The Queen’s servants

Article published on Dec. 1, 2006
Article published on Dec. 1, 2006
Since EU enlargement, more and more young Poles are trying their luck in Great Britain. They work as labourers, wait tables, and hope for a better career

In the staff section of the London Science Museum, a neatly dressed man of Pakistani origin is standing before a group of young Poles. He is giving out instructions: ties must be neatly in place, aprons below the knee, no earrings or necklaces, hair off the face. ‘You can only use the bathrooms with my permission. If I see anyone sneaking a bite to eat, they will be immediately sent home.’ Agnieszka glances at her polished shoes. Her friend Magda arrived five minutes late, and instead of receiving the expected overtime pay, was sent home at once. A well known London society figure is hosting a dinner for 300 guests in the stately main hall of the Museum - delays will not be tolerated.

Agnieszka is happy that she has been allocated the opening shift today. She will work until two o’clock in the morning. With the British minimum wage of £5.50 an hour, she can earn £49.50 in an evening. In Poland, that represents a quarter of the weekly wage for a teacher. Agnieszka Olszowka came to London a year and a half ago, after finishing her training in Wroclaw as an optician. To try and shake off her Polish accent, she worked for the Polish company, Silver Catering. Hard work and long shifts did not put her off. This is how her boss, Kamila, had also started out.

The incredible non-shrinking wage

Kamila Wiesniewska-Galka was crowned ‘Miss Poland 1998’. She travelled all over the world, drank her share of champagne, and earned a lot of money. In the same year, she graduated with a computer science degree. Three years later, Kamila followed her boyfriend to London. She worked as a server, working at awards ceremonies that she once herself would have graced. Today, it is the 30 year old herself who stands at the staff entrance, checking one of her three mobiles. She wears a purple and brown check tweed jacket over an orange turtleneck. Kamila has become a successful member of society and owns her own business. She settled in quite easily in the affluent London neighbourhood of south Hampstead.

A few of the almost 650 servers who work for her have had the privilege of serving at the Queen’s annual polo tournament. Two-thirds of Kamila’s employees are Polish, having come to her through friends and acquaintances or through Polish newspaper ads. No Brit would work so hard for £5.50 per hour. In the eyes of the Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks though, it is an incredibly high wage. This is something even the British government thought about two years ago.

Fear of the Polish invasion

When in May 2004, ten central and eastern European countries entered the European Union, the British seized the opportunity to claim cheap labour. As one of only three EU countries to do so, Great Britain offered the new EU citizens unrestricted access to its labour market. According to a migration report by the British government, by June 2006 almost half a million workers from the new EU member states had reported finding work in Great Britain. The British employers union estimates that at least 100,000 workers have made it into the work force without registration. According to government statistics, 82% of migrants are between the ages of 18 and 34.

The situation has become so intense, that every second officially registered migrant comes from Poland. Like most migrants, they work in factories, in warehouses, or as labourers. Indeed, it is they who serve Brits their morning cup of tea and their evening pint of beer. The expression ‘Polish waiter’ has almost set its mark in everyday language. Meanwhile, the tabloid press is already warning of a ‘Polish invasion’ of badly educated young eastern Europeans, who are set on making their fortunes in Great Britain.

Polish potential

In reality, the new migrants are hardly a burden on the social welfare system. On the contrary, the majority of Poles in Great Britain are well-educated. Many have a university degree and are not yet sure if and when they are going to go home. Dr. Olgierd Lalko, president of the Polish Culture and Social Club in Great Britain, understandably cannot stand hearing the term ‘Polish waiter.’ ‘This fear of foreign infiltration is ridiculous. There have been no problems to date with the Poles living here,’ he says.

Certainly a lot of Poles have come here because they can earn relatively good money as cheap labour. However, there is also a generation of migrants who were driven out by the Germans during the war, and at the end of the war came to Great Britain to build a new life.

Like Lalko, 31 year old Ania Lichtarowicz prefers a good brew to vodka. She studied at the well-regarded King’s College in London. Today, she is a senior reporter at the BBC. Ania belongs to a well-educated European elite – like many young Poles. A few want to try their hand at working for the European Commission at a later stage, whilst others dream of managing international companies, or working for the United Nations.

Back on home ground

What does Poland have to offer these young people? This is what many politicians in Warsaw are asking themselves. The Polish senator Ursula Gacek is advocating a legislative initiative to force young Polish migrants to come back. A few of her colleagues have even travelled to London to re-recruit well educated Poles to work in their constituencies. They were offering as much as £500 a week. However, no one has come back to Wroclaw.

It is no surprise that Kamila Wisniewska-Galka is not tempted by such peanuts. But that is not the main thing. She feels much more at home in Posnan than in England. ‘We Poles are so attached to the land we grew up with, we will all go back sooner or later.’ It would seem since EU accession, however, that there is no real sense of a life-long attachment to one’s own patch of land. But on the other hand, it’s a mistake to think that young Poles are going abroad just to serve the Queen of England – despite what the British tabloid press would like to think.