“I think Britain should leave the . Then my brother and sister will come back to Poland,” half-joked Katarzyna Górecka. But the 44-year-old, who works in a tuck shop in the town of Grajewo, may be about to change her view. “The Polish government has banned the sale of sweets and fizzy drinks in schools. My income has collapsed. My husband is a crane operator. No family can get by in this town on a single salary.”
One hundred and ninety miles down the road in Warsaw, on Wednesday evening was asking the Polish government to back his four EU opt-out clauses, including a proposal to cut benefit entitlements for people who have arrived in the UK in the past four years.
“Net migration in the UK is running at well over 300,000 a year and that is not sustainable,” the prime minister said in Bucharest, Romania, before heading to Warsaw. “So we do need to find ways to allow member states to make changes to their social security systems that will help them to deal with this issue.”
Brexit, if it happens, would mean extreme upheaval for up to 1.3 million Poles in the UK who might have to go home to places like Grajewo, with its 17.8% unemployment rate and minimum monthly wage of 1,750 złoty (£350).
“There might be work for those who come back. But if they came, the situation would worsen for the unskilled people who are here now,” said Krystyna Gorska, 58, a jobcentre clerk.
Polish monthly unemployment benefits range from 522 złoty (£104) to 997 złoty, depending on the jobseeker’s circumstances. On Wednesday, Gorska had two job offers on her desk, one from the Mlekpol dairy for a machine operator, and another from a farm. The monthly salaries, she thought, were about 3,000 złoty.
“We may be able to find a machine operator for Mlekpol but we will not be able to fill the farm job, which requires a graduate from an agriculture college,” she said. “There is no shortage of unskilled workers in this town but those with skills have left.”
Among them is Gorska’s 34-year-old cousin, who works as a factory supervisor in a town in the UK, the name of which she cannot remember. “She went on a visit seven years ago and stayed. She quickly learned English. Now she has a baby. She would easily find a job in now. But she is better off staying over there.”
Gorska said it was not true that Poles in Britain draw excessive social benefits. “They work really hard. People are people; there are lazy people everywhere. But my cousin and the other Poles I know of work really hard and pay taxes in the UK.”
Grajewo could do with more taxpayers. It is situated on a fork in the road where long-distance lorries turn left for Kaliningrad or right for Lithuania. The main employers are a dairy, the Pfleiderer chipboard factory and an animal feed plant. The Białystok train service stops four times a day at a platform adjacent to a boarded-up station building. The town’s population is “22,000 people with nothing to do”, said Urszula Malicka, 17, a student.
Malicka has an aunt in New York and a friend in Sheffield, but she wants to give Warsaw a try before leaving the country. “I would like to go to university in Warsaw to see what it’s like. If I am disappointed I might get in touch with my friends and relatives abroad and go and join them,” she said. But there is little to keep her in Grajewo. “We have five churches. Why do we need five? What the young people here need is somewhere to just chill. There is nowhere, so you go home.”
When he is not doing his homework, her classmate Bartek Partyka mostly plays Iron Maiden songs and video games in his room. His dad is driving him to Gdańsk this week to see Judas Priest. Grajewo does not get international acts. “On a misty day, Grajewo looks like Chernobyl,” said Partyka, 17. He said he was likely to leave next year to go to university.
“We have low self-esteem in this town,” said Magda Jagielska, 43, owner of a beauty salon. “Every family has someone who has emigrated to the United States or Canada or the UK over the past 30 years. It is as though we all assume it is better to leave. The brave ones leave and the others just stay here feeling inferior.”
Like others in the town, Jagielska is annoyed by suggestions that Poles are benefit scroungers in the UK. “Even if that is true, British people should know that they are getting back more than the Poles are costing them. The Poles work hard, pay taxes and assimilate in the countries they move to. They also have old-fashioned family values that Britain perhaps could do with more of.”
Whether or not they take their values to Britain, there is an increasing trend towards entire families migrating to western Europe from towns like Grajewo, according to , a professor of Polish studies at University College London. “When I first visited Grajewo in 2008, the migrants were mainly people migrating without children, going away for shorter periods,” said White. “Now whole families more often migrate abroad. One reason seems to be that people feel things are not improving fast enough in Poland.
“The possibilities for transnational lifestyles mean that migration has changed. People leave, but thanks to Skype and other technology they keep in touch with Poland.”
- This article was amended on 11 December 2015 to correct quotes from Anne White