poles‘The Poles are Coming’ was a documentary that kept its tongue placed firmly in its cheek – and for the better, I hasten to add. As the BBC2 website describes it:

“According to some of the locals, Peterborough is being stretched to breaking point by the influx of Eastern Europeans, attracted to the area by the promise of high wages and decent living conditions in exchange for manual labour. Employers are delighted with their Polish recruits, but some residents want the Poles to go home.

They’re not alone. The Polish city of Gdansk wants its workers back. Its shipyards are struggling without them and there aren’t enough men to build the football stadium ready for Euro 2012. This prompts Gdansk’s leaders to visit Peterborough to plead for the return of their workers.

Can the Polish immigrants be tempted home and how will the local economy cope if they left?”

More than any of the preceding programmes in BBC2’s White series, this documentary raised some very interesting and pertinent questions, highlighting the impact and consequential effect that today’s mass migration (without borders?) has albeit not necessarily those about the ‘white working classes’.

Documentary maker Tim Samuels began by introducing us to a range of different Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians who had arrived in London en route to Peterborough, a most perplexing destination for most British people I would imagine. It showed how coming to Britain allowed the migrants to earn what they would normally earn in a month (£300) in their countries of origin in a week here. Some, were earning in excess of £2,000 per month. It is worth noting that the documentary repeatedly stressed that the migrants were “working hard” more than inferring that the white working classes didn’t. Indeed, one episode in the documentary painted a terrible picture of the white unemployed, fair or otherwise.

Samuels then looked at some of the issues that locals in Peterborough were experiencing, with mixed messages outcomes being the result. It seemed that depending upon who and where you were in Peterborough, your opinion was either that migration was good or migration was bad. There seemed to be little grey amongst the black and white extremes of public opinion.

The documentary then traveled to Gdansk to see what effect mass migration was having on the towns and cities of Poland. The picture looked dire, with what seemed to be single women largely keeping the place going, ranging from taking on factory jobs through to being trained to be fire-fighters. Whatever way you looked at it, the effect on Poland looked desperate to say the least.

The programme then raised some interesting questions. The first was that as one Peterborough resident suggested, if the migrants are boosting the economy, why is the economy not re-investing its resources into making the social infrastructure work? So for example, schools were at breaking point with new migrants who were unable to speak any english, GPs were struggling to cope with the increasing numbers of registered patients, as indeed did it appear that the local municipal services such as waste collection services were failing also. This seemed to raise an interesting point and highlighted a serious problem with living in a capitalist driven culture. What seemed to be happening in Peterborough was that local businesses and industries were desperate for workers who would work long hours and participate in hard work without, what seemed to be apparent, any real checks or safeguards being put in place. With the economy booming, the responsibility to house, provide welfare and protection for the migrant workers then seemed to fall to the state rather than those were benefiting more directly from such an economic boom. Searching for the lowest costs in order to make the highest gains is the extremely simplistic essence of capitalism and so the impact – socially, politically, economically or so on – is quite irrespective to those who are reducing their costs but increasing their gains.

How then for example do the ‘white’ parents of the only English as first language speaking child in the local Peterborough school feel reassured that their child will get the education that theirs and indeed all children deserve? How do those on the council housing waiting list who have lived in that area for generations – irrespective of ethnicity – feel or respond when migrant workers with children ‘jump’ to the top of the list as the documentary suggested?

As one resident put it, “we are not against immigration, but against the amount of immigration”. Is it therefore racist to ask this question or is it a legitimate one? Unfortunately, the documentary failed to provide any answers.

The response from our political leaders on these issues has been to either bury their heads in the sand and leave it to those ‘on the ground’ to deal with, or to reiterate the growth of the economy mantra. Yet raising these and indeed other questions as potential problems for society are vitally important and so desperately need to be responded to. By failing to do so, this leaves the ‘problem’ being un-addressed and so provides a fertile seedbed from which it becomes very easy to scapegoat and blame the ‘other’ (the Pole, the Latvian, the Czech and so on). This fertile seedbed then becomes the place where resentment and in some instances, explicit racism and hatred duly evolves and thereby causing even greater problems in society.

The final point relates to Poland and the impact that the growth of our economy through migrant labour, is having on the Polish economy. In attempting to build the Gdansk stadium, which will feature as part of the 2012 European Football Championships, the local authorities are finding it near impossible to find enough suitably skilled workers in Poland to be able to complete this landmark project. As such, the Polish authorities have had to replicate what is occurring in Britain and seek migrant workers from Korea and China to come to Poland to finish the task.

Whilst this is all part of the globalisation (capitalist?) process, the question that remains is this: when the economy in Peterborough realises that it can get work done even more cheaply through using Koreans and the Chinese, where then do the Polish, Latvians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Slovaks AND the white working classes go?

Maybe one of the closing shots of the drunk Czech who had come to Peterborough but was unable to find a job and was left destitute and sleeping under a bush should be a reminder – and warning – to us all.


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