Determined to resist a European Union plan to spread the burden of migrants and asylum seekers across the continent, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, says his country wants to ensure that “Poles can walk the streets safely” so that it does not accept strangers it does not want
At the same time, in central Poland, a small village with only 200 inhabitants is preparing for the arrival of 6,000 workers from Asia to a vast newly built housing complex. The workers are needed by an oil company controlled by Mr. Morawiecki’s right-wing government.
The state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen needs them to build a new petrochemical plant that is essential to its expansion plans. About 100 have already arrived, and the rest will follow soon, much more than residents of the village, Biala.
“Some people say it’s a bit too much and are worried,” said Krzysztof Szczawinski, the elected head of Biala and one of five local farmers who agreed to lease their land for the new residential building and building storage.
Jakub Zgorzelski, manager overseeing the vast camp for foreign workers, said he had no problem persuading local farmers to give up their crops and lease their land for the workers’ compound. One initially demanded more money and refused but, afraid of running out of cash, eventually came. “Money speaks loudest,” Mr. Zgorzelksi said.
Rejecting the European Union’s efforts to get member states to accept some of the migrants arriving in Greece and Italy by sea from North Africa, Mr. Morawiecki denounced what he called “a dictate that aims to change Europe culturally.”
For Orlen’s expansion plans to stay on track, however, cultural differences had to be embraced.
The foreign workers’ compound in Biala was built in just a few months from 2,500 modules that look like shipping containers with windows. It has four separate kitchens to meet the distinct and decidedly non-Polish dietary needs of the workers – Filipinos who share the Catholic faith of most Poles but not their taste for cabbage and potatoes, Hindus from India, and a large contingent of Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkmenistan who do not eat pork, a Polish staple.
Poland’s economy is reviving now that the Covid lockdown has ended, but its pool of hard-working people is shrinking, and like much of Europe, it is desperately short of workers. But when it looks at the violent unrest that convulsed France after the shooting at the end of June of a French teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent, it sees more reasons to limit immigration.
The riots “are the consequences of the policies of uncontrolled migration,” the Polish prime minister said this month. “We don’t want scenes like this on Polish streets,” added Mr Morawiecki, seizing on the disorder to attack the government’s liberal critics ahead of critical elections for a new parliament in October.
Neither the ruling Law and Justice party nor the main opposition force, Civic Platform, want to be seen as soft on immigration, but both want the economy to continue growing, which will require finding new sources of work from abroad.
Poland has the largest economy in Eastern and Central Europe (excluding Russia), but one of the fastest declining populations among the 27 members of the European Union.
Slawomir Wawrzynski, the head of the relatively wealthy district that includes the village of Biala along with other small settlements and an enormous oil facility, complained that a lack of work has crippled local development. “We have the money to build roads and buildings but we don’t have the manpower to do the work,” he said. “We need foreign workers.”
Orlen, the state-controlled oil company, put the new plant project – expected to cost more than $3 billion – in the hands of a South Korean-Spanish engineering consortium, which in turn sought cheap labor from Asia to complete the hard-to-find. Polish workers.
A welder from Lucknow in northern India said he was paid $3 an hour – much more than he earned in India but half the minimum wage in Poland. He said he encountered no hostility from Polish people and felt more welcome in Poland than during a previous job in Algeria.
Orlen, which is controlled by a government known for stoking anti-foreign sentiment, is now providing funding to support an anti-discrimination campaign sponsored by the local police force.
The campaign, called “Respect has no colour”, is a far cry from the message adopted by the leader of the ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who warned voters before elections in 2015 that his opponents would open the floodgates to migrants who carries “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe”, including “all parasites and protozoa.”
The party has scaled back some of its most virulent anti-foreign messages, but still touts itself as the only reliable defender of Polish values and culture against unwelcome intrusions, whether from bureaucrats in Brussels or desperate migrants trying to sneak into Europe in search of a better life. .
The war in Ukraine sent more than a million refugees, almost all women and children, into Poland. But this ended up exacerbating labor crime as many Ukrainian men who worked on Polish construction sites and in factories returned home to fight. And the broader demographic decline is shrinking the pool of Poles willing to do manual labor.
“This is a very big problem. You can’t change demographics,” said Piotr Poplawski, senior economist at ING Bank in Warsaw. The container camp for foreign workers, he added, “is currently an exception but will most likely be the future” as Poland looks for new sources of work abroad.
The container city in Biala is ringed by a high metal fence and includes a police station with fenced detention cells. Asian workers, said Mr. Zgorzelski, the site manager, can come and go as they please until the project is finished, but most will leave Poland once their contracts are up. “This is not a migrant camp but housing for workers,” he said.
Marek Martynowski, a Law and Justice senator representing the region that houses the new plant, said his party welcomed foreign workers as long as they entered legally and were not “young people who come here looking for social benefits.”
The thousands of workers hired to build the new factory for Orlen, he said, “are workers, not migrants, and certainly, we need workers.”
He acknowledged that his party sometimes used “tough words” against foreigners, but said that “everyone uses harsh rhetoric” before elections.
The fury of the Polish government against the European bloc’s migrant redistribution plan is largely a pre-election post: Brussels has not demanded that it accept anyone, and will probably offer Poland money to compensate it for the many Ukrainians it sheltered.
The opposition has also seized on immigration to score political points, accusing the government of raising the alarm about migrants while quietly allowing a large influx of foreign workers from countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Nigeria.
“Why does Kaczynski put dogs on foreigners and immigrants at the same time, while he wants to let them in by the hundreds of thousands from such countries?” asked Donald Tusk, the main opposition leader. He said he was also shocked by the “violent riots” in France and said the governing party was stocking up on potential problems by bringing in “more than 130,000 citizens from such countries last year”.
Caught in the crossfire, the state oil company has struggled to assure the public that it has not gone soft on migrants, insisting that it did not hire Asian workers itself and left all hiring decisions to contractors. Orlen’s chief executive, Daniel Obajtek, told Polish radio: “These people come, finish their jobs, leave – they don’t come with their families, they won’t stay in Poland.”
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.