When Radomir Szwed first left Gdansk in northern Poland for a new life in Britain he worked from the front room of a poky rented flat in Neasden, a scruffy corner of north-west London. In that first year the turnover of his food import business was a modest £100,000.
Fast forward 12 years and now the projected turnover for his Best Foods group is between £50m and £60m. He has offices in both London and Poland and owns property in Chiswick, one of West London’s most expensive suburbs.
Next week marks ten years since Poland joined the EU. Since then, the prevailing stereotype of migration from the country has been of Polish plumbers, construction workers and cleaners. But Mr Szwed, 37, is one of a burgeoning group of Polish white-collar workers who bring prosperity – and even jobs – to Britain.
“I know many Polish people who are working for big banks, universities, hedge funds and other reputable jobs,” Mr Szwed says. “But people just talk about Polish people being builders.”
Mr Szwed’s company, Best Foods, now supplies most of Britain’s major supermarkets, including Iceland, Morrisons and Asda with meat and vegetables for ready meals.
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He employs 12 people in Britain, four of whom are British, and a second office in Poland employs 20 people. There are also hundreds of workers indirectly employed by him in the factories the company uses in Poland.
Mr Szwed doesn’t like the label millionaire and looks bashful when asked if he’d class himself as one, but he admits his lifestyle is “comfortable” and that he “pays hundreds of thousands of pounds in tax” every year.
He grew up in northern Poland near Gdansk in a middle class family; his father was a dentist and his mother was a bank chairman.
He thinks xenophobia in Britain could deter Poles from working here if it gets any worse. “In the news, you find people trying to blame immigrants from eastern Europe for most of the problems in the UK,” he says.
“If this escalates and continues I think some people will be put off staying. I think there are lots of good, hard-working people with good work ethics who can find jobs or run businesses somewhere else like Germany or back in Poland.”
The Polish City Club was established in 2004 to cater for the growing number of Polish high fliers in the City. It now has more than 100 members, all strictly vetted to make sure that they are management-level executives, lawyers and head-hunters working in London’s financial sector.
Dorota Zimnoch, 39, is the club’s president. She came to the UK in 2005 when she got promoted at CitiGroup bank. She had been working in the Warsaw office and was moved to London to become internet banking head for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Now she works as a marketing executive for the insurance company MetLife.
“We’ve been frustrated for many years with being stereotyped as doing only a few professions like builders and babysitters,” she says.
She came to Britain with her son Paul, who is now 16. He has gone to English schools since he was seven and wants to go to Cambridge. Now they both have dual nationality and Ms Zimnoch says Paul comes across as increasingly English: “When he’s excited or worried he switches into English. He thinks in English and speaks with an English accent.”
Poland’s ambassador to the UK, Witold Sobkow said in an interview with The Independent this week that Polish workers in Britain are increasingly professionals. “Things have changed,” he said.
“Before, when people from Poland came here they used to work in restaurants and they picked fruits. They are not there now....They want to have better jobs, they want to be promoted; they want to work hard and save money.”
Piotr Dudek, 37, is a self-employed civil engineer. He came to London in 2005, the year after Poland joined the EU. Since then he has worked on many of the capital’s most significant building projects, including Heathrow’s Terminal Five, the Olympic Village and Blackfriars Bridge.
“I like the challenges of big construction sites with big budgets. I’m a chartered engineer but when I came here I had only Polish certificates and I had to start from the beginning again and get all my certificates. I started as a normal site engineer, which unfortunately was a step down, but now I’m site manager.
When not working, he is chairman of the Association of Polish Engineers in Great Britain, which now has more than 200 members. He lives in London with his wife Monika, and daughter Hanna, five.
He says: “The economic conditions brought me over here but I’m a British citizen now; this is my home.”