Exodus of the Polish plumber

In a borderless Europe, cheap workers come -- and then they go

Published June 4, 2008 7:01PM (EDT)

The Polish plumber giveth, and then he taketh away.

In 2005, as the French debated whether to accept or reject a proposed constitution for the European Union, much was made of the dreaded specter of the "Polish plumber" -- hordes of Eastern European craftsmen willing to work for pennies, and eager to take advantage of a borderless Europe in order to undermine the high wages of Western Europe's workers. In France, the propaganda campaign worked, and the constitution was rejected.

Last week, however, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that starting in July, restrictions against inward migration from eight formerly Communist countries, including Poland, would be lifted.

A clue as to why may be found in the U.K.

At one point the United Kingdom was the most attractive destination for Polish emigrants looking for work. But no more. The booming Polish economy is pulling the plumbers back home, which means, reports the Telegraph, that home improvement costs in the U.K. are jumping up.

The price of building work has risen by 20 percent over the past two years due to a lack of skilled tradesmen and the rising cost of building materials, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).

The number of builders and decorators is declining fast due to an exodus of central and eastern European nationals. There were an estimated one million British-based Poles at one time but half have now left the U.K., which has led to competition for labor and so rising costs.

I guess that's one problem most critics of a borderless Europe did not anticipate. As quickly as they come, they can go.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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