‘Polish plumber’: you’ll miss him when he’s gone

News of migrants leaving recession-hit Britain has caused panic, even amongst those who didn’t welcome them when they first arrived.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Politics

According to the saying, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. So it seems to be with Eastern European immigrants, who, it has been reported this week, have abandoned recession-hit Britain in droves over the past year.

Just as the era of cheap credit is now but a bittersweet memory, so is the era of cheap migrant labour. ‘Who’, some are asking, ‘will build our Olympic stadiums? Do our plumbing? Take care of the elderly, pick our berries, package our food? And all for relatively low wages?’ The sense of crisis over whether Eastern European immigrants will stay in Britain or flee, with some hoping that they remain and others praying that they go, shines a light on today’s confused and illiberal attitudes to migration.

In May last year, a study by the British think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), suggested that around half of the one million Eastern European migrant workers who had arrived in the UK since 2004 – when many nations in Eastern Europe joined the European Union (EU) – had already left the country (1).

At the same time, the rate of migration into the UK was slowing. This trend appears to have continued: last month a government report said migration to Britain slowed through 2008 and ‘is likely to fall further during the economic downturn’. The number of migrants from the ‘A8’ nations – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – is ‘the most likely to decline further owing to decreasing wage differentials and a less attractive exchange rate’, the report predicts (2).

Back in 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden granted workers from the A8 full access to their labour markets following their accession to the EU. Romanians and Bulgarians, however, fell foul of increased scaremongering and labour-market protectionism when they joined the EU in 2007, and faced tough conditions on their movement across Europe.

The 2009 UK Annual Population Survey showed that the number of foreign-born residents in Britain rose by 21 per cent between 2004 and 2007, from 5.2million to 6.3million. Much of the increase came from residents of the A8 countries, primarily Poland, which is now the third most common country of birth for immigrants living in Britain, after India and the Republic of Ireland (3).

But now, as other EU member states have gradually loosened their restrictions on workers from the A8 nations, and as the pound has weakened in relation to foreign currencies, Britain looks less attractive to Eastern Europeans. Others are reportedly leaving Britain simply because they are homesick or only ever intended to stay for a short while anyway, to earn some money or to learn English and experience a foreign culture (4).

Since the A8’s accession there has been a steady stream of moral panics, tabloid scares, broadsheet tirades and polite-society mutterings about Eastern Europeans depressing wages and marginalising British workers, kidnapping women and turning them into sex slaves, spreading sexually transmitted diseases, boosting cashpoint robbery statistics, and harbouring racist, 1950s-style attitudes towards black people.


Polish tourist board poster

‘The Polish plumber’ – a phrase coined in 2005 by the French nationalist and Eurosceptic Philipe de Villiers of the Mouvement pour la France – became a symbol of cheap migrant labour. De Villiers saw le plombier polonais as a menacing force, threatening the wages and job security of domestic workers (he later added ‘the Latvian mason’ and ‘the Estonian gardener’ to his collection of migrant bogeymen). The Polish tourist board responded by publishing an ad in France that featured a hunky blond wearing a tight t-shirt and clasping plumbers’ tools under the words: ‘Je reste on Pologne. Venez nombreux’ – ‘I’m staying in Poland. Do come over’ (5). ‘The Polish plumber’ haunted the imagination of some anti-immigration activists in Britain, too.

And yet, when news started to spread in Britain that the tides of Eastern European migration were turning, there was also a palpable sense of regret. A curious nostalgia emerged for a recently bygone era of economic boom: a time when we could afford such luxuries as reliable, value-for-money labourers; when Polish plumbers, nannies, builders and gardeners were abundant. Sections of the middle classes started wondering how they would cope (6). In the Daily Telegraph, Harry de Quetteville said ‘Britain’s Polish workers are heading home in search of a better life – and it’s our loss’ (7).

Others pointed out that the end of the great east-west migration would not only affect affluent urbanites. The IPPR argued that ‘if the tide of East European migration turns dramatically, many critical sectors of the British economy, especially in rural areas, are likely to feel the pinch… After four years of debating whether too many migrants have arrived from the new EU member states, we may soon be asking what the UK can do to attract more workers from Eastern Europe and beyond.’ (8)

Of course, not everyone felt nostalgic. When Phil Woolas was appointed UK immigration minister in October 2008, he announced that rising unemployment in Britain rendered the question of immigration ‘extremely thorny’. Last month’s government report showing a slowdown in net migration inflows to the UK due to the downturn also warned that ‘this does not mean that migrants already living and working in the UK are likely to leave… Stocks of migrants coming from the A8 countries living in the UK may increase over time but potentially at a slower rate than previously anticipated.’ (9)

These predictions are based on preliminary research carried out by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, due to be published later this month, yet which has already got the London Evening Standard declaring that: ‘The number of Eastern Europeans living in Britain will continue to rise despite ministerial claims that the recession will lead to many returning home…’ (10) In January, when the Federation of Poles in Great Britain asserted that recent press reports of Polish workers abandoning the UK were greatly exaggerated, the Daily Mail announced: ‘Half a million Poles to stay in Britain despite credit crunch.’ (11)

This is a peculiar glass-half-empty/glass-half-full scenario. When it appeared that half of the one million Eastern European migrants in Britain (or ‘Poles’ as some like to refer to them in shorthand) were leaving, the ‘great east-west migration’ was hailed as a success story – ‘they came, they fixed the plumbing, they left’. Yet then, the realisation that half a million might remain got the scaremongering going again: ‘Now they’re stealing jobs that are increasingly scarce.’

For many, the case of ‘the Polish plumber’ was a success story only so long as they believed that Eastern Europeans would eventually go back to where they came from. Even Jan Mokrzycki, president of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, said last week that ‘there is no need to look at migration as something negative – as long as it’s not permanent’ (12).

Once again, Britain’s own internal insecurities and dearth of vision are being projected on to migrants. In the nostalgia for that time when ‘Poles fixed everything’, middle-class commentators look back wistfully to what they imagine was a pre-recession era of stability and plenty (when in truth things were already in decline); and in the frontpage spectre of ‘half a million Easterners staying in Britain!’ we can glimpse the idea that the presence of migrants will somehow make the recession worse, especially for Britain’s domestic workers. What we really need is less simplistic loving/blaming heaped on to ‘the Poles’, and more acceptance of the idea that open borders and absolute flexibility are the only solution in the migration debate: it is these things that grant people the ability to move according to their needs and the needs of nations, whether those needs are based on economics, personal aspirations or leaking pipes.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) Migrants feeling the pull of home?, IPPR, 2 May 2008

(2) Managing the Impacts of Migration: Improvements and Innovations, (PDF), Communities and Local Government, 19 March 2009

(3) Immigrant population rose by 21% in just four years, official figures show, the Telegraph, 26 March 2009

(4) A turning tide?, Economist, 26 June 2008

(5) ‘Polish plumber’ beckons French, 21 June 2005, BBC News

(6) Goodbye Polish nannies, we’ll miss you, Evening Standard, 3 February 2009

(7) Polish immigrants leaving Britain: What the Poles did for us, the Telegraph, 23 October 2008

(8) Migrants feeling the pull of home?, IPPR, 2 May 2008

(9) Managing the Impacts of Migration: Improvements and Innovations, (PDF), Communities and Local Government, 19 March 2009

(10) East European immigrants ‘will stay in UK despite crunch’, Evening Standard, 6 April 2009

(11) Half a million Poles to stay in Britain despite credit crunch, Daily Mail, 29 January 2009

(12) Our man in London, Krakow Post, 2 April 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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