A Country Reliant on Migrants Frets About Europe’s Virus Exodus

Dorota Bartyzel

(Bloomberg) -- With many of its citizens leaving for Europe’s wealthier west, Poland has leaned in recent years on more than a million workers from Ukraine to sustain its economy. The coronavirus is upending that balance.

Andrej Lusczenko left his job in a home-appliance store in Warsaw to board the last plane for Lviv in late March. “The Polish dream is over for me and my girlfriend,” the 26-year-old said.

Be it Turks in Germany or Romanians in Italy, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted migrants from across the continent and beyond to tackle grounded flights and re-erected borders inside the European Union in a bid to reach their homelands.

Poland understands the risks better than most. Having been granted visa-free travel to the EU in 2017, Ukrainians received the bloc’s highest number of first residence permits a year later -- the last period for which data are available. No member-state doled out more than Poland.

Their influx, driven by not only by fatter pay checks but also the Kremlin-backed war that rumbles on in Ukraine’s east, helped maintain an economic boom -- accounting for a full percentage point of annual growth and keeping a lid on wages and inflation.

There’s no precise data on how many have gone. But an unprecedented 300,000 left across Poland’s eastern land border in March, according to figures obtained by Bloomberg from crossings between the two neighbors. In nearby Estonia, the Agriculture Ministry this month asked that conscripts be sent to help companies that have relied on Ukrainians for seasonal work and are struggling for replacements.

In Poland, almost two-fifths of retail and services companies count on Ukrainian workers. The Food Producers Association reckons helping them stay may alleviate “multi-billion-zloty losses” looming over the economy.

“The sudden lack of employees from Ukraine will lead to the collapse of many industries and may interrupt the food-supply chain,” it said in an open letter to the government.

Gross domestic product is likely to shrink more than 4% this year, analysts at Bank Pekao predict. Once it starts to regain its footing, hopes in Poland and other parts of Europe that inflows of migrant labor resume may prove optimistic.

Store-worker Lusczenko said his mother has Polish residency and isn’t leaving. But for those on work permits, “this is it,” he said. “The rest will go home and aren’t likely to return. You’ll need to manage without us.”

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.