When Yaroslava Zagorska was 18 years old, she and her mother packed their suitcases, left their Lviv apartment and moved to a city in northern Poland near the Baltic Sea. Gdansk, located some 1,200 kilometers from Kyiv, now is home for Zagorska and thousands of other Ukrainians.
“I arrived simply as a worker to earn money,” Zagorska said, recalling her arrival in Poland in the early 2000s.
She studied at a private university and worked as a waiter in a bar for over 15 years, while her mom worked as a cook in the kitchen there. Zagorska had no plans to stay at first, but she later married a Pole and launched her own business.
She decided to bring traditional Ukrainian cuisine to the Polish market, and it paid off.
Today, Zagorska owns Pierogi Lwowskie, a cafe in Gdansk that serves Ukrainian dumplings, or varenyky. Her small business employs 10 people, most of them Ukrainians.
“I never thought that we would be able to develop so quickly,” she said.
But stories like Zagorska’s are not usual for Ukrainians that move to Poland in search of work. Estimates of the number of Ukrainians working in Poland vary widely, from 500,000 to 2 million, depending on the source. Some come to work as seasonal workers, some take job offers from Polish companies, some pursue careers in tech, while others take advantage of the visa-free regime Ukraine now has with most European Union countries, which allows them to spend up to 90 days in the Schengen area (without a work permit).
The average wage difference is enormous: $326 monthly in Ukraine compared to at least $1,200 monthly in Poland.
Pomeranian Voivodeship, a province in northwestern Poland with Gdansk as its capital, issued in 2017 over 216,000 work permits to Ukrainians, who are the biggest group among all foreign workers, according to Poland’s Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Policy.
And the numbers are growing. The Ukrainian and Russian languages are now heard on the streets of Gdansk almost as often as Polish, taxi drivers speak those languages too, and currency exchange offices advertise currency transfers in Ukrainian.
It’s a win-win situation, experts say, as labor is in strong demand in the region, whether it be factory workers or high-level engineers.
Supply and demand
The factors that have pushed Ukrainians to look for better options in Poland are Ukraine’s poor economic situation, the lack of political stability and low salaries. Poland’s close proximity, higher salaries and working standards, as well as its similar language and mentality, make the country an attractive option.
But it’s not only Ukrainians who benefit from labor migration. Poland has an oversupply of vacancies in its booming industries.
And the Pomerania region in particular has a lot of jobs to offer, as its economy profits from one of the biggest ports on the Baltic Sea and its related industries — shipyards, engineering facilities and logistics — manufacturing and agriculture, along with the dozens of tech companies and international businesses that have recently moved their service centers and operations to the region.
Marcin Grzegory, a deputy director of the regional non-profit organization Invest in Pomerania, said the booming economy in the region especially needs people who are ready to invest in their career and learn.
“So if you want to expand your career, but do not want to go to the far side of Europe or the world, there is always Poland… and it’s in huge demand of talent,” Grzegory said.
The biggest appetite is for IT workers, according to Grzegory. But once the tech people move to Poland, they also explore other countries and can move further, where “it’s even better paid,” he said.
Ukrainians fill vacancies in sectors like research and development, electronics production, and services for big Western companies like Thomson Reuters. The maritime industry is another prominent field in the region, and it needs people for logistics, engineering, and construction.
Due to better living conditions and the rule of law, some Ukrainian tech companies have moved to Poland or opened offices there. This is the case for Ukrainian tech firm Ciklum, a software company that launched its office in Gdansk in 2016.
Marcin Kołodziejczyk, the international director at Grupa Progres recruitment agency, said recently there has been a change in the requirements of Ukrainians moving abroad — more and more are looking for high-skilled jobs.
At his company, which has opened five offices in Ukraine since 2016, around 15 percent of the 300 employees are Ukrainians.
“They are typical white-collar workers, and five of them are managers,” Kołodziejczyk said.
Although Grzegory said Pomerania is rather far from Ukraine to attract seasonal workers, some still go there.
For example, Oleksandr Repetyuk went to Gdansk to build private houses. He typically goes to Poland to work for several months, and then returns to his family in Ukraine’s Khmelnytskyi Oblast.
“I came simply for work,” Repetyuk told the Kyiv Post at the Sunday church service at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Gdansk which he attended with his brother.
Typically, workers like Repetyuk, who come to Gdansk for short-term jobs, do not socialize with the Ukrainian diaspora. They also rarely go to restaurants or spend money on other leisure activities, as they are trying to save every penny. In Repetyuk’s case, he has to pay off a loan he took to buy an apartment.
“You can find a job there (in Ukraine) as well, but I don’t like it because it takes too much time to earn what I want,” Repetyuk said.
As a builder, he makes more than $1,000 per month in Poland, while the most he can earn in his hometown would be half of that, he said.
It’s Repetyuk’s second time as a worker in Poland, and his first with a biometric passport. After almost three months, he has to return to Ukraine under the visa-free regime rules. But this time, his return back home will be short — he said he plans to get a work permit and return to do more construction work.
Although Repetyuk is satisfied with his Polish working and living conditions, working without a permit is a risky business, as employees are in danger of being ripped off. Already saving money on not having to pay wage taxes, the employer might also decide to not provide a proper living space, health insurance, as well as delay payments or simply not pay at all.
Media have reported cases of Ukrainians being dressed in blue-and-yellow uniforms at a factory site to differentiate them from other workers. In another case, builders never received their salaries for their work as they had to leave Poland after their three-month term expired, said Lev Zakharchyshyn, the Ukrainian consul in Gdansk.
Tensions between Ukrainians and Poles have recently been fueled by the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric of the nationalist and conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party. The party often raises controversial topics regarding the history of the two nations, and pursues a Polish right-wing agenda.
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s labor flow to Poland is a win-win situation for both countries — vacancies in Poland are filled, while Ukrainians make money that they send back home. According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, Ukrainians sent over $3.2 billion back home in 2017.
While it was mostly Ukrainians from the country’s western regions that used to go abroad to make money, Russia’s war against Ukraine in its eastern Donbas region has increased the flow of Ukrainians coming from the east. Zakharchyshyn said that most Ukrainians in Pomerania now come from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in the west, and Donetsk Oblast in the east.
“I believe that Poland and Ukraine should come to an agreement,” Zakharchyshyn said. “I think we are much more alike than different.”