'Brain Drain', 'Brain Gain' or 'Brain Waste': East-West Migration after Enlargement

Polish migrant newspaper "Polska Gazeta"
Teaser Bild Untertitel
Polish migrant newspaper "Polska Gazeta"

by Jane Hardy

The 2004 enlargement of the European Union put in place the conditions for one of the largest movements of labour in post-war Europe. An indication of the scale of this migration is that in December 2003 40,000 passengers flew between British airports and Warsaw and Krakow in Poland. By December 2007, it was possible to fly from 22 UK airports to ten Polish cities and passenger numbers were almost 385,000. The origins and destinations of migrants, however, have been differential between countries. While the response of some countries in the ‘old’ Europe was to put transitional arrangements in place which limited access to their labour markets, the propensity for emigration from countries in the ‘new’ Europe has varied considerably.

The focus of this article is to examine the impacts and implications of migration from Poland as the largest sender country, and the UK as the largest receiver country with particular reference to highly skilled workers (1). Fears from sender countries that better opportunities and higher salaries in receiver countries would bring about an exodus of highly skilled and qualified people have seen parallel, and somewhat paradoxical, claims from receiver countries that migrant workers are vital for filling low skilled labour shortages. From the perspective of the EU as a whole there are important implications. First, there are issues to do with equal access to employment in general and the mobility of highly skilled labour, in particular. Second, there is the wider issue of ‘brain waste’ in the form of highly qualified and skilled workers working below their potential. This is particularly salient in the context of the espoused EU aspiration towards a knowledge based economy and the Lisbon Agenda.

The paper begins by looking at the main trends, features and drivers of migration European Union East-West migration. This is followed by a discussion of the nature of employment undertaken by migrant workers in relation to skills and qualifications. The following sections compare the impacts of migration in sender and receiver countries in terms of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain gain’. The next section explores barriers to the employment of highly skilled workers from Central and Eastern Europe in the UK. Finally the paper discusses future prospects in the context of recession.

Main Features and Trends

Size and measurement
Recent estimates by Poland’s Central Statistical Office (CSO) put the number of Poles who have migrated for work at 2.21 million in 2008 with 650,000 being in the UK (Fihel et al, 2009). A report by Pollard et al (2008), however, suggests a higher figure estimating that the current population of A8 and A2 (2) national residents in the UK is 665,000. This is an increase of around 550,000 since early 2004. However, it is widely accepted that these figures are hard to gauge accurately as they tend to measure stocks rather than flows.


Table 1 clearly shows that the major destinations for A8 migrant workers are the UK, Germany and Ireland in that order.

Table 1: Destinations of A8 migrant workers

Source: Fihel et al. (2009:14)


The vast majority of Poles come for economic reasons, but leave because they miss home or want to be with family and friends in Poland. However, this migration is not purely an economic phenomenon, other reasons for migration include learning English, starting a business or living in a more socially liberal society.


Three quarters of A8 and A2 residents are 16 to 39 and the majority of these, (approximately 52 per cent) are in the 20-30 age group. About 40 per cent are female

Geographical distribution

The distribution of post-enlargement migrants around the UK differs from that of other migrant groups. A8/A2 nationals of working age have gone to parts of the country that have not previously attracted immigrants. This is evident in regional or district reports that have been commissioned and produced on A8 migration from all parts of the UK.

Circular migration

Rather than the move and settle pattern of previous migrations, the post-2004 migration is much more circulatory. Migrants may return home for short periods of time and accommodation and even employment may be shared at times.


The drivers of post-accession migration have been interrelated economic factors and political and institutional responses. Table 2 gives some economic indicators of the main sender and receiver countries on the eve of accession.

Table 2 GDP per capita and unemployment for selected countries, 2004

Source: Eurostat

Polish GDP per capita was significantly lower than that of economies which it is often compared to. Such as Hungary and the Czech Republic and Poland is much closer to Latvia and Lithuania. Further, the unemployment rate for Poland in the same year was not only the highest of the countries selected for comparison, but the highest for the whole of the European Union (Eurostat).

Economic motivations are reflected in spatial patterns of emigration from Poland, where 67 per cent of post-accession migration is from rural areas and small towns and mainly from Southern and Eastern Poland (Fihel et al, 2009). Further, unemployment was disproportionately high among young people. Pawel gave an illustration of difficulties that young people who are job-hunting face. He was invited to a hotel to have an interview to work for Ryanair and found two hundred others, who almost without exception had Undergraduate or Masters degrees.

The UK and Ireland, on the other hand, have been deemed to be among the most successful economies in Europe with high rates of growth (until the crisis and onset of recession). Ireland has been the beneficiary of significant EU structural funding and the recipient of large amounts of investment by global IT companies. The UK’s economic success, until the end of 2008 at least, was attributed to the financial services sector, and in particular to the role played by the City in global finance. High income lifestyles of a layer of professionals in the workforce has stimulated an increased demand for low wage service sector jobs in hotels, restaurants and gyms and sometimes as domestic labour in the core European cities such as London and Dublin.

Uneven economic development, however, has an even more complex dimension that extends beyond the European Union. Rather than seeing migration as bilateral, the relationship between Poland and the UK should be viewed as one (important) link in a chain of migration. Workers from post-communist countries, bordering on the EU, such as Belarus and Ukraine have sought jobs in Latvia and Poland.

Jobs and skills: Brain Waste?

The overall picture is one where highly qualified and skilled A8 migrants working in the UK are not working in occupations that are commensurate with their skills and level of education (Anderson, 2006; Currie, 2008). Table 3 shows that the top ten sectors in which migrants work are low skilled and low paid. For example, Currie estimates that 72 per cent of A8 migrants are in low skilled jobs where they earn between £4.50 and £5.99 an hour. The top category of ‘Administration, business and management’ is somewhat misleading and this reflects high numbers of migrants working for employment agencies where they could be deployed in any of the other sectors listed.

Table 3: Sectoral profile of A8 registered workers: Top ten occupations

Source: Border and Immigration Agency (2008)

This pattern is reproduced within sectors that offer some highly skilled work. Between 2004 and 2007 out of 715,000 registrations in the health service; 215 were registered as hospital consultants, 700 as hospital doctors, 310 as dental practitioners and 19,025 as care assistants (Home and Border Immigration Agency: 32-38 quoted in Currie, 2008: 69).

Apart from the ‘brain waste’ in employing people in jobs where they cannot use their skills, education and training, brain waste has also a deleterious effect on individuals as evidenced by the following two quotes.

Slovak male former au pair:

I am more and more nervous because of the fact that I am not able to get a job according to my education and skills and I still work manually which brings me down pretty much. Every day my mind is occupied by money! What is the fastest way to earn? I have no problem with manual work, but I would like to use my brains and skills to earn money.
(Anderson et al, 2006: 36)

Polish female hospitality worker:

It is a big physical effort, which definitely is not proportional to the payment. And in general this job is very dulling on a long term basis - burning one out intellectually I would say.
(Anderson et al, 2006: 36)

Deskilling is often a gendered aspect. Although female migrants are often more qualified than their male counterparts (Kofman 2000: 54 quoted in Currie, 2008), the increased tendency for women to be deskilled is exacerbated by the global shift towards a service economy. Women are often on the lowest level of the employment hierarchy and domestic work poses some specific issues. In this sphere deskilling is especially negative, exploitative and sometimes even dangerous because it takes place in the informal sphere where there is a lack of protection and lacking the enforcement of employment rights. Further, a much larger proportion of women than men have had more than one job (Anderson et al, 2006) suggesting that they are juggling several part-time jobs at the same time.

Impacts on receiver countries: Brain Gain?

Differing views on the impact of A8 migration on the UK labour market were evident in two reports by the UK government: One citing the support of the Institute of Directors and British Chambers of Commerce, a Home Office report argueing against the link between immigration to depressing wages or causing unemployment (Home Office Report, 2007). The government and employers organisations stating that immigration creates significant economic benefits for the UK. In a major speech on immigration in December 2007, the then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, spoke of ‘purity of the macroeconomic case for migration’ (House of Lords Report, 2008: 22) Making a similar point, the then Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, said that: there are obviously enormous benefits of immigration…There is a big positive impact on the economy which is worth £6 billion (ibid). Their arguments have been based on the analysis of economists such as Danny Blanchflower, who in a speech to the Bank of England concluded that:

The empirical literature from around the world suggests little or no evidence that immigrants have had a major impact on native labour markets outcomes such as wages and unemployment. Recent work by a number of other authors for the UK is also consistent with this view (Blanchflower et al, 2007)

The other, a House of Lords report (2008), takes a much more sceptical view, unconvinced that the economic impacts justify the additional costs associated with these new arrivals. Further, drawing on a study by Dustman et al (2007) it argues that immigration has a positive effect on the wages of higher paid workers, but lowers the wages for those in lower paid jobs. Against this negative view the Pollard et al (2009) point to the 84 per cent employment rate among post-enlargement migrants, which is 9 percentage points higher than the UK born average and the fact that A8 and A2 nationals work on average four hours longer per week than UK-born workers.

Therefore evidence on the impact of migrant workers on the UK labour market has been contradictory. While the UK government reports few adverse changes in levels of indigenous employment and wages due to A8 migration. The House of Lords report (2008) suggests that wage competition was evident among low skilled workers. Workplace studies show much more evidence of downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Reports have documented the way in which conditions of service have deteriorated as indigenous workers have been replaced by cheaper A8 workers in food processing plants in the Northern and Eastern regions of the UK (Fitzgerald, 2007). In contrast to a Home Office Report (2007: 18), which suggested that there had been wage growth in construction, the evidence from a TUC regional project suggested this was not the experience of migrant workers in this sector (Fitzgerald, 2006).

A report by Anderson et al (2006) suggests that employers were enthusiastic about being able to employ A8 workers and perceived the advantages of having highly skilled workers in low skilled jobs. One farmer said:

They pick things up very quickly, because they are already university students (ibid: 72)

Beyond the general recruitment of labour to fill low skilled gaps in the economy there has been more strategic and targeted recruitment in other shortage areas of the labour market. One interviewee reported how a company recruiting bus drivers hired a hotel room in Warsaw and persuaded twenty bus drivers and one mechanic from the same garage to come and work in the UK. In the health sector dentists were recruited to fill long-standing vacancies for NHS dentists in parts of the UK. The then Immigration Minister said ‘This is a good example of accession state nationals providing scarce skills to the UK’ (Medical News Today, 2005). A number of specialist agencies have been established to recruit doctors from A8 countries to work the out-of-hours evening and weekend shifts that British GPs (General Practitioners) do not want to work (McLaughlin, 2005; Wright, 2008).

Impacts on sender countries: Brain Drain?

The labour market effects of post-accession migration in Poland were a decline in unemployment in the short run (the export of unemployment) and a rise in vacancies and upward pressure on wages in the medium term. From 2007 average salaries increased by 9 per cent, and in shortage areas the upward drift was greater, for example 15.7 per cent in construction (Fihel et al, 2009). The labour market effects differed by sector and by region and migration was perceived as a main contributor to changes from a ‘shortage of jobs’ to a ‘shortage of workers’.

While a state-of-the-art report by Fihel et al (2009) does not point to a ‘brain drain’, there is anecdotal evidence of tight labour markets in some major cities. In Wroclaw, for example, labour shortages at the LG electronics factory, meant that the management had recruit workers from a distance of 70 kilometres, while the City Council ran a campaign of trying to get migrants to return.

Although not supported by research there are strong perceptions of the impacts of migration from some sections of the population. It was suggested that while Polish taxes and resources had paid for the skills development and the education of young people, receiver countries benefited from their enhanced human capital.

One theme focused on concern for and anger at the exploitation of Polish migrant workers in other EU countries. This was echoed repeatedly by trade union interviewees, who complained that Poland was treated like a developing country and as a source of cheap labour. There was resentment at the poor treatment of Polish migrant workers in the UK where there was widespread evidence that many A10 migrant workers, although now working legally, were subject to exploitative practices in the workplace.

On a personal note I am fed up with hearing the stories of Poles being abused as guest workers. Just being the cheapest labour and being humiliated in so many cases (Officer from Solidarity’s International Office, Gdansk)

In Poland labour market shortages have attracted legal and illegal migrants from outside the EU to fill labour shortages, particularly in sectors such as construction. The recruitment of North Korean and Indian workers to fill these labour shortages in Poland presents a challenge to a country, which until recently has had very little inward migration (Solidarity, 2008). North Korean workers (under the surveillance of a representative of the North Korean government) have been employed in agriculture and the Gdańsk shipyards to fill labour shortages (Zaryn, 2006; Bricker, 2006; Demick, 2006; Chrzan & Kowalski, 2006).

However, post-accession migration has some positive labour market effects. One feature is that it is a ‘revolving door’ with extensive traffic between East and West Europe. For many young people it is temporary and aimed at gaining experience and earning money. Currie (2008) quotes Williams and Balaz (2004):

Migrant workers acquire financial capital, human capital, social capital and cultural capital from working abroad , but these have different values in the spheres of destination and origin.

Further, Currie reports from her interviews that returning migrants who had worked in low skilled jobs in the UK were able to gain employment in highly skilled jobs when they returned home. Therefore language proficiency and a wider cultural perspective were valued and the effects on the Polish economy in terms of human capital could be viewed as a flow of deferred benefits.

Barriers to highly skilled/ qualified work in the UK

This section identifies and explores some of the barriers to highly skilled workers from A8 and A2 economies securing highly skilled work appropriate to their education and qualifications.


Language proficiency may be viewed as a barrier to more skilled employment. In some cases this was an actual lack of language skills, but in other cases it was more to do with a lack of confidence on the part of the migrant worker, who would take low skilled work in order to develop their language proficiency. However, there were many migrant workers with exemplary language skills who were still unable to find work commensurate to their qualifications.

Overt discrimination by employers

Although Currie (2008) claims that there is ‘deeply embedded discrimination against foreign labour’ there is no systematic research that confirms or rejects the notion that employers have overtly discriminated against A8 workers who apply for skilled work.

In my view the following four factors are the most more salient for understanding the ‘exclusion’ or disproportionate under-representation of A8 in highly skilled/qualified employment.

Pressure to find work quickly

A8 workers are only legally resident when in work and registered on the Workers’ Registration Scheme. Further, an inability to access welfare benefits at the same time as incurring living costs put pressure on migrant workers to find work quickly. Employment is more likely to be found that is unskilled and where there are low barriers to entry.

Extensive formalised recruitment procedures

Recruitment into highly skilled work, particularly in the business sector, is subject to formalised, detailed and extensive human resource procedures. It is not uncommon for the selection process to have four stages of interviews and tests. Employment in low skilled sectors and working longer hours, means that there are barriers in applying for jobs and attending interviews.

Securing recognition of qualifications

There are problems in getting the qualifications of migrant workers recognised. Currie (2008) points out that ‘professional bodies which regulate professions in member states exercise a considerable degree of control over the process’ which she refers to as professional ‘gatekeeping’. She provides an interesting and detailed discussion of the institutional and legal problems involved in the mutual recognition of qualifications. Therefore she concludes that there is ineffective enforcement of mutual recognition at the level of the European Union.

‘Who you know’: the importance of networks

The importance of networks and cultural and social capital are important considerations in accessing work and highly skilled work in particular. A CV with relevant experience may be crucial to entering some forms of employment (for example, film and media). Relevant experience might be gained either through an internship or simply working for nothing. Securing an internship or work experience often requires financial support (from parents) and contacts in those industries which are have less open recruitment procedures. Even where there are transparent recruitment procedures it may be difficult to get the necessary experience to be considered a candidate for some employment.

Katya had a PhD and applied for numerous jobs in academia and NGOs without success. In order to be considered for a post in a business school in the higher education sector it was necessary to have some teaching experience. However, it was not possible to get teaching experience without a full-time or part-time teaching job. Eventually through contacts she had made on a research project she was able to get teaching experience as a Visiting Lecturer and extend her experience.

Therefore networks are important as they open up opportunities for some sections of indigenous workers, while restricting them for other sections of indigenous workers and migrant workers. It is interesting to note that some migrant workers have managed to gain skilled employment either through migrant communities (working on a Polish newspaper) or working with migrant communities (as translators or trade union organisers).

Future patterns and the impact of recession

In 2008 the UK press was full of stories about a mass exodus of Polish migrants (Morris, 2008). Further, Pollard et al (2008) question assumptions that those who have arrived are still here, that more will come and that many will stay permanently. They suggest that new arrivals will start to fall consistently, and the total stock remaining will constantly fall as migrants return home or go elsewhere. They estimate that out of the estimated 1 million A8 migrant workers who arrived between 2004 to 2008, around half of this figure have gone home. The Polish statistics indicate a much smaller rate of return, with only 40,000 Poles returning in 2008. Iglicka argues that recessions do influence the flow of outward migration, but do not stimulate return migration.

Fihel et al (2009) conclude that it is important ‘not to overestimate the role of world economic trends for future outflows and return migration to Poland’ as it depends on ‘a complex set of factors which remain unclear for both participants as well as observers of migratory phenomena’ (2009:22). This finding was in line with global trends that outward flows of migration had slowed down, but that there was no mass return ‘home’ (Awad, 2009).

In 2008 the Polish Statistical Office conducted a Labour Force Survey based on a study of the inflow and outflow of foreigners and return migrants (CSO 2008). These figures showed the number of returning migrants as being 60,000 in 2005 and then 213,000 in 2007. However, this was not attributed to the economic crisis and recession, but determined by the initial plans made by the migrants themselves. 38 per cent of migrants said that they had not planned to stay any longer and only 2 per cent gave favourable changes in the economic situation in Poland as a factor. Therefore it was argued that links between the economic crisis and migration from Poland are ambiguous.


As more European Union countries fully open their labour markets, cross border migration and labour mobility will remain an issue. A wide range of complex economic and institutional factors will determine future patterns. As long as economic inequality remains among countries there will be a motive for unskilled, skilled and highly skilled workers to seek better opportunities and salaries outside their home countries.

Clearly the trend of workers from the ‘new’ Europe filling low skilled jobs in the ‘old’ Europe does not fulfil the aspirations of individuals and is a waste of talent in the context of the wider European Union. While there is currently no substantial evidence to support the idea that there has been a ‘brain drain’ from Poland and other Central and Eastern European economies, mass outward migration does have wider economic, political and social ramifications.

The reduction of economic inequalities among member states and their regions is a long term project. However, two more immediate tasks may improve labour market mobility. First, an investigation of how mutual systems of recognising qualifications might operate more effectively could improve access to some professions for migrant workers. Second, it would be useful to conduct research into the existence of wider, formal and informal barriers to gaining entry to highly skilled employment in ‘old’ Europe.



(1) The A8 countries include; the Czech Republic, Poland, Hun-gary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These are the post-communist countries which joined the EU in May 2004. This has now expanded as Romania and Bulgaria joined in January 2006 referred to as A2 countries.

(2) The information is drawn from both primary and secondary sources. Two state-of-the-art sources are to be particularly recommended; Fihel et al, 2009 and Currie, 2008. Other in-formation is drawn from in-depth interviews undertaken with highly skilled workers from A8 countries (4 Polish and 1 Slova-kian). Some of the data was drawn from interviews conducted in Wroclaw in 2008.


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Jane Hardy is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Hertfordshire. She has published widely on restructuring the Polish economy, among them her book: Poland’s New Capitalism.