Acquiring skills or credentials alone cannot change the fact that they face prejudice dailyby Weronika Strzyzynska / March 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
Krystyna Czerwińska came to the UK in 2007, not intending to stay long. She just wanted to earn enough money to study architecture back in Poland. She was part of what Professor Anne White, researcher on Polish migration at University College London, refers to as a “great wave of enthusiasm” for UK migration. After Poland joined the European Union in 2004, many young Poles saw Britain as a promising opportunity. “There was this idea that it’s worth giving it a go, that you should experiment. That you can afford to be flexible,” White explains. Krystyna’s UK experiment was ultimately successful. Today, she runs her own company offering advice and legal services to small and medium business owners and has founded the Yorkshire Polish Business Club.
Krystyna is a poster child for the generation of Poles who used British kitchen sinks and conveyor belts as stepping stones to lucrative careers. However, stories like hers have never captured the attention of British public, and in light of the recent political discourse in which the term “low-skilled immigrant” functions as a polite euphemism for “Eastern European,” she seems like an unrepresentative anomaly.
This is perhaps not surprising given the lack of data on professional and educational development of migrants in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics roughly forty percent of immigrants from A8 countries—countries which joined the European Union in 2004—are overqualified for their jobs and twenty-four percent hold university degrees. However no research shows how many pursued higher education after settling in the UK. Nonetheless the phenomenon is easily observable even in counties like Cumbria where the Polish community is small.
“If I graduate,” explains Ola Adamczyk, a thirty-eight-year-old housewife studying computer science at the Open University, “I’ll have the chance to work, but not in the factory at the conveyor belt like an ordinary factory worker.” Ola, who lives in Carlisle, hoped that studying would help her assimilate and benefit her language skills. “To feel more at home, at least a little bit,” she explains. “When I first arrived, I had the impression that I am a person who is undesirable, unwanted, and not accepted. Our neighbours hung notes in our shared backyard that said ‘This is my bench, the children can’t touch it.’ ‘This washing line is mine, don’t hang your laundry here.’ One family built a wall just so our wheelie bins wouldn’t stand next to theirs.”
However, it often takes more than a UK degree to leave “low-skilled” employment and the attached stigma. Kasia Pyszora, a primary school teaching assistant who also lives Carlisle, says she came to Britain “for love.” It was her husband’s—then boyfriend’s—idea to study in the UK. She was nineteen when they both enrolled into University of Cumbria in 2005. But after graduating with a Business Management and Tourism degree, she struggled to find employment. “Everywhere there was a sense that, well… that in the end I’m not English. They didn’t like my accent, the way I pronounced certain words, they said their international clients wouldn’t understand me,” Kasia recalls applying for jobs at various travel agencies. Eventually, she took on a job as a waitress.
It was her son who prompted Kasia to help establish Carlisle’s Polish Saturday school. Initially, only thirteen pupils were enrolled; six years later 120 children attend classes. Realising she enjoyed the school environment motivated her to gain a qualification as a teaching assistant. This time finding a job was easier. “There were so many Polish kids at schools, when they heard I was Polish they were happy that I could also translate.” Today, Kasia is working towards her goal of retraining as a fully qualified teacher.
According to the government’s new point-based immigration policy, Kasia, much like Ola and Krystyna, would not be able to immigrate to Britain, as she would not be able to meet its strict income thresholds. But in the face of Brexit she remains resolute. “If I was one of those people who say, ‘Oh Brexit, we have to run away,’ I wouldn’t have achieved many things in life,” she says. In 2017, when she tried to renew her son’s British passport, the Home Office accused her of working illegally. Her son’s citizenship was revoked, making him stateless. The boy was born in the UK and has never held another citizenship. Appealing the decision was a lengthy process. Kasia was forced to submit over a decade’s worth of documents, but in the end she was successful. “I wade through, I fight,” she says decisively. “I have friends in similar situations, I tell them ‘girls, you need to fight it.’”
Ola is less positive. Following the Brexit referendum, her neighbours’ hostility intensified. Those who previously seemed ambivalent became unpleasant. “I think Brexit gave them the courage a little bit,” she says. “There were times when we were getting out of the car and the neighbours’ children gathered around and shouted all these names at us, ‘Polish trash’ and so on, and their parents stood there and looked on smiling.”
Today, Kasia is waiting on the result of her English Language GCSE exam, which will then allow her to continue her studies in primary education. She has been attending evening classes for the past year: her UK university degree and Polish A-level-equivalent in English, she was told, was not sufficient proof that she had attained the required English proficiency levels.
Meanwhile Ola has bought a house in her native Toruń and is preparing to return to Poland. “I don’t want my children to be second class citizens just because their parents are Polish,” she explains.
In 2004, many young Poles knew that to settle in Britain they would have to relinquish any claims to status, qualification, or respectability. In their minds however, they weren’t selling their social credentials, but rather temporarily trading them. They were assured that if they learned English and climbed the career ladder, their social standing would eventually be returned to them. But sixteen years on, many find themselves swindled. Their traded credentials are no longer redeemable, and their wealth of skill and qualification seems to count for little.