Friday, June 17, 2005

The Battle of Britain

It’s one year since Poland entered the EU. But the only countries where Poles could look for work without any restrictions at all were the UK and Ireland. So how have Polish job seekers got on?

One of the most successful reality-type TV shows in Poland since last May has been the intriguingly titled: Battle of Britain. The programme followed the fortunes of several young Poles who had taken the opportunity after Poland joined the EU to leave home and see if they could make a living in the UK.

Most said that they had encountered little discrimination there, and had found work in bars, restaurants, clubs or as au pairs. Many of them then lost jobs in bars, restaurants, clubs and as au pairs, only to later find other jobs in similar places.

Many of my friends in London have noticed an increase in the number of Poles living there. In fact, Londoners seem to be of the impression that all the new young workers in the pubs of London are in fact Polish. And they are half right. Fifty percent of workers who have entered Britain since the EU’s expansion have come from Poland. This is not surprising as out of the 80 million people who entered the European Union last year, 40 million of them were Poles.

So, whereas many of the bars and pubs of London used to be staffed by people from Sidney, Melbourne or Brisbane, they are now coming from Warsaw, Krakow or Gdansk.

Poles in London are the new Australians.

But Poles have also been filing posts in the professions too – most notably in dentistry. Around 200 Polish dentists, for example, are now working in the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, drilling and filing in British teeth for 50,000 pounds a year (that’s around 100,00 dollars). Which a large jump in salary. In Poland they get about a fifth of that amount.

And if George Orwell’s famous observation about English teeth is still correct, then they’ve got their work cut out.

The title of the Polish reality TV show I mentioned earlier, Battle of Britain, seems a strange choice. But what it is referring to is the fact that the last time a small wave of Poles hit the British coast was during the Second World War, when many of the finest pilots flying the spitfires and hurricanes in the RAF were Polish.

As newspaper reports at the time show, these dashing young Polish pilots were treated by British women as rock stars would be today.

But this positive attitude changed in the latter half of the war. The newspapers started to print negative stories about the Poles. This was mainly due to the fact that the British government was spending a lot of its energy trying to placate Stalin, who didn’t like the Polish government-in-exile in London.

But will the same happen this time? Will Brits tire of their new Polish friends?

There have been a few disturbing reports coming from loyalist, protestant areas in Northern Ireland. For instance, a group of Poles who had arrived over the Christmas period to work in a livestock stock factory in the Bushmills area of County Antrim were forced out of the area after receiving threatening phone calls from males claiming to be from loyalist groups.

And there have been other reports of attacks on Poles in these sorts of areas.

Some commentators have been trying to link these incidents with religious antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants.

But I think there is just a general breakdown in law and order in places like North Antrim. This is where some of my family are from. During the nineteen seventies and eighties – and if you exclude sectarian violence - crime was very low in places like Bushmills and other parts of NI. Working class communities basically policed themselves. If you got out of line then you could expect a visit from ‘the boys.’

But, ironically, since the Good Friday peace agreement was signed in the 1990’s, crime has risen in all areas of Northern Ireland. The tiny Muslim and Chinese populations there – around 10,000 at most, and who have lived there in peace for many years, have begun to experience attacks.

And violent crime against the indigenous population, along with housebreak-ins, and other sorts of crime, has risen as well.

So I don’t think that these attacks against Poles in Northern Ireland has anything to do with them being Polish or even being catholic. I just think they are in the right place at the wrong time.

There has also been a few strange articles in the British press about Poles. Since newspapers have found it hard to compete with the immediacy of the internet, radio and 24-hour TV news, they have all but given up writing news stories and filled more and more of their pages with opinion pieces.

One very highly paid columnist in the Times (London), Julie Burchill, wrote an article last year called, ‘Poles and Proles’. In it she stated that bringing in tens of thousands of eastern European workers to Britain, “robs those countries they leave of the young and the strong, and it robs [the working class] in the countries they go to of any pride they once had…” What chance have the British working class got, she goes on, “if east Europeans are willing to work for peanuts?”

She concludes by wondering if the only winners in this are rightwing neo-fascists like the British National Party.

Now, for a long time I have wondered if highly paid columnists like Julie Burchill are either being deliberately provocative, or are simply barking mad. I think probably the latter.

Anyway, over half the Poles that went to Britain last year have already come back. They probably got fed up with Britain’s public transport system. And the ones who have remained like it there and like the people.

Except that is for a few wackos in Bushmills, Antrim and Julie Burchill in the Times.

Read on:
For more on Ms Burchill see Sarah Anne's blog

This article was originally published on the Radio Polonia web site

No comments: