Wave of Eastern European Workers Hits U.K.

The sound of Polish, Latvian and Estonian chatter is often heard in London cafes these days — largely due to the United Kingdom opening its labor markets to countries that have joined the European Union. Rob Gifford reports on how new workers from Eastern Europe are affecting the British economy.

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BRAND: This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ADAMS: And I'm Noah Adams. In a few minutes, a gangsta's memoirs turn into a smoking gun.

BRAND: But first, what happens when a country throws open its borders to new immigrants? Great Britain, Ireland, and Sweden have been allowing open immigration from new European Union member states that joined in 2004. A report form the European Commission says the three nations have done pretty well despite fears that new immigrants would create big social and economic problems. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

If you've been to London lately and bought a coffee or had a pint in a pub or stayed in a hotel, you might have noticed: there are not many native-born Brits providing those services. In fact, almost none. As a wealthy European nation, Britain has always been a destination for migrants, and residents of the European Union have been able to work legally here, without visas, for several years.

But with the accession of the new EU countries in May 2004, the numbers have expanded. Nearly 300,000 people came in the first year. But Julie Smith of Cambridge University's Center for National Affairs says the British economy seem to have absorbed them amazingly well.

Ms. JULIE SMITH (Center for National Affairs, Cambridge University): The nay-sayers would say, ah, these figures fundamentally under-represent the actual picture. We've got five times as many migrant workers coming here from Poland than the government suggested, so it's still a disaster. But in practice, what we're seeing is that a relatively small number of people have come to work, and they're doing jobs that actually we couldn't fill before, so they're filling a real gap in the market, and that's actually good for the British economy.

GIFFORD: One area where the immigration has been most pronounced has been in the building trade. Those opposed to the implementation of a European constitution in France last year used the Polish plumber as the symbol of the low-wage laborer they feared would sweep in and take French jobs.

In Britain it seems the Polish plumbers have been a little more welcome. At a hardware store in London's West Norwood district, 30-year-old Pole Thomas Skripchek(ph) from Krakow is stacking shelves. He has an engineering degree, but he arrived from Poland three years ago to illegally work on construction sites in London. Since the law changed in May 2004, he has registered, and now works legally.

Mr. THOMAS SKRIPCHEK (Polish Immigrant): I came here because London now is the country of better opportunities for Polish people, I mean generally for everybody. It's really much easier to get a job than in Poland and the wages are still much better than, the money's much better than in Poland.

GIFFORD: There's bee such an influx of Poles working in the building trade in London, that Skripchek's employer has created several job specifically for them to help better serve their Polish customers in the building trade. Some of the British builders who come into the store are philosophical about the influx of much cheaper Eastern-European workers, but some, like contractor Peter Norton, say it's caused a lot of anger in the building trade.

Mr. PETER NORTON (Contractor): Working for 50 pound a day, cashing their end, you say, well, they're not going to get, most painters that I employ, because I don't do painting, they're 100 pound a day and pay tax on it. There's a hell of a difference, isn't there. And of course it's obviously doing us out of work. I mean, it must be doing us out of work. It must be, mustn't it. There's so many of them.

GIFFORD: Most analysts seem doubtful that the EU report will force other European countries, especially the so-called Big Three, Germany, France and Italy, to change their policy before they're forced to do so in the year 2011, when all borders must be opened.

William Barter(ph) is professor of European political economy at the London School of Economics. He says the continental Europeans are in denial, and in the end open labor markets will force huge structural changes on European welfare systems and their economies in general.

Mr. WILLIAM BARTER (Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics): This is just one more, I think, nail in the coffin of the continental European model of labor markets and also, I think, social support, and you cannot have the kind of welfare state that the French like to run, or for that matter, the Germans, with free mobility of labor in Europe. It's a very powerful catalyst.

GORDON: Barter and other say of course the debate about whether to let in Eastern-Europeans is an important one. But with all barriers set to come down within five years, like it or not, the end result is not in question. What will prove a larger problem in the long run, he says, and he compares it to the U.S. relationship with Mexico, is what to do about would-be migrants from Africa. Rob Gifford, NPR News London.

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