Na zdrowie!

It’s been a while – apologies. The reason for my absence was a holiday to WrocÅ‚aw.

Wroclaw

It is a beautiful city and I recommend it to you. The trip was also my first to Eastern Europe – Prague, Krakow and their ilk may be old hat to most people but I didn’t quite know what to expect. Poland is interesting because of its relationship with the UK. Although it’s a bit OT, I thought I’d set down a few of my thoughts.

Everyone will tell you that the UK entered the war as a response to Hitler invading Poland, yet how we acquitted ourselves afterwards is far less noble. During the war over six million Poles lost their lives. When we look at our own experience of WWII with misty eyes, consider the experience of anyone unfortunate enough to be sandwiched between Nazi Germany on one side, and Joe Stalin on the other. In Germany’s possession for over a century before Hitler came to power, WrocÅ‚aw under the Nazis underwent ethnic cleansing of almost all its Jews and and many of its ethnic Poles. In 1945 its German commanders refused to yield to the Red Army, turning the city into an all-too-easily-beaten fortress using forced labour by citizens who were shot as deserters if they refused to help with fortifications, or tried to evacuate the city. The fighting almost all took place from house to house, with both sides setting fire to whole districts. It’s not known precisely how many people died during the 82-day siege; estimates range from 40,000 to 170,000. What is known is that after 1945 the city’s population was at under a third of its pre-war level.

The view of many historians is that the UK and the USA, keen to secure agreement and peace with the Russian Army, let Poland down. The country had made the fourth-largest troop contribution to the Allied war effort, yet after the war Stalin was allowed to keep the parts of Poland he had seized in 1939, with the size of the country being “made up” by additions from subjugated Germany. This resulted in some of the largest movements of people seen in human history. Stalin was also given free rein over the post-war installation of government, producing a repressive Soviet-style communist society that wouldn’t finally crumble until 1990. Although the West can say that opposition to Stalin may have been impossible, it nonetheless had a hand in something deeply immoral.

Now Poland and the UK are affecting each other all over again – over half a million Poles have come to work here since their accession to the EU in 2004. This has been economically beneficial for Britain (oh yes it has, naysayers) and certainly beneficial for the workers themselves – the average salary in Poland is around £5,000 per annum, compared to a UK minimum wage of around £11,000 for full time work. If you live in a city I’ll bet you don’t live more than ten minutes drive from a Polish delicatessen, and certainly where I live huge old-fashioned analogue satellite dishes have appeared on the front of houses, with ‘PolSat’ emblazoned across the centre.

The economic consequences to Poland’s own infrastructure have been far less rosy – if a WrocÅ‚awian wants an operation he’ll have to wait a long time; around a fifth of the city’s doctors move away to work in other European health services. All over the city, a “brain drain” is occurring, with young Poles finding the wonderful Gothic architecture and beautiful cobbled streets a poor choice compared to quadrupling their pay packet and seeing the world. Britain’s economy has outperformed most other Western countries due largely to its Eastern European workers, but once again we’ve taken a lot away from those left behind.

Poles are now changing the UK employment law scene too. Were it not for the Polish pickers, packers, pluckers and plumbers the pool of potential agency workers would never have been there to force the evolution of this area of law. As I’ve previously said, rights for agency workers are a real political hot potato, with unions and employers’ federations dead set against one another on the importance of the flexibility that our agency-working Europeans provide. Now that many newspapers have revealed the influx of Poles has either decreased or that they’re even leaving, it may be that the Poles depart having made a lasting impression on even my obscure sphere of operation – employment law. So now I urge you to go and spend some of your hard-earned cash seeing beautiful WrocÅ‚aw, you won’t regret it, and you’ll be paying them something back.

Oh, and if you were wondering, it’s pronounced Vrotswav. Roll the r.