City of Shadows

Daiva Tereščenko | Pictures: Cyril Horiszny

Poland’s capital is the destination for a large number of Ukrainian workers. In order to work legally in Poland, Ukrainians are required to have a visa and a work permit. However, in reality, many migrants circumvent these regulations by travelling on a tourist visa and working without proper papers. Paradoxically, working illegally improves the migrants’ economical situation as many migrants would not be able to support their families if required to pay all their taxes from their low wages. However, the irregular status represents a crucial obstacle for further integration. Working illegally makes them vulnerable to exploitation and does not allow them to find jobs that match their skills and qualification. Accordingly, especially among those who have been in Warsaw for a longer period, many of the migrants interviewed hope for amnesty for illegal migrants. It is also true, that many Ukrainian migrant workers do not even consider the possibility of settling in Poland; one does not live here, it is only a spot to make money for life, which is lived at home in the Ukraine. 


Finally, a sign: “Warszawa: 30 km.” Olga , the woman sitting next to me, changes the SIM card in her cell phone to call her employer, who promised to pick her up at the bus station and take her to her work and residence: “Our bus is late as it took longer for the check at custom. If traffic is Ok than we should be there in less than an hour.” Just like most of my fellow travellers, Olga makes the trip from Lviv to Warsaw in order to get to her job. For her and some of the other travellers, leaving Lviv in the evening and arriving in Warsaw in the morning already seems like a normal routine. However, for Galina, the young girl from a small town in Galicia, it is her first trip. She is grateful to get any information. Maria, who lives in Poland already for about eight years, tells her about her very first labour trip to Warsaw: “I had no idea what to expect, knew nothing about the city. At the station I was met by my employer and they showed me the place where I would workand live.”

Tourists prepare themselves with guidebooks, reserve their hotel accommodation in advance, and use the services of tourist information booths, guides and maps to discover the city. In contrast to them, Ukrainian labour migrants rarely have clear ideas about what to expect when departing for Warsaw for the first time. How do they adapt to the life in the city? Are there places they like or places they dislike? Is the city for them a place to live or nothing more than a place to make money? Finding the answers to such questions was the purpose of two field research stays in Warsaw, during which I focused on Ukrainian labour migrants’ perception of the city. Aside from following migrants’ routes from Western Ukraine to the European Union, during this research it was important to analyse their motivation for migration, their travel organisation, and to explore their urban life in the place of destination.

The most important source of information were the migrants themselves, as I wanted to uncover their stories about their experiences and challenges in the city. During my two periods of fieldwork I interviewed sixteen Ukrainian migrants. However, it is important to note that not all migrants want to talk about these issues. During the bus trip I met labour migrants who openly talked with me at the dinner table during the bus stop. They shared their contact information and promised to meet; however, they changed their mind later saying that “my experience does not matter” and “an interview will not change anything”. Also one woman refused to meet, but she told her story over the telephone, generalising that “All our stories are the same, we work hard, and nobody cares about us”. The information from the migrants was complemented with interviews with representatives of organisations that support migrants.

Getting the papers, crossing the border

The bus trip from Lviv to Warsaw costs 234.86 UAH (about 22 Euro) and takes about eleven hours (although it took me even longer then scheduled –almost thirteen hours– because of longer controls at customs at the EU border). However, Ukrainians interested in going to Warsaw must plan much in advance and invest additional resources to organize the necessary papers before starting their trip at Lviv’s bus station. Experienced migrants like Olga, who began to work in Warsaw even before Poland had joined the European Union, remember the various policies and regulations that were introduced to control the stream of migrants between the two neighbouring countries. In reaction to requirements by the EU, Poland introduced a visa requirement for citizens of the Ukraine in late 2003. The procedures for crossing the border were further complicated at Poland’s accession to the Schengen system in 2007. Since then, a Polish tourist visa is valid for free movement within the entire Schengen zone. However, this advantage is outbalanced by the fact that visa procedures became more complicated. In addition to this, Ukrainians are required to have not just a visa but also a work permit in order to work legally. The application for this permit has to be filed by the interested employer on behalf of the foreigner.  However, in reality, many migrants circumvent these regulations by travelling to Poland on a tourist visa and working without proper papers.

While the visa regime is perceived as an expensive annoyance, Ukrainian labour migrants know that if you want to come to Poland you can come anyway. Wlodimir, one irregular migrant working in Warsaw, notes: “You can buy an invitation. It costs you 2000-3000 UAH (190-280€) to get into Poland. But it is not certain that you will get a job”. He adds: “Neither Poland, nor Ukrainian migrants gain from this system, only the agents, who take the money for the preparation of the documents”. Those who have legal arrangements for work and commute to Warsaw also frequently wonder in whose interest such complicated procedures, which are always hard to follow, really are. Lyudmila, a middle-aged Ukrainian women complains: “Each time you have to pay for a visa, worry if you will have the visa, and worry what will happen at customs”.

At the same time, according to the migrants interviewed, existing regulations do not help them feel secure about their work and their pay. Sasha, who was working at a construction company, gets angry remembering his first journey to Poland when a recruiting agency, which was organising his journey from Ukraine to Warsaw, initially promised to meet him in Lviv, later in Warsaw, but in the end nobody showed up to help him upon his arrival.

Arriving in the city

Our bus arrives at its final destination called the “Stadium” station next to the former site of “Jarmark Europa”. Begun in the early 1990s in and around Warsaw’s “10th-Anniversary Stadium”, the now-closed Jarmark Europa was, for almost two decades, Europe’s largest open market, employing thousands of peddlers from Eastern Europe and Vietnam. Now, the surroundings are rather dark, dirty and feel unsafe. That is why some migrants prefer to leave the bus one stop earlier at Warsaw’s main bus station. One feels some relief that the trip is over. However, for the migrants arriving at “Stadium” this is just another beginning. Some of them are met by their employers directly at the platform, while others just begin their journey into the city and try to reach their destinations on their own.

Without very much knowledge of the city and their rights as migrants, newly arrived migrants tend to be in a position of dependence to their work providesr. For this reason, the behaviour of the employers at the beginning of the labour relationship is a very important aspect that influences migrants’ social and psychological status, their perception of the city and society, and their future integration level in the country in general. Obviously, such a dependency invites misuse. However, as demonstrated by the story of Svetlana, a professional nurse, there are also employer-worker relations that are harmonious and not at all characterized by exploitation: “I remember that day like today –Thursday, October 11th, 2001– when I came to Warsaw by invitation. From the beginning I was treated like a family member. I will never forget these words: ‘My house-your home. Your children-our children.’ And so it was for three years”.

Social networks are very important if not crucial for labour migrants in the city. Migrants share their problems in finding a place to live, work and important information about their status in Poland with friends and acquaintances: One of the interviewees recalled: “(...) And when we had this Mrs. Emma, who helped us a lot, we knew where we were going, to whom and what work we would do.” Another young woman, Ivanka from Ukraine, who has a university education and lives in Warsaw, stressed the importance of social networks: “My friends knew that I was searching for work and that somebody at Warsaw University was looking to fill a position so I applied and sent in my CV. Before that I had sent out my CVs, but I did not get many replies. So my network of friends helped me. The apartments I rented I also found through my contacts and colleagues”.

Another crucial element in Warsaw’s immigrant topography is NGOs, which play an important role as mediator of social networks for labour migrants. Obviously, they are most important to those migrants who lack other social contacts in the city. One particular interesting institution is the “Welcome Centre”, which offers help to migrants who seek advice or have problems with housing, workers’ rights abuses or legal documents. Opened in 2009 by two women that had come as migrants, the “Welcome Centre” serves as a migrants’ guide to the city. Their website explains their mission and states: “As is the case for many immigrants coming to Poland, both these women confronted various difficulties upon their arrival to Warsaw. With their experiences of immigration close to heart, they decided to create a place where immigrants arriving to Poland could find a helping hand. Until now, in Europe’s most central capital, a place such as the ‘Welcome Centre’ did not exist; a place where immigrants could benefit from support in the most basic but simultaneously complicated issues”.

Exploring the city

Although labour migrants may stay in the city for a long period, the city can still remain very much obscure to them. The most important determinant for the relationship between migrant and the city is the character of the migrant’s work. One of the migrant women with whom I was travelling to Warsaw said that she planned to work in the garment industry and she explained that all women working there live and work in the same building. The only day she has off she uses to sleep or to go shopping. For domestic workers who provide 24-hour care services, the chances of going out in the city are even slimmer. Domestic work and the garment industry is the domain of women; however, men working for construction companies face similar situations. Their housing is often close to the construction site but far away from the city, where they go only to shop, if at all.

Labour migrants who have lived longer in the city and have brought along their children and family members, have a different perspective of the urban spaces. The second generation becomes their guide and interpreter of the Polish language and also presents a new discourse of the city.

We met with Liuba on Saturday after she took her nieces from Ukrainian school and we followed them to their apartment. During our short trip by tram the children happily pointed to the buildings of the old town and told us about the history of the city. Liuba explained to us that when they went out to the city, the children used to show them around and tell the stories they learned in school.

The second generation of immigrants has other perspectives on the city and the urban places. During the time when their busy parents and relatives work, the second generation children and youth easily use the local language and explore the city. Furthermore, they synthesise both the style of local life of the city and their parents’ migration experience creating a hybrid experience of their own. Whilst the experiences of the second generation of immigrants need further exploration, my findings suggest new perspectives for immigrants’ integration forms in the city.

Visible places

The Palace of Culture, the old town square, the Castle – these are central points on every tourist’s visit to the Polish capital. However, the Warsaw of the Ukrainian labour migrant is a quite different city. Dominant points on such a map would not be the famous landmarks nor many of the institutions frequented by Warsaw’s domestic population, such as theatres or the university. Instead, we would find the bus and train stations, housing places, centres for the issuing of residence and work permits, markets, supermarkets and the Ukrainian church. Following the migrants on their routes linking these places, a different and little-known geography of Warsaw emerges.

However, there is not just one “migrant city” as various migrants stress the importance of different places. Migrants who are employed as domestic workers live and work in the same place. They often travel to Ukraine fairly frequently and so their social network in Warsaw is small. As a consequence of this, the “city map” of the domestic workers is probably the one with the largest blank spots. Even though these migrants work in the city, they are almost invisible and for them the city remains unseen and undiscovered. The result is self-perpetuating. Migrants need more opportunities to learn the language and gain new social contacts to have better jobs available to them and their current form of life offers very limited chances towards a path of integration.

In other professions, the opportunities of migrants to explore the city are less restricted. Nevertheless, most of my informants seem unable or uninterested in enjoying themselves in the foreign city. They do not have the time to go out to the city and do not want to have additional expenses for travel and other amenities: “People arriving here come to earn money not to live; they send money home and support their children”. Even the cultural and social services and programs that are offered free of charge are not in high demand, as few migrants can allow themselves to attend because of their limited time.

The situation seems to change only in the case of those who brought their families, who have come with children and who stay longer. Ivanka, who has been living in Warsaw with her husband for 4 years, told me that she and her husband only discovered Warsaw when they bought bikes and started cycling. Svieta, whose son followed her to Warsaw and works during the summer holiday to earn money for his studies, showed me pictures of her son cycling in the parks and places of interest of Warsaw.

My research paints a picture of a rather fragmented community, whose members differ in regard to factors such as profession, duration of stay in Warsaw and, most importantly, whether or not they have brought along family and children. For the majority of Ukrainian migrants, ties to the homeland are probably stronger than ties to their new environment. Nevertheless, we asked: are there places for communication and coming together, creating a community of Ukrainian labour migrants?

Probably the most important place is the Ukrainian church. Here, a large number of labour migrants meet every Sunday: “In the church you can obviously see people coming and going. Earlier there were some empty places to sit. At 9 o’clock Mass just a few people came. Now there are three services at 9, 11, and at 3 o’clock and there is still no room to stand”.

Within Warsaw’s migrant geography, the Ukrainian church has a much broader function than just as a religious centre. The church is the place where migrants are visible. As a result of increased labour migration, the religious centre began serving broader migrant community needs such as being an informal place for meetings and communication, the sharing of experiences, or providing information about regulations affecting the migrants’ legal status.

Migrant Housing

Housing experiences of labour migrants are important for tracing urban practices and strategies. During the research it was important to record personal stories about the migrants’ living places in the host countries to trace how migrants find housing and what kind of place they choose before and during the economic crisis. How does the income from their work in Warsaw affect their household conditions back in their home country?

The choices for work are connected with housing possibilities. Working the hardest for the lowest pay, migrants seek to find places where they can both work and live at the same time. This is especially important for temporary migrants and for those who come for the first time. The gender aspect in the housing is also very important; women choosing to work in nursing, babysitting and housekeeping have the possibility of living with the family, while men who work in the construction industry have the possibility of living either in the same large building as other migrants or in organized small houses

Economical downturn had particular influence on the housing market world wide. However, despite this, some labour migrants had more positive experiences. Because of media attention to the housing market, prices of housing decreased and Lyudmila, who has worked in Poland for a long time and had always had problems finding affordable housing, was able to get the credit to buy a apartment, where she could live with her children: “In 2007, I got permanent residency. Then I didn’t need to pay for the permit for work or visa. I understood that I have more possibilities. But my children had to waitone and a half years and I had to prepare something for my children, to find some place to live. I started to think about an apartment when the crisis started. There was a lot of information about the possibilities of getting some credit. In 2008, I started to look for an apartment and thinking about the credit. I found the cheapest one I could. I bought it in 2009 and have been living there since then. It’s relief for me now. Housing is the biggest problem for a migrant”.

Another strategy of making use of the crisis is demonstrated by Svetlana, a Ukrainian woman who began to work in Warsaw in order to support her children, who are still in Lviv. After the economic downturn brought a collapse of the Ukrainian real estate market, Svetlana was able to buy an apartment back in the Ukraine.

Flexible, but illegal

Public opinion suggests that immigrants take low skilled jobs from the locals and increase unemployment. However, academic research and economic theory shows that the actual impact of immigration on the employment prospects of domestic workers of low qualification is less significant than many people believe.

In the case of Ukrainians in Poland, it would be misleading to speak of a direct competition for jobs. The reason for this is the very low wage level. While unemployed Polish workers would not refuse to do low skilled works per se, the salaries are often too low to support families in Poland. Accordingly, Polish go abroad to do such work and earn better money. However, why are such badly paid jobs still attractive to Ukrainians? To answer this question it is important to consider three facts, which explain which migration strategies make sense for Ukrainians economically.

The first of these facts is the limited movement of Ukrainians. Due to visa regimes and the protection of European labour markets from citizens of so-called third-world countries, unlike their Polish counterparts, Ukrainians cannot simply react to economic incentives by moving to Britain or Ireland. There are obviously popular alternatives to Poland such as Spain, Portugal or Italy, where wages are higher. Yet even in the times of Schengen, the path to each of these countries has its specific challenges. Thanks to its geographical proximity and the similarity of the Polish and Ukrainian languages, Poland seems especially attractive to those who want to go for a shorter amount of time (or alternatively, to leave for a significant amount of time while also remaining in steady contact with their home country).

The second, somewhat paradoxical fact is that Ukrainians are able to offer their work at a lower price due to their illegal status. Larisa, who has been living in Warsaw for more than 8 years, explains: “With a very small salary like 150 € it is very hard to live here. I work illegally, as it would be difficult for me otherwise. Why is it difficult? A lot of people work for minimum wage. Nobody wants to pay taxes for this. Workers get a wage of 1200 zloty (about 300€) – this is the minimum – yet they still need to pay 40% of this in taxes. They have an agreement for rent and in this also pay taxes. People simply do not want to do this. The worst is a part-time position. In that case, it is not worth to work at all, as you are not able to support anyone then.”

The third fact is the differences in living costs in Poland and Ukraine. Ukrainian migrants make use of this difference when commuting back and forth between their homes and their places of employment.

Labour migrants certainly act rational when adapting their life and migration strategies to the above-mentioned factors. However, the result is a situation that in many cases precludes better integration. Crucial in this respect is their legal status. It is known that the lack of migrants’ civic engagement is explained by their semi-legal status in the host country -the need to stay ‘invisible”. Working illegally has its advantages and disadvantages. Somewhat paradoxically, the irregular status improves the migrants’ economical situation and social mobility. As Valeriya, who has been working in Warsaw legally for many years, notes: “The illegal workers who work in Poland, they are more flexible, earn better money, but they have their problems. We have documents, but we get the minimum here. It is not enough for us; we have to work more in order to survive”. On the other hand, the irregular status does not allow the migrants to approach the labour market strategically, which is a disadvantage especially for those who live for a longer period of time in the city. Accordingly, some of the interviewed migrants, who had already gained some experience and confidence, spoke of the need to be visible and therefore become legal. Wlodimir, who initiated his own company for construction services, but has no legal papers, is an example of this issue of legality. In view of this serious barrier to his company’s future development, he thinks about legalisation and hopes for amnesty for illegal migrants. Larisa, after years of providing house and baby sitting services and now wants to open her own company, is in a similar situation: “I would like to start my own company. My idea is to offer “family celebration” cooking services. Maybe there will be a time when amnesty for illegal Ukrainian workers will be granted. In other countries migrants have it better; they can legalize, start companies, and fulfil themselves based on their skills.”

The question of the legal status is important not only from the perspective of the individual migrants, but also from the perspective of the receiving society. The empowerment of migrants makes it easier for them to find work according to their qualifications, easing integration and enhancing their contribution to the local economy. Connected to this issue is the issue of skill recognition. Unfortunately, as demonstrated by Liuba, who is 40 years old and highly educated, migrants experience problems with skill recognition not only while in Poland but also after returning back to Ukraine: “I love my work and I want to work in the Ukraine. However, our government has not changed anything during 5 years. During my first year back in Ukraine I could not find any work. I was asked ‘where did you work for 4 years?’ I told them that I was working abroad. They said that if I was working abroad, I am not professional anymore. Maybe some bribes were expected. It is difficult for me to hear in my home country that I am not a specialist anymore and that I lost my competencies. Now I am working abroad based on my qualifications. Our company works with Ukraine.”

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