A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of the Polish plumber. The Pole with the pipe wrench, le plombier polonais, appeared in the debate in France in spring 2004 and changed the course of history. It was this spirit, the man from the East, who was about to deny Monsieur Dupont his livelihood, which appalled the French to such a degree that they voted ‘no’ to the open Europe they themselves had thought up.
IT MUST BE ADDED that in Poland there was initial dismay that the country’s nomadic tradesmen had sunk the European constitution. Then they felt flattered. If 150 Polish plumbers (and that’s all there were) could create panic in a country – which incidentally has a shortage of almost 6,000 plombiers – then there must be something special about Polish plumbing. The State tourism agency immediately produced a web site on which a photogenic tradesman (casually grasping a length of pipe) calms the French by announcing that he intends to stay in Poland, which in return they are all welcome to visit. And Europe laughed with relief. (Loudest of all the British, who had long tried to get in a body blow to French egocentricity, but had never really managed.)
We do live in remarkable times. Today, 11 centuries after the Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”) it is again the worker who arouses dread and fear. But he is not waving a banner, does not wish to overturn society, he does not even seen bent on revenge for injustices. The dreadful thing about him is that he only wants to work. In truth, he is not asking much. And the problem is just that. He asks too little.
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO there were European conflicts over borders. There was always someone wanting to move them. Nowadays – and for many years to come – the conflicts will be about people, those who move all by themselves while seeming to trail invisible borders behind them. So unfortunately, the intrusion of the Polish plumber in French history is just the beginning of a more extended drama. He is going to make trouble in more places. Just look – he has already transformed Denmark into a fortress, and has had Swedish union representatives shouting “Go home!” early one morning, and caused the Swedish soil to sprout a new political alliance, the June List.
He has strange skills, the wandering tradesman. For example, he divides the loyalties of otherwise law-abiding citizens. When I mentioned to a colleague that I’m working with a Polish plumber, she becomes quite flustered with excitement. “What! Do you know one? Is he available?” At night she dreams of a foreigner wielding a pipe wrench. The adjectives she uses to describe our own plumbers I dare not repeat. But apparently, they leave behind them leaking pipes, goo on the walls and dodgy invoices. She is especially upset at the thought of their expensive cars. So now she pins her hopes on a plumber in a small car with foreign number plates.
Where shall we start? Let us start in Norway.
IN LYSAKER BRYGGE on the Oslo Fjord, plumber Markus from Karlstad, Sweden stands tightening pipes. He is not yet 20 and he is impatient. He wants a BMW. And in Norway he earns almost twice as much as he would back in Värmland.
We seldom speak of it, perhaps it hurts our self-esteem, but there are tens of thousands of them, the Swedish guest workers who cross the Norwegian border in search of better conditions. On building sites, in ports, working on the roads. Norwegian capitalism seems satisfied. Norwegians don’t come up to scratch, it is said. The Swedes are more flexible, more conscientious, and work hard from dawn to dusk. “We’re here to work, this isn’t a bloody rest home”, says a Gastarbeiter from Värmland.
Even the women seem content, at least in Alesund. “It’s always fun to have fresh meat in the village”. The fresh meat comes from the staffing agency Lossekompaniet. They are car mechanics from Halmstad on the Swedish west coast, who are now unloading frozen fish for 60,000 Norwegian kroner per month (7,700 ). They are not like Norwegian lads. Real gentlemen, who phone the day after, and even pay the bill at restaurants…
The Norwegian trade unions are less impressed. The word is that the Swedes dump salaries.
KARLSTAD AND HALMSTAD, abandoned by Markus and his colleagues, are the destinations of Wiesław and Piotr from Siematycze in easternmost Poland. They are not dreaming of a BMW, not yet: they want to put a new roof on their house, buy some furniture for the dining-room, and pay for the children’s college studies. They stay for six months, nail together a home, live in a spruced-up garage and earn twice what they would have done in Poland, but only half of what Torsten and Gunnar earn on a building project, partly off the books, just a stone’s throw away.
Mikolaj Kuzniecow from Beresteczko in the Ukraine comes to fill the vacuum that Wiesław and Piotr left behind them – along with thousands of others: in Poland there is now a shortage of professional builders. Let’s talk about him for a while. He was an engineer on a kolkhos when the Soviet Union collapsed, as did the kolkhos, and with it the profession that Mikolaj had spent five years studying. That trapped him in the Ukraine. What can you do abroad on a salary equivalent to 10 euro a month? Mikolaj travelled to Ostrava in Moravia in the Czech Republic to dig ditches at 20 times the pay. It was illegal, of course, “But the Czechs are good-hearted people. Nobody said anything, not a word about 1968; genuinely kind people”. Mikolaj admires the Czechs, they are so different from people in the Soviet Union. “Nobody thinks of stealing tools at the workplace, even though they are just lying there.”
AND NOW HE IS foreman on a Polish building site constructing quality housing outside Warsaw, and earns 3,000 kronor a month, which is twice the salary of a university lecturer at home in Kiev but 10% less than the Polish worker above him on the scaffold. “Unfair, I sometimes think, but what can I do? I think it’s simply a question of time. Things will even out.” His friends in Kiev went on strike and it worked out well. I wonder where I will find him in five years. In Sweden? No, in London. “I want to learn languages. But by then I’ll probably have my own business.”
Then there are those who jump several hurdles in one go. Like Janis Ozols from Ventspils in western Latvia. He met me off the bus in a vast Dodge Intrepid 2000. I tried to look impressed, but I needn’t have bothered. “Listen to this garbage”, he knocked on the dashboard, which made a plastic sound. “Latvians are crazy about American cars,” Janis informs me. “If you’ve got wheels like this you can park in the middle of a crossing.” He imported his limousine from the USA, “they practically give them away there”, to sell it on to some compatriot with no taste. So what does he want, a BMW? “You know what? I do not want a Turk’s car.” Janis wants a Volvo S70, because it looks small even though it is big. Aesthetically, he goes for Swedish discretion. The new house he’s building consequently causes offence in Ventspils: people say it looks like a barracks – it’s supposed to be brick, why have you used wood?FOR 10 YEARS, Janis Ozols has commuted to Sweden. First he took care of children, then scraped boats, then built jetties and garden sheds. Now it’s mostly cabinet-making. “Why are there no tradesmen in Sweden? Are they all trying to break into the movie business? People are calling all the time, but I never charge less than 100 kronor an hour.” Janis, Janis, I answer, this is not legal. “I know – but what can I do? I don’t want to live like my parents.” But what about tax? Janis informs me that zero minus zero usually adds up to zero. None of the jobs he’s done over the years would have been done if they had been above board. “And I’m not taking the bread out of the mouth of some moonlighting Swedish carpenter. Undeclared work is everywhere…” and when he is tired of my moralising, he stops me abruptly: “Well, at least I don’t go to Thailand to have sex with kids.”
His Swedish has a broader register than that of government minister Bosse Ringholm, and on his writing desk there are advanced technical drawings. “Industrial espionage”, he says with a grin. “I copied a few profiles which we are going to make here.”
The pay of a university professor in Kiev 1,500 kronor a month, and for Swedish youths unloading cod in Norway, 40 times that. The difference has nothing to do with the value of the work, but everything to do with history, frontiers and engineered exchange rates.
THERE IS NO APPARENT water shortage in Norway, but a bottle of table water in Norway costs as much as the daily bread of a large Indian family. I don’t know whether people in Norway should be proud or shocked at this. However, wages are in line with prices, or perhaps vice versa. On a sliding scale the phenomenon is the same in the wealthy nations Spain, Ireland and Norway, via the middle rank, France, Sweden or Germany – to Central Europe and on to Romania and Kazakhstan…
So it would contradict the laws of nature if there were not a considerable flow of people towards the richer areas as soon as the boundaries became porous. And in their movements they reveal strange patterns. For example, unemployment does not necessarily mean that there is no work.
Just think, in the Ruhr no less, people have forgotten how to weld! In Belgium there is a shortage of lathe operators, in Sweden, a lack of doctors and people who know how to build a brick archway… Unemployed German youths build up their stomach muscles in the gym – so why is there a shortage of lifeguards in German? That is the question asked on the beaches of Polish Sopot, where the lifeguards have been recruited for service in Zinnowitz. (Not because they are cheaper, but because they are experienced.) And why is there nobody to take care of old people? Or perhaps there are people, but they don’t want to do it?
When, as early as 10 years ago, the Germans got the idea that the Polish and others were crowding them out of the labour market, the government tried to quell this bad behaviour. For each handful of foreigners, companies were required to take on one unemployed German. There are apparently 5 million of them. And workplaces in agriculture and various other places were freed up. But hardly anybody reported for duty. The few that did appear had backache after a couple of days and were soon on sick leave, says sociologist Norbert Cyrus in Oldenburg, whose research topic is labour migration.
HE SOUNDS A LITTLE annoyed with his compatriots, but I say that I understand them. Why carry planks, pick strawberries or be a bored security guard, when you can play billiards, collect unemployment benefit or sick pay and have almost the same income?
Cyrus says there’s a lot in that. And then we have asparagus. It has no place in Marxist theory, but nevertheless asparagus is part of the base that is changing awareness. The German people, Norbert Cyrus tells me, eat asparagus nowadays. This crop, which requires careful tending, was always reserved for the rich man’s table. It was a symbol…
But when the Soviet Union began to crumble and Polish seasonal workers began to commute to the German fields, the German proletariat got a taste of asparagus. They liked it, and with Teutonic logic, they soon saw the connection. They wanted to eat asparagus, but not grow it…If Germany were only for the Germans, asparagus would disappear.
I SUSPECT that Norbert Cyrus has found the key. It’s a question of keeping an eye on the price of asparagus. When it becomes too expensive for unemployed Germans, then the Polish plumber will no longer be a problem.
Having got this far, we must mention that consumers too have begun to move around in a way that gives cause for concern.
The first time Dr Ozolins looked into a British mouth, he was appalled. The fillings were in place, but it looked as if a bricklayer had been at work. Flecks of filling, no finish at all… Was this what the British were getting for their tax money? The discovery gave Armands Ozolins confidence. His Latvia was not so backward in that case. Now almost every fifth patient at the dental clinic Sirowa in Riga has travelled there from the West. Which is not many compared to some dentists in Tallinn or Krakow who co-operate with travel agencies. Package trip: museum in the morning, dentist at lunchtime, and theatre and dinner in the evening. And the bill for the second phase is sent to the insurance office at home, which should be grateful that it was so cheap.HEALTH TOURISM is still in its infancy. Few here know that the EU give them the right to free care anywhere in Europe, as long as the discomfort is sufficient or the waiting list in their own country is sufficiently long. But they know it in Koszalin and Szczecin, and have begun to advertise cancer treatment and bypass operations.
Some consider that this competition is purely to the good, since it reveals mismanagement. The Swedish patient is not in a queue because there is a shortage of doctors, but because the county council has not managed to synchronise patient with doctor. (When one regards the planning difficulties of county councils, it seems a wonder that Swedish and Russian troops ever met on the battlefield of Poltava. They should have missed each other by a century.) Polish operating theatres are vacant not because people are healthy, but because tax funding is insufficient. And so on.
Others assert that these plumbers and dentists are a bad thing; they are draining the system, creating injustice or threatening welfare.
WE CANNOT ADDRESS such major issues here. All we can do is make the spectre of the plumber slightly more human, since the spectre does have a wife and children. Or we can ask ourselves what is the more dangerous: him or the local spectres which his wandering awakens.
It is estimated that a million Polish citizens work abroad, almost half of them in Germany. In the year that has passed since EU enlargement, over 140,000 New Europeans have taken jobs in Great Britain alone, the majority of them from Poland. The image is that of a lemming migration setting off on the very day the borders are opened, but this is a fallacy. Half of them were in place before enlargement, but illegally. In the building industry, hotels, fisheries, transport… but the largest group has already left the Gastarbeiter stage. Every fourth East European is employed in administration and business.
These figures were presented recently by a spokesman for the Institute for Public Policy Research in London. His name is Danny Sriskandarajah, and he smiled knowingly at a press conference in Warsaw and said he understood why young East Europeans are aiming a little higher than the strawberry fields. Post-colonialist laughter reportedly rippled around the room.
IT IS FASCINATING to trace the route of work nomads across the continent. They arrived empty-handed and as an afterthought toss a formidable problem onto our breakfast tables. Is it their rights or our privileges we are defending when we assert that under no circumstances must they be allowed to be exploited by selling their labour at a lower price than that asked by our own plumbers? Of course, we want it both ways, and we hope that justice is indivisible. That is the thought behind a number of campaigns going on at the moment. But everything indicates that the equation cannot be squared.
Why are 150 plumbers enough to terrify France, when 1,000 Polish butchers (who at a stroke made the same number of German butchers redundant) only lead to mild protests in the Federal Republic? I suspect that the afflicted Germans know something about history that the French do not. The unemployment rate in Poland is said to be 20%, but there, the government is trying to legalise half a million Ukrainians who are in undeclared employment on tourist visas. The explanation gives food for thought.
It goes like this: for decades, the Poles have had the good fortune to be able to be guest workers in the West, and therefore they have an obligation to allow Ukrainians to do the same thing in Poland. It goes on, the Polish know how humiliating informal employment is, and this knowledge puts them under an obligation. The final part of the explanation is: one must think of the future. Soon, ageing Europe will be fighting over Ukrainian care personnel (Portugal has already earmarked some), so it is good to nurture relations.
I BUMP INTO Denis MacShane, British trade unionist and until recently, Tony Blair’s Minister of State for Europe, at the place where all these problems started. He came to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, together with Lech Wałęsa to commemorate the strike of 1980, which was the first step towards the reunification of Europe. “The Polish plumber?” I enquire. “Oh, we love the Polish plumber! We love Egyptian plumbers, Islamic plumbers, any kind of plumbers! We just love plumbers… Because we need them.”
Every month, 9,000 New Europeans are registered employed in Great Britain. In the opinion of Denis MacShane, trade unions in wealthy countries need to be alert. When they say, in Portuguese or Polish “Join the union, these are your rights, you are entitled to the same pay as us” they must first clearly understand what they mean. Are they saying what they claim, or: “We don’t want you here, because you’re a foreigner”? He is slightly dubious about the Swedish LO boycott of Latvian workers in Vaxholm, which put Sweden in the headlines worldwide. Since when, wonders MacShane, has the LO been opposed to cheap foreign labour? “It was the low salaries of Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians in car manufacturing that built Swedish prosperity. That is the Swedish Model: the LO keeps wages down so that capital has elbowroom.”
I MUST CONFESS I’m beginning to have my own doubts about the Swedish Model, if it is Vaxholm that forms the mould. I may have missed something, but I have not managed to find a single case in the rest of Europe where a workers’ party has supported similar actions against brother workers. That is what Prime Minister Göran Persson did when he praised the actions of Section One of the Swedish Building Workers’ Union. In the next article, we shall see that perhaps he did not know what he was praising.
translated by Paul Fischer
The facts about Swedish guest workers in Norway are from the magazine Byggnadsarbetaren and from Faktum (Swedish TV2, 3/3 -05). Janis Ozols of Ventspils is not his real name.
Article published in “Dagens Nyheter”, Swedish morningpaper, 10 Nov 2005