Immigrants are drawn to the capital with the promise of success. At what price?by Ben Judah / January 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Pawel does not look like a builder, with his thick black glasses and plush grey mane. Pawel doesn’t sound like one either. Inside his overheated white van he talks about communism, literature, politics, chess: everything he lost in 1981 when he became a dissident refugee. He misses those first building days.
“You know what it was like then? Back in the eighties, the nineties, when I was first building, your painter, he would’ve come from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts… You’d tell him to rip off the wallpaper and throw on three thick coats of paint and he would just begin telling you about Polish minimalism. Your bricklayer… He would be a sociologist, talking Hayek when it was tea break.”
His voice purrs.
“Those days… When we finished and the sun would come pouring in… Loft conversions were very popular then, that’s what I remember… We would have all these nice chats as we cleaned up. The English… hah, they probably thought it was football we were always arguing about so passionately.”
Pawel’s first job on site was wall painting, in a building trade then run by Irish wide boys. Pawel is one of the old Poles. Today he swerves the corners between his sites. Pawel is one of the winners: one of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along building bosses who benefited from the mass migration of labour in the 2000s.
Pawel knew London wanted bathroom refits for cheap. And he has been rewarded for it. As we hit red lights, he reminisces: how he walked this street when he owned nothing except a small ripped suitcase; when he slept in that mite-infested bedsit. Today he owns a house in Balham, a chalet in France and an apartment in Warsaw.