Polish Emigration to the UK after 2004; Why Did So Many Come?

  • Published in:
    Central and Eastern European Migration Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2014, pp. 11-37
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Despite the abundance of studies of Polish migration to the UK immediately before and in the aftermath of accession to the EU in 2004, one fundamental question has never been clearly answered: why did so many Poles move to the UK? We have sought to provide general explanations, rather than inquiring into the range of observed diversity. We begin by putting together statistical and other data from both ends of the flow in order to assess the scale of movement to and from the UK and to determine the reasons for what may well have been the largest voluntary migration between two countries. We used data from both countries and especially the recently published statistics from the 2011 UK census to present a detailed picture of the characteristics of those involved. Polish statistics suggest a more ‘elite’ flow to the UK than to other countries. The UK census pictures a maturing settled population, still tending to occupy relatively lower skilled jobs but showing evidence of upward social mobility. The movements are particularly a response to demographic and economic factors in Poland and to a widespread but to some extent hidden shortage of labour in some sectors in the UK. These factors combine with a set of political circumstances in both countries to produce an explanatory framework that may be summarised as ‘right people, right place, and right circumstances.’

Keywords: post-accession migration; statistics of migration from Poland to the UK; determinants of migration from Poland to the UK


The EU accession treaty stipulated a transition period of up to seven years before free movement of people was allowed. Throughout the period of accession negotiations the government of Poland had stressed the importance it attached to free movement of people (and labour) as a basic principle of European unity and a major benefit of membership. Moreover, the government insisted that the principle should be fully respected in order to protect Polish citizens against discriminatory practices in other EU countries (Kułakowski 2001; UKIE 2003). Such a position was widely popularised and largely supported by the mass media. Although this position was initially upheld by some member states there was no consensus. Contrary to early expectations, only three countries of the EU15 agreed to free their labour market instantly; among them the UK was by far the largest. France and Germany, considered in the pre-accession period as main targets for Polish migrants, quickly expressed their reluctance and decided to introduce a transition period; Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands, which at the time of negotiations were favourable to immediate and unlimited access to their labour markets, eventually adopted a partial solution (UKIE 2005). Ultimately only the UK, Ireland and Sweden opened up their labour markets immediately so that the whole potential flow of emigrants from Poland, which otherwise could have dispersed across 15 countries, was now directed to only three of them. As easily the largest labour market, the UK became the main target.

There was a Polish population in the UK before 2004, and this helped to create networks and contacts between the diaspora and those back home. The 1951 UK census recorded 152,000 people born in Poland, as a relic from the Second World War when many preferred to relocate to or stay in the UK rather than return home. By 1981 the number had shrunk to 88,000 and although unrest and martial law in Poland continued to encourage a trickle of new migrants to the UK, the inevitable ageing of the post-war group took its toll so that by 2001 the number had fallen to 58,000. The next decade, however, saw a rapid increase in the number of Polish-born in the UK to 676,000 in 2011.

The flow between the two countries has certainly been one of the most studied in the period of post-accession population movements: one website devoted to the subject records almost 500 scholarly pieces, mainly on Polish migration, largely to the UK, most of it after 2004. In both countries the economic costs and benefits of the flows have been closely scrutinised. The focus in the UK has been on the labour market impact for the domestic population and on the fiscal benefits or otherwise of immigrant workers. The burgeoning literature suggests that the flows have been broadly neutral or even positive for the labour market, with an overall fiscal benefit (for a review of findings, see Salt 2011).

Several edited collections have brought together a range of empirical studies, mainly concerned with social issues (see, for example, Burrell 2009). A review of the literature finds that almost all aspects of the movement over the last decade have been examined in detail. For the most part, research has been supply side based, focusing on the migrants themselves. Particular attention has been paid to their characteristics, economic and social situations, the networks in which they engage, their health and wellbeing and their integration into the host population. The varied geography of the movement, affecting regions and communities not normally associated with immigration as well as the common honeypots like London, has made for a rich tapestry of analysis.

What persuaded us to write this paper was that, despite the abundance of studies, one fundamental question has never been clearly answered: why did so many Poles come to the UK after 2004? By putting together statistical and other data from both ends of the flow we hope to assess the scale of flows to and from the UK and in turn to tease out the reasons for what may well have been the largest voluntary migration between two countries over a short period. Meeting this goal did not seem manageable without a comprehensive review of statistics collected by various sources (agencies) in Britain and Poland and without reflecting on their consistency and accuracy.

The paper falls into two main sections: statistical and explanatory. After a brief review of available statistical sources, we attempt to assess the scale of movement as far as data allow. Then, using UK and Polish census data we summarise the main characteristics of the Polish population in the UK and identify the degree of selectivity of those moving to the UK compared with those going to other countries. We then review the main causal factors in Poland which had the effect of creating a push towards the UK. This is followed by a discussion of how demand for immigrant labour was articulated in the UK. Finally we suggest that the principal motivation of the migration was employment and that a particular combination of circumstances in both countries orchestrated the flow.

What statistics are available?

Inevitably, there are more data available on the numbers and characteristics of migrants in the destination country (UK) than the origin country (Poland). Some of the analyses in the UK have been based on quantitative datasets, notably the Labour Force Survey (LFS), International Passenger Survey (IPS), Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) and National Insurance Number issues (NINos). The recent publication of the first results of the 2011 census provides a level of detail of the Polish population hitherto unavailable and only now beginning to enter the literature. Because the census provides us with the first clear snapshot of the Polish stock in the UK, below we report some of its principal findings on Poles living in the UK in the spring of 2011, paying particular attention to those entering since 2001. However, the availability of statistics from the Polish LFS and census allows us to supplement the UK data as well as enabling a comparison of the characteristics of those who came to the UK with those going elsewhere.

In addition to official statistical sources, a multitude of qualitative surveys exists which form the basis of much of the research on Poland–UK movement, and we use the findings of the main ones here. By definition many of them are relatively small scale, often contingent on what is feasible in PhD research, bearing in mind its typical human and financial resource endowment. Others are more ambitious but rarely involve more than a few hundred respondents. Some focus only on Poles, some on those from other accession states as well. Some are geographically focused in particular localities; others sample the range of conditions across selected areas and settlement types.

How many Poles came to the UK after 2004?

Estimating the number of Poles who came to the UK is not easy. Neither UK nor Polish data can provide a definitive figure. Stock data may measure the number at any one time (LFS, census). Flow data are provided by the Workers Registration Scheme (WRS) and the issue of National Insurance Numbers (NINos). It is possible, as seen below, to link different sources to make better estimates but they can never be accurate.

Polish emigration data confirm that the UK was not a major destination at the turn of the nineties. Official emigration1 from Poland was low, around 200 per annum in 1998–2002 (approximately 1 per cent of Poland’s total emigration). In 2004, however, it started to rise sharply – from 500 (2.6 per cent) to the maximum 24,000 in 2006 (30.3 per cent) but in the following years it stabilised at a much lower level – between 3,500 and 5,000 (approximately 20 per cent). Altogether, between 2004 and 2012 only 55,000 Poles officially emigrated to Britain and ceased to be counted as official residents of Poland. Strikingly, this figure was a small fraction of the cumulative number of new Polish immigrants recorded in the UK in that period (see e.g. Table 2 and Figure 2). The difference between migration flows measured in the two countries is because a large proportion of people actually emigrating from Poland were officially designated as temporary migrants and therefore excluded from the public migration statistics.2

Indeed, the outflow of temporary migrants to other countries, including the UK, was much higher than official emigration. According to the 2002 census, 786,100 Polish people (2.1 per cent of the total population) were temporary migrants, of whom only 23,700 were in the UK (3.0 per cent of the total). The number of long-term temporary migrants, i.e. those staying in a foreign county for at least one year, was 626,000, of whom 15,000 were believed to be in the UK, meaning that Britain ranked sixth among the most attractive countries for Polish migrants. The 2011 census revealed 2,015,500 temporary migrants, of whom 611,000 were living in the UK (30.3 per cent of the total); of these, 466 500 had stayed in Britain for at least one year. Thus, in the post-accession period the UK came to occupy a dominant role as a destination (Table 1). Overall, the net increase in the stock of Britain-based temporary Polish migrants between 1 May 2004 and 31 December 2012 was between 573,000 and 588,000.

Table 1. Estimated stock of temporary migrants from Poland in 2002–2012 by major country of destination

(.) No estimate.

a On 31st December.

b Poland’s official residents staying abroad more than two months in 2002–2006 and more than three months in 2007–2012.

c On 20th May.

d Estimates available only for population census years.

Source: Central Statistical Office of Poland.

UK data provide a fuller picture but in general have been fairly consistent with Polish sources. Those recorded in the census and the LFS represent only those living in the UK at the time: many others have come and returned home, some of them on more than one occasion. During the 1990s Poles were already coming into the UK to work, for example, 3,200 in 2000 under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme. Others were in skilled occupations, some 400–600 a year in the late 1990s under the work permit system, rising to 1,761 in 2003, with the rate of increase among Poles in the intervening period being almost five times greater than the rate for all work permit issues. The increase was accompanied by a shift in the occupations for which permits were granted. In 2000, almost three-quarters (72.8 per cent) were for professional, managerial or associate professional and culture and media occupations. By 2003, although the number in almost all categories had risen, the proportion of elementary occupations had reached 40.9 per cent while that for professional, managerial or associate professional and culture and media occupations had fallen to 44.4 per cent. It appears that in anticipation of 2004, entry policy through the work permit system was already shifting towards lower skilled occupations, implying that job vacancies at that level were already manifest.

The two most used statistical sources for measuring the inflow of Poles by researchers, politicians and the media are the Worker Registration Scheme and the issue of National Insurance Numbers. Nationals of the eight newly accessed EU countries who wished to take up work with an employer in the UK for at least a month were required to register in the WRS. They were also required to re-register if they changed employer (but without needing to pay another fee) but it appears that substantial numbers did not do so. To avoid counting applicants more than once, each applicant is represented only once in the data. They give no clue as to the duration of employment, nor if and when a return home occurs. The data thus record those arriving but nothing on departure and so cannot be regarded as migrant stock statistics.

Every foreign worker who is legally employed requires a NINo, so the allocation of new numbers should give an indication of the annual (year running April–March) increment to the workforce. Foreign workers re-entering the UK after a period away and who already have a NINo are not required to re-register. Hence, NINos are in effect flow figures. NINos also allow migrants to access the benefits system. Inflow and outflow data are available only from the International Passenger Survey which is based on stated intention at the time of entry and exit and defines an immigrant/emigrant as someone who intends to stay/leave for more than a year, having been out of/in the country for a similar period. It is a sample survey, consisting of about 4,400 contacts. Adjustments are made to the survey data to take into account those whose intentions change, asylum seekers whose cases are still under consideration and flows between the UK and Ireland. These adjustments produce Long Term International Migration statistics.3 Compared with WRS and NINo data, where there is no stipulation of length of stay, IPS records show a lower level of inflow.

Over the period 2004–2012 the IPS records a total of 396,000 (+/– 44,000) long-term (over one year) Polish immigrants and 165,000 (+/– 27,000) emigrants, with a net balance of 231,000 (+/– 51,000) (Table 2). On average, 44,000 came each year, the highest figure being 88,000 in 2007; since 2009, the number has been just over 30,000 per annum. It is likely that these data underestimate the overall number of long-term migrants because of an inadequate sampling frame before 2008 (ONS 2014), although compared with other sources the number would still be low. Taken together, UK data indicate large annual temporary flows by migrants with at best uncertain stay intentions – a pattern clearly indicated by the series of special surveys carried out in the UK.

Table 2. Long-term international migration flows of Polish citizens into and out of the UK in 2004–2012, estimates from the International Passenger Survey (in thousands)

Note: This table uses 95 per cent confidence intervals (CI) to indicate the robustness of each estimate. For any given estimate, there is a 95 per cent probability that the true figure lies in the range: estimate +/– confidence interval. Users are advised to be cautious when making inferences from estimates with large confidence intervals.

Source: Office for National Statistics.            

By the end of 2005, 185,490 Poles had registered in the WRS and over the next three years a further 401,268 did so. By the time of its demise in April 2011, the WRS had registered 1.134 million A8 citizens, of whom 705,890 (62.2 per cent) were Poles. However, WRS registrations undercount actual numbers coming to work. Those who were self-employed were not required to register. Others chose not to register, although they should have done, with surveys variously suggesting that the proportion choosing not to register was as high as 36 per cent (CRONEM, n.d.) and 42 per cent (Pollard, Latorre, Sriskandarajah 2008). The likelihood of registering varied by geographical location and sector. More likely to register were people living in smaller towns, older workers and those intending to stay for longer periods (CRONEM, n.d.); construction sector workers were also less likely to register since the majority of them were self-employed (Drinkwater, Eade, Garapich. 2009). On a conservative estimate that a third of those who should have registered did not, it may be that about 920,000 employees came in. To these must be added an unknown number of self-employed whose numbers vary by sector, perhaps 55 per cent of construction workers and 10 per cent in hospitality (Drinkwater, Eade, Garapich 2009). LFS data suggest that, overall, 14 per cent of Poles living and working in the UK were self-employed. If we relate this proportion to NINo data (2004–2011) it suggests another 140,000 workers on top of those derived from the WRS, giving a total of about 1.14 million by 2011. This is slightly more than the one million NINo issues between 2004 and 2011 (Table 3).                                                                                                 

Table 3. National Insurance Numbers (NINos) and Worker Registration Scheme (WRS) data for Poles in 2002–2013

a 2004 data are for May–December; 2011 data are for January–April.                                         

Source: Department of Work and Pensions.

The number of NINo issues was already beginning to rise before accession but it then escalated rapidly, reaching almost a quarter of a million in 2007 (Table 3). By 2011 one million NINos had been issued to Poles and by 2013 the figure had risen to 1.164 million. As the recession took hold, the number fell but from 2009 it was relatively stable at around 80,000 until 2013 when it rose to 111,000. It is too early to say whether this reflects economic recovery in the UK – unlikely given the scale of the increase (and perhaps the anti-immigration rhetoric from the government and others) – or a slow-down of economic growth in Poland. Although after adjustments there is a broad consensus between them in the number of Poles coming to work, Harris, Moran and Bryson (2010) show that discrepancies between WRS and NINo statistics vary geographically, being particularly great in London (55 per cent difference) where self-employment is more likely.

The differences between the aggregated ‘flow’ data from the WRS and NINos and the ‘stock’ data from the census and LFS give some indication of the scale of temporary migration and the reasons for them. NINos record a shift in the ages of those registering. The proportion of those aged 25–34 declined after 2002 while that of the younger 18–24 population increased. This concurs with the Polish data and is consistent with a pattern of young people moving temporarily, probably single and willing to accept shared accommodation, coming to work at the end of their secondary or tertiary education or to pursue further or higher education in the UK.

Table 4. Worker Registration Scheme applications approved for Poles in 2005 and 2010

Source: Home Office, Worker Registration Scheme.

Although the WRS is an incomplete record of the total Polish labour migration, it does give us a dynamic account of which occupations they entered. Table 4 shows the proportions in 2005 and 2010 by sector (two digit level). It is clear that Poles were highly concentrated in certain, mainly less skilled, occupations. In 2005 the top six groups accounted for 83.9 per cent of the total, with process, plant and machinery the largest, followed by elementary administrative and service jobs, then elementary trades and sales occupations. It is possible to break down these groups in more detail (three digit level). The top six accounted for 68.6 per cent of all occupations, among whom process operatives were the most important, then a series of elementary jobs in personal services, agriculture, process and cleaning, along with sales related jobs.

The data for 2010 show similar concentrations, indicating that over the intervening period little had changed. Four groups stand out, accounting for 81.6 per cent of registrations. The process, plant and machinery group was still the most important, having increased its representation from 30.1 to 36.6 per cent of the total. The more detailed breakdown shows a growing concentration in a smaller number of occupations. The top six groups accounted for 75.9 per cent of the total, up from 68.6 per cent in 2005. Process operatives were again the most important, increasing from 29.7 to 36.4 per cent of the total. As in 2005, a series of elementary and sales related jobs occupied the bulk of the Polish workforce. Particularly significant in this comparison is the role of the process sector: although there is no comprehensive statistical evidence, some survey evidence suggests that substantial numbers work in food processing (the so-called three ‘P’ jobs – picking, packing and plucking), which explains the presence of Poles and citizens of other newly accessed EU countries in more rural parts of the country. What we may glean from these data is that the stream of new Polish entrants continued into similar low-skilled occupations. They do not indicate that earlier entrants remained in those occupations.

The characteristics of the Polish population in the UK

The view from Poland

Polish LFS data on ‘temporary migrants’ allow comparisons of the characteristics of those coming to the UK with those going to other countries and also how they evolved in the years after 2004. The analysis below shows that the nature of the flows varied as circumstances changed over three distinct periods: 1999–2004 (immediate pre-accession), 2004–2007 (early post-accession) and 2008–2011 (economic recession).

Age and sex. A long-lasting trait of Polish migrants departing to the UK is male preponderance. The early accession period saw a strong increase in the proportion of men in the flow (from 52.7 to 65.2 per cent) which then gave way to an almost equally strong decline (to 55.5 per cent). A majority of post-accession migrants were of young working age (81–83 per cent at age 20–34) but in the course of time new migrants included more children and middle-aged adults.4 Of particular note is that the age profile of the UK-bound Polish migrants shows a large, albeit decreasing over time, predominance in the 20–24 bracket (42 pre-accession, 37.8 early post-accession and 36.2 per cent recession period). This is in contrast to the older cohorts (25–29 and 30–34) who tended to go to Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

Education level. Emigrants with secondary education dominated; their share in all three periods was around 50 per cent. Degree holders were relatively highly represented but their proportion declined with time from 25.2 per cent pre-accession to 17.5 per cent in the later period. The proportion of migrants with basic vocational education was relatively low but rising (from 19.8, to 23.6 and 24.9 per cent). Hence, it appears that the early flow attracted more highly educated people while latterly the flow was less qualified. This is consistent with evidence (below) from UK studies which suggest that an initial attraction of Polish workers for UK employers was their ability, even in relatively mundane occupations. As they settled in the UK, the more able managed to move into jobs higher up the socio-economic ladder, for example from bar staff into hospitality management. This process in turn created low-skilled vacancies that could be filled by a less qualified workforce.

Urban/rural residence prior to migration. A majority of migrants originated from cities but the data indicate a declining trend – from 67.2 to 61.1 and to 56 per cent in the three successive periods. This is consistent with the trend for earlier flows to include a higher proportion of the better educated.

Are they different from the ‘average’ Polish emigrant? Comparisons of these characteristics with those of emigrants to other countries reveal major differences which may be analysed by the Migrants Selectivity Index (MSI – see Anacka, Okólski 2008). The MSI measures over- (positive values) or under-representation (negative values) of a given category of migrants relative to the share of that category in a general population.

Table 5 presents the selectivity pattern in the three sub-periods for Polish migrants irrespective of the destination of their movement and for those heading only to the UK. MSI values are based on four variables: sex, age, education and type of residence prior to migration.

Table 5. Migrants Selectivity Index for selected characteristics by period of migrant departure and country of destination

a Persons aged 15+ who left Poland before 1 May 2004.

b Persons aged 15+ who left Poland between 1 May 2004 and 31 December 2007.

c Persons aged 15+ who left Poland between 1 January 2008 and 30 June 2011.

Source: BAEL (Polish Labour Force Survey).

A low to moderate over-representation of male migrants was observed in all three sub-periods for those heading for the UK, although in the third sub-periods it was considerably lower. A plausible reason for this might be stabilisation of Polish migrants’ residence in Britain compared with those going elsewhere, resulting in an intensified family reunification as more women arrived.

One important feature of the migration of Poles to the UK is a large over-representation of people aged 20–39 which continued over the three sub-period and was distinctly higher than in case of moves elsewhere. This surfeit of 20–24 year olds in particular reflects the attractiveness of the UK to Polish labour market entrants, as discussed below. By contrast, Polish migrants aged 40–44 (and more so the older ones) were under-represented in the UK-bound flow.

The ‘otherness’ of persons migrating to the UK is particularly noticeable with respect to education level. The British flow was characterised by a very strong over-representation of migrants with a university degree in the first two sub-periods and still (but much lower) over-representation in the last period. This was in sharp contrast to the general pattern where such migrants were under-represented or over-represented to a small degree. For those with a basic vocational education the UK showed an ‘indifferent’ pattern, whereas the pattern for those going elsewhere was a continuous moderate over-representation. The UK was also more successful than other destinations in attracting migrants from urban areas, although to a lesser extent in the crisis sub-period.

Figure 1. Migrants Selectivity Index by selected Polish migrants’ characteristics in the UK and Germany in pre-accession, early post-accession and recession period

Source: BAEL (Polish Labour Force Survey).

The selectivity of Polish migration flows is particularly noticeable when the UK and Germany – traditionally (until 2004) the main destination for Polish emigrants – are compared as destinations (Figure 1). The most striking contrasts were with respect to the level of migrants’ education: unlike the UK, Germany strongly attracted persons with basic vocational education (high positive values of MSI) while those with a university degree were much less likely to go there (high negative values of MSI). In addition, the attraction of the UK for Polish migrants at the most mobile age (20–39) proved to be much stronger than in the case of Germany. Conversely, the UK was less attractive than Germany for residents of rural areas. Another significant characteristic of that selectivity is its stability over time in both the host countries, with apparent resistance to external shocks such as the EU accession or post-2007 economic recession.

In sum, especially in the post-accession period, a stylised portrait of a Polish migrant heading for the UK is that of a young male, highly educated, and originating from an urban area. However, in the last of three periods under consideration, these characteristics became a little blurred as the nature of migrants evolved.

The view from the UK

Data on the stock of the Polish population by nationality after 2004 are available annually from the UK Labour Force Survey. They show a steady rise in number to 658,000 in 2011, similar to the census figure for that year, and 679,000 in 2013 (Figure 2). The results of the 2011 census provide an opportunity to profile the new Polish population in the UK. Two new questions in the 2011 census, on year of arrival and nationality, allow analyses not hitherto possible. The statistics below refer to nationality, not country of birth. However, at the time of writing a detailed breakdown for those in Scotland is not available so that the data below refer to England and Wales only.

Figure 2. The stock of the Polish population in the UK in 2004–2013

Source: Labour Force Survey (annual) and 2011 census.

Age and sex. The Polish population in the UK in 2011 is a youthful one: 57.3 per cent were aged 20–34 and only 4.6 per cent were aged 60 and over, the latter reflecting earlier inflows. Children (under 15) comprised 11.4 per cent of the total. Given the even split by sex and the number in the fertile age range (two-thirds being aged between 20 and 39), further family formation is likely.

Year of arrival. Only 8.2 per cent arrived before 2001, although many who had come during this time would have become naturalised. In the run-up to 2004 the number almost doubled. Over a quarter of a million (45.4 per cent of those present in 2011) arrived during 2004–2006. In total, almost half a million (85.8 per cent) arrived from 2004 onwards (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The stock of Poles in the UK in 2011 by year of arrival

Source: 2011 census.

Language. Over two-thirds of those arriving between 2001 and 2011 (‘new arrivals’) said they could speak English well or very well, with only 3 per cent unable to speak the language. Five per cent said their main language was English.

Education level. The new arrivals were well educated, although it is not possible to establish how many were degree holders. Those with UK degrees and some of those with Polish degrees placed themselves in the census Level 4 qualifications category for degree holders (22.6 per cent), while others, with Polish degrees, could opt to tick the ‘other qualifications’ category (41.5 per cent) which includes non-degree qualifications. Only 14.3 per cent, particularly those aged 16–24 and 50 and over, had no qualifications.

Housing tenure. The majority of new arrivals (75.6 per cent) were living in private rented or rent free housing. It is possible that many of the latter were in tied accommodation, especially in rural areas, where some form of accommodation formed part of fringe benefits. Only 9.7 per cent were in the social rented sector and the rest (14.7 per cent) were in self-owned or shared ownership housing.

Economic activity. The bulk of the new arrivals were economically active in employment (379,287, 81.4 per cent), 12.1 per cent were inactive and only 3.5 per cent were unemployed. Of the inactive, three per cent were full-time students. Of those in employment 56,931, or 17.7 per cent, were self-employed.

Industry and occupation. By 2011, the new arrivals had spread widely across the main economic sectors (Table 6). The largest group (27 per cent) was in distribution and hospitality, followed by manufacturing (19.2 per cent), business services (16.5 per cent) and public administration, education and health (11.6 per cent). The transport and communication industry hosted almost 10 per cent, but only small numbers were in agriculture (1.3 per cent) and public utilities (1.4 per cent).

They were also spread throughout the occupational range, giving credence to the view that as they became established some Poles engaged in upward occupational mobility. However, jobs were still mainly at the lower end of the skill spectrum. About a third were in elementary occupations, almost 19 per cent worked in manufacturing as process, plant and machine operatives, 15 per cent in managerial, professional and technical occupations, 16 per cent in skilled trades and 18 per cent in other services (leisure, caring, sales and administrative and secretarial).

Table 6. Poles arrived in 2001–2011 by occupation and industry


B, D, E ‘Energy and water’ includes the SIC 07 groups ‘B Mining and quarrying’, ‘D Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply’ and ‘E Water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation activities.’

G, I ‘Distribution, hotels and restaurants’ includes the SIC 07 groups ‘G Wholesale and retail trade; repair of motor vehicles and motor cycles’ and ‘I Accommodation and food service activities.’

H, J ‘Transport and communication’ includes the SIC 07 groups ‘H Transport and storage’ and ‘J Information and communication.’

K, L, M, N ‘Financial, real estate, professional and administrative activities’ includes the SIC 07 groups ‘K Financial and insurance activities’, ‘L Real estate activities’, ‘M Professional, scientific and technical activities’ and ‘N Administrative and support service activities.’

O, P, Q ‘Public administration, education and health’ includes the SIC 07 groups ‘O Public administration and defence; compulsory social security’, ‘P Education’ and ‘Q Human health and social work activities.’

Source: 2011 census.

These data complement those from Poland, discussed above. What they reveal is a relatively newly arrived Polish population now showing evidence of settled maturity. It is a young, sex-balanced cohort, engaging in family formation. It is well educated, with good English language capabilities. It mainly makes use of the private rented housing sector, but with one in seven already in some form of ownership. Over 80 per cent are in employment, with a substantial number in self-employment. Industry and occupation distributions show a wide penetration of the UK economy, although still with a tendency to occupy relatively lower skilled jobs.

Why did the Poles come?

On the surface it seems clear that simple economic motors – disadvantage in the homeland, opportunity in the new land – drove Polish migration to the UK. In fact, this is only part of the story. The post-2004 migrations – and their cultural and political consequences – may also be seen as managed and negotiated by
a range of agencies, each of which having a vested interest in maximising its returns from population movement. Above all, the flow resulted from a concurrence of political circumstances, socio-demographic forces in Poland and a pent-up demand in the UK for low-skilled labour.

The role of government policy

Impact of the terms of the accession treaty. The position of the Polish government during the period of accession negotiations and mentioned at the start of this paper was based on several premises, including ‘numerous analyses’ predicting only moderate out-migration after accession (Kułakowski 2001; Rada Ministrów 2002). First, it was thought that after 2004 most of the increase in the working age population would consist of ‘immobile people’ aged 45 or more. Second, in view of a supposedly decreasing demand for low-skilled workers in the EU, a relatively low propensity to migrate was expected on the part of Polish workers, who were described as in general poorly educated and unable to communicate in foreign languages (ibidem). Third, the evidence of earlier EU enlargements indicated that the economic integration of Poland with the EU would promote growth in the Polish economy and thus weaken emigration pressure. Fourth, the analysis predicted a steady increase of immigration into Poland from other EU countries, so flows would be two-way. Fifth, studies suggested that, for social rather than purely economic reasons, dwindling numbers of Polish citizens were interested in working abroad (ibidem). This last claim was based on the growing costs of supporting two homes by migrant workers (one in Poland and another in a foreign country), which could not be offset by the existing (in fact, narrowing) wage differences between Poland and EU15 countries. Generally, the Polish government estimated an extra migration potential of only 100,000 persons in addition to what might have happened in the absence of an EU accession outflow. It thus argued that there was little danger of destabilising the EU labour market as a result of granting the citizens of Poland instant access to that market.

After the accession treaty was agreed, the mass media and analysts, while presenting it as a success for the government, emphasised the importance of unrestricted access to the EU market, including its labour market, and funds for combating unemployment as the most significant achievement from the point of view of society (Górska 2006: 184). As a result, during the early post-accession period the climate of enthusiasm for the westward movement of people and the exploration of employment opportunities in the old EU countries became a normality (Romejko 2009). Even before, but especially after May 2004, many Poles ventured a journey to EU15 countries to ‘test’ the freedom of movement and work. Apparently the test came off well. A public opinion poll in March 2006 revealed that the possibility of working freely in other member countries was perceived as the most positive effect of Poland’s EU membership (CBOS 2006b). However, this perception stemmed mainly from a two-year long experience of unlimited access to the UK.5 Hence, a positive association of the benefits of movement became synonymous with the UK labour market.

Policy in the UK. In the UK, the migrations from 2004 onward followed several years of relatively permissive labour immigration policies by the Labour government which came into power in 1997. From the late 1990s, with backing from several ministries, notably including the Treasury, a more liberal approach to labour migration, particularly for the skilled and highly skilled, was pursued. A series of schemes was either expanded (Seasonal Agricultural Workers, Working Holiday Makers) or instituted (Sectors Based Scheme, Highly Skilled Manpower). Opening up to the accession states was perceived as being sound from the perspective of foreign policy as well as offering a solution to increasingly publicised shortages of both skilled (especially in construction) and lower skilled labour (especially in agriculture and hospitality). When the UK initially made its decision, it was not known that most other EU15 states would refuse to open their borders in similar fashion. Furthermore, an econometric study carried out for the Home Office and written before the policies of the other EU15 countries were known forecast a net annual immigration from the accession states of some 13,000 during the first decade (Dustmann, Casanova, Fertig, Preston, Schmidt 2003). Although it was assumed that substantial numbers might come, it was also assumed that most would return home in due course. Hence, in both countries forecasts of the scale of migration were wide of the mark.

Major factors in emigration from Poland to the UK

Most explanations for the subsequent migration are based on labour market and other economic differences between the two countries. Various regression analyses have shown migration flows to be positively related to variations in wage rates, unemployment and economic growth (see, for example, Drinkwater, Eade, Garapich 2009 Pollard et al. 2008; Szwabe, n.d.). Most emphasis is put on conditions in Poland, emphasising the push effects of low wage rates, youth unemployment and lack of opportunities, especially for women, resulting from the post-communist restructuring of the Polish economy. However, it is not just aggregate wage rates which affect decisions to move. Average monthly net wages in Poland and the UK vary by sector: in construction and hospitality, for example, the differential was threefold in one study (Cizkowicz, Holda, Sowa 2007). The series of surveys of Polish immigrants carried out in the UK consistently found that financial reasons, lack of opportunities in Poland and the desire for personal and professional development were key factors in decisions to migrate. Surveys of return migrants in Poland (IIBR 2006, quoted in Cizkowicz et al. 2007; CBOS 2006a) uncover a similar situation, with discrepancies in earnings level as the primary determinant of the decision to move to the UK, even at the minimum UK wage, even among well-educated Poles. Cizkowicz et al. (2007) argue that job compatibility with the migrant’s education was not a prerequisite for the decision to migrate, better pay being more important. What was perceived as good pay was strongly positively correlated with job satisfaction even if the job did not require the use of the skills and qualifications held. Furthermore, a body of primarily qualitative research has emerged which suggests a complexity of non-economic motivations for movement (Burrell 2010; Luthra, Platt, Salamońska 2014).

A great wave of Polish citizens migrating to the UK after Poland’s accession to the EU might be perceived as a paradox, at least when it comes to looking at its root causes in the home country. It took place at a time of very fast economic growth, job creation, wage rise and declining unemployment in Poland (Fihel, Kaczmarczyk, Okólski 2007). This may suggest that the causes on the part of the receiving country, the ‘pull factors’ might have been more powerful than the ‘stick factors’ in Poland that might discourage emigration. Alternatively, ‘push factors’ influencing decisions whether or not to emigrate might have been at play. Below we analyse the determinants of recent Poland to the UK migration in their complexity and interdependency.

Structural demographic and economic factors. On the eve of Poland’s accession to the EU several structural factors favoured out-migration, some of them specifically to the UK.

The period around the date of accession to the EU coincided with increasing numbers of new labour market entrants. Assuming that the average age of entry was around 23 years, between 2002 and 2007 the Polish labour market had to face the arrival of people born in 1979–1984. In that period the number of births (4.3 million) was 322,000 higher than in the preceding six years and 573,000 higher than in the following six years. Moreover, those baby-boomers were as a rule better educated and their occupational aspirations were higher than the general economically active population.6 At that time, entry of young people into the labour market in Poland was difficult owing to very high unemployment (41 per cent of those aged under 25 were unemployed in 2004). Given that the only accessible and absorptive labour market was the UK (and to lesser extent Ireland) it is not surprising that many of the baby-boomers of 1979 to 1984 were Britain bound.

The structure of the labour force was changing too. Firstly, in the years preceding and following 2000 the working age population was growing fast, with the number of people entering retirement age declining and those entering working age increasing. Between 2000 and 2005 the share of population aged 25–59 rose from 47.1 to 50.1 per cent,7 exerting a significant supply pressure on the national labour market, which in some of its segments struggled with over-employment inherited from the communist past.

Secondly, the legacy of a large economically redundant population in relatively backward and predominantly rural areas led to a sizeable potential for current and future emigration. For these people the transition to a market economy after 1989 offered few viable employment opportunities outside the major urban areas in Poland (Okólski 2012). Until accession, the realisation of this potential flow was slow because of its high dependence on relatively few social contacts in receiving countries and on the ability to find jobs in the shadow economies of EU15 countries. Therefore, the accession-related freedom of population movement and unlimited access to some EU labour markets removed a major obstacle to a massive outflow of that superfluous labour force.

Thirdly, the opening up of the huge labour market of the UK (approximately twice as large as the Polish market) on 1 May 2004 expanded the space in which Polish citizens could freely seek employment opportunities, without having to depend on their social capital and ensuing migration networks. It is therefore plausible to argue that structurally Poland was a country with a great migration potential; what was less certain how big was the UK’s capacity to absorb new migrant workers.

Viewed by a typical economically active person in 2004, Poland’s economic situation seemed much less favourable than that of the UK, which was generally richer and its institutions, including employment, public health care, social security and welfare more highly developed. Life in the UK was perceived to be easier and of higher quality. In particular, the prospects of having a job differed substantially. In 2004 the unemployment rate in the UK stood at 4.8 per cent, in Poland it was 19.5 per cent. The number of vacancies in 2004 was around 600,000 in the UK and only 220,000 in Poland, which translated into 2.5 unemployed persons per vacancy in Britain and 13.5 in Poland. The difference with respect to job availability did not change much in the next two to three years.8

Additionally, pay in the UK was much higher than in Poland. The minimum monthly wage in the UK (expressed in US$ using purchasing power parity, or PPP) was 1,507, whereas in Poland it was 628 (ILO 2010). A McDonald’s cashier or crew member earned an hourly wage rate 5.5 times higher in the UK than in Poland. Even accounting for differences in price levels, the gap was still significant: British employees of McDonald’s could buy 2.11 Big Macs for their hourly wage while Polish employees had to make do with less than one (Ashenfelter, Jurajda 2001).

Although the wage differentials diminished after Poland’s accession to the EU, Polish wages still lagged behind British ones. The difference in an annual wage per full-time equivalent dependent employee (expressed in US$ using PPP) was 25,776 (57.5 per cent) in 2004 in favour of the UK and 24,674 (55.2 per cent) in 2011 (OECD 2014). Also, compensation costs of labour in manufacturing in the UK differed substantially from the respective costs in Poland. In nominal terms (expressed in US$), in 2011 it was 30.77 in the former country and 8.83 in the latter, or 22.00 and 5.34 if social insurance contributions, labour-related taxes and directly-paid benefits9 were excluded (BLS 2012).

Educational boom in Poland and improved human capital endowment of migrants. Contrary to the views of the Polish government during pre-accession negotiations with the EU, the level of education and ability to communicate in foreign languages was not low and in the immediate pre- and post-accession period, the situation greatly improved. In 2002 only 9.9 per cent of Poland’s population aged 13+ consisted of university graduates, but 41.4 per cent had completed at least secondary education. Among those aged 25–29 and 30–34, 20.5 and 16.2 per cent respectively had obtained a university degree. In both these age groups, the share of people whose education was at least secondary exceeded 50 per cent. Moreover, the transition period witnessed a great educational boom, especially among the population of rural areas. Overall, the proportion of 19–24 year olds in higher education rose from 12.9 per cent in 1990/1991 to 40.7 per cent in 2000/2001 and 48.7 per cent in 2013/2014. By 2011, 36.1 per cent of 25–29-year olds and 32.9 per cent of 30–34-year olds held a university degree. In these two groups as a whole, two-thirds of people had completed at least secondary education. All this means that at the time of accession, a high quality labour force was available and one which continued to improve.10

Parallel to this boom, a significant improvement occurred with regard to the incidence of learning and knowledge of foreign languages, especially English and German. Whereas 34.2 per cent of pupils in primary and secondary schools were learning these two languages in 1992/1993, of which 18.2 per cent were learning English, in 2004/2005 99.5 per cent were learning the two languages, 77.1 per cent of them learning English (MEN 2005). The knowledge of English increased from 9 per cent of the adult population in 1997 to 17 per cent in 2004 and 30 per cent in 2012, by which time 77 per cent of those aged 18–24 could communicate in English (CBOS 2012). In a 2012 study of proficiency in English in more than 50 countries, Poland was given a ‘high knowledge’ mark (together with Austria, Belgium, Germany and Hungary), just behind a ‘very high knowledge’ which was attributed to four Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands (Gazeta.pl 2012). These changes transformed and upgraded the human capital of Polish youth and often stimulated professional aspirations and life strategies that could not be fulfilled in Poland but required further studies or work in other countries.

The emergence and rapid growth of a middle class after 1989 was accompanied by a growing demand for an international education. Growing familiarity with the English language increased the attractiveness of UK universities and colleges (Andrejuk 2013; Szewczyk 2012). Why was Britain so attractive for Polish students? First, British universities were highly regarded and had well developed admission programmes for foreign students. In addition, accession to the EU meant that Polish students enjoyed the same conditions as the British with regard to tuition fees and access to stipends. Furthermore, large international communities of students and teachers and the relatively high degree of tolerance of British society to foreigners were also important. Second, there was a high incidence of secondary school graduates in Poland proficient in the English language. Many of them attended Polish schools offering an International Baccalaureate programme, recognised in the UK. Finally, the openness of the UK labour market to Polish citizens enabled a large number of young but less well-off Poles to initiate, continue or resume education there along with being employed. Between 2004/2005 and 2012/2013, approximately 30,000 Poles were admitted to universities in the UK (HESA 2014). This figure may seem low when compared to the total number of Polish residents, but thanks to the internationally highly-valued university degrees and relatively easy access to jobs in the primary labour markets all around Europe, in transnational corporations and European institutions, those persons were likely to be members of the elite among the Polish post-accession migrants. Hence, studying in the UK constitutes one of stages on the path of further professional mobility (Andrejuk 2013: 272). The author of the above quotation argues that those students’ experiences and aspirations point to their significant role in the creation and development of a new occupational class of pan-European mobile professionals (ibidem: 274).

Other factors. There was not only an aspiration to emigrate. Practical improvements in travel eased the friction of distance for those moving. The increased availability of transport means and routes, with the wide availability of regular coach lines and cheap airlines, made it easier to come and go. Other improvements that made the post-accession migration of Poles easier, more effective and executed at lesser costs included the widespread use of plastic money cards, mobile phones and the internet.

Perceptions also shifted. Over several months after 1 May 2004, journeys from various parts of Poland to London and other cities of the UK became iconic in the Polish media. They reported, for instance, that in June coaches from Poland arrived at Victoria Station every 10 minutes. Although many migrants failed and returned (or ended up in the streets), the prevalent message sent to relatives and friends in Poland was one of success. The narratives about the migration of Poles to the UK in those early post-accession months recalled tales of the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s.

Such mystification culminated in ‘The Londoners’ (Londyńczycy), a TV drama series which had its debut on the main public television channel in Poland in October 2008. It was watched on average by more than three million people. Although particular episodes focused on hardships, inter-personal conflicts and even criminality, the series painted life in London as colourful and manageable for all, irrespective of their social background and past experience.

Within a relatively short time Britain, and especially London, became well known to Polish public opinion, better than any other place outside Poland, and it became clear that in practically every corner of Poland some persons were missing because of migration to the UK. The practical side of this knowledge included information about employment opportunities and living conditions and access to quickly expanding Polish-British social networks that paved the way for a well-thought, steady and regular movement of people between the two countries.

Labour demand in the UK

What has received less attention in the literature is where the jobs taken by migrants came from and how the demand for labour by UK employers was activated. For most commercial employers, recruitment and mobility decisions and processes are determined by the need to maximise profitability, often involving highly flexible work arrangements such as the need to bring in additional workers to meet peaks of service, product and process demand. Circumstances vary between sectors and by type of employer because of the nature of each organisation’s main activities. Each industry has its own distinguishing characteristics in size, skill mix and training requirements, geographical spread of operations, ownership, nature of service or product and trends in product/service demand, all of which affect the recruitment of migrant labour. Hence, the nature of business operations underlies the ability of the UK labour market to attract and offer employment to Poles and other incomers.

Figure 4. Vacancies (thousands, left hand scale) and unemployment rate (right hand scale) in the UK in 2002–2006

Source: Labour Force Survey.

It is clear that in the years both before and after 2004, large numbers of Poles and other citizens of new EU countries found jobs. A survey in Britain among the UK citizens and members of the 25 most numerous immigrant nations revealed enormously high employment (rank 3–4) and low inactivity (rank 24–25) among Polish migrants, accompanied by very high workloads per week (rank 2) (IPPR 2007). In the circumstances, a shift in the number of job vacancies might have been expected. In fact, as Figure 4 shows, there was little change in recorded vacancies between 2001 and 2006. Only after 2008 did the number of vacancies start to fall. There is no evidence of a rise in vacancies before 2004 or a fall afterwards, both of which might have been expected if there was an unfilled demand which the new migrants were able to satisfy. Furthermore, the industry sectors with the most vacancies were not necessarily those into which migrants from newly accessed EU countries moved. However, it is likely that many (most?) vacancies were not registered. Unemployment data show a similar pattern. There was little change in overall numbers of unemployed before and after 2004. It thus appears that immigrants from those new EU countries were absorbed into the labour market with little effect on the two major indicators.

Self-employment. One reason for the lack of effect on vacancies and unemployment was self-employment. Many immigrants entered into self-employment on arrival in the UK, a process already occurring before 2004. The 1993 EU Associate Members Agreement gave the accession countries the right to establish businesses in EU15 states. By the turn of the century Polish businesses were already being set up in the UK, in low-income businesses such as window cleaning as well as more skilled trades (Anderson, Ruhs, Rogaly. Spencer 2006) although how many were employed in this way is uncertain. Self-employment was especially common among immigrants from the newly accessed EU countries working in construction before 2004, accounting for 48 per cent of the total in the sector. Two-thirds of the self-employed were in skilled trades (the stereotypical ‘Polish plumber’). They were able to find work because of a chronic shortage of skilled building trade workers, possibly a consequence of government changes to the industrial training system in the 1980s and 1990s which resulted in fewer young people entering apprenticeships (Holmes 2010).

For many self-employed, some mastery of the English language, enabling them to cope with the necessary legal and bureaucratic complexities, was key to business establishment (Helinska–Hughes, Hughes, Lassalle, Skowron n.d.). However, these complexities may not themselves have been barriers, given migrants’ experiences of the regulatory barriers and bureaucracy in Poland. Not surprisingly, entrepreneurs initially occupied the enclave economy. In their study of Polish entrepreneurs in Scotland, Helinska–Hughes et al. (n.d.) found that initially businesses tended to be in the enclave economy, relying on personal resources owing to lack of access to formal sources of finance and advice. They rapidly branched out from a Polish clientele, especially into construction, transport and small food and personal service outlets and IT, often becoming more localised over time and serving the whole community (Harris 2012). Similarly, many highly skilled Poles in London, working in jobs that maximised their skills and qualifications, were initially providing services for the Polish community (Iglicka 2008). Pollard et al. (2008) quote a British-Polish Chamber of Commerce estimate that, as of 2008, 40,000 Polish entrepreneurs had set up business in UK. Self-employment seems to have been a vehicle for longer term stay.

Sectoral demand. In the years leading to 2004, shortages of low-skilled labour were already manifest although, as it transpired, many were not registered with the government vacancy service. In one study of the recruitment of citizens of the eight new EU countries, carried out on the eve of accession, all employers surveyed reported recruitment difficulties (Anderson et al. 2006). This was especially the case for low skilled and some higher skilled positions in agriculture, hospitality and construction. A large majority of employers had tried to recruit domestic workers and raised pay and non-wage benefits but still had shortages. However, no one factor underlay recruitment difficulties, depending on the kinds of jobs available in each sector: factors included geographical location, prevalence of self-employment and degree of informality. One key finding, to be repeated in several other studies over the following years, was that two-thirds of employers in agriculture and food processing and 40 per cent in hospitality suggested that UK workers were difficult to recruit because the work was physically demanding and ‘not glamorous’ (Anderson et al. 2006; Rogaly 2006; McCollum, Findlay 2011; MAC 2014).

A key sector for the employment of Poles and other Eastern Europeans was agriculture and related food processing (‘agribusiness’), as WRS data show. The government Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) and several other reports into seasonal work in agriculture pointed to the growing trend towards greater capital investment and intensification in the sector. However, it appears that the availability of migrants from the new accession states in 2004 may have halted the decline in employment in an industry where workers were being substituted by labour-saving capital investment, so that the effect of the new workers was to slow investment as cheaper labour became available.11 In their submissions to the MAC, most employers complained of the continuing impossibility of recruiting British workers so that foreign workers in the industry were not displacing domestic ones. There was a trend in the industry towards vertical integration in which producers increasingly engage in PPP (picking, plucking and packing) activities, while developing closer associations with the supermarkets. The latter seek to derive ever greater value from producers while insisting on a highly flexible ‘just in time’ system of product delivery (Rogaly 2006). Accompanying these trends has been a declining core, full-time labour force and a burgeoning need for temporary workers deployed in a highly flexible fashion, necessitating the recruitment of workers who are reliable, flexible and compliant. McCollum and Findlay (2011) surveyed 61 employers and labour providers in hospitality and food production and processing in urban and rural areas of England and Scotland. They found that in some rural areas migrants formed the core as well as temporary workforce in food production and processing. It has also been suggested that the provision of tied accommodation in some rural areas, usually in the form of caravans and huts, helps recruit and retain migrant workers (Jentsch, de Lima, MacDonald 2007 – quoted in Trevena 2009).

Vacancies also existed in the hospitality industry where employers claimed that prior to 2004 most hotels were understaffed (McCollum, Findlay 2011). Initially employed in both core and temporary ‘back office’ jobs, Poles and others were more likely than domestic workers to see hospitality as a career and increasingly to take on more visible and senior roles. This was particularly the case for those with higher education: with mastery of the English language, talent emerged as natural skills and education came through. For those with developing careers, upward social mobility stabilised the population leading to longer stays and even settlement.

Role of agencies. An essential link between employers and migrant workers was provided by labour contracting agencies which recruited and placed employees. The substantial presence of Poles in the administrative and service sector referred to earlier is predominantly a reflection of their registration with employment agencies which were then recorded as their employers and from where they were able to take up temporary posts in a range of occupations across industries.

In agribusiness there was a direct connection between supermarket practices and the use of agency gang workers (Rogaly 2006). Only agencies, through the gangmasters licensing system, could provide the flexibility necessary when fine tuning of the work place regime was needed, perhaps in response to supermarket demands associated with a specific marketing initiative. However, part of that flexibility is the frequent lack of enforcement of the national minimum wage and of workplace regulations (MAC 2014). Agencies operated in other ways. Garapich (2008) points out that many of them were initially low-key, back-door, one-person businesses within the migrant community, for example helping others fill out forms and follow procedures, often easing the passage from the grey economy into a formal one. Pooling of resources was common, including the sharing of accommodation and finding jobs (Schneider, Holman 2009). Informal networks were important in the hospitality sector, being an inexpensive, quick and stress-free way for employers to recruit good quality workers (McCollum, Findlay 2011). Latterly networks have developed into a multitude of websites and internet radio stations geared to helping migrants as well as organising events such as one-day job fairs.


Statistical summary

Using the available statistical evidence, we have compiled as comprehensive a picture as possible of the scale and nature of the new Polish migration to the UK. Its major traits may be summarised as follows.

Sources from the two countries are in broad agreement on the stocks of Poles in the UK at various times. The UK census recorded 676,000 Polish born in 2011. LFS data show a steady rise in the annual stock to 658,000 in 2011, not far short of the census figure for that year, to 679,000 in 2013 before a steep rise to 826,000 in 2014. Meanwhile, Polish LFS and census statistics indicate that by December 2012 an estimated 637,000 had stayed in the UK for more than 3 months.

Estimates of the flow vary because the definitions and counting systems used present differing pictures. By the time of its demise in April 2011, the WRS had registered 705,890 Poles. Allowing for those who should have registered but did not, it may be estimated that about 920,000 employees came in. To these must be added the self-employed, giving a total of about 1.14 million by 2011. This compares with one million NINos issued to Poles by 2011 and 1.164 million by 2013. What we do not know is how many, having registered, came to the UK and returned on more than one occasion. Survey evidence suggests the number may have been substantial. Furthermore, these two sources omit children aged under 15 who comprised more than one in ten Polish born in England and Wales in the 2011 UK census.

Data from both countries on the characteristics of Poles coming to the UK suggest an evolving stream. Polish statistics suggest a more ‘elite’ flow to the UK than to other countries. The UK census pictures a maturing settled population, still tending to occupy relatively lower skilled jobs but showing evidence of upward social mobility.

Towards an explanation

In many respects the movement between Poland and the UK followed a common pattern in Western Europe in the second half of the 20th century. Examples include Italians to Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s, Turks and Yugoslavs to Germany and Portuguese to the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. Initial flows of labour were transformed into settled communities which continue to this day. What was to some extent different from the moves discussed here is the more direct role of employers in the initial recruitment in these older flows and the stronger role then played by economic growth in a Europe still recovering from the Second World War.

In addressing the question put forward in this paper, we deliberately focused on underlying structural factors, and followed an approach that was in contrast to much of the existing research dealing mainly with the individual strategies of migrants. We sought general explanations rather than inquiring into the range of observed diversity. Unlike several other authors who investigated the causes of the post-accession migration from the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe, including migration of Poles to the UK (e.g. Burrell 2006, 2010; Cook, Dwyer, Waite 2011; Galasińska, Kozłowska 2009; Luthra et al. 2014; Ryan, Sales, Tilki, Siara 2009), we argue that the principal motive (and at the same time the guiding premise of predominant strategies) of Polish emigrants was gainful employment in the UK. This is why it was so important for the post-accession flow of arriving Poles that the UK labour market was accessible to them instantly and unconditionally.

Our position is supported by evidence from the UK census and elsewhere (IPPR 2007) that, compared with other nationalities, Poles in the UK had high levels of employment and low levels of inactivity. Therefore we argue that personal motives such as education enhancement, female liberation/emancipation, adventure or curiosity were not the main driving force of Polish migrant strategies.12 In particular, the paradigm of ‘fluid migration’ (Engbersen 2012) whose central part was young and adventurous ‘vagabond’ acting, with no clear strategy and following a philosophy of ‘intentional unpredictability’ (Eade, Drinkwater, Garapich 2007), certainly did not reflect the behaviours of a large majority of Poles moving to the UK.

It has been demonstrated in the foregoing analysis that answering the question included in the title of this paper is not an easy task. Any question that asks ‘why’ inevitably seeks a helping hand in theory. Unfortunately, the recent migration of Poles to Britain revealed so many significant determinants involving the interplay of a wide variety of factors that it hardly fits any theoretical framework applied to analyses of current intra-European population movements. In particular, the migration of Poles has not resulted from any predominant single cause, such as wage differentials, recruitment of labour, collective household strategies (those in line with the New Economics of Labour Migration postulate) or migration networks. Nor could it be satisfactorily explained by such all-embracing but dangerously vague concepts as ‘pull and push’ theory as manifest in the strikingly different pattern of migration to Germany and the most recent movement to the UK. This difference is of particular relevance as a warning signal of the dangers in applying that explanatory framework to current post-accession emigration. Indeed, the complexity and diversity of underlying causes have been supported by a number of empirical studies, which point to a variety of motives and strategies followed by Polish post-accession migrants, both among those heading for a specific country (like the UK) or in a comparative international scope (Eade et al. 2007; Grabowska–Lusińska, Okólski 2009; Kaczmarczyk 2008; Krings, Moriarty, Wickham, Bobek, Salamońska 2013; Luthra et al. 2014; White 2011, 2013).

We are in agreement with those who argue that the phenomenon of mass Polish post-accession migration (and, consequently, also the movement to the UK) over an unprecedented short time (compared to other voluntary movements of population) needs a new approach (and explanatory framework) since the movement represents a novelty in an entirely new global environment and historical context (Engbersen, Snel, de Boom 2010; Favell 2008; Luthra et al. 2014). It might be epitomised by means of three complementary and mutually indispensable adjectives: right people in the right place under right circumstances.

The concept of ‘right people’ embraces the surplus (reinforced by the ‘boom’ of young labour market entrants/higher school graduates) and structural mismatches of labour in Poland, post-communist anomy (migration as one viable strategy to overcome that, similar to migration as a response to social disorder accompanying rapid urbanisation, as described by Thomas and Znaniecki (1918)), high educational and cultural competence/maturity (including widespread knowledge of the English language) and awareness of freedoms and entitlements stemming from ‘European citizenship’. Furthermore, at least since 1939 Poles had been generally favourably regarded by the British.

The ‘right place’ was the UK labour market, although it was not immediately apparent at the time. The economy was growing rapidly but there was a reluctance among domestic workers to undertake many of the jobs available at the wage rates on offer. Migrant workers willing to work for minimum (or less) wages allowed employers to avoid capital investment that would have increased productivity in, for example, food processing. In service provision, such as hospitality, migrants provided flexibility in working practices that reduced costs. In addition, public attitudes towards the inflow of people from new EU member states were generally favourable. Coincidental with this was the ‘compression’ of the physical distance between Poland and the UK through a rapid development of non-costly and effective transport, communication and information facilities between the two countries. This made it possible to achieve the high levels of flexibility required by both employers and migrants.

Finally, by the ‘right circumstances’ we mean the juncture of Poland’s accession to the EU with the decision taken by the UK government to grant immediate access to the British labour market. That other countries did not follow suit meant the lack of any strong competition from other receiving countries.

It was the coincidence of these three circumstances – a perfect migration storm – that allowed a wider set of personal reasons to come into play.


1 In Polish statistical terms, ‘official emigration’ (or emigration recognised as such by the public statistics) is a far cry from the real world. It requires individuals to cancel their Polish domicile prior to departure to be counted (i.e. included in the population register) as an emigrant, which few comply with.

2 Temporary migrants are persons whose duration of stay in a foreign country at the time of measurement was at least three months (two months before 2007) and who retain their official domicile in Poland.

3 The Office for National Statistics suggests that the overall totals derived from the IPS should be adjusted. IPS data are based on intentions and so it is likely that they exclude most people seeking asylum and dependants of asylum seekers. An adjustment is made for these. Further adjustments are made for other people who intend to be migrants but who in reality stay in the UK or abroad for less than a year and for those who state an initial intention to stay for more than a year but actually leave before this. These adjustments are used to produce Long-Term International Migration (LTIM) flows.

4 For instance, register statistics show that in 2006 80.3 per cent and in 2012 56.0 per cent of emigrants were 20–39 years old (86.7 per cent and 70.9 per cent for emigrants aged 15+, respectively), while the proportion of children under 15 increased in that period from 9.1 to 22.2 per cent.

5 On journeys to and life in the UK of Polish citizens in early months after the accession, see for instance articles published in Dziennik Polski (London) by Bugajski (2004), Garapich, Foczpański (2004); Śpiwok (2005); Wiśniowska (2006) and others.

6 All data in this paragraph were derived from the Polish CSO statistics.

7 According to a UN estimate, that proportion was to rise from 46.1 per cent in 1990 to 51.2 per cent in 2015, whereas the total population size was to remain stable (UN 2009).

8 All data in this paragraph were derived from national statistics of the respective countries.

9 Directly-paid benefits are primarily pay for leave time, bonuses and pay in kind.

10 All data in this and preceding paragraphs were derived from the Polish CSO statistics.

11 We are indebted to Professor Alan Manning of the London School of Economics for this insight.

12 Luthra and co-authors (2014) extend that list of ‘non-economic motivation of the new EU migrants’ by including migration for love or adventure (Favell 2011), migration for self-development (Cook et al. 2011), migration to realise family goals (Ryan 2010), migration maximising friendship networks (Conradson, Latham, 2005), migration for lifestyle improvement (Benson, O’Reilly 2009; Crowley–Henry 2010) and even (in case of young people) for ‘seeking a lark’ (Galasińska, Kozłowska 2009).


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