750,000 and rising: how Polish workers have built a home in Britain

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The Independent Online

The number of Polish people in Britain has reached record levels after the expansion of the EU, making it the fastest-growing ethnic minority.

Although the EU said this week that the newcomers, mostly young, well-educated and sometimes highly qualified, have boosted the UK economy, relieved skills shortages and cut dole queues, the rise is causing headaches for local authorities, schools, the health service and even the long-standing British Polish community.

With hundreds of newcomers arriving every day on cheap flights, large concentrations of Polish people have built up in some towns after local companies and employment agencies launched recruitment drives in Poland.

They have found jobs as bus drivers, mechanics and in food processing - at pay rates four times what they would earn in their home country - as well as doctors, dentists and bankers. In London, the Poles have found work as plumbers and builders.

Peter Ashton, a personnel manager at Dunn Line, a bus company in Nottingham, said Polish workers now made up more than a third of its 150-strong workforce after a recruitment drive in Poland.

He said: "While I don't want to disparage our British workers, the Poles have a terrific work ethic. They are always on time, always smartly dressed, they always make the effort to go the extra mile.''

The precise size of the population is difficult to estimate. In the early Nineties, the existing community, based around Second World War servicemen and their descendants allowed to settle here after the war, was about 150,000. Although this grew after the downfall of Communism, it has risen dramatically since the EU expansion in May 2004, when British became one of only three countries to allow Poles to take jobs without restrictions.

The total registered under this scheme was 160,000 up to last September. Added to that are their families, those who have arrived since, unregistered seasonal and contract workers, as well as those in the "grey economy". According to the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, the total number of people with a "Polish connection" could be as high as 750,000, equal in size to the Pakistani community and bigger than the Caribbean population, which is about 560,000.

Over the past year, Polish delicatessens have sprung up on shopping streets. One company that imports Polish food says demand has increased five-fold.

Alexandra Podhorodecka, the president of the Polish Educational Society, which runs Saturday morning schools for Polish children and teenagers to help them study the language and history of their home country, has seen a huge influx in the numbers of children wanting to attend. "Our schools cannot cope with the increase. They have to find new premises and we have to set up new schools," she said.

A long-time British resident, Mrs Podhorodecka, 66, said attendance at Sunday mass at her Polish church in north London had increased ten-fold over the past couple of years. "We used to celebrate mass three times on a Sunday, and we were never full. Now we have six or eight services every Sunday and people are standing outside in the street."

In Crewe, Cheshire, the local council was taken by surprise when dozens of Polish children began turning up at schools last year. Poles now account for about 6 per cent of the population of 48,000, in an area where ethnic minorities were no more than 2 per cent of the community.

Claire Wilson, the community development manager, said: "We had to start from scratch, we have no experience of dealing with this, no one speaking the language, no resources.

"A lot of them have come expecting the streets to be paved with gold and not realising they are not automatically entitled to housing or benefits. I've had to go on to a few Polish websites to put them straight.''

The crisis eased when many of the seasonal workers returned home after Christmas. "But most of them have said they will return soon," Ms Wilson said. Relations between the newcomers and the older Polish communities were often strained. "I don't think the existing Polish people identify with the newcomers."

In Scotland, there are an estimated 4,000 Poles living in the Highlands area alone, working in fish processing and the tourist industry, although 25 Polish dentists have been recruited to ease a shortage in the NHS. About 400 extra children are being taught at local schools.

Jaroslaw Kozminski, a journalist on The Polish Daily, published in Britain since 1940, said the newcomers would force the paper - traditionally aimed at the older generation - to modernise.

Many had come from provincial Polish towns, he said. "They only have to ask themselves: is it better to launch your career in London or in some small Polish town?" Kozminski said. "There's only one answer."

UK's Polish community

* Estimated size of Polish community in Britain: 750,000

* Workers registered under EU expansion since May 2004: 162,870

* Number of Poles who settled in Britain after 1945: 200,000

* Since 1940, Britain has had a daily Polish language newspaper, Dziennik Polski

* There are 113 Polish community centres. The biggest, in Hammersmith, west London, boasts the largest Polish library outside Poland

* The Polish Educational Society supports 67 Polish 'Saturday schools' attended by more than 5,000 children

* There are 82 Polish Catholic churches in Britain

'I work with people who come from all over the world': Szymon Filipak, architect, 26

While working as an architect in Krakow, Poland's second city, Szymon Filipak, 26, found a job in Glasgow which he believed would offer him better career opportunities. In October last year, he relocated to Scotland after securing a job with the architectural company BDP. He had previously studied on a scholarship in Germany so was used to living and working abroad. He has settled into his job and says the transition was easy as computer technology and the architectural market are the same wherever you work. He said: "Since Poland joined the EU, young, capable Poles have found a new motivation to study, led by the knowledge they will have the opportunity to progress in the European and global market. While the older generation are sometimes reluctant to uproot, the new generation are without ties.'' Although happy with life in the UK, he is still not sure he likes the food. "I'm missing the fresh food of Poland, so I've been creating my own dishes using Scottish ingredients,'' he said. "I work in an office with people from all over the world and the projects are large-scale and challenging, so it's a great experience."

'The people are friendly and treat us very well': Michal Cyrana, mechanic, 25

In Poland Michal Cyrana, 25, trained as a mechanic but couldn't find a job and ended up working as a van driver. Two months after setting foot in Britain, he now works as a mechanic for Dunn Line transport in Nottingham, which runs bus and coach services.

He said: "Even if I could have found work [in Poland] as a mechanic the wages wouldn't have given me enough money to live and support my family."

Relocating was easy: "Now that we are part of Europe, I just needed my passport, some ID and there I was."

Mr Cyrana found his job through a Jobcentre, but Dunn Line also recruits directly from Poland. As well as helping Polish employees settle in, they offer unpaid leave to return to Poland, plus 23 days' paid leave.

Mr Cyrana said: "The people here are very friendly and they treat us very well." He feels the UK is similar to Poland but for one thing: "Polish food is more healthy. Now there are Polish food shops because there is a big Polish community here."

He would like to go back to Poland, but has no idea when. "What can I do? If I go back there finding a job is very difficult at the moment. For now I'm glad to live in England."

Interviews by Ele Walker