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Polish key workers feel unwelcome in the UK thanks to Brexit plus COVID

How Brexit and COVID sharpened imagined borders within workplaces

Kasia Narkowicz Aneta Piekut
16 November 2022, 6.30am

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Across the post-Brexit and post-lockdown UK, attitudes towards Eastern European migrant workers are changing. The wish to limit immigration more tightly may have motivated many Leave voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum, but the country is now seriously short of people who will work for the wages on offer. Unfortunately, it may struggle to attract workers from abroad to fill the gap.

This, at least, is what Polish ‘key workers’ in the UK have told us. And the detail of their responses contains important insights for British policymakers, businesses and indeed ordinary people.

During the height of the COVID pandemic, migrants were essential to the British economy – as to many others across Europe. They worked in healthcare, in the food and transport sectors, and, importantly, did seasonal work. As British people stood in their doorways to ‘clap for carers’, many of those migrant workers were flying in from Central and Eastern Europe, continuing to cross borders that were closed off for most people.

Today the UK has severe labour shortages – at least, shortages of people willing to take the jobs and pay on offer – particularly across the ‘essential’ work sectors. For example, the number of vacant posts in the care sector increased by 52% in 2021-22 and reached 165,000.

Despite this, the government continues to express anti-immigrant sentiments. At the same time, however, there is a growing consensus that the UK needs migrants after all to boost the economy, especially as the country is heading into recession.

This might prove challenging, at least when it comes to attracting workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Migration from the EU has been declining in recent years, with large numbers of people leaving the country.

The overall sense of belonging to the UK, of feeling welcomed and at home, diminished following the pandemic

For example, around the time of the Brexit vote, in 2016-17, the UK Office for National Statistics estimated that there were about a million Polish nationals living in the UK. The number has been shrinking since then, down to about 700,000 in 2021. While we do not know what proportion of Polish migrants worked in ‘essential’ occupations, it is believed that one in ten essential workers is not a British national, and 18% were born abroad.

So why are Polish migrants leaving? For the past two years we have studied the impact of the COVID pandemic on Polish essential workers in the UK. We conducted a large-scale web survey with 1,105 such workers and a comprehensive qualitative study with 50 workers and support organisations. Our study found that those who worked to keep the British economy going during the pandemic suffered significantly in terms of their health, financial situation, family and general wellbeing. Of those working in education and childcare, 63% reported that their wellbeing deteriorated during the pandemic; 52% in utility services said they were worse off financially. These figures are higher than those for the general population.

The overall sense of belonging to the UK, of feeling welcomed and at home, diminished following the pandemic. This led many of our participants to debate whether to stay or go back to Poland: only 66% of our survey respondents declared that they wanted to stay in the UK, with 13% planning to leave and 20% unsure. In interviews, many talked about feeling discriminated against and unwanted.

In one case, we heard reports about tensions in a small British town where many Central and Eastern Europeans were employed in a factory. Following COVID outbreaks the local population started avoiding these workers, complaining that they were not following pandemic restrictions. This made the essential workers, who often worked and lived in unsafe conditions, feel excluded and created false divisions between those seen as rule-followers (the local population) and rule-breaking ‘outsiders’ (the migrant workers).

Our interviews also revealed that in many cases the decision to leave was solidified during the pandemic but had been brewing since Brexit. It was back in 2016 when many Central and Eastern European migrants first realised that their position in the UK was more precarious than they previously assumed. They had thought that the majority-white British population saw them as hard-working and desired ‘fellow white Europeans’, but no longer felt at all sure of this.

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When the pandemic hit and essential workers were called on to continue working, often in unsafe, overcrowded, low-paid and insecure jobs, many of the Polish migrant workforce found themselves suffering from their status as both essential workers and Eastern Europeans. Around 28% of our survey respondents reported feeling discriminated against at the workplace.

The feeling was more pronounced for Poles employed in health and care sectors. Specifically, 37% of those working in the health and care sectors felt more often than Poles in other sectors that they were not treated equally because they were migrant workers from Poland. They were also less comfortable speaking Polish with work colleagues.

After years of hostile policies towards migrant workers in the UK followed by Brexit and then the pandemic, coupled with Polish government efforts to attract its citizens to return, many Poles in the UK have made the decision to go back home for good.

Our findings echo other studies that make links between racialisation and class position: Polish essential workers experience discrimination because they stand at the intersection of being Eastern European and working as an essential worker. Despite token gestures of appreciation to essential workers during the pandemic crisis, Polish migrants who kept the economy going during the pandemic felt undervalued and rejected. COVID sharpened imagined borders within workplaces that Brexit initially created for the Poles, making them reconsider their lives in the UK.

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