By David Ingham
A common feature in many of Britain’s towns and cities in recent years is the sight of a Polski sklep, catering for the needs of the country’s new migrant residents, who continue to arrive in search of a job and better economic prospects.
Since Poland joined the European Union (EU) in 2004 the UK’s Polish born population has more than quadrupled from 75,000 to a total of 515,000 by the end of May 2010, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.
Around 9% of these Poles are now resident in the North West of England, with the Polish Consulate in Manchester estimating the largest group of between 20,000 and 30,000 are based in the Greater Manchester area.
The inevitable consequence of this migration is that numerous newspaper articles have focussed on the perceived negative economic impact and drain on resources these foreign born citizens have had on the UK.
Kay Phillips, a member of Manchester Respect party says that a misconception about what migrants are doing here could lead to increased problems in the future.
“Now in this time of recession Poles are being blamed for taking jobs and they are suffering a rising tide of racism,” she said.
Yet according to Krsztof Zemlik, of Poles4Poles, a community consultancy which helps members of the Polish community in Manchester, the perception that immigrants do not have a positive impact is totally unfair.
“The impact that Polish citizens have on the economy is enormous,” he said.
“The jobs that are taken by Poles are often manual and are often well below their qualifications. Manchester has unquestionably benefited from having Poles around, with employment among Poles at 84% and those claiming state benefits low, at only 2.4%.
“As a consequence of such high unemployment, there have been millions of pounds paid back into the UK’s economy.”
This view is backed up by a 2007 Bank of England report, entitled ‘The impact of the recent migration from eastern Europe on the UK economy’.
The report stated the entry of new EU migrants since 2004 had improved the workings of the labour market, reduced wage and inflationary pressures and lowered the natural rate of unemployment.
And although estimates from the Office of National statistics show there were a total of 1,041,315 registrations form Poles under the Worker Registration Scheme by the end of 2009, the reality is that these are gross cumulative figures, with many coming each year on short term contracts to fill gaps in the labour market.
Yet while statistics seem to suggest Poles are benefiting the UK’s economy in terms of filling gaps in the labour market, they have also put an extra strain on councils, with many now providing translation services to help non-English speakers understand what is available to them.
Mark Wallace of the Taxpayers Alliance says that as a result local authorities are not only wasting money by translating documents but are also perpetuating the problem of people not speaking English.
“It is crazy that while huge amounts of money are spent on trying to reduce racial tensions in various parts of the country, many councils also spend money on maintaining language barriers amongst the population,” he said.
“Given the remarkably low readership of even those council documents which are produced in English, it is hard to imagine that most of the translated copies produced are ever even used. This is clearly a tremendous waste of money.”
In contrast to Manchester City Council which does not translate documents into Polish unless specifically asked to, Lancashire County Council found that migrant workers often do not access services because they do not know they are available to them.
As a result, a sub-regional partnership was mobilised to create a migrant worker welcome booklet, which provides comprehensive information on access to services, key contacts, how to settle in a new community and learning to speak English.
The concept was originally developed in East Lancashire where a partnership between the county council, Burnley Borough Council, the Pennine Division of the police, primary care trusts and local community networks helped create a joint welcome policy and booklet which was translated into Polish, Lithuanian and Czech.
Burnley Borough Council’s Executive Member for Resources, Councillor Margaret Lishman, justified the money spent on translation services because in her opinion it supports fellow EU citizens who have come to Britain to find employment.
Cllr Lishman said: “Why should they be a drain on resources? Most of them come here to work.
“If you look at the history of this country, the rate of immigration has always been linked to the requirements of the country.
“Any authority that puts any document out has a duty to ensure that people can read them, so that just as we would do large print for people who are partially sighted, then we would do translated versions for those in the community that were not able to read it in English.”
Szymon Bialek, Vice-Consul at the Polish Consulate in Manchester, suggests that although there is clearly a need to provide some translation, migrants also need to make an effort to learn the language of the country in which they live.
“Of course it depends on the situation but I don’t agree that it is a waste of money to translate documents. If the British government has allowed Poles to come then local authorities need to provide some translation, particularly in the case of understanding criminal justice and what council services are available,” he said.
“But I don’t want to say that it is always essential to translate everything. The most important thing is that if you live in England you have to learn to speak English.”
Whatever the truth, one thing is certain, the issue of immigration is certain to be pushed to the fore in the months ahead, with government cuts set to force thousands of British born citizens into unemployment.