WARSAW/EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Four years after Polish graphic designer Chris Rychter headed to Britain to find work and study as a citizen of the European Union, he and his wife have returned home.
Part of a swelling tide of migration back east, they are having a house built in a suburb of the Polish capital.
“It took me just three days to find a job back in Warsaw,” Rychter, 27, told Reuters. “We never saw Britain as home... We went for the adventure and to get some professional experience.”
Their move highlights strong economic growth in the new EU member states and an accelerating slowdown in Britain — but also how quickly a pragmatic younger European generation has adapted to working in the 21st-century globalised economy.
Rychter’s wife Sabina has brought her job with a British-based credit insurance company with her.
“You could say I am tele-commuting,” she said. “In today’s world, with computers and mobile phones, my presence in head office is not required as before. I can sit here in Warsaw and have the flexibility to do my job irrespective of time zones.”
Helped by cheap travel as flights between Warsaw and London grew almost tenfold since Poland joined the EU in 2004, the Rychters show how Europe has shrunk and that — contrary to a popular view — migrant flows are not all one-way.
Economists now see a turnstile or pendulum effect of people moving between countries after quite short stints, in search of better conditions.
Statistics on migration within the 27-nation EU are not precise, but around half of an estimated one million people from eastern Europe who moved to Britain since 2004 have already returned home, according to a recent report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a British think-tank.
Work applications from the eight east European countries that joined the EU in 2004 were down 13 percent in the January to March period from last year, British government data show.
For many eastern European migrants, recent currency market trends favor a return, and Poland’s government wants people back to help plug labor gaps that are stoking wage inflation at a time of fast rising food and fuel prices.
The trend is also positive for the wider Polish economy. Warsaw real estate broker Malgorzata Czerwinska said around 20 percent of the apartments she sells now go to such returnees, who generally pay cash with savings made abroad.
Only Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened their job markets to the easterners in 2004: other older member states have slowly followed and France will open its labor market in July.
Poland, with 38 million people, is by far the largest of the 2004 eastern entrants. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007.
Economic factors are the main lure bringing Poles home.
“The Polish zloty has appreciated by about 40 percent against the British pound since 2004, so people should be heading back,” said Michael Dembinski, head of policy at the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce in Warsaw.
“Given the cost-of-living differential between the two countries it makes little sense to be an economic migrant now in the U.K.,” he said.
The zloty is also up 30 percent against the euro since 2004.
Poles saving up to send money home find their hard-earned cash doesn’t go as far as in the past.
Poland’s economy grew by 6.1 percent in the first quarter of 2008, Slovakia’s by 8.7 percent and the Czech Republic’s by 5.4 percent. Britain, battered by a global credit crunch and tumbling house prices, is expected to grow by just 1.8 percent in 2008.
Also, many east Europeans in Britain and Ireland have been employed in construction and related sectors which have been particularly hard hit by the economic slowdown.
Increasing the appeal of home, wages in eastern Europe have soared: Polish corporate sector wages were up 12.6 percent in April from a year before, partly because of tighter supply due to migration.
East Europeans can still earn much more in a mature economy such as Britain than they can back home, but that advantage fades when the higher cost of living in Britain is considered.
“I went to London hoping to save up some money. I had a great time but never managed to save a penny,” said Marcin Kikut, 27, who now teaches English in Warsaw after returning from London a few months ago.
“When I got back to Warsaw I was offered three jobs almost straight away. But it is perhaps not so easy to find work in some smaller towns. I have a Polish friend still in London who wants to return but is scared he won’t find a job here.”
Many Poles left for Britain when unemployment in Poland ran at about 20 percent. It is now 10.5 percent.
But cultural and personal factors also weigh. In Edinburgh, Tomek, a night-club bouncer who declined to give his surname to protect his reputation when he returns, said he plans to go back soon: “I will always be an alien here (in Britain). I like my world. It is poorer but it is mine.
“I can’t say it is bad here, but I can have the same standard of living in Poland.”
Like other east Europeans, Poles complain of having to do menial jobs in the West far below their abilities or education.
“I will never regret my year in London... but (from a career point of view) it was a waste of time,” said Miroslava Mozolova, 25, a Slovak who toiled in sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger but is now a quality coordinator at a budget airline in Bratislava.
Despite such complaints and the shifting economic balances, plenty of other east Europeans in Britain plan to stay put, at least for now. Many have married local people, bought property and have good jobs they don’t want to give up.
Joanna Majkrzak runs a pub in Edinburgh, near to four Polish shops, with her Irish partner.
“I think those who came here strictly for the money are now gone,” she said. “They left their families in Poland and now they have been reunited. But many Poles stay and get promoted. They become pub managers or managers of cleaning businesses.”
Dembinski of the British-Polish Chamber of Commerce said certain groups such as entrepreneurs and doctors were especially unlikely to return: “It is still much easier to set up a business in Britain than in Poland, where red tape is still very bad. It is also easier to pay tax, to hire and fire.”
Highly skilled professionals such as doctors can still earn around six times more in Britain than in Poland, he added.
Unfortunately for Britons who have grown accustomed to being able to find affordable good Polish plumbers, Slovak nannies or Lithuanian car mechanics over the past few years, east Europeans have far more options now than in 2004.
The few EU states still restricting workers from the 2004 entrants, such as Germany, will have to open up fully by 2011. Some non-EU countries such as Norway, also battling labor shortages, have already opened up to east European workers.
Poland’s business newspaper Parkiet recently quoted the head of a local consulting company as saying many Poles leaving Britain were in fact heading to Norway, not Poland, because salaries were twice as high there as in Britain.
Dembinski noted that the 700 or so weekly flights between Poland and Britain were generally full in both directions.
“Around 29,000 Poles registered for work in Britain in the first quarter of 2008. That is down 17 percent from the previous year but still adds up to more than 100,000 people over the year, though many will not necessarily stay long,” he said.
Some “commute” across borders, juggling two jobs.
“You can fly from Warsaw to, say, Nottingham with a low-cost airline in less time than it takes to drive 350 km (200 miles) to Gdansk,” noted one Warsaw-based EU diplomat.
“A few people find it worth their while financially to work part of the week in one place and the rest back at home.”