Polish workers feel unwelcome in UK after Brexit and COVID


For example, at the time of the Brexit vote in 2016-17, the UK Office for National Statistics estimated that there were around one million Polish nationals living in the UK. The number has fallen since then, to around 700,000 in 2021. Although we don’t know what proportion of Polish migrants worked in ‘essential’ occupations, it’s believed that one in ten essential workers are not nationals. British, and 18% were born overseas.

So why do Polish migrants leave? Over the past two years, we have studied the impact of the COVID pandemic on Polish essential workers in the UK. We conducted a large-scale online survey of 1,105 of these workers and a comprehensive qualitative study of 50 workers and support organisations. Our study found that those who worked to sustain the UK economy during the pandemic suffered significantly in terms of health, finances, family and general well-being. Of those working in education and childcare, 63% said their wellbeing had deteriorated during the pandemic; 52% of utilities said their financial situation was worse. These figures are higher than those of the general population.

The overall sense of belonging to the UK, of feeling welcomed and at home, has diminished as a result of the pandemic. This led many of our participants to question whether they should stay or return to Poland: only 66% of respondents to our survey said they wanted to stay in the UK, with 13% planning to leave and 20% unsure. In the interviews, many spoke of feeling discriminated against and unwanted.

In one instance, we heard reports of tensions in a small British town where many Central and Eastern Europeans were employed in a factory. Following the COVID outbreaks, the local population began to shun these workers, complaining that they were not respecting the pandemic restrictions. This made essential workers, who often worked and lived in unsafe conditions, feel excluded and created false divisions between those seen as rule followers (locals) and ‘outsiders’ who break the rules. rules (migrant workers).

Our interviews also revealed that in many cases the decision to leave had solidified during the pandemic, but had been smoldering since Brexit. It was in 2016 that many Central and Eastern European migrants first realized that their situation in the UK was more precarious than they had previously assumed. They had thought that the predominantly white British population saw them as hardworking and desired “white European fellows”, but they were no longer so sure.


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