Spotlight on Polish migrants' issues

After the visit of the Portuguese consul general to Thetford last week, it was the turn of his Polish counterpart to discuss the key issues affecting migrant workers in Norfolk.

After the visit of the Portuguese consul general to Thetford last week, it was the turn of his Polish counterpart to discuss the key issues affecting migrant workers in Norfolk. Janusz Wach spoke to Adam Gretton.

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We have all heard of the 'Polish Plumber'.

But for many migrant workers heading to Britain, the dream of a new life can turn into nightmare of exploitation by gang masters, below minimum wage pay, and problems caused by the language barrier.

The man charged with overseeing East Anglia's growing Polish community yesterday pledged to give more support to his fellow countrymen and women during his first visit to Norfolk.

Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, more than 80,000 people have flooded into the region to find employment and have quickly gained themselves a reputation as good workers.

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In Thetford, the Polish migrant community is growing so fast that officials do not know their exact number, but it is expected to match the 7,000 Portuguese nationals in the near future.

Polish consul general Janusz Wach yesterday met officials at Keystone Development Trust and its Multilingual and European Thetford Association (META) to support its work with migrant workers to improve access to jobs and services.

Later he spoke to the EDP:

Why are there so many Poles in East Anglia?

“There are not really any specific reasons why Polish people come to this region as far as my knowledge goes. It is probably by accident that the job offers happened to be in this part of Britain. One factor that takes some members of the Polish community to this area is the agricultural industry, for which the area is renowned and a magnet for those people that have those qualifications and worked in that field in Poland.

“The major issue for people from Poland getting a job in the EU is the lack of proper information and solid information about being a migrant worker, what it entails, and what sort of challenges they will face.

“Not many come to take up a job offer and most arrive in this country looking for employment and do not come with the finances to pay for the first few weeks while they look for a job. This is the most serious challenge. If someone is ill-prepared, he or she may find themselves in all sorts of difficult situations.

Is exploitation in the workplace still a problem?

“Exploitation is a major issue of concern for us and the migrant community and to be honest, there are cases of individuals being exploited by gang masters and untrustworthy employment agencies or by employers. Things are improving, but we are trying to raise awareness of what migrants' rights are.

“The problem is to encourage them to seek and read the information provided and to get them to report incidents to the police or other agencies when people are being unacceptably treated.

“I am also talking about those employment agencies that operate in Poland and send people to work in Britain. In some cases they are operating scams, which leave people without work and out of pocket after paying for a crash course in English.”

Will such a large influx of Polish people integrate into the Thetford's community?

“I do not think integration will be a big issue. Most Polish people come with little or no knowledge of the English language, which at this point in time is their biggest challenge. But they do not want to be in a situation of isolation and over time they will become vital members of the community.

“I imagine most will be happy to join the rest of the crowd and go to the local pub on a Friday night and join in with local events. As time goes by, they will quickly integrate.

“Discrimination is a very important issue, but I do not think it is a really big problem. There are only a few isolated cases, but it does not expose a racist society in the UK, absolutely not. However, in every society there are individuals who live according to their individual strange values and this may produce certain incidents of tension, which should not be there.”

What more can be done to help migrant workers?

“META is a wonderful project that caters for the needs of the migrant communities and has the full support of the local community and my office because it gives a helping hand to solve relatively small problems, which for migrants living in totally strange surroundings can be a big issue. However, it seems very unique and it is strange that there are not more of these throughout Britain and it would be wonderful to have more.”