Migration of Polish nationals in the view of labour market restrictions

"Wet Paint"-sign from an Edinburgh office comes in four languages
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"Wet Paint"-sign from an Edinburgh office comes in four languages: English, French, German and Polish


by Agnieszka Fihel

After May 1st, 2004 it was rather impossible not to have noticed the increase in people’s mobility within the European Union. In fact, it seems that the main contribution of eight new EU member states – Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – was their demographic potential. Statistically younger than inhabitants of EU-15 countries, affected by profound structural difficulties on domestic labour markets, and finally, attracted by a considerably higher level of wages, Eastern Europeans flooded the West in a very short period of time after the EU enlargement.

The scale of the post-enlargement migration may resemble a modern invasion. Despite concerns shared by the EU-15, public opinion and governments, Eastern European migrants smoothly filled structural gaps in labour markets of the ‘old 15’ and, at least so far, did not pursue so-called ‘social benefit tourism’. To analyse those phenomena in detail, let me focus on post-enlargement migration of the most numerous group of Eastern Europeans that is of Polish nationals.

‘They were already there’

Though it may sound surprising, thousands of Polish nationals undertook labour migration into the EU15 countries long before the EU enlargement. Already in 1989 the number of Poles working abroad, mostly performing petty trade, trans-border smuggling of goods or occasional short-term employment, was estimated at 200,000. Later on the mobility of Polish nationals into the EU15 member states intensified thanks to the visa-free regime which allowed them to stay up to 3 months on the tourist visa. Berlin, Brussels, London, Rome and other Western metropolises witnessed flows of thousands of migrants undertaking irregular employment as cleaners, home carers, construction workers, and circulating every couple of months between the place of work abroad and place of residence in Poland.

Another labour flow, well known to the German reader, was taking place within the framework of intergovernmental agreements on seasonal employment. Every year hundreds of thousands of migrants from Eastern Europe circulated to Germany, France and Spain in order to work for several weeks in agriculture and the construction sector. In 2004 the scale of seasonal migration from Eastern Europe to Germany reached its peak involving as many as nearly 300,000 persons (see Fig.1), therein apparently 90% Polish nationals.

Due to those two migrational phenomena – irregular and seasonal employment – taking place already in the pre-accession period, migration networks, that is informal contacts between migrants and between migrants and employers in the receiving countries have already been established at the eve of 2004 EU enlargement.

Where did they go and why?

Let’s face the truth: Nobody can unequivocally tell how many Polish nationals undertook labour migration into the ‘old-15’ member states after the EU enlargement. How many of them stayed for good and how many circulated between Poland and the host country. However, the Central Statistical Office of Poland prepared reasonable estimates on the stocks of Polish nationals living abroad based on different data sources such as population census, labour force and statistics of main receiving countries. Those numbers render a real post-accession exodus:

Table 1: Polish citizens staying abroad for longer than 2 or 3 months (1) by destination country, estimates, in thous.

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(1) 2 months until 2006 and 3 months since 2007. Source: Central Statistical Office, 2008a.

Already at the moment of conducting the Population Census in May 2002 almost 790 thousand persons had been living abroad for longer than two months. This figure promptly increased to approximately one million by the end 2004, almost two million by the end of 2006 and almost 2.3 million by the end of 2007.

In-depth analysis of those estimates reveals that after the EU enlargement a radical change in mobility directions of Polish nationals took place. Germany, for centuries the main receiving country for Polish emigrants, was outpaced by the United Kingdom, which just in five years (2002-2007) experienced an increase of inhabitants of Polish nationality from 24 to 690 thousands. Ireland, which beside the United Kingdom and Sweden did not impose transitional agreements towards employment of nationals from the new member states, witnessed an increase from two to 200 thousands and became after the UK and Germany the third host for Polish migrants. Apart from these new directions of mobility, a significant rise in number of Polish migrants was observed also in Germany, a country that did introduce transitional agreements toward Polish workforce: from 300 thousand persons in 2002 to almost 500 thousand persons in 2007.

It must be underlined that an apparent increase in the number of Polish migrants took place in all ‘old-15’ member states, whether ‘open’ to Eastern European labourers or not, and also in other European countries such as Iceland and Norway. In other words, introducing or not introducing transitional agreements towards foreign labour force was not the most crucial factor determining directions of mobility. The case of Sweden shows that despite opening its labour market this country attracted less Polish workers than Austria or Norway, with the former introducing transitional agreements and the latter not being even a EU member state. Undoubtedly, liberalization of administrative rules referring not only to employment, but also to a right to residence, establishment, rendering services and so on, were responsible for the intensification of flows to all European countries. However, if not the policy regulations played the most significant role in shaping mobility directions of Polish migrants. What was it then?

It seems that it was the economic situation in each host country: growth of the national income that stimulated demand for low-paid unqualified work performed mostly by foreigners. Employment opportunities stimulated outflow from Poland much more than institutional or cultural factors. Furthermore was work the most frequent reason for leaving the home country, as declared by more than 90% Polish migrants in the Polish Labour Force Survey. As a consequence of a high labour demand and very low rates of unemployment, Ireland and the United Kingdom were capable of absorbing hundreds of thousands of labour migrants just in a few years. Moreover, as proved by economic analyses this massive inflow did not depress the wage levels, nor limited the employment opportunities of domestic workers in these receiving countries.

The youth’s migration

Today one may only speculate whether a massive inflow to Germany would have taken place and what impact it would have had on the German economy if this country had opened its labour market towards Polish migrants. And more interestingly, would the inflow from Poland to Germany have been elevated if this country had opened the labour market together with Ireland, Sweden and the United Kingdom? What would have happened if it had been only Germany who kept its labour market free of transitional agreements?

And, in this case, would Germany have won a battle for young well-educated Polish migrants, who finally moved to Ireland and the United Kingdom? In fact, it seems that institutional arrangements played a crucial role in shaping the directions of the mobility of highly-skilled migrants. Let us examine in detail socio-demographic structures of migrants heading to Germany and the United Kingdom.

It must be said that the post-enlargement outflow from Poland has diversified with regard to social groups that it constituted. Nevertheless, due to generalization certain different groups of migrants can be distinguished. In general, according to the Polish Labour Force Survey, the post-accession outflow from Poland was characterised by a high portion of young people: the percentage of those aged 20-34 was as high as 65.8%, and in the case of those going to the United Kingdom 81.2%. (see Table 2)

However, migrants heading for Germany were statistically older than any other group: only 50.3% was aged 20-34 and migrants’ mean age was 35.5, compared to 28.2 in the United Kingdom and 32.4 in all countries.

Table 2: Main demographic features of the Polish post-accession migrants (1) by destination country
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(1) Aged 15 and over who have been abroad for at least 2 months; 2period 1999-2003; 3period may 1st 2004-31st December 2006. Source: CMR Migrants’ Database, based on the Polish LFS.

In the pre-accession period the outflow from Poland was dominated by rather low-qualified persons, i.e. those who had acquired vocational, secondary vocational or primary level of education, whereas the share of University graduates has never exceeded 15%. This situation remained rather similar after May 1st, 2004 (Table 3) but the percentage of University graduates slightly increased to 16.5%, which resulted mostly from the intensification of the outflow to Ireland and the UK. Every fourth Polish migrant going to the latter graduated from a University. Again, this picture was radically different in Germany, with only 5.7% University graduates among Polish migrants and 78.9% persons with secondary vocational or lower level of education.

Table 3: The education structure of the Polish post-accession migrants (1), by destination country, in %
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1,2,3 see Notes in Table 2; 4 Including graduates of postsecondary schools. Source: CMR Migrants’ Database, based on the Polish LFS.

Groups of migrants going to Germany and the United Kingdom differed also with regard to the place of origin in Poland. The most common place of origin were rural areas (40.5%, Table 4), which should not be a surprise since every third Polish national is living in the countryside. However, the share of rural inhabitants was as high as 47% among those going to Germany against 31% among those choosing the UK. This was a direct consequence of differences in age and education distribution of migrants choosing those two destinations.

Table 4: Place of origin in Poland of the post-accession migrants (1), by destination country, in %
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1,2,3 see Notes in Table 2; Source: CMR Migrants’ Database, based on the Polish LFS

It seems that a lack of transitional restrictions in three ‘old-15’ member states activated pull factors determining labour migration, such as the possibility of acquiring financial and/or human capital. In general, those determinants are extremely important for young, well-educated persons, more often willing to face new challenges. This was the case of Polish migrants choosing the United Kingdom and Ireland. In contrast, those who migrated to Germany could only benefit from higher wage levels and, due to transitional agreements, were deprived of promotion opportunities. Therefore, Germany attracted Polish nationals less competitive, in a worse situation at the domestic labour market (that is to a higher degree at risk of being unemployed), for whom migration was only a way of acquiring financial capital.

The differences between migrants going to Germany and the United Kingdom did not necessarily translate into differences in employment distribution abroad. In fact, in both countries Polish migrants performed only simple low-paid jobs. In the United Kingdom also those with University degree undertook jobs below their qualifications, with industry process operative, warehouse operative and packer being three of the most performed occupations. Moreover, Polish migrants in the United Kingdom earned, on average, the lowest wages from all foreign workers originating in European countries (Fihel, Kaczmarczyk, Wolfeil, Żylicz 2009).

Global crisis and possible returns

It is too early to state whether due to global financial crisis Poland will witness a massive wave of returns. According to the Central Statistical Office of Poland (2008b), from 2004 till the second quarter of 2008 580 thousand Polish nationals returned to Poland, which would make up to approximately a quarter of the number of Polish emigrants at the end of 2007. They were statistically older and less-educated (with a high representation of those with vocational level of education) than those who decided to stay abroad. Presumably, returning migrants did not succeed in adapting to the international labour market and to social life abroad. In contrast, for those post-accession migrants who somehow succeeded in adaptation it was less beneficial to return, even in the period of economic slowdown as most of them have already been entitled to social benefits abroad. It seems that reversed migration will rather depend on the economic situation in the host countries than on the economic situation in Poland. Wage levels and the situation on the Polish labour market, though to the least extent in Europe affected by crisis, still remain unfavourable in comparison to the ‘old-15’ member states.

The International Labour Organization (Awad 2009) recently published a study on the impact of the global crisis on the employment of foreigners. In the case of new member states nationals the highest level of unemployment was observed in those countries where the main sector of employment was construction: Ireland and Spain. In the case of Polish migrants one could easily add Germany to this list. That most likely explains why the highest share of returns comes from Germany. According to the Labour Force Survey every third Polish returning migrant came from Germany. (Migrants going to Germany represented 23% of all emigrants.) Indeed, it is the labour demand in sectors devoted to foreign workers that will determine future migration paths of Polish migrants – whether they will return to the home-country or set out to another destination.



  • Ibrahim Awad (2009), The global economic crisis and migrant workers: Impact and response, International Labour Organization: Geneva
  • Central Statistical Office (2008a), Informacja o rozmiarach i kierunkach emigracji z Polski w latach 2004-2007, CSO: Warszawa.
  • Central Statistical Office of Poland (2008b), Informacja o badaniach zasobów imigracyjnych w Polsce w 2008 roku, CSO: Warszawa.
  • Fihel, Agnieszka, Paweł Kaczmarczyk, Nina Wolfeil, Anna Żylicz (2009), Brain drain, brain gain, brain waste, a report prepared for the European Comission as a part of research ‘Labour mobility within EU in the context of enlargement and the functioning of the transitional arrangements’.


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Dr. Agnieszka Fihel is a demographer pursuing her post-doctorate at the Institut national d’études démographiques (INED) in Paris. She is interested in mobility of the highly-skilled, labour migration to and from Poland.