A New Life for Ukrainian Migrants

A New Life for Ukrainian Migrants

Every dawn there is a fresh exodus from Lutsk. At 05:30 the first bus leaves for Lublin. Half an hour beforehand the station is already filled by an unruly mob, frantic to get a ticket. The day begins thus and so continues until nightfall. A fleet of 13 buses and about 700 people leave this frontier town of western Ukraine for Poland every day.

They have 230 kilometres and six hours in which to find a job and a place to stay. You see them chatting, swapping information. Many already have friends and family waiting for them across the border. Others start on an adventure, at worst they can fall back on working in the fields. Now it is harvest time for apples, at the station in Lublin, there is always someone looking for workers.

Within a couple of hours Yulyia, 25, finds a job as a cashier at the Biedronka supermarket, almost a compulsory step for Ukrainian migrants. Yulyia has a degree in economics and speaks perfect English and Russian. Yet, in a Ukraine riven by nepotism and corruption, the only option is to leave, especially if, like Yulyia, you have a good level of education and a bit of talent but a lack of ‘connections’ to help you.

“Everything changed with the war,” says Yulyia. “Before, people emigrated to Russia. Some people from our area went to Poland because it is closer, but generally it was not a common destination.” The war in the Donbass region has therefore changed the direction of emigration. A significant wave of migrants fled westward, mostly to Poland.

As in all of Eastern Europe, labour is scarce there too. Since joining the EU in 2004, two million Poles have moved to Western European countries. Meanwhile, the economy has continued to prosper, to such an extent that Poland did not go into recession even when the financial crisis hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

To support this level of productivity, however, you need a workforce: in 2017 alone, 683 thousand residency permits were issued in Poland, 68% of which to Ukrainian citizens. This is a record in Europe – no country has ever before granted so many in a year, not even Germany or France. According to a rough estimate, there are about two million Ukrainians in Poland. This is the paradox of Polish nationalism: railing against immigration and yet not being able to do without it.

Lublin is the first leg of the journey for many Ukrainians, and often it is also the last. At the station, the bus stops are plastered with job adverts in Russian or Ukrainian. Particularly the Ukrainians from near the border, or those who are employed in seasonal jobs, remain here in the largest urban centre in eastern Poland. Three months in Poland equals one full year’s salary in Ukraine.

Dozens of people silently wait for their turn at the counter where residency permits are issued. It is a nerve-racking process that can drag on for months. At least eight if you’re lucky, but in the capital you can wait up to two years for a scrap of paper to make your status official. Iryna smiles a bitter smile, saying, “If only the problem were just the bureaucracy.” Originally from Kovel, a Ukrainian border town, Iryna, 24, moved to Lublin a year ago. At first she worked as a waitress in a restaurant. “I found it through someone well known here in Lublin, a kind of intermediary. I worked ten hours a day for three euros an hour. The hardest thing was to find a job with a formal contract.” Black market labour is such a widespread problem that it also makes the statistics for the Ukrainian population in Poland unreliable.

For example, in Lublin, there are less than three thousand registered Ukrainians, but according to marketing surveys carried out by the Polish telephone company Selectivv, there are at least 26 thousand.

By now Iryna has been officially hired as a sales representative in a services company, yet is paid less than her Polish colleagues. “Employers know that many Ukrainians are forced to emigrate, and they take advantage of it to violate our rights while making extra profit,” explains Vitaly Makhinko, president of the Ukrainian trade union Pracownicza Solidarnosc. “State bodies pretend not to notice. Furthermore, in Ukraine no policy protects the interests of its citizens overseas, so migrants are left to fend for themselves.”

Yet, according to Mr Makhinko, the living and working conditions of Ukrainians are slightly improving. “There is,” the trade unionist continues, “greater competition in the labour market, which is forcing employers to change and offer workers better contractual conditions. In the last five years, Ukrainians have gained professional experience and this increases their market value.”

Then, there is another factor driving both employers and the Polish government to improve treatment of Ukrainian migrants: growing demand from Germany for Ukrainian labour. “As soon as Berlin opens its borders, many Ukrainians working in Poland will move there, with the consequence that over time Poland will lose a large number. If Poland is now in second place (after Russia) in terms of the number of Ukrainian workers, in a few years it will be fourth. According to our forecasts,” Mr Makhinko concludes, “Russia will remain in first place, Germany will be second, Italy third, and Poland fourth.”

In the Lublin typography museum, Andrey wanders among the dusty volumes and then moves to magazines and film fragments that were circulated clandestinely in socialist Poland between 1976 and 1989. “This,” he explains, “is the mimeograph used to print the first issue of the underground magazine Zapis. It was also thanks to these publications that Solidarnosc [trade union] was born.”

Andrey, 33, has been working at the museum for a few years. From Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, he moved to Lublin to study international relations. A few short term jobs as an interpreter, then, after graduating, Andrey began the search for a permanent job. “It wasn’t easy. Ukrainians work in the fields, in supermarkets, at building sites, in restaurants. Finding a professional job is almost impossible around here. In some adverts, they explicitly say, “Polish citizenship required”. Even today, when I tell people I work in a museum, I can see the surprise in their eyes. To improve the situation we should first change immigration policy in Poland.”

Since he emigrated to Poland, Andrey has seen a growing sense of hostility towards Ukrainians. Here it has not taken much to bring old ill-feeling back to life, for example with the establishment of the memorial day on 11 July to commemorate the massacre of Volhynia, during which tens of thousands of Poles were killed at the hands of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This skewed memorial omits Polish responsibilities and forgets the Ukrainian victims.

“There has been a change of mentality in Poland. Before, the people I met were more friendly. Now there is a lot of aggression, both on television and in the street. They shout anything and everything at you: killer, we don’t want you here. I have realised that to stay here I also have to be more radical, to be selective about who I spend time with. Otherwise,” concludes Andrey, “all that remains is to leave – after all, Poland is not the only place to live.”