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Such is human nature that one always wants more money and believes that there is a better world elsewhere… I think this quality manifests itself particularly strongly among Ukrainians  –  it is better OVER THERE… Many people think that their problems revolve around day-to-day living and money. But when they leave the country, it turns out that the problem lies in themselves – in their hang-ups, stereotypes, behaviours, beliefs, emotions and laziness…

Once…

…as a child, when I lived in a small village in the Subcarpathian region of Ukraine, I saw many of my friends’ parents go abroad to earn some money and leave their kids under the care of their grandparents. Those parents seemed to me to be extremely courageous people, almost supermen, because their children stood out with their new clothes, shoes and toys which were quite extraordinary for us. The neighbours who stayed put at home were jealous of those people and often judged them, when family fell apart because they could not bear separation (or maybe that separation was the final part of a break-up caused by weak family ties, a lack of love and understanding). Judging and criticising, devoid of any sympathy, were especially harsh towards the children who got into trouble in the absence of their parents.  

When someone didn’t fare well abroad and died there, people generally sympathised with the family. When someone was not successful abroad and came back home, he or she was mocked. People gossiped about everyone, also about young women who must have turned to prostitution or other immoral trade, because there was certainly no other possibility for them to earn money.

A village like mine always listens out for scraps of new information and gossips  –  someone comes back for holidays from abroad and the village looks at him carefully, judges, criticizes and eagerly receives the latest news.  And no matter what those wage earners said, no matter how frank, authentic and complicated their feelings, experiences or stories of adaptation to life in a foreign country were, others still considered them lucky devils who had hit the jackpot.  Problems do not exist, money is the only visible thing. Those who came back only to take their family abroad and bid farewell to the village were considered the luckiest.

What is it like there?

Travel, so the saying goes, broadens the mind. But this is sometimes only at a huge cost. The situation of Ukrainian female migrants is perceived primarily from the vantage point of the considerable benefits that the host societies reap from their work. In comparison with local service providers, they are cheap labour. Migrants do not burden the budget of the host country with the obligations of the citizens towards their employees. Moreover, getting familiar with Poland and its people, migrants do more for bringing closer the two countries and building their mutual understanding than grand-scale political enterprises. If migrants draw pleasant experiences from their stay in Poland, they will become the country’s ambassadors in Ukraine. One of the biggest problems migrants encounter is flat rental. Female migrants often undertake work with accommodation provided, frequently as 24-hour carers for the infirm. This results in their isolation and heavy dependence on the employers. Female migrants often have little awareness of their rights, do not demand to have their work registered and may be misled as to the consequences of illegal work, or work for an employer different than the one named in the application for a work permit in Poland.

Once…

...I left my village, too. I realized that my village could not offer me any life opportunities, so I emigrated to Kiev to work and study there.  Although, strictly speaking, Kiev is not abroad, it was inaccessible for my friends from the village. My rose-tinted glasses got broken after a month or so, when I took a job at McDonald’s to somehow survive. During my first week there, I had to clean the toilets. Later I became a cashier, which was only psychically lighter work. A toilet stood for me as a symbol of my debasement, a phase in my life that I was starting to leave behind. The city did not accept me and I felt strange.  Every day, every minute ‒ challenges and trials. Within the boundaries of the same country, the same worldview, I had heard so many times that my inborn industriousness, typical of West Ukraine, “did not allow inhabitants of Kiev to have some rest and live peacefully, but stole their jobs.” It hurt at first, but later I started to take it as a compliment.

What is it like there?

I was walking through Warsaw on a Sunday afternoon and talking on the mobile phone in Ukrainian, when suddenly a young man stopped in front of me and started a conversation: you are from the East, you’ve come here to steal work from people like me.  I looked carefully at my interlocutor – he was wasted and staggered. I replied that I did not steal work from anyone, least of all from him. My another memory goes back to 2003, when, together with my employer, I first applied for a work permit. Both then and now, over 10 years later, the Polish law required and requires an employer who takes on a foreigner to obtain the opinion of a storoste stating that there is no suitable candidate for the job among Polish citizens. Only after obtaining such an opinion can the employer take on the foreigner. The validity of such opinions and the procedure of applying for them has raised questions and caused misunderstandings. Governments keep changing and ruling coalitions are being formed in most unbelievable combinations. Poland is free, but not Polish employers – before taking on an employer, they have to test the labour market in order to obtain the opinion of a storost stating that he or she accepts this candidate, and not another one. My employer wanted to take me on as a babysitter for her several-month-old son, but she was required by the procedure for obtaining an opinion to hold an interview with the unemployed people registered in the employment agency in Wołomin. During the course of 2 weeks, only one woman put herself up as a candidate for a babysitter.  She must have been drunk the previous day because she had weary eyes and smelt of alcohol. She did not need a job from my employer (God forbid!),  but rather her signature on a letter of referral from the employment agency stating that she was present at the interview with the employer and did not meet her expectations. The Agency  received the necessary papers, while my employer got the opinion of a staroste. And after we had completed several other procedures, discriminating me as a foreigner, our little Jurek got a loving babysitter.  

Once…

... I rented a room in Kiev from a woman who went to Germany to work. In a frank conversation, in which I got rid of naive fantasies acquired in my village, I realized what obstacles she had to overcome to survive in a foreign country as a divorcee with a child. She worked as a cleaning lady at several houses, studied, paid sky-high taxes and experienced having her rights limited, all at the same time…  Such was her situation until she had completed her studies, got a better job, a permanent residence permit and, finally, citizenship. Despite all the difficulties, she managed to turn the corner and got back on her feet. She developed a more positive view of life. She invited me to come to her place in Germany, but I was afraid. I knew already then that a new city and a new country meant primarily tremendous adaptation, cultural and financial challenges. I had only just began to adapt to life in the capital of my country.

What is it like there?

Prolonged isolation accompanied by separation from family and familiar environment is psychologically straining, leads to depression, deepens helplessness and confusion. Some time ago, I  encouraged people on Internet forums and conferences to set up hostels where migrant workers could at the same time be independent and stay in touch with other migrants, gaining knowledge and skills useful in finding a safe and legal job. Working on grey market, migrants are exposed to abuse on the part of their employers and stand a lesser chance of gaining positive experiences with Poles. This also contributes to the strengthening of organized groups who reap profits from illegal employment, issuing fictitious invitations and employing migrants illegally. Therefore, it is in the interest of the host country to create conditions in which migrants would be aware of their rights and how to assert them as well as would see the benefits of legal residence and employment. There are no hostels for migrant workers in Poland at the moment. Migrants come to Poland at their own risk and look for a job on their own. It is common practice, however, in the industrial, food and agricultural sectors to provide accommodation near the workplace. As for agriculture, the conditions are uneven, but as for manufacturing plants, there are well-functioning hostels for migrants across the country – they are cheap or even free. Employers often invite married couples if  they can offer only a family room.  After all, it is common knowledge that family ties strengthen good relations between the employer and the employee.

And what’s the conclusion? To go or not to go??

Authors – two women from Ukraine. Written down and commented by Marija Jakubowycz