Ukrainians – Our New Neighbours

  • Ukrainians – Our New Neighbours
    Janek Koza, "Immigrants", drawing, 2018

It’s been nearly five years since the Euromaidan and the Russian takeover of Crimea, initiating a mass influx of Ukrainian nationals into Poland who now make up a part of Polish society. 

Some have fled the army draft, others have come to study, but most of these people have arrived in search of a better job and a better life. Seasonal trips to earn a little extra money are becoming less common. It’s more and more common to see Ukrainians who are 20,30, 40 years old coming to Poland to live, study and work. The first wave of Ukrainian migration following the war has already had an effect on Polish society – from the economic, social and cultural perspective. It’s a lifesaver for the labour market and a chance to balance out a demographic of ageing citizens. If, that is, at least a proportion of those who’ve come from the east ultimately decide to stay.

There are a few possibilities for obtaining legal residency in Poland: work visas (issued for a period of six months), permission for long-term residency (in the case of marriages to a Pole or a permanent work contract with a Polish company), student visas or stays that fall within the limits of non-visa travel.

Hundreds of thousands, a million or two

A basic question with a not-so-basic answer is how many Ukrainians actually live in Poland today. The answer isn’t straightforward because the number keeps changing, affected by the time of year, for example, as many migrants are still seasonal workers. Let’s take a look at the data, in any case. The ‘supply’ (zasób – as it is referred to in Polish bureaucratic documents) of Ukrainian citizens can currently be estimated at around half a million people, however this number is swiftly rising.

It’s important to make the distinction between long-term and short-term migration. The former, despite demonstrating an upwards tendency, is still taking place on a smaller scale than the latter. Short-term migration is probably rising a great deal faster although, again, it’s difficult to establish the actual numbers. According to the data provided by Poland’s Office for Foreigners to Eurostat, the number of Ukrainian nationals holding a legal residency permit was 122,000 at the end of 2012 but by the end of 2016, it had risen to 409,000. In addition, in 2017, 141,1000 Ukrainians had obtained residency documents for the first time.

The data figures don’t take into consideration those who are residing in Poland with work visas that are valid for up to six months. In 2013 there were 217,000 such visas and this was only the start of the mass migration of people looking for work. Last year, there were 1.7 million such visas issued.

According to estimates from the National Bank of Poland’s Department of Statistics, in 2017 there were around 900,000 Ukrainian citizens in Poland, but if we factor in seasonal workers, that number could be raised to about 2 million. The question of how long they stayed in the country can be addressed by another set of statistics, which have indicated that these migration tendencies have, quite simply, stabilised. Even a year ago, it was expected that when Ukraine was added to the list of countries that don’t require visas for short-term stays (up to 90 days) in the Schengen area, non-visa travel to Poland would increase. In the meantime, no such rise has been observed. Over the first three months of non-visa travel (June-August 2017), the figure rose 12.9% over the same period in the previous year, but that tendency has stalled ever since.

Young men, young specialists

One might be tempted to be swayed by stereotypes and assume that it’s mostly women coming to Poland to work the most basic jobs, i.e., cleaning, selling or picking fruit. It’s true that there are quite a lot of women who fit the description, however the new wave of immigration post-2014 paints a different picture. There’s a clear shift towards males and younger people. There’s also been a wave of people from Eastern Ukraine coming to Poland, which was also something new. The reasons are quite plain: they’re escaping the armed conflict, but also trying to avoid the military draft. 

The war in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea is one of the reasons why some migrants claim refugee status. Generally, over the years 2007-2017, there were 6,800 such claims from Ukrainian nationals arriving in Poland. Protections were granted, however, only to 92 people, with 268 receiving partial protections and 26 admitted into the country with permission to reside.

So there really are quite few refugees in official terms. There are, rather, more and more students. According to the numbers provided by the Institute for Public Affairs (ISP), over the past few years that number has more than tripled. During the 2012/2013 academic year, there were 10,000 Ukrainian students enrolled in Polish universities; in 2016/2017 there were more than 35,000.

Zlotys over hryvnia

Statistics demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that while the number of students is rising, along with numbers of people traveling to Poland for personal reasons, the main goal of Ukrainian migrants is to earn a living. The poll carried out at the request of Personnel Service (a firm specialising in the recruitment of foreigners for Polish employers) has shown that not only are earnings higher in Poland than in Ukraine (minimum gross salary in Poland is 2,000 zlotys per month, while in Ukraine the equivalent is around 480 zlotys per month / 3,700 hryvnia as of the 1st of January 2018). Migrants are also encouraged by the geographical proximity of the two nations, the similar cultural background and relatively low costs of living when compared with western Europe. This has been confirmed by the ISP figures mentioned above with regard to student migration. The reason young people from Ukraine decide to move to Poland are primarily: low costs of living compared with other countries (declared by 39% of respondents), the possibility to study without paying fees or discounted fees (29%), ease of admissions (28%), likelihood of finding a job in one’s field of study (22%) and the quality of education in a given department or institution (22%). 

The lower cost of living are key in this regard because for a great number of migrants, savings are important. As respondents in the Personnel Service poll declared, they spend between 200-500 zlotys on their basic needs.

The earnings these migrant workers manage to save are clearly fueling Ukraine’s economy. In 2016, foreigners living in Poland sent over 8.8 million zlotys to their families at home. Last year, that number rose to 13 million – a rise of 47%. The great majority of this money (90.4%) went to Ukraine.

Based on the study commissioned by NBP, it appears that 56% of migrants living in Warsaw send their earnings back home. Even students are included in this figure – although it’s certainly less common because it’s only 1/5 of those who are studying in Poland. The average amount sent by Warsaw-based migrant workers back to Ukraine was close to 1,800 zlotys per year according to their research.

Putting savings is also possible because many employers are offering housing, transport and even food (e.g. for construction workers). In Warsaw, as research shows, one in four migrant workers from Ukraine benefit from such advantages. Experts underline that in spite of common misconceptions, they don’t earn less than their Polish counterparts, which is also an effect of Poland’s robust economy which has made it a ‘workers’ market’ where there are plenty of job offers to choose from.

Pensions and business owners

In effect, the demand for skilled labour has led to a drop in the number of people coming over to work illegally (the authorities have identified just over 10,000 such cases over the past five years).

Instead, Ukrainians are banking on legal, stable employment. The sort of work that will even allow them to put aside some of their earnings for a Polish pension. Official government statistics (ZUS) have shown that there are 383,600 Ukrainians working in Poland who are covered by national insurance and it’s certainly the largest such group among foreign workers.

Ukrainians also make up the group of foreigners who are most apt to start their own businesses – over 4,000 people registered to ZUS are business owners. By comparison, there are four times fewer Vietnamese workers taking that step.

Various analyses have shown that migrants from Ukraine are satisfied overall with their experience working in Poland. According to research carried out by the Coface financial firm, as much as 80% of Ukrainians have declared that they enjoy working in Poland, while 85% would recommend it to their friends or relatives. As the ‘Barometer for Earnings Migration’ study has shown, 39% of large companies are already hiring Ukrainian employees, while another 29% seek to recruit them over the next 12 months. It’s not only individual companies doing so, but also the government is looking to hire workers from across the eastern border.

The ‘Ukrainian narrative’ is coming up more and more often in conversations about HR in the medical field as a solution to the hiring gap. The main problem is bureaucratic: diplomas from Ukrainian universities are not automatically recognised in Poland so in order to be able to work in their field here, Ukrainian doctors must take a relatively difficult subject exam and Polish language test. Currently, there are efforts being made to make the process simpler for future migrant doctors. One idea that has come up is the issuing of work permits that would be limited in scope and restricted to a particular place of employment.

Specialised labour is also providing a solution for a robust market in need of everyone from construction workers to programmers. The latter group is so sought-after in Poland that employers are literally fighting for access. Currently, one in four programmers who have left Ukraine have chosen Poland. And still, as many as 2/3 of respondents in the ‘Barometer for Earnings’ study has shown, many of them are working below their skill level. According to experts, the main reason for this is because they can only receive a 6-month work permit and for many companies, this is too short a period for them to invest in a high-level hire. The fact that Ukraine isn’t part of the EU makes it more difficult to carry out nostrification procedures on diplomas or other certifications that would prove that someone is qualified to a particular position. It’s still the case that many houses in Poland are cleaned by women who hold a master’s degree in history and formerly worked as schoolteachers in their home country. 


There’s also the ‘dark side’ of residency in Poland. There are more and more stories of Ukrainians being exploited in unpaid work coming to light. As Piotr Sabat, who provides legal aid to workers from the east, explained in an interview with Dziennik Gazety Prawnej (Legal News Daily) situations in which Ukrainians are hired illegally and don’t receive their salary or only a small fraction of what they are due are still common. The number of complaints filed by Ukrainians with the Chief Labour Inspectorate (PIP) – with the most common reason being a failure to pay a salary that was owed. In 2017, there were 1,433 complaints filed with PIP, which was almost three times as many as the year before. Many seemingly legitimate jobs are only a way to exploit workers. Last year, DGP published examples of some employment contracts in which a worker could be fired without notice, but had to give three months’ notice to resign, with a penalty to 1,000 zlotys if these terms were broken; absences that had to be reported at least two weeks in advance, carrying a penalty of 100 zlotys for absences on short notice, and 500 zlotys in penalty for absences without a ‘credible reason’, along with penalties of 3,000 zlotys for acting against the interests of their employer. Experts call this out as exploitation. The fact, however, that these stories are seeing the light of day shows that Ukrainians are more and more conscious of their rights.

To work or to Poland?

Does migration from the east come with the chance of creating a new ethnic minority? As the aforementioned ISP study has shown, young people coming to Poland are more and more likely to declare that they won’t return to their homeland (around 8% of respondents). However, as much as 29% of them have said they plan to move to another EU country after graduation, while 28% want to remain in Poland and 26% haven’t yet decided whether or not they will leave.

The tendency towards a stabilised rate of migration is supported by hard data as well, namely the rising number of Polish-Ukrainian marriages and children born here. The number of Polish-Ukrainian unions has risen 2.5 times in the past few years. There are more children being born into Ukrainian households as well: last year there were 1,590, nearly 40 times more than there were a decade ago and 65% more than the year before. The ‘Barometer’ report (2018) has shown that the overall atmosphere is conducive to choosing work in Poland – the study analysed the mindset of three parties: workers from Poland, employers in Poland and Ukrainian migrants. The findings were clear-cut: attitudes of each group towards the others was characterised as mainly positive or neutral. The authors of the report stated that less than 2% of employers and 11% of employees declared a negative attitude. “However among Ukrainians, only 8% had had negative experiences with Polish employers, while 4% had negative experiences with their Polish colleagues,” Krzysztof Inglot, president of Personnel Service, has cited. Only the reality is not so rosy after all. The attitude of Poles themselves to Ukrainians is not so clear-cut. May reports from the Centre for Public Opinion Research (CBOS) indicated that while 36% of respondents declared an affinity for Ukrainians, a similar proportion (32%) declared an aversion. Various media reports from around the country have demonstrated cases of aggression towards Ukrainians on the part of Poles. Certainly, a number of such incidents were never reported to the police or the media in the first place.

New markets

Yet this aversion doesn’t appear to have pervaded the market, which continues to welcome Ukrainian nationals with open arms. It’s been a while since subsequent branches of the market have come to appreciate these newcomers, but today there isn’t a single sector that isn’t making an effort to recruit customers from Ukraine. They haven’t yet established themselves as homeowners, so their tendency to lease has inspired the likes of Metrohouse to start up a new online property leasing search service in Ukrainian, and its offices has agents who can speak Russian and Ukrainian. The Home Broker chain launched a marketing campaign over a year ago targeted at Ukrainian citizens. Just as in the UK, a market for cheap money transfers has flourished, with Western Union and newer players Meest Transfer and other fintechs offering services for Ukrainians based in Poland. These are mostly prepaid cards that can be used to make payments in 17 currencies without fees or make ATM withdrawals. 

Moves to cater to Ukrainian clients can also be seen among Polish banks. PKO BP offers, i.a., promotional fees for wire transfers to Ukraine. BGŻ BNP Paribas runs a Ukrainian-language online service and its customer service phone lines have agents who speak Russian and Ukrainian. BZ WBK also runs a Ukrainian-language website and phone support. Special accounts for Ukrainian nationals are offered by S.A., Getin Bank, and Bank Millennium. Ukrainian telecom needs were also addressed quite swiftly, as soon as two years ago, with T-Mobile among the first to offer special deals on calls to Ukraine, followed by Heyah. Last year Play launched an ad campaign featuring a blonde having a blast at a mini-concert performed by the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy, with info at the bottom of the screen informing customers about special rates for calls and texts to Ukraine.

The specific tendencies and preferences of this new consumer group is also being noticed by the retail market. Early this year, Carrefour introduced the ‘Ukrainian shelf’ of products aimed at Ukrainians residing in Poland.

The Ukrainian influence is also more and more apparent in the cultural life of big cities. If only in the programming choices of clubs, who are more and more apt to hire Ukrainian bands to perform. In December 2017, the Warsaw club Progresja featured the cult Ukrainian hip-hop band Griby, followed by 5'nizza in March. The singer Monatik recently completed a national tour of Polish cities. A reflection of these changes is also this year’s edition of the Warsaw under Construction festival, organised by the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and the Museum of Warsaw. Cultural programming in Russian and Ukrainian has begun to show up in institutions outside of Warsaw, including Wrocław and Lublin – two cities that are especially popular among young Ukrainians studying in Poland.

Klara Klinger ("Dziennik Gazeta Prawna")
Sylwia Czubkowska („Gazeta Wyborcza”) 

See also:

Other archival events from that cycle:

16:00 Guided tour Guided tour in English through the „Neighbours” exhibition Cepelia Pavillion
Marszałkowska 99/101, Warsaw
18:00 Film screening KYIV UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Screenings of Ukrainian urban projects «Київ у будові». Покази українських урбаністичних проектів MUSEUM on Pańska Street
Pańska 3 , Warsaw
17:00 Meeting The City and Its Landscape. Around the modernist architecture in UkraineМісто і його ландшафт. Навколо модерністської архітектури в Україні MUSEUM on Pańska Street
Pańska 3 , Warsaw
16:00 Guided tour Guided tour in English through the „Neighbours” exhibition Cepelia Pavillion
Marszałkowska 99/101, Warsaw
17:00 Meeting New Neighborhood: Marina Naprushkina talks to Vasyl CherepanynПрезентація ініціативи «Нове сусідство»: Марини Напрушкіної розмовляє з Василем Черепанином MUSEUM on Pańska Street
Pańska 3 , Warsaw
17:00 Discussion Migration policy and working conditions. A conversation about the work of Ukrainians in PolandДискусія про польську політику щодо українських мігрантів та біженців MUSEUM on Pańska Street
Pańska 3 , Warsaw
18:00 Guided tour Guided tour in Russian of the „Neighbours” exhibitionЭкскурсия на русском языке по выставке «Соседи» Cepelia Pavillion
Marszałkowska 99/101, Warsaw
16:00 Symposium Anti-Communism Deconstructed. Simposium«Деконструюючи антикомунізм». Симпозіум MUSEUM on Pańska Street
Pańska 3 , Warsaw
16:00 Guided tour Guided tour in English through the „Neighbours” exhibition Cepelia Pavillion
Marszałkowska 99/101, Warsaw