Thursday, July 26, 2007

Polish Plumbers Apply Here!

The Polish plumber was the bogeyman of European politics for the two years that the Services Directive was going through co-decision in the EU institutions, coinciding with the accession of Poland and seven other former Communist Bloc countries - perhaps not quite a hate figure, but certainly feared as the symbol of Eastern European workers coming to Western Europe to "take our jobs", working for East European wages. The Polish tourist board outflanked French trade unionists by using humour and publishing the now-famous poster of a hunky, wrench-toting, pipe-wielding Polish plumber addressing French lady tourists saying, "Je reste en Pologne. Venez nombreux!"

At the time, the argument went something like this: Polish plumbers will come in large numbers to "old" EU countries like France and Germany, will price local competitors out of the market, and will not contribute a penny to local taxes. This has all been proved to be nonsense by the UK and Ireland, which have no successfully hosted several hundred thousand Polish workers (not just plumbers), of whom the overwhelming majority pay taxes and fill labour shortages. Most EU Member States took advantage of a "phase-in period" for the freedom of movement for workers from the new Member States, and have seen very limited immigration. Germany and Austria retain these controls. What immigration there has been there seems to be part of the grey economy, with the workers legally present in the countries, but working illegally.

And now we have the German government acknowledging a skills shortage in Germany, and calling for immigration from the East to be made easier. Great! Let's all gloat at the Germans and say how pleased we all are that they were wrong. And wrong they undoubtedly were. But is it really that simple?

Now, I'm not an economist, but I know for a fact that Poland is facing severe shortages of skilled construction workers, and yes, plumbers! Word is, you can't get hold of a decent plumber anymore, because all the best, most enterprising ones, have moved West. Can it really be that good for Poland to lose large numbers of its best and brightest? Sure, it makes the government's drive to cut unemployment much easier - the stats are good even taking into account the fact that many who are working abroad are claiming unemployment benefits at home.

There seems to be a consensus that most of the emigration is temporary, that workers are sending money home and will return when the Polish economy begins to catch up. That may be the case, but in the meantime, Poland and some of the other new Member States are making do with shortages of their own.

Shouldn't this really be about addressing the need for better education and training in all EU countries, rather than moving skilled workers from low-wage countries to high-wage countries? Isn't the issue here that all EU countries need these workers, and aren't we making a mistake if we seek to solve the problem only through labour mobility?

Don't get me wrong - I am not in favour of closing the borders. But I don't see governments addressing this in a way that is sustainable for Europe - the German government has little interest in what's happening in Poland; it wants to find the easiest way to fix the skills shortage. Shouldn't policy be more consistently directed at addressing the underlying structural problem?

I don't know. Maybe national governments are taking this seriously and are doing lots to increase the skills of the local labour force, and the media aren't reporting on it. But I have my doubts.

I have a confession to make: I have used a Polish plumber, a Polish handyman, and a Polish-owned Belgian construction company here in Brussels. They are competitive on price, especially for the small jobs, and they do good work. By contrast, my experiences with Belgian plumbers have invariably been negative: rude, incompetent, late, untidy, and expensive. The Poles are "incontournable" in Brussels, but I expect the locals still rule the roost outside the big city.

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