In just about any city in the world, the construction industry is a haven for migrant workers. It’s physically exhausting work, and not particularly well paid. Most tasks require little formal education or experience. Demand for workers is also often high, as few local people will do it if at all possible. It is the sort of work that people only do if they have no other choice. Employers are desperate for workers, and the workers are desperate for employment. No matter where you’re from or what language you speak, as long as you’ve two arms and two legs, there is work for you.
Ever since Poland joined the EU in 2004, there has been an exodus of young Poles into Western Europe, and not surprisingly many have ended up working in construction. Sweden is no exception, and my company has plenty of Polish too.
The first Polish workers I meet were at my first site in Hammarkullen, where we had three. Whenever something went missing, it was blamed on the Polish. “Have you seen my cigarettes?” someone once asked me. When I said no, he turned to his friends and with knowing nods said, “The Polish guys must have taken them.” If the foreman noticed something wrong with a wall or something, and made enquires, the general reply was, “Weren’t the Polish guys working on that?” And so on.
Then this week nearly all the Poles got sacked. The reason given was that there is no work for them. Most worked as bricklayers or stonemasons, and all that type of work is finished. In fact the whole site is nearly finished and there is increasingly little to do. We could all see this and knew the work force would need to be reduced. But we also assumed people would just be transferred to other sites. If they couldn’t keep us on, surely they’d tell us in advance. But the Polish guys were sacked with two days notice, without any warning. The company will start work at another site in September. Some of them might be reemployed then, but there is no guarantee, and even then it still means at least six weeks of unemployment.
Whatever excuses the company might provide they don’t hide the fact that all the sacked workers were Polish, and no one is even pretending this is a coincidence. All the stone and brickwork might be finished, but many of Poles have showed themselves willing and able to do other work too. In fact, some of the guys sacked hardly touched bricks and mortar. I can see why the company needs to reduce its workforce, but there are other workers (such as myself, but shhh) with less experience. We’re all keeping our jobs. It’s pretty clear that nationality played a big part in the company’s decision, and is reflective of the general view management have of Eastern European workers. They must have known they wouldn’t need its Polish workers earlier then last Wednesday, yet they allowed them to keep working falsely assuming they had jobs.
After the events of this week, I suddenly find myself feeling far less secure about my own job. If work does dry up over the next few months, I could also just as easily lose my job due to no fault of my own. In my mind, my co-workers should feel the same way, and see the whole episode as an example of how disposable we are. But instead most have expressed sympathy and support for management’s decision, and now the anti-Polish prejudice is epidemic. All of a sudden everyone is complaining about the fact the Poles couldn’t understand Swedish or English, or about their shoddy workmanship.
The way many Swedes talk of Polish workers suggests they should be grateful for the opportunity to work in Sweden, as opposed to people prepared fill job shortages, and do work that many Swedes refuse to do. As I often hear people say, it might be low pay but it’s a fortune in Poland. If they don’t like it, they can always go home. Short-term employment is better then no employment, and as long as they are in our country, they should be happy with whatever they can get.
This of course goes against Sweden’s image as a tolerant compassionate country, yet some Swedes still manage to weave this image into their arguments. So often I’ve heard people complain without any sense of irony “We are a trustworthy and generous country, and immigrants exploit that”.