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Poland Doesn’t Want Migrants, but These Foreign Workers Are Welcome

Determined to resist a European Union plan to spread the burden of migrants and asylum seekers around the continent, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, says his country wants to ensure that “Poles can safely walk the streets,” so it will not take in foreigners it does not want.

At the same time, in central Poland, a tiny village with only 200 residents is preparing for the arrival of 6,000 workers from Asia at a vast, newly built housing compound. The workers are needed by a petroleum company controlled by Mr. Morawiecki’s right-wing government.

The state-controlled oil company PKN Orlen needs them to build a new petrochemical plant that is vital for its expansion plans. Around 100 have already arrived, and the rest will follow soon, vastly outnumbering residents of the village, Biala.

“Some people say this is a bit too much and are worried,” said Krzysztof Szczawinski, the elected head of Biala and one of five local farmers who agreed to lease their land for the new housing compound and construction storage.

Jakub Zgorzelski, a manager overseeing the sprawling camp for foreign laborers, said he had no trouble persuading local farmers to give up their crops and lease their land for the workers’ compound. One initially demanded more money and refused but, fearful of missing out on the cash, finally came around. “Money talks loudest,” Mr. Zgorzelksi said.

Rejecting the European Union’s efforts to get member states to take in some of the migrants arriving in Greece and Italy by sea from North Africa, Mr. Morawiecki has denounced what he called a “diktat that is aimed at changing Europe culturally.”

For Orlen’s expansion plans to stay on track, however, cultural differences have had to be embraced.

The foreign workers’ compound in Biala was built in only a few months from 2,500 modules that look like shipping containers with windows. It has four separate kitchens to meet the distinct and decidedly un-Polish dietary needs of the workers — Filipinos who share the Roman Catholic faith of most Poles but not their taste for cabbage and potato, Hindus from India, and a large contingent of Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkmenistan who do not eat pork, a Polish staple.

Poland’s economy is reviving now that Covid lockdowns have ended, but its pool of working-age people is shrinking, and like much of Europe, it is desperately short of workers. But when it looks at the violent unrest that convulsed France after the shooting in late June of a French teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent, it sees more reasons to restrict immigration.

The riots “are the consequences of the policies of uncontrolled migration,” the Polish prime minister said this month. “We don’t want scenes like this on Polish streets,” Mr. Morawiecki added, seizing on the upheaval to attack the government’s liberal critics ahead of a critical election for a new Parliament in October.

Neither the governing Law and Justice party nor the main opposition force, Civic Platform, want to be seen as soft on immigration, but both want the economy to keep growing, which will require finding new sources of labor from abroad.

Poland has the biggest economy in Eastern and Central Europe (excluding Russia), but one of the fastest-shrinking populations among the 27 members of the European Union.

Slawomir Wawrzynski, the head of the relatively wealthy district that includes the village of Biala along with other small settlements and a huge petroleum facility, complained that labor shortages had crimped local development. “We have money to build roads and buildings but we don’t have the manpower to get the work done,” he said. “We need foreign workers.”

Orlen, the state-controlled oil company, put the new plant project — expected to cost more than $3 billion — in the hands of a South Korean-Spanish engineering consortium, which in turn sought cheap labor from Asia to supplement hard-to-find Polish workers.

A welder from Lucknow in northern India said he was being paid $3 an hour — far more than he earned in India but half of Poland’s minimum wage. He said he had encountered no hostility from Polish people and felt more welcome in Poland than he did during a previous job in Algeria.

Orlen, which is controlled by a government notorious for stoking anti-foreigner sentiment, is now providing funding to support an anti-discrimination campaign sponsored by the local police force.

The campaign, called “Respect has no color,” is a far cry from the message embraced by the governing party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who ahead of elections in 2015 warned voters that his opponents would open the floodgates to migrants who carry “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe,” including “all sorts of parasites and protozoa.”

The party has curbed some its most virulent anti-foreigner messaging but is still promoting itself as the only reliable defender of Polish values and culture against unwelcome intrusions, whether from bureaucrats in Brussels or desperate migrants trying to sneak into Europe in search of a better life.

The war in Ukraine sent more than a million refugees, nearly all women and children, into Poland. But that has ended up exacerbating the labor crunch because many Ukrainian men who were working on Polish construction sites and in factories have returned home to fight. And the broader demographic decline is shrinking the pool of Poles willing to do manual labor.

“This is a very big problem. You can’t change demographics,” said Piotr Poplawski, senior economist at ING Bank in Warsaw. The container camp for foreign laborers, he added, “is for now an exception but will most likely be the future” as Poland looks abroad for new sources of labor.

The container town in Biala is ringed by a high metal fence and includes a police station with barred detention cells. Asian workers, said Mr. Zgorzelski, the site manager, can come and go as they please until the project is finished, but will mostly leave Poland once their contracts end. “This is not a migrant camp but accommodation for workers,” he said.

Marek Martynowski, a Law and Justice senator representing the region that contains the new plant, said his party welcomed foreign workers so long as they entered legally and were not “young men who come here looking for social benefits.”

The thousands of laborers hired to build the new plant for Orlen, he said, “are workers, not migrants, and for sure, we need workers.”

He acknowledged that his party had sometimes used “harsh words” against foreigners, but said that “everybody uses tough rhetoric” before elections.

The Polish government’s fury at the European bloc’s migrant redistribution plan is mostly pre-election posturing: Brussels has not demanded that it take in anyone, and is likely to offer Poland money to compensate it for the many Ukrainians it has sheltered.

The opposition has also seized on immigration to score political points, accusing the government of whipping up alarm over migrants while quietly enabling a large influx of foreign workers from countries like Pakistan, Iran and Nigeria.

“Why is Kaczynski simultaneously setting dogs on foreigners and immigrants, while wanting to let them in by the hundreds of thousands from such countries?” asked Donald Tusk, the main opposition leader. He said he, too, was shocked by the “violent riots” in France and said the governing party was storing up potential trouble by bringing in “more than 130,000 citizens from such countries last year.”

Caught in the crossfire, the state-owned oil company has scrambled to assure the public that it has not gone soft on migrants, insisting that it has not hired Asian workers itself and left all hiring decisions to contractors. Orlen’s chief executive, Daniel Obajtek, told Polish radio: “These people come, finish their jobs, leave — they don’t come with their families, they won’t stay in Poland.”

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw.

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