Enterprising Poles set up shop in Central Europe

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When Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, thousands of Poles decided to seek jobs in the UK, Ireland and Sweden, the three countries that opened up their labour markets to the citizens of the new EU member states. But according to some surveys, growing numbers of Poles are opening businesses and taking up jobs in other Central European countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary.

It seems that for some Poles, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary may be just as attractive to earn money and live in as the UK and Sweden. According to the Polish Ministry of the Economy, the number of Poles taking up jobs in the Czech Republic increased by around 40% in the past year or so, by over 70 % in Hungary and even as much as 80% in Slovakia. Poland's high unemployment, now standing at 18%, is one reason for Polish job seekers to look south. On the other hand Germany, which closed its labour market for new EU members, the number of jobs taken up by Poles only by just 20%.

A town called Cesky Tesin, just over the border from the Polish town of Cieczyn, abounds in Poles. The town may have always had a sizeable ethnic Polish minority, but many more are coming looking for work. This part of the Czech province of Silesia has many operating coal mines, while on the Polish side, the restructuring of Polish mines has meant many layoffs. Jan Kudyn, a miner in his '40s told me that he didn't hesitate to accept a job near Cesky Tesin when he was made redundant from a Polish mine coal near Katowice.

'They pay much better money here. Besides, it not really far from my home in Poland. I'm not the only one to work for the Czechs and we have a coach taking us to the mine and back home every day.'

There are those who say that men like Jan Kudyn are having the time of their lives. When Jan was laid off at the Polish mine, like all other miners he received a generous redundancy package, which was meant to allow him to start a small business. He had to sign a document that he would never seek work in the Polish coal mining industry, which was meant to help trim employment in overstaffed and inefficient Polish mines. But there was nothing in the document to stop Jan seeking work just a few miles from home, in the Czech Republic. Marcin Kulinicz of the Ministry of Economy in Warsaw explains there is a certain profile of jobs in which Poles get employment across the southern border:

'Well that can be definitely one of the reasons. If I look at the professional structure of those who undertook employment in the Czech Republic, way over half of them, approximately 60 percent work in industry, and if we add to that approximately 25 percent who work in mining we can see that employment of Poles in the Czech Republic is focused on industry. So, these are just industrial workers who were recruited by Czech companies to work there. Because lack of huge cultural differences it's anyway quite difficult to go to the other country and work there especially in other sectors where you need at least the language knowledge.'

ANTICOR a company from southern Poland producing anticorrosion materials is a firm which conquered 80% of the Czech market and opened its branches not only in Prague but also in Bratislava, Slovakia. At a time when the Polish market is already overflowing with businesses and services, according to analysts, there are still plenty of opportunities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Marek Janka of ANTICOR says the two countries are a perfect place for doing business.

'From our experience, the Slovak market is very similar to Poland. The Slovak administration is friendly for new foreign investors. The Czech market is a little bit different. Administration in the Czech Republic is similar like in Slovakia, that means friendly to investors, and the clients in the Czech Republic are a little bit more conservative than in Poland, that means it's hard to start with them but the business after is more stable.'

Apart from lower unemployment in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the proximity of Polish, Czech and Slovak, which are mutually intelligible, there is one more reason why more and more Poles are heading south in search of jobs and business opportunities. Polish businessmen are becoming aware of the fact that Slovakia, and to some extent the Czech Republic, have liberalized their economies to make them more attractive for foreign investment, and for foreigners seeking jobs. Jiri Branka of the Trade office in Prague lists the reasons why he expects the number of Poles in the Czech Republic to go on growing.

'Polish language is close to Slovak, they're both related to Czech. So this is one reason. But the second reason well, wages should be second reason. I think that it is still a little bit higher here in the Czech Republic so probably people can get better more money here. And the last reason is that it's so close. There is some problem with higher unemployment rate in border regions of Poland so people can get easier work in the Czech border regions.'

So as the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians welcome the incoming Polish workers and businesses with open arms, there are those who wonder how long it will take Germany and Austria to follow suit.