio ZET found details showing how the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development pressed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2022 to make it easier for foreigners to come and work on Polish farms. The name of PiS MP and Deputy Minister of Agriculture Lech Kołakowski appears in the case.  

In another report, it is claimed that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Rau, “knew” about the trade in Polish visas. 

Donald Tusk, leader of the largest opposition grouping, Civic Coalition, has called the affair “the biggest scandal in Poland this century”. 

“Do you know who in Europe brings in the most Muslim immigrants? The government that frightens with them. The PiS government,” he said. 

For PiS, an uncomfortable truth 

What the scandal ultimately reveals is that PiS, despite its anti-immigrant bluster, is well aware of the blunt economic fact that Poland desperately needs more foreign workers.  

In July, a report published by Poland’s social security agency, ZUS, revealed that despite attracting record numbers of immigrants over the past few years, the country would need to bring in nearly two million more workers over the next decade in order to maintain its current ratio of working-age population to retirees. 

In 2022, ZUS, for the first time, registered more than one million migrants in its systems: almost 750,000 of whom were Ukrainians. However, “in order for the dependency ratio to remain at the current level, in the coming years the number of foreigners of working age would have to increase annually by 200,000-400,000,” read the report. 

“The number of foreigners in 2032 would have to amount to 2.8 million people, which would be 13 per cent of the working age population. In 2032, nearly every eighth working-age person would have to be a foreigner.” 

For the past 18 months, Poland has looked to Ukraine for foreign workers. The country’s proximity to Ukraine and the similarities in culture made it a preferred destination. Indeed, more than one million Ukrainians have sought refuge in Poland since the Russian invasion of their country in February 2022, many immediately finding jobs (in services and manufacturing in particular) or setting up their own business. As many as 71 per cent of the total of refugees in Poland took up employment after their arrival. Walk along any busy high street in Poland and Ukrainian bakeries selling freshly made palyanytsya or yabluchnyk will be a common sight. 

However, the influx of Ukrainians has largely now come to halt, with many returning, and many moving on—notably to Germany. According to Eurostat, at the end of June 2023 there were approximately 1.1 million Ukrainian citizens registered in Germany, while in Poland there were almost 975,000.  

This means that since August 2022, the number of registered Ukrainians in Poland has decreased by more than 350,000, while in Germany over the same period it has increased by more than 410,000. 

Destination Germany 

Research carried out by the EWL Migration Platform and the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw suggests that the presence of friends and acquaintances already in Germany, higher remuneration and better social benefits are the main reasons why Ukrainian refugees are leaving Poland for Germany. 

“Germany responded to the influx of refugees from Ukraine by introducing the most liberal regulations on access of foreigners to the labour market, together with fast and often compulsory language and vocational courses, while taking advantage of the high level of professional qualifications of Ukrainian citizens at the same time,” says Andrzej Korkus, CEO of EWL.  

“These measures, combined with the acute shortage of labour on the German market, indicate the likelihood of a further strengthening of this migration trend.” 

That spells bad news for Poland. Dr Jan Malicki, director of the Centre for East European Studies notes in the report that while Poland became the country of first choice for refugees from Ukraine fleeing the war, and that Warsaw simplified procedures for access to the Polish labour market, “this was not enough to keep the newcomers in Poland”. 

“It is essential to study this phenomenon,” he adds. “An analysis of its causes and effects is in the interest of Poland—not only of the Polish state, but also Polish employers, who may be affected by changes in the labour market.” 

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