The Polish labour market and EU membership

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As Poland joins the EU on 1 May 2004, its labour market situation remains difficult and unemployment is high, as is the case in a number of other new Member States. This may have contributed to fears in the 'old' EU 15 of a post-enlargement influx of cheap labour and people seeking social security benefits, and to the decision by most governments to apply transitional periods before fully opening their labour markets to citizens of the new Member States. However, studies conducted in Poland and elsewhere suggest that these fears are exaggerated. This article examines the situation and the views of the Polish social partners.

Despite economic growth of 3.7% of GDP growth in 2003, the situation on the Polish labour market has not improved and the unemployment rate remains high (PL0307107F). Furthermore, the National Universal Census of Population and Dwellings (Narodowy Spis Powszechny Ludności i Mieszkań, NSPLiM) and the Universal Agricultural Census (Powszechny Spis Rolny, PSP), both conducted in 2002, found that the number of people employed in private agriculture is lower than previously thought and that, consequently, the actual level of unemployment is even higher than estimated. In February 2004, there were more than 3.3 million people registered as unemployed, which amounts to 20.6% of the entire Polish workforce.

In 2003, the labour market showed several alarming signs: compared with 2002, the number of people unable to find employment for an extended period of time increased (52.5% of all unemployed people had been without work for more than a year), as did the number of unemployed people ineligible for benefits (84.9% of all registered unemployed) (PL0210107F). This points to the existence of large untapped labour force reserves. With Poland joining the EU in May 2004, the question arises of whether these people will migrate in search of work to the existing EU Member States.

Fears of mass economic migration

Under transitional arrangements agreed by the EU and new Member States in central and eastern Europe which join in 1 May 2004, the existing Member States may limit movements of workers from the new Member States for a period of up to seven years after enlargement. During the accession negotiations it was clear that some current Member States would apply this right to limit free movement of labour from the acceding countries. However, only two Member States - Germany and Austria - stated at this stage that they would apply the maximum seven-year protective period. Other countries talked about less stringent protective measures, and some even expressed the wish to open their labour markets to migrants from the new Member States immediately.

As time went on, more and more of the existing Member States began to stiffen their position on a free movement of labour from the new Member States. There seems little doubt that the poor labour market situation in Poland and certain other acceding countries had something to do with this. On one hand, there is a strong fear of 'social dumping' involving the use of workers from the poorer new Member States. On the other, there is a growing fear of large numbers of people moving from the new to the old Member States to claim social assistance ('welfare tourists'), including unemployment benefits. These factors have led most current Member States to put in place administrative barriers to access by workers from the acceding countries. Only Ireland has maintained its intention to open its labour market immediately. The UK, Sweden (SE0405103F), the Netherlands and Denmark (DK0404103F) will open their labour markets in 2004, but under certain conditions meant to prevent possible abuses. Other EU Member States will open their labour markets to Poles and people from other new Member States in central and eastern Europe in 2006, except Germany and Austria, which have reserved the right to maintain restrictions until 2009 and then possibly extend them to 2011.

Is the fear of inundation by cheap labour from the poorer acceding countries justified? It is true that the number of Polish citizens taking up employment in the EU has grown from year to year. According to NSPLiM data from 2002, the number of Polish economic migrants living abroad for longer than one year is estimated at over half a million. The number of Polish citizens legally employed in the old EU is between 350,000 and 450,000, and two-thirds of them work in Germany.

However, Polish public opinion polls indicate that a mass exodus in search of work is unlikely: in a Public Opinion Research Centre (Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, CBOS) poll published in March 2003, more than half of respondents (54%) stated that they had no intention to leave Poland for work reasons, whereas only 20% envisaged such a possibility and 14% would go if they received an explicit work offer. Moreover, six out of 10 respondents would leave Poland only temporarily. These results support sociological research findings pointing to low geographical mobility in Polish society.

A report on immigration prepared for the European Commission warns against the hasty erection of administrative barriers, including transition periods, to the employment of workers from the new Member States in the old ones. Only 2.5% of the productive-age population in the new Member States is said to be interested in emigrating for work reasons. Some analysts in current EU Member States also say that the fear of invasion by cheap labour from the acceding countries is exaggerated. Moreover, in a situation where foreign workers are needed in the EU 15 but prevented from entering, imposed restrictions may have the side-effect of moving jobs to the new Member States.

Polish views

Although the introduction of transitional restrictions on Polish workers' access to the labour markets of the EU 15 was a possibility for a long time, it was nevertheless a disappointment to Polish public opinion. So far, the reaction of the government and social partners has been restrained. The social partners represented on the Tripartite Commission for Social and Economic Affairs (Komisja Trójstronna do Spraw Społeczno-Gospodarczych) (PL0210106F) seem to be waiting for an official government position, and have made no statements directly referring to the matter. This attitude may change after the adoption on 2 April 2004 of the Law on Employment Promotion and Unemployment Countermeasures. Its provisions anticipate application of the 'reciprocity principle' in the employment of other EU nationals in Poland, with the aim of protecting the Polish labour market. The law makes it possible to apply reciprocal restrictions with respect to citizens of the countries that impose employment barriers affecting Poles.

Andrzej Malinowski, the president of the Confederation of Polish Employers (Konfederacja Pracodawców Polskich, KPP), sees the closing of labour markets as evidence that the notion of 'solidarity' between European states often turns out to be nothing more than an empty slogan. He believes that the decisions of EU 15 governments to apply restrictions are motivated by electoral tactics rather than economic calculations. At the same time, KPP hopes that those countries that have decided to apply only a two-year transitional period will see no need to extend it.

The Polish Confederation of Private Employers (Polska Konfederacja Pracodawców Prywatnych, PKPP) advocates compliance with all freedoms listed in the EU Treaty, in particular the free movement of people. In its opinion, immigration restrictions are totally unnecessary and unjustified.

In the past few years, the Independent and Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity (Niezależny Samorządny Związek Zawodowy, NSZZ Solidarność) has spoken out several times on the issue of the free movement of people in the EU, calling for Poles to have the right to enjoy this freedom to the fullest from the day of accession. This opinion has been expressed in resolutions adopted at NSZZ Solidarność congresses and in position statements relating to European integration issued by its national committee (Komisja Krajowa, KK), including KK position statement No. 190/99, which dealt with this matter directly. The theme reappeared in a resolution adopted at the organisation’s national assembly in 2001. NSZZ Solidarność has also made its viewpoint known at the European level, including within the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), of which it is a member.

The All-Polish Alliance of Trade Unions (Ogólnopolskie Porozumienie Związków Zawodowych, OPZZ) does not see any significant reasons why Poles should be deprived of the possibility fully to enjoy all the rights granted to EU citizens, including free movement. In its view, this constitutes a negation of the ideal of solidarity between European nations and of the opportunity to even out differences in living and working conditions in an enlarged Union. The application of lengthy transition periods in providing access to labour markets in the old Member States gives rise to the threat of creating permanent divisions on the continent, it was stated at the 5th OPZZ Congress in 2002.

The opinion on restrictions of the freedom of employment expressed by the Trade Union Forum (Forum Związków Zawodowych, FZZ) (PL0212109F) is similar to the position taken by the two older trade union centres. FZZ's focus is on clarifying the conditions for employment elsewhere in the EU for the groups it represents. This relates in particular to nurses - the All-Polish Trade Union of Nurses and Midwives (Ogólnopolski Związek Zawodowy Pielęgniarek i Położnych, OZZPiP) (PL0212102N) is an important force in the Polish trade union movement - and to seafarers and fishing workers. FZZ representatives have raised the issue of employment restrictions within the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions/Confédération Européenne des Syndicats Independants (CESI), of which it is a member.


Polish public opinion and the social partners are disappointed with the decisions taken by most current EU Member State governments to limit Polish workers' access to their labour markets. At the same time, Poland still hopes that it will be possible to disperse EU fears of mass labour migration to the EU 15 during the initial period of its membership of the Union, which in turn will make it possible to reduce transition periods to an absolute minimum. (Jan Czarzasty, Institute of Public Affairs [Instytut Spraw Publicznych, ISP] and Warsaw School of Economics [Szkoła Główna Handlowa, SGH]).

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