Polish workers get stuck in stereotype

May 7, 2012 - 07:00

Some 140,000 Poles have migrated to Norway since 2004. Many of them find jobs in construction work, but the contracts are usually short-term and cultural stereotypes bar them from higher positions.

A survey of Polish construction workers in Norway shows that only 15 percent of them were permanently employed by Norwegian firms. (Photo: Colourbox)

Poles are largely successful in finding work in Norway, but the jobs are usually temporary and insecure. They face several obstacles in seeking permanent employment.

These are the key findings in a study on Polish immigration in Norway, carried out by Jon Horgen Friberg of the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research.

“Many Poles settled down in Norway after they came here, and I wondered if their first jobs would lead to more traditional full-time employment,” says Friberg.

He found that most Poles fail to advance beyond the temporary, labour-intensive jobs, which are in stark contrast to the highly regulated Norwegian labour market where permanent employment is the norm.

Climbing the career ladder is also difficult for Poles in Norway.

A 2006 survey of Polish construction workers in Norway shows that only 15 percent were permanently employed by Norwegian firms. When the survey was replicated in 2010, the figure had increased to 19 percent.

Friberg says that even among Poles with several years of work experience in Norway, only about one in five manages to get steady employment.

Hired for ad hoc projects

The construction industry started hiring migrant workers through staffing agencies and subcontractors after the EU enlargement in 2004.

The practice became the norm after the financial crisis struck the industry at the end of the 2000s. Many firms had to cut jobs, and for new projects, much more of the muscle power is hired on a temporary basis.

Almost no Norwegians are hired this way. Most workers on short-term contracts are Poles. They are typically hired through recruitment companies or Polish subcontracting firms that specialise in supplying cheap labour to Norwegian clients.

The pay isn't necessarily bad, but job security is and oftentimes the workers don’t know whether they have work the next week or month. Their employer is free to cut them loose whenever they want.

“They have to work harder than their Norwegian colleagues, since they never know who will be hired for the next project,” says Friberg.

Norwegian employers want Poles
Jon Horgen Friberg of the Fafo Institute for Labour and Social Research. (Photo: FAFO)

Poles are popular on Norwegian construction sites for their “willingness to work hard, without asking questions,” says the researcher, adding that the Poles' hard work was frequently mentioned in his interviews with Norwegian employers.

“When they hire short-term staff for labour-intensive tasks they prefer Poles over Norwegians,” he says. “Poles have a strong reputation for being hard-working. According to Norwegian employers that’s why they’re hired – it’s not only about low wages.”

One of the employers told Friberg that the main strength of Polish construction workers is that they simply do what they are told. He offers an example:

“If I say to a crew of Poles, ‘In that building there, we have to carry this stack of plasterboards up to the sixth floor because there is no elevator and we are not allowed to use the one in the street,’ well, then they will just carry the boards without any question.”

The employer explained that Norwegian workers would give him “all kinds of trouble” in a similar situation.

“They would say it’s completely unacceptable,” he says, adding that they would ask for a telescopic truck, or find other ways to avoid having to walking up the stairs.

Poles seen as a poor fit for full-time positions

The Norwegian employers said that although Poles are great at labour-intensive and unskilled tasks, they find them unsuited for more advanced work.

“A lot of employers are apprehensive about hiring Poles on a permanent basis,” says Friberg.

The employers explained that full-time positions typically require independent thinking, planning ahead and decision making, and for such tasks the Poles’ reluctance to ask questions is a problem, not an advantage.

According to the researcher, the employers think the differences between Norwegian and Polish workers are linked to their respective work cultures.

Freedom with responsibility is “completely unknown to them,” said one interviewee, adding employers would have to “control every little detail because [the Poles] are used to being told what to do all the time.”

Polish workers: it’s not about culture

Poles describe many of the same differences in Norwegian and Polish work attitudes, but they say the differences result from structural positions in the labour market, not culture.

Almost every Polish worker I interviewed wanted a “Norwegian job".
Jon Horgen Friberg

“Almost every Polish worker I interviewed wanted a 'Norwegian job'”, says Friberg.

By a “Norwegian job", Poles refer to full-time positions in construction firms that involve decision-making and other tasks requiring experience and knowledge. What they call “Polish jobs” are the labour-intensive and temporary kind.

Poles dislike that they are not allowed to question their instructions or propose alternative ways of doing specific jobs.

They say this sometimes leads to situations where they have to redo a job they knew was done incorrectly in the first place.

Poles also explained that the insecurity of temporary work and the precarious situation of being sent from one site to another prevent them from developing their skills.

The Polish stereotype – an advantage, and a self-fulfilling prophecy

Since employers are rarely able to carefully assess each job applicant’s skills, temporary workers are largely selected based on their group identity. And as Polish workers are seen as hard-working, the stereotype gives them an edge over their competitors.

The problem is that the same edge pigeonholes them. By working hard and doing what they are told without asking questions, Poles cement the perception that Norwegian employers have of them – as hard workers who are unable to think independently.

“The stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Friberg. “When they’re defined as different, they have to act different to meet employers’ expectations.”

Despite problems, Poles flock to Norway

Norway is not an EU-member, but is a part of the borderless Schengen area, which includes most European countries. Poland joined the union and the Schengen area in 2004, and tens of thousands of Poles have since migrated to Norway.

Norway’s population reached the five million mark last month. The population boom is partly explained by the inflow of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and in particular Poland.

Poles are currently the largest group of immigrants living in Norway, roughly estimated at 90,000, not including a significant amount of unregistered workers.

Friberg says that it remains an open question whether or not Polish migrant workers will be able to overcome the stereotype and over time move into the regular Norwegian labour market.

Nonetheless, Poles will keep coming to Norway.

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