Friday, 17 August 2007

Pole-axed II: Scotland

On my week off, I spent a few days in Edinburgh, to catch up with old friends and work colleagues. Not much has changed there (Edinburgh is the sort of city that will always look the same: its too old to change now), but one of few differences I did notice was the sudden abundance of Polish cafes, delicatessens and other Polish businesses.

When I first moved to Edinburgh in late May 2004, Poland had only just joined the EU three weeks previously. The hostel I was staying in was full of eager Poles who had just arrived, and looking for work. Within months, it felt like nearly every kitchen in every restaurant was full of Polish workers. By the time I left in November 2005, many of these Polish were starting to speak fluent English and really starting to settle down and integrate into Scottish society. One guy I worked with was about to get married and buy a house. A Polish pub had even opened.
When I went back last weekend for the first time in nearly two years, it was immediately clear the Polish population had continued swelling.
While happy to hire Polish and other Eastern Europeans in the kitchen, none of the restaurants I ever worked for would ever consider hiring a Pole as a waiter simply because of the language barrier. But at both restaurants now, not only were nearly all the kitchen staff still Polish, but so too were many of their floor staff. And of course, there are now all those Polish-owned businesses I saw.
One of my old supervisors told me that there is a constant stream of Polish moving into Scotland. Of the newer arrivals, many are relatives of those who came in the first wave, and use their family connections to get jobs. Consequently many restaurant kitchen staff not only share nationality, but genes too. Meanwhile those original Poles who migrated in 04, will now qualify for British social security, as they’ve lived in the UK for more then three years. Consequently it’s expected (or feared by tabloids) that many will start claiming the dole, or take out student loans and enrol in university.
In Sweden, the Polish workers generally stuck to themselves, and didn’t mingle with the Swedes, and/or Swedes didn’t attempt to mingle with them. But in Edinburgh, many Poles seem to socialise with their other work colleagues, have Scottish friends, and just generally seem far less segregated then in Gothenburg.

It is incredible how quickly the whole demographic of a city has changed in such a short period of time. It is particularly incredible considering that, as far as I could tell, it has taken place with very little dissent or opposition. In contrast to Sweden, nobody I spoke to had any hostility towards the Polish. This is despite the fact that the migration into Edinburgh is on a much larger scale then in Gothenburg. This might change when more Poles start claiming welfare, but in the meantime, many can at least see the economic benefits of having so many willing workers. One of my old managers thought it was great: They’re hard-working, obedient, do all the chores that you’d never get a Scot to do, got no aspirations for promotion, and whenever you’re in need of new staff, they always happen to have a cousin who needs a job.
Not the most puritan of motives for embracing your new European kinfolk, but I’m sure Poles prefer that then getting sacked with two days notice.

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