For nearly four years, Britain's construction and hospitality industries have flourished thanks to the influx of an estimated one million Polish workers – but now Poland wants them back. The Warsaw government is so worried about a national labour shortage in the professions that it plans to advertise in the UK to encourage expatriate Poles to return to the country that many of them left after it joined the European Union.
According to Polish media reports, the adverts will soon appear in English and Polish-language newspapers in this country. They are part of a wider campaign by the newly elected government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who swept to power six months ago with a pledge to encourage migrant workers to return.
However, there is mounting evidence that many Poles are already heading back east, particularly because the current weakness of Britain's currency means they are getting fewer zlotys for their pounds.
Mr Tusk's administration has produced a brochure that it plans to give away with Polish newspapers and at the many Polish cultural centres across Britain. The Handbook for Re-Emigrants advises Poles how to find accommodation back home and apply for special loans.
After Poland joined the EU in May 2004, an estimated two million people – about 10 per cent of the population – left to find work, predominantly in Britain and Ireland. But while the British and Irish economies benefited from the influx of cheap and willing labour, Poland suffered acute staff shortages, particularly in the building and and hospitality trades.
Of major concern to Warsaw is the lack of skilled construction workers needed to build new football stadiums before the European championships in 2012, which Poland and the Ukraine will host jointly. The government estimates that up to 200,000 extra workers are needed to complete the multibillion-euro projects earmarked for the event.
In the past year, the Polish government has introduced a series of measures aimed at encouraging Poles to return. It has abolished a rule which meant migrant workers were liable to pay taxes both in Britain and at home. Mr Tusk's government also wants to grant a five-year amnesty to those who have failed to pay taxes in Poland while working abroad.
His opponents say this proposal is unconstitutional but, if approved, it will no doubt prove attractive to thousands of expats who have put off returning because they fear they will be receive a large tax bill when they arrive.
Estimating how many Poles return home each year is difficult because the government does not record the figure. However, many analysts believe that east European immigration to Britain may already have peaked. The numbers of east European migrants approved to work in Britain dropped from 227,875 in 2006 to 206,905 last year – a fall of nearly 10 per cent.
This may be because employment prospects in Poland have improved dramatically since it joined the EU. The current unemployment rate is 10 per cent – half what it was four years ago. Currency exchange rates may also have an effect on migration. When Poland entered the EU in 2004, £1 was worth seven zlotys; now it is worth only 4.2 zlotys.
Wojiech Pisasrki, a spokesman for the Polish embassy in London, believes there is evidence to suggest that the number of Poles coming to the UK may be the same as the number who are going home. "The process of leaving has already started," he said. "Immigration to Britain is not as attractive a prospect as it was a few years ago."
Jacek Winnicki, a Polish lawyer who has settled in London, said he doubted that an advertising campaign would encourage many of his countrymen to return.
"Work is just one of many factors behind why people chose to live where they do," he added. "I don't think an advert saying 'come back to Poland' will work, but I do think it will make Poles think and maybe a few will be tempted to leave."
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