Poland’s booming economy attracted thousands of Ukrainian workers, who struggle to integrate amid xenophobia and fear.
WARSAW — The night Roman was beaten up, his radio wasn't working.
The 33-year-old Ukrainian Uber driver had picked up a rowdy group of young people in Warsaw, who asked him to play Polish dance music. When he told them he couldn’t — and wouldn't hand over his phone, from which he was playing his own music — they became aggressive, hurling expletives. “They told me I don’t respect Polish culture,” Roman recalled.
He decided to stop the car. After the drunken group got out, he started filming them. And that’s when the fists began to fly. “We don’t live in Ukraine, where everyone is fighting for a piece of bread, we live in Poland,” they shouted at him.
For Roman — who ended up with injuries to his knee and head and a large bill for damages to his car — the violence was another example of the prejudice he and other Ukrainians face in the Polish capital.
Roman, who is from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, came to Poland as part of an influx of immigrants who fled the country after conflict erupted in the eastern Donbas region in 2014. It had become increasingly difficult to make a living in Ukraine. Poland, with its booming economy so close to home, was for many an obvious place to go.
The Polish government granted about 1.8 million temporary work permits to Ukrainians in 2018. The actual number of workers is smaller, however, as some have more than one document. The country is also home to some 200,000 Ukrainians on long-term residence permits, most of whom are between the ages of 20-39, according to government data.
But while the Polish economy was quick to absorb them to fill its own labor shortages, the insertion of so many Ukrainian workers into Polish society has been far less smooth.
For the many Ukrainians who have turned to Uber as an easy way to find work, their interactions with Polish customers offer daily reminders of the precariousness of their position as outsiders.
Their foreign names — displayed on the app’s screen when customers hail a car — and their accents make them immediately discernible as immigrants. When locals engage them in conversation, they often want to know where they are from. Often, the question comes from a place of hostility, not curiosity, said Roman.
“Half, if not more, ask in order to show you that you’re not a Pole,” he said. “I won’t insult you, but I’ll tell you that you’re different.”
Many drivers have similar experiences. “It’s good that they are shooting at you in Donbas,” Yuriy, a 47-year-old driver, was told at a car garage.
The anti-Ukrainian rhetoric can be attributed at least in part to the rise of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, said Myroslava Keryk, the head of Our Choice, a foundation that supports Ukrainians in Poland.
The party, which came into government in 2015 on the back of an anti-immigration campaign, “created this aversion to foreigners and refugees,” said Keryk.
Although originally targeted at Muslim migrants, who the party claimed would bring Islam to Poland, the government’s rhetoric has also clouded the way Poles regard Ukrainians in the country.
Poland has seen a rise in violence against ethnic groups in the past few years, with hate crimes doubling between 2013 and 2016, according to data collected by the national prosecutor’s office. Estimates from the human rights ombudsman put the number of hate crimes against Ukrainians in 2016 and 2017 in just one Polish region at 44,000.
For Ukrainians, this climate of fear is exacerbated by the historically strained relationship between the two nations.
Polish politicians don't hesitate to bring up mass killings of Polish civilians during World War II by Ukrainian insurgents allied with the Nazis. On social media, too, historical events are often used to disparage Ukrainians and paint them as inferior to Poles.
Natalia Panchenko, who heads up Euromaidan Warsaw, an organization that runs an informational hotline for Ukrainians in Poland, said she didn’t realize how deep-rooted xenophobia was in Poland until she started hearing from Ukrainian Uber drivers.
“It’s slowly becoming an everyday reality,” although most Poles still don’t notice there is a problem, she said.
On her daily commute, she sees the words “Ukrainians, leave Poland” spray-painted on the side of a newsstand. It’s been there for six months, she said. “Thousands of Ukrainians see that sign every day as they go to work.”
Troubles with bureaucracy
For the most part, the drivers say they try to shrug off unpleasant incidents.
If anything, the drivers — a vast majority of whom work illegally — are more concerned about the precariousness of their jobs.
Ukrainians, along with several other post-Soviet nations, have easier access to the Polish labor market than other immigrants. Since 2017, they have been allowed to come into the country without visas. But for many, getting a work permit is not straightforward.
Drivers who want to stay in Poland longer frequently speak of a bureaucratic limbo, where they have to wait for months to submit an application for a work permit — or more than a year for temporary residence papers.
“I’m just here shopping,” Andriy, a 39-year-old driver who’s been in Poland for a year and a half, said with a sad smile.
“Some call what’s been happening in the last two years administrative paralysis,” said Monika Szulecka, sociologist at the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.
Roman’s wife went back to Ukraine to give birth to their baby, he said, because they were worried Polish bureaucracy would prevent them from getting medical insurance in time.
For those who opt to work for Uber, the bureaucracy around being formally self-employed — a pre-requisite for starting an Uber account — requires reams of extra paperwork and costs. It also makes it more difficult to get an official residence permit.
Most opt to work for intermediary actors, so-called “Uber partners,” who deal with the administrative side, and often rent cars to the drivers. Although in some cases these are legitimate companies authorized by Uber, stories of exploitation and cheating are common. Drivers say the partners sometimes withhold their wages, or simply disappear.
Oleksandr, 39, from Kyiv, said the partner company he worked for would charge him for new, made-up costs — for starting an account, for training. “They were swindlers,” he said.
Uber itself operates in a gray legal area, and drivers worry about this. They want to be employed lawfully. (The first major effort to regulate Uber passed this year, and will take effect in 2020.)
The only way to make a decent living driving for Uber is to work long hours, they say, and even then, it can be hit or miss. The drivers have little time to do anything else — or to try to integrate with Polish society.
Immigrants in an emigrant country
Roman now works as a cab driver, where he said the clients are better-behaved, and where he has the power of a taxi corporation behind him.
And many drivers say they intend on staying in Poland.
“In Ukraine, things are looking grim,” said Oleksandr, who used to own a company that made plaster décor for buildings and did work on a boat-shaped restaurant in the residence of former President Viktor Yanukoyvch. After the 2014 Maidan protests that ousted the leader, his clients fled.
Others are more optimistic about prospects back home.
Ruslan, who is 25, came to Poland to save money for his business venture: vending machines that sell custom sports drinks. In the Ukrainian presidential election in April, he voted for comedian-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and said he’s hopeful things will start to change.
In the meantime, the drivers are sanguine about the mood in Poland.
Although the country has historically been one of emigration, not immigration — providing cheap labor to countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and France — many Poles are now worried that cheap Ukrainian labor will keep wages low.
People who have seen family members and friends leave for better jobs in Western Europe want to see employers raise salaries to lure them back. “Why do my children have to live in the West, while only Ukrainians work here,” Szulecka, from the University of Warsaw, said, summarizing the mood among many Poles.
The irony of the situation is not lost on those who are backfilling Poland’s labor needs.
“I get racist comments sometimes. I cut them off immediately,” said Dmytro, a 27-year-old Uber driver. “He can go to London and see all the Poles there, he can go to Germany and see all the Poles there. This is how the world works, some people go and leave for a better life.”
This article originally appeared in POLITICO on October 4th, 2019.