Insight Poland

Why Poland needs Ukrainian immigrants, and what the war might change

Volunteer_help_the_refugee_in_Przemyśl_Główny_train_station_

Warsaw, Poland – With unemployment in Poland plummeting to 2.7%, the second lowest level in the EU after neighbouring Czech Republic, Polish employers have been reporting outstanding labour shortages in vital industries such as healthcare, construction, or education.

Despite the fast-paced post-pandemic economic revival, many Polish industries have failed to find qualified professionals to fill those labour gaps, partially resulting from two years of slower growth and business uncertainty. To address these concerns, the Polish government has readily relaxed its requirements to enter the labour market.

In addition, the humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s invasion and the war in Ukraine is leading millions of refugees into the country.

Why Ukrainians are welcome in Poland

The Ukrainian economic migration in Poland is certainly no surprise, nor is it a new phenomenon. Over the past decade, Polish authorities and employers have regularly shown a keen interest in hiring Ukrainian immigrants, seen as relatively cheap labour willing to fill employment gaps in a handful of key sectors.

Three intertwined factors perpetuate the high demand for Ukrainian workers. As Poland has used up its demographic dividend and entered a seemingly prolonged phase of demographic decline, immigrants from Ukraine may help fill the gap resulting from the natural decrease of Poland’s working-age population – many of whom emigrate themselves to the west.

Directly linked to the demographic challenges, the Polish pension scheme, built upon an intergenerational contract, is threatened by the lack of working-age Poles and the growing number of retirees. As seen elsewhere in Europe, as the size of the working population erodes, the decreasing number of taxpayers will no longer be able to cover the needs of pensioners. Here again, Ukrainians may help elderly Poles receive the payout they signed up for.

The third point is linked to the structure of Poland’s labour market, and the kind of jobs Ukrainians perform in the country. Ukrainian immigration to Poland is still largely based on temporary contracts, although it remains to be seen how the ongoing war in Ukraine might change that. In other words, Ukrainians traditionally showed little interest in signing up for social security benefits in Poland, constituting a significant source of state income for the Polish state, without further burdening public expenditure later in life.

While Polish employers have frequently faced challenges finding Poles eager to take up low-skilled jobs at lower wages, Ukrainian migrants have managed to fill the labour shortages caused by massive Polish emigration after the country’s accession to the EU in 2004.

Polish authorities and employers tend to perceive Ukrainian migration to Poland as beneficial. Economic considerations, on top of cultural and linguistical proximity appear to be valid arguments for welcoming these displaced workers – regardless of whether they are war refugees or economic migrants. Moreover, recent studies have shown that Ukrainians may also be employed in highly qualified jobs, and IT specialists are increasingly supplying the demand into the Polish labour market. Since the beginning of Moscow’s invasion, the survival of Ukraine’s booming IT sector has also been made possible by the relocation of thousands of IT specialists and businesses in Poland.

Economic migrants and war refugees: two distinct groups

But rather than simply accelerating past migration trends, the war in Ukraine has also significantly changed the nature of Ukrainian influx into Poland. Russia’s invasion has compelled a significant of Ukrainian men to leave their jobs in Poland in vital sectors, such as construction, transport, and logistics, exposing the Polish labour market’s dependence on this workforce.

On the other hand, the regular influx of Ukrainians is expected to fill labour gaps in sectors heavily dominated by women, with an important caveat: the number of opportunities for women appears considerably lower than the market demand – especially women with a higher level of education.

Despite the generous array of social security services offered by the Polish state, Ukrainian women have shown a keen interest in taking up part-time jobs with a view of combining work and parental care. In the same vein, it is interesting to note how gender dynamics embedded into the migratory influx from Ukraine may impact the composition of Poland’s labour market.

People fleeing Ukraine are mostly women and children. In contrast, adult men stay in Ukraine or leave their employment abroad to return to their homeland. On top of that, Ukraine has a unique demographic profile, with many more women (54% of the population) than men (46%). The current crisis will likely make it harder for Polish employers to replenish the labour shortages in male-dominated sectors, including construction and manufacturing.

The temporary character of the Ukrainian migration in Poland may also result in an important increase of low-qualified and seasonal jobs, which many may consider an attractive and flexible solution. But it may also not be enough in the long run, with hostilities in Ukraine evidently destined to last. Torn between an uncertain future and the urgent need to provide for their families, Ukrainians living in Poland may get stuck in low-skilled positions without having a chance to acquire new and valuable skills.

Palantir: a disturbing potential 

The Polish authorities have adamantly supported Ukraine in all areas of cooperation currently available, and assistance with finding employment for displaced Ukrainians in Poland has been manifestly one of those.

As employment represents a crucial and inevitable step for adaptation in a new country, the Polish government has launched a new portal facilitating the job-hunting process for Ukrainian refugees. The website pracawpolsce.gov.pl prepared by the Polish government and presented last July was created in cooperation with Palantir Technologies – a controversial company famous for the ample usage of internet users’ data for policy advice.

In 2003, following its foundation, Palantir was merely a modest analytical firm supported by capital provided by the U.S. intelligence agency CIA, and later gained prominence due to its role in the capture of Osama bin Laden. Among other things, Palantir is known for its unlimited access to vast amounts of data about users of digital services.

Widespread criticism of its lax corporate responsibility and questionable ethics may indicate a strategy to exploit job-seeking Ukrainians’ sensitive data to maximize earnings in Central and Eastern Europe. Detractors of the firm’s practices have focused on two main issues: its IT support for aggressive US immigration enforcement policies, and its insufficient attention to privacy rights.

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Palantir has seen its stock jump 50% and initiated a partnership with the Ukrainian government with a view to invest in its defence, security and digital technology sectors – gaining a central and potentially disturbing role in the unfolding events.

By Francesco Miano