Contributor: Leonid Stoikov, independent expert
The rapid development of the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding measures undertaken by governments worldwide have raised questions and concerns regarding Ukrainian migrants abroad. However, regardless of the severity of travel limitations set forth by national and international governments, Ukrainians’ search for dignity and decent work outside the country has not ceased. Moreover, continuous violations of fundamental human rights, institutionalized corruption undermining every aspect of life in the country, compel Ukrainians to migrate from Ukraine en masse in search for a better future. Chronic disrespect shown to labor rights on multiple levels and absence of decent conditions of work multiplied by lack of prospects will end in catastrophic economic and social consequences for Ukraine.
In addition to the chronic issues mentioned above, the pandemic has led to adverse consequences for the labor market within the country. Entire sectors of the economy are facing suspension of their activities for a year or even more, while small, medium-sized enterprises and micro-businesses are one step away from complete extinction.
Adverse effects of the pandemic unfold amid numerous failures of Ukraine’s government, large-scale corruption scandals, and oligarchs controlling strategic spheres of the economy. Thus far, the government actions have shown neglect of the issues vital to any country’s well-being – its human resources and public health. Incompetence with regards to labor market regulations has been especially apparent, already resulting in systemic failures, and potentially leading to catastrophic consequences for the people of Ukraine.
With that in mind, many Ukrainians are driven abroad to search for better income, regardless of the risk of being infected with a potentially lethal virus.
The most popular destination for Ukrainian labor migrants remains Poland. Among the advantages of working in Poland, besides higher wage are:
● the lack of language barrier due to similarities in Ukrainian and Polish languages makes Polish easily accessible for most Ukrainians
● higher wages than in Ukraine and higher quality of life, economic growth even during the pandemic
● abundance of job possibilities partially because many poles relocated elsewhere in the EU, making Polish economy dependent on labor migrants
● cultural similarities and shared history, making it easier to settle and acclimate in Poland in comparison to other EU countries, subsequently obtaining a residence permit.
As the Polish economy depends on foreign workers, concerns were raised in Poland during the first month of the pandemic regarding the impact of Ukrainian migrants returning home on polish economy.
However, as recent data shows, the number of Ukrainians in Poland was dwindling due to the pandemic during its first three months, but didn’t drop by more than 7%. In February 2020, there were 1.4 percent fewer Ukrainians in Poland than a month earlier. This number continued to decline, but only for the next two months. In March, by 6.8 percent compared to February, and in April by another 6.2 percent. From May 2020, the number of Ukrainians who arrived in Poland began to increase again. In May, by 2.2 percent compared to April, and further – month to month – by: 1.1 percent in June, 5.6 percent in July, 8 percent. in August and 7.6 percent in September. And it was then that the number of Ukrainians in Poland reached a record level – 1,405,794.
In October, the trend began to slow down. The increase in the number of people from Ukraine in Poland then equals to 1.0%. In November, there was a reverse. This and the following month, more Ukrainians left Poland than came to it – respectively -2.6 percent. and -3.9 percent In the last month of the year, the number of arrivals to Poland from Ukraine was a record low and amounted to 28 728. What does not change the fact that at the end of 2020 there were 1,315,456 people from Ukraine in Poland.
Labor migration to Poland in 2021
Although there is evidence that Ukrainians are also choosing other EU states as their destination, Poland remains the top destination for Ukrainian labor migrants to the EU in 2021.
In February – March 2021, long queues were reported at border crossing points such as Shehyni, with thousands of Ukrainian nationals, mostly labor migrants, without adequate waiting conditions or access to basic hygiene facilities.
This situation gives us a glimpse of a dramatic reduction in Ukraine’s workforce, which should also be an alarm for employers’ associations. The workforce’s dwindling looks even more alarming considering the fact that more than a half of Ukrainian migrants in Poland seek permanent residency. The survey made by the analytical center of the international employment agency “Gremi Personal,” shows that 66,5% of Ukrainian citizens working in Poland intend to obtain a permanent residence card (karta stałego pobytu).
Ukrainians’ urge to work and often settle in Poland does not mean that Poland offers ideal conditions for work and life. Many labor migrants in Poland often face multiple challenges, including unscrupulous employers trying to save money on workers, fraudulent intermediate firms providing job-seeking services, unofficial or partially official employment. Employers often manipulate labor migrants with the fact that a job in Poland is the only ground for his/her stay in the country and subsequent application for a residence permit and a migrant has only a month to find another job including corresponding bureaucratic procedures. The situation of a labor migrant in Poland is also jeopardized by the long process of obtaining a residence permit which can take up to two years depending on the region which in any case exceeds a three-months period set forth in the corresponding legislation. Thus, due to bureaucracy and the system’s incapability to manage the increasing flow of labor migrants to Poland, a migrant often finds his\herself in a very vulnerable and dependent position.
But despite all of this, from the perspective of a migrant, one might be more protected as a foreigner by the Polish system than by the Ukrainian one as a citizen. The Polish system has ways to influence an unscrupulous employer, even for a foreigner working under a short-term civil contract. In the case of an employment agreement governed by the Polish Labor Code, the migrant enjoys guarantees outlined in it. Such as a termination period which increases the longer one works for the particular employer.
At the same time, Ukraine state officials declared the necessity of the new round of labor reform. With expanding short-term contracts usage, at-will employment and removal of union representation among the main points of the proposed reform. Because of neglect of labor rights on a state level and such initiatives, more and more Ukrainians lose hope in their own country and seek it elsewhere, despite the risk of getting infected.
Such a situation may be the momentum for consolidating unions and employers in social dialogue to prevent workers’ outflow. As the world adapts to the pandemic reality, it becomes easier to find work or to move entirely to Poland.
Poland shows increasing demand for foreign workers, including highly qualified ones. For example, Razumkov Center’s data shows that more than 66 thousand doctors and medical staff left Ukraine in 2020. Those who left Ukraine stated that their wages, for instance, in Poland, are 7 times higher than in Ukraine. Life in Poland is not easy for medical staff in Poland for a number of reasons, making polish medics search for a job elsewhere, but Ukrainian medics are ready to stay there because of the lack of prospects of a decent life in Ukraine. Increasing demand for qualified specialists in Poland results in a growing number of firms offering services on legalization of Ukrainian diplomas in Poland, which will increase the flow over the nearest months.
The foreseeable future
Polish experts mostly agree that the number of Ukrainian migrants will not decrease but double in five years.
According to prof. Mączyńska, Ukrainian’s interest in coming to Poland will not decrease. They are attracted, among others, by the minimum wage that is growing in Poland. And it is guaranteed for everyone who is legally employed, including foreigners.
Thus the number of people migrating to Poland will increase, leaving Ukraine in lack of workforce. The existing dramatic situation in the labor market of Ukraine with mass emigration as well as unemployment and informalization demonstrates the importance of a serious and urgent revision of the present short-sighted labor policy in order to promote inclusive development of Ukraine. The analysis of existing problems within Ukraine’s labor market and reasons for labor migration can be a step towards further governmental policies that would ensure labor rights. Effective implementation of the right to freedom of association and enterprise along with strong labor rights protections and rule of law are core safeguards to avoid catastrophic consequences for the people of Ukraine, and contribute to Ukraine’s economic development.
However, efforts to mitigate the situation with labor migration from Ukraine must be a part of a complex strategic campaign. Ukrainian state and society itself are in desperate need of complex reforms. For example, it is impossible to ensure the right to freedom of assembly and the cornerstone role of the unions without successful reform of the corrupted judicial system.
As part of the strategic effort, it might be useful to consider improving Poland’s situation with labor rights. A foreign worker in Poland often finds oneself in a very vulnerable situation being utterly dependent on the employer. Moreover, one of the main reasons for polish enterprises to hire foreigners is that their vulnerability allows them to save funds, and manipulate such workers into submission and “silent work”. Ensuring migrant labor rights in Poland will eventually make deceiving the migrant harder, reducing the number of companies seeking to employ a foreigner in order to exploit his/her vulnerabilities, thus making the demand for foreign workers lesser. Thus it is important to establish cooperation with Polish human rights defenders and organizations advancing migrant rights in the country. Combined efforts in Ukraine and in Poland aimed, among others, to decrease the number of unofficial employment, may lead to a dramatic improvement in the migration situation. On the one hand an improved situation in Ukraine will provide prospects desperately needed by people in order to stay in the country, on the other, ensuring foreign workers rights in Poland will make a such worker less desirable for an employer prone to fraudulent behavior thus reducing the demand and number of people coming back to Ukraine in crisis and need for help.
In case the current urge for immediate complex strategic reforms and ensurement of labor rights will be ignored, Ukraine will face one of the greatest crises in its entire history.
 Survey was conducted on February 12-19, 2021. Among respondents – 1100 Ukrainains working in 87 Polish localities. Average age of respondents – 33-34 years.