Would the last person to leave Poland please turn out the lights?

Around 100,000 Poles have left their families and homeland to find work in the UK. But it is not a decision that many take lightly, as Ed Caesar reports from Warsaw
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They are caterers, builders, stockbrokers, shelf-stackers, plumbers, nurses, dishwashers and dentists, but, most importantly, they are no longer here. Since Poland joined the EU a year ago on 1 May 2004, industrious, ambitious Poles have become an integral part of the British employment landscape, arriving in their thousands to fill every and any job.

They are caterers, builders, stockbrokers, shelf-stackers, plumbers, nurses, dishwashers and dentists, but, most importantly, they are no longer here. Since Poland joined the EU a year ago on 1 May 2004, industrious, ambitious Poles have become an integral part of the British employment landscape, arriving in their thousands to fill every and any job.

As our new EU partners, they have every right to try their hand in Britain, and they have grasped their opportunity with relish. But imagine the situation reversed. Young Brits, buoyed by the possibilities of working in better conditions for better pay, start to leave for Poland in droves. What would be the effect on the national psyche? Would it feel as if there was little left for the remaining majority?

"We Poles are strugglers," says Bartlomiej Bankowski, a 26-year-old lecturer in economics from Warsaw. "We have kombinovac." Kombinovac means resourcefulness, adaptability, enterprise. Bartlomiej's countrymen have needed their fair share of it during the past two centuries. Imprisoned in the Austro-Hungarian empire for 120 years, liberated just in time to be hurled into the torment of the Second World War, and hidden behind the Iron Curtain for 60 years of Communism, it seems that this vast country in the heart of Europe has taken the latest momentous chapter in its history - EU accession - in its stride.

But which Poles go to the UK? And why? The Office of National Statistics estimates that between May and December 2004, 73,000 Poles registered to work in the UK, of whom roughly a third were here already and have since legalised their presence. A year on from accession, that figure is nearer 100,000. These are numbers which anti-EU groups in politics and the media have seized upon to make their case that the immigration problem is out of control. But fears of large numbers of Poles claiming the dole or crowding the labour market have not materialised. If there was only one statistic you needed to know, it would be this - out of the tens of thousands of Poles who have arrived in the UK in the past year, the number claiming social security is below 30. The Poles are here to work.

Statistics, though, can only tell us so much. Behind every number is a human story. At a Tesco supermarket in the grim, grey outskirts of Warsaw, staff members talk freely about the difficulties and possibilities of moving to the UK. It is, says one employee, "what everyone is considering at the moment; what everyone must decide". And Tesco, which has been recruiting people from Poland to work in Britain since accession, is committed to offering its employees the chance to make that decision. It is not a decision, though, that anyone takes lightly.

"I don't want to go," says Iwona Wolinska, 27. "I don't want to leave my family behind. We have a very close family, and I would never leave that." Both Iwona and her husband work in the same store: Iwona at the check-out, her husband in the sporting goods department. She travels 55km from her village, is paid just over 700 zlotys (£112) per month, of which Z120 is spent on public transport. They have a daughter, and even though both parents work, it is hard to make ends meet. But, for many people from rural Poland, this is about as good as it gets, a fact Iwona recognises. "Of course, the salary could be better," she says cheerily, "but how could I complain? I choose to work here."

Jolanta Tandecka is 21, and has only been working at Tesco for a year. She would definitely consider going to the UK, but again, the prospect of finishing her studies and eventually having a family is holding her back. "I have a fiancé. It would be difficult to work apart from him. I'd rather work for less money and have a stable family."

Her fiancé, too would be loath to leave. He works for a building company developing the new business heart ofWarsaw. "Everyone needs builders now," says Jolanta. There is certainly money to be made. In central Warsaw, new buildings funded by foreign investment are springing up quickly, as the number of multinationals establishing Polish links grows exponentially.

And it is precisely because of this investment that foreign companies are recruiting highly educated Poles to work in the UK. As Darek Kieszkow, an intern at Barclays Capital, tells me, "in order to get into the new EU countries and invest, and build, you need to put something back. That's business."

Massive banks such as Barclays are tapping into a rich vein of young talent at Poland's universities, recruiting people such as Darek, a joint IT and business undergraduate from the Warsaw School of Economics. But the competition for places is fierce: of 160 students interviewed for a summer internship at Barclays, only 20 came over on a work placement. Of this number, only five or six have been given a full- time position.

"It's tough", says Darek, "but it's like any employer anywhere. It's the same in Poland if you go for a big job like this." But, now that he has what he calls "an amazing start to my career", is Darek leaving Poland for good? "I really considered hard whether I wanted to live and work abroad at all. I love my country, but when you think about it, this is a really important point of my career. And I'll probably only be here for the next four or five years."

With a significant number of talented young Poles like Darek taking their chance and starting their careers abroad, is there not a real danger that Poland could be suffering a brain drain? Katinka Barysch, from the Centre for European Reform, argues that the effect of joining the EU for many eastern European countries may be that they "lose their best and brightest". In particular, there has been a drain of Poland's IT professionals, as the rest of Europe has woken up to the fact that Poland has some of the most highly skilled computer specialists in the world. But not all are leaving. As Warsaw develops as a major "Western" business centre, young Poles seem to be as likely to find high-end professional employment in their own capital as abroad.

Krystov Mlynarz, a 25-year-old commercial banker, is one. He is sitting in a chic bar, close to where he works for the BRE Bank near Warsaw's rebuilt Old Town. He is happy to stay, even though he has had offers from the UK. "Perhaps I would only leave for £40,000. It's not like we're making huge money, but I like my life here. People from Warsaw, like me and my friends, we do OK. We are enjoying life. I don't want to join the rat race in the UK - it would not suit me."

What Krystov stresses repeatedly is that geography is the key to understanding Polish emigration. So, while there is a small but significant percentage of highly educated executive workers moving abroad from the big cities of Warsaw and Krakow, the biggest numbers of emigrazya come from the countryside. "If you go to a small town in the east of Poland", says Krystov, "you see a totally different world. Unemployment is reaching 30 per cent in rural Poland. So, for someone with no prospects, working in London sounds great. You might make £6-£8 an hour. That's never, ever going to happen here."

And so it is the catering or construction trade workers, who have a mixed range of skills and a huge desire to work hard, who leave for the UK. Professor Kolanciewicz, director of the School for Eastern European and Slavonic Studies at University College London, explains the rural migration: "In Poland, there are villages where 50 per cent of the workforce are abroad, and remitting money. Migration of that kind is absolutely essential. Professor Kolanciewicz sees the openness of Poland's new relationship with the UK as mutually beneficial. "I think high unemployment is corrosive in the long term. So for the time being, allowing these people to travel abroad is a very important safety valve."

What is emerging from talking to people from a wide range of backgrounds, is that almost all of the UK emigrazya are young. Home Office statistics seem to back this up - 83 per cent of new arrivals in the UK are aged 18 to 34. It seems that the older generation of Poles who grew up under Communism are far less likely to go abroad. "Of course, you're not going to travel", explains Katinka Barysch. "You're older, you have a family, you don't speak the language. It's hard."

And the young people who are considering travelling to the UK fall naturally fall into three categories. Some are desperate and disenfranchised by the high unemployment, some are well-qualified who see a move to the UK as a step in their career. And somewhere in between is a third group - the highly qualified graduates with limited job prospects. It is this group, much more than the unskilled unemployed, who have most to gain from moving to the UK. Consequently, Britain is attracting many more of this highly desirable demographic than any other.

Bartlomiej Bankowski, who as a junior lecturer at a private university describes his wages as "ridiculous" (about £325 per month), knows many academic colleagues who have been forced abroad. "There is massive unemployment just after graduating for many people. Many people with good degrees from good universities are moving abroad to do child care or something relatively low salary in the US or the UK. I have a friend with a PhD who works as a waiter in America. And why not? You're young, you're ambitious, you speak English. Maybe, after one month you get a promotion, or you find another job which is better. You can earn three or four times the salary here."

Manciewicz recognises this problem. "There has been an enormous expansion in higher education, and especially in private education. It's flooded the market with people who want to do management and economics with big companies. So what has happened is that opportunities have not kept pace with the production of graduates. We're producing undergraduates who have very high expectations of what they can gain with their degrees."

Back at Tesco, there is ample evidence of this unfulfilled ambition. Rodoslaw Juszko, 23, works in the electrical goods department but is also finishing his degree in ecology at a private university in Warsaw. "I am frustrated because many people like me study what they are interested in, and then there are no jobs for those graduates in their field. It's really depressing."

And so graduates and non-graduates alike take their chances in the UK. But what happens when they arrive? Many are happy to take minimum-wage employment in whatever job they can get their hands on. For those who do not speak English, the move can be a traumatic experience. And even though Poles can earn much more than they would have done at home, the cost of living is correspondingly high. At the bottom end of the labour market, life can be extremely tough for the new arrivals, particularly those seeking work in London. Walk around Victoria at night and you will see Poles sleeping on what they call "English mattresses" - cardboard boxes.

Of course, you can exist and even thrive on the low wages that many Poles are paid in the UK. Bartosz Gesicki, a 20-year-old student, did just that. He worked in a Stoke porcelain factory for two months last summer, earning £4.85 an hour, and living in accommodation provided by the factory that he shared with other Poles. "It was really hard work. But I will go back again this summer. Maybe to London."

Bartosz, a prime example of the "Boomerang Poles" who travel to the UK and return three months later having earned some money, typifies the attitude of most Poles in Britain. No one wants to return to Poland having failed to make the most of their chance. As Manciewicz explains: "If you claim benefit you show that you have failed. Everyone wants to show that they are a success. It is the major impetus for working hard."

The decision to move abroad is never easy, and it is made more complex by the importance that Poles place on the family, and by the naked patriotism which most Poles express. But "everyone in Poland", says Mlynarz, "asks themself one question. What do I have here? What could I have in the UK?"