Some 1 million Ukrainians now work legally in Poland
When it comes to seeking work abroad, more Ukrainians are looking west rather than east.
With Russia’s war on Ukraine grinding on in the Donbas and economic prospects in Ukraine still shaky, Poland could soon overtake Russia as the main attraction for Ukrainians looking for work abroad.
Apart from cultural links and higher salaries, Poland attracts Ukrainians because of its high demand for labor: Many Poles, whose nation joined the European Union in 2004, have relocated to the United Kingdom, Germany and other EU nations.
Within the next 20 years, Poland will need an additional 5 million workers, the Polish Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers estimates.
And while in 2006 just 7 percent of Ukrainians said they wanted to work in Poland, 30 percent were in favor by 2015, according Anastasiia Vynnychenko, Ukraine’s labor migration project manager at the International Organization for Migration.
“The flow continues and there will be more of them,” Vynnychenko added.
Ukrainian war veteran Volodymyr Skosohorenko is one such worker. He came to Poland this year for six months. He found work at a supermarket chain, where he organizes shelves and decorates the shops, getting $25 for a 10-hour night shift.
The job allows Skosohorenko, 31, pay for his education at a university in Vinnytsia, where he studies psychology. He knows of three other Ukrainian war veterans working for the same Polish company that hired him.
He works in a team that consists of Poles and Ukrainians. While both make the same base pay, the Ukrainians have less benefits, like meal allowances.
“The Poles are the main ones here, and we, the Ukrainians, help them,” he said.
Skosohorenko is one of an estimated 1 million Ukrainians working legally in Poland, the EU country that is the most friendly to Ukrainians in terms of its migration policy.
That is still less than in Russia, where Ukrainian nationals exceed 2 million. But given Russia’s hostility to Ukraine and its own economic stagnation, Ukrainians increasingly prefer EU countries.
Another is Pavlo Dovhopol, a welding engineer from Chernihiv, who traveled to work abroad for the first time in 2017, choosing Poland instead of Russia “for patriotic reasons.”
Now he works six days per week often with 12-hour shifts at a plant producing construction materials in the northern Polish city of Chojnice.
Dovhopol, 25, earns about $3 per hour for assembling and fixing machinery. His salary comes to $800 a month, while an average wage in his hometown of Chernihiv is just $180.
Dovhopol has to give a share of his salary to the intermediary company that got him the job, but he is not complaining.
“For those who came here to make some money, this is exactly what we need,” he said.
There are 10 Ukrainians working now at his plant and more are on the way. Dovhopol plans to work in Poland at least for a year to save money.
The International Organization for Migration’s Vynnychenko said that a one- or two-year working term is most typical for Ukrainian labor migrants in Poland. The Ukrainians mostly work in small businesses, construction, housework, small trade and agriculture, she said.
Agricultural work is still a major draw for Ukrainians. In spring, many Ukrainians — even entire families — travel to work on Polish farms, hired via acquaintances or advertisements.
In one internet group called “Strawberry-Poland” on the Vkontakte social network, new job vacancies are added almost every day. Usually, Polish farmers hire Ukrainians at a rate of about $2 per hour for working days of up to 16 hours.
Wiktor Swincicki, who works at the City Council of Lublin, the city in eastern Poland close to Ukrainian border, said he knows some farmers in the mostly agricultural Lublin region who have hired some Ukrainians for seasonal work for a decade already.
At some $1.80 for a basket of raspberries, the pay in Lublin province is lower than in the rest of Poland. That’s why Ukrainians are so welcome there.
Swincicki said that Ukrainians sometimes used to be paid less than Poles for doing the same job, but the new labor law adopted in Poland in 2016 removed this discrimination, obliging all employers to pay an equal minimal salary to all workers, regardless of their nationality.
There are some 75,000 Ukrainians now working in Lublin region, the provincial labor office estimates.
But the real numbers of Ukrainian workers are certainly higher, since up to 50 percent of those employed in farming, cleaning and looking after the elderly are working unofficially, Swincicki said.
While unskilled labor is still the predominant sector of the Polish market that is drawing in Ukrainians, more and more semi-skilled and skilled jobs are becoming available.
Danil Katrich traveled from Dnipro to Krakow, a city in southern Poland, some 18 months ago together with his wife. Katrich, 27, said they decided to move because his wife had found a good job in the IT industry, where Ukrainians are now in demand.
Other Ukrainians who have some savings open businesses in Krakow, he said, with popular fields being catering and employment services for other Ukrainians. Katrich added that the Ukrainian accountants are also on demand in Poland.
Swincicki agrees, saying that while some five years ago most Ukrainians in Lublin region worked as seasonal agricultural workers, now many Ukrainians work as managers in international companies, accountants, teachers and IT specialists.
While Ukrainian manual workers usually earn $500–700 per month in Poland, the monthly salary of Ukrainian programmers there would be $1,000–4,000. The average salary in Ukraine, meanwhile, is $230 per month.
Vynnychenko says that Poland needs skilled workers along with a seasonal labor force.
Benefits and risks
With more Ukrainians traveling for work abroad, more of them risk to be mistreated, cheated or even human-trafficked there.
Vynnychenko said there were 173 registered cases of human trafficking of Ukrainian labor migrants in 2016. And Poland was in second place among the countries where Ukrainians were exploited the most.
At the same time, Ukrainian labor migrants are the biggest investors in Ukraine’s economy. In 2014 alone, they transferred to Ukraine more than $7.5 million, according to the report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development. Polish labor migrants were the second in this ranking, sending $7.4 million in remittances back home.
Vynnychenko said that Ukrainian families save about 40 percent of the cash received from labor migrants — money that potentially could be invested in Ukraine’s economy when people become confident in doing so.
“Historically, migration is always beneficial, as migrants bring new knowledge and skills back to their home country,” Vynnychenko said.
Skosohorenko, the war veteran, agrees. Although he admits that sometimes it’s physically and psychologically hard for him to work in Poland, as he still feels pain from his war wounds, he is glad of his experience of working abroad.
“I saw how it is all organized here, and I will use some of my skills (back home) for sure,” he said.
Kyiv Post editor Alyona Zhuk contributed reporting to the story