Jack works at a plastics factory. He arrived in the UK 16 years ago intending to learn some English for one or two years, but has ended up staying and working in a variety of jobs in hotels, bars and factories. He left a large house in Poland in one of the best tourist areas on the Black Sea. He tells me that his current work in the factory doesn't help him to maintain his English: 'You don't get much conversation back from a plastic bucket', he says.
Jack described an unwelcoming reception at the border 16 years ago:
'If you don't want people, close the border and live on your own.'
He worked for many years without a contract of employment and he told us that this was commonplace among his fellow Polish workers. 'Why didn't you do anything about that?', I asked. He replied:
'Contracts are not important as long as you've got money in your pocket.'
Jack has had some difficult experiences at work. In one case he was dismissed apparently without any justification. He turned to a Polish colleague for advice and decided not to take any further action because he was told that it was normal for small employers to do this and he couldn't win at an Employment Tribunal anyway because he couldn't prove things.
But after he had been living in the UK for a little longer he decided to act in the face of unfair treatment. Jack had been promised money for each Polish person that he managed to recruit for an agency. When he was not paid he sought help from his local Citizens Advice Bureau (which he describes as 'the best idea in the world') and, with their help, brought a successful claim against the agency. He is of the view that too few Polish people are aware of CAB and that the mentality of some Polish people that 'I know everything best' can be obstacle to them accessing the help they need.
'Why do Polish people come to the UK?', I ask Jack.
'Better to have a good job in your hand in the UK than studying at university in Poland and not finding work', he tells me. ' If you are from the Polish villages then any UK job is better than being in Poland.'
Jack's residence in the UK is also motivated by the Communist context from which he had come in Poland:
‘I feel safe and free here. No one is checking what you’re doing and no-one is chasing you. It is hard for people to understand if you haven’t lived through the things we have in Poland.’
Our conversation turns to benefits:
‘I’ve not taken any penny of money from 16 years I’ve been here except one and a half months of sick pay. English people say you are taking my benefit. I say “are you working?” They say “no” and so I say “so you are taking my benefit, I am paying for that from my taxes”. If migrants are not coming to work very hard in the UK there will be no money for benefits.’
‘Because of the crisis my factory was restructured but management never touch foreign staff. Why? Because we always come to work on time and we are hardly ever taking sick.’
But Jack also reflected upon some of the ways in which the system can incentivise people into a life on benefits rather than in work:
‘Some people come to England not thinking about benefit. But the Government has opened the door to that because we are only human. All I want is a better life. Ah, I have one child, that could be £100. So sometimes how the Government designs the system can be perverse. It can encourage people to take benefits and work illegally. But that's the same for migrants and English people.’
Jack talked to us about how he does not see the issues that the UK is facing as unique. In his native Poland, he tells us, low skilled workers are not coming from Ukraine. He recalls a time when Germany banned migrants from picking German asparagus. 'What happened?', he said, 'The asparagus wasn't picked and it rotted in the field.'
'Politics, politics, politics, like little boys playing with bombs', Jack says. 'No-one is thinking about the normal people.'
'What will you do if the UK votes to leave the EU?', I ask Jack. ‘If I win the lottery I will be returning straight away to Poland', he says. 'But otherwise, I don't know. Nobody wants me in Poland. I have a Polish passport but Poland would say “you’re not Polish, you’ve been paying taxes only in the UK for 16 years”.’