Polish newspaper Gazeta Prawna has published a Top 50 ranking of the most influential people in the Polish economy – and Ukrainians are listed collectively in second position, just behind the country’s Prime Minister and one place ahead of Polish President Andrzej Duda.
This unprecedented ranking is recognition of the increasingly vital role played in the Polish economy by a Ukrainian workforce that has grown rapidly since 2014 and now numbers at least one million. Poland has been at the forefront of a growing trend throughout Eastern and Central Europe that is seeing countries ease restrictions on Ukrainian economic migrants as the region seeks to make up for workforce shortcomings created by a combination of low birthrates and mass emigration to the wealthier economies of Western Europe. According to UN estimates, the top ten fast-shrinking populations in the world are all located in Central and Eastern Europe, with Poland expected to experience a 15% drop in population by 2050.
Keeping Poland’s Economic Miracle Alive
It is not hard to see why Poland is so enthusiastic about new Ukrainian arrivals. The dramatic increase in the flow of Ukrainian workers over the past four years has been crucial for the continued development of the Polish economy. It has enabled Poland to maintain robust economic growth, with GDP rising by 4.6% in 2017 despite the country experiencing the highest employment levels since 1990 and suffering from growing labor shortages in numerous sectors. Ukrainians have proved a perfect fit for these gaps. Around 40% of Polish companies in the services and sales industries now rely on Ukrainians, according to Warsaw HR firm Work Service SA.
The flow of Ukrainians to Poland began in 2014 thanks to a range of factors connected to Russia’s military interventions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. A small number of Poland’s growing Ukrainian community fled directly from areas under Russian occupation, while others of military age moved across the border into Poland in order to avoid serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. However, the vast majority of Ukrainians in Poland are economic migrants responding to the sharp decline of the Ukrainian economy in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Poland has sought to benefit politically as well as economically from the recent influx of Ukrainians by labeling them as refugees and attempting to use them during negotiations with Brussels over Poland’s reluctance to accept quotas of Syrian refugees. These efforts have not succeeded in convincing many, particularly as Warsaw has only actually granted refugee status to a tiny number of Ukrainians since 2014.
Memory Wars Strain Geopolitical Alliance
The growing importance of the expanding Ukrainian community in Poland comes at a time of heightening historical tensions between the two countries. While Warsaw remains among Kyiv’s strongest political supporters within the EU, rising nationalistic tendencies in both countries have produced a series of so-called memory wars revolving around contentious aspects of the two countries’ shared past. Both parliaments have passed legislation criminalizing any deviations from officially endorsed historical narratives while there have also been incidents of monument desecration and other acts of apparent incitement. Nevertheless, both Warsaw and Kyiv remain publicly committed to close ties while readily acknowledging the shared interest they have in presenting a united front in response to the resurgent Russian threat.
Billions in Remittances
The loss of so many working age Ukrainians is a source of considerable alarm for Kyiv, representing a blow to the current workforce while raising the prospect of a further deterioration in the country’s already dire demographic outlook. However, Ukraine’s economy is also deriving significant economic benefits from the growing Ukrainian community in Poland. Most Ukrainian workers in Poland send a large portion of their earnings home. Polish officials estimate that the annual total of remittances sent from Poland to Ukraine in 2017 was in the region of EUR 3-4 billion. Analysts also point to the positive impact of Ukrainians returning home after working for some years inside the EU, potentially bringing with them fresh approaches to business and a better understanding of contemporary European economic norms.