Why Poland Has Become a Gateway to Europe for Filipinos

Recent Features

Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Why Poland Has Become a Gateway to Europe for Filipinos

Thousands of jobseekers have flocked to the country, but faced with low wages and poor working conditions, some are leaving to try their luck in other parts of Europe.

Why Poland Has Become a Gateway to Europe for Filipinos

Filipino workers attend a Sunday mass at a church in Katowice, Poland.

Credit: Xyza Cruz Bacani

It’s early Sunday afternoon and Angelo*, a welder from the Philippines, sings the Robbie Williams song “Angels” at the top of his lungs inside a flat he shares with fellow migrant workers in Sosnowiec, a Polish city of some 190,000 residents that has long been known for its mining and steel production.

In the background, there is the clattering of cutlery as another Filipino man chops onions and throws them into a large pot with pork, amidst the occasional giggles from his young daughter. Nearly 10,000 kilometers away, at home in the Philippines, she is following her father’s steps via a video call on a mobile phone balanced on the kitchen counter.

This is what a regular day off looks like for the thousands of Filipinos who have in recent years taken jobs in construction sites, factories, warehouses, hotels, households, and farms across the Eastern European country. But while Poland is quickly becoming a new migratory destination for Filipino workers, many have struggled to find their feet after arriving.

Frustrated by precarious conditions in Poland and lured by better job opportunities, some try their luck elsewhere in Europe, even if that means going undocumented.

“We thought it was a big salary, but it did not turn out that way,” Angelo said.

After working in places such as Taiwan and the United States, Angelo was in his hometown in the Philippines when he started hearing about an agency hiring for Poland. As the COVID-19 crisis ravaged jobs and the Philippines economy worsened, Angelo didn’t think twice when his visa came through: “I had nothing, so I decided to go.”

Before leaving home in early 2022, he claimed he had signed a contract that said he would make 25 zloty ($6.20) per hour. But upon landing in Poland, he was made to sign a second one stating that he would only receive 18 zloty ($4.40). “When I arrived, I called the agency in the Philippines and they told me to try to communicate with the [employer in Poland],” Angelo recalled. “But it was hard, it was all Polish.”

Angelo, 44, traveled from the capital Warsaw to work in a shipyard in the north of the country, carrying the weight of a loan he used to cover the 340,000 pesos ($5,783) he had been forced to pay in flights and agency fees. He said his agents refused to give him a refund, which prompted him to leave the job after a month.

Angelo eventually found work in Sosnowiec, in southern Poland, where he started making 33 zloty ($8.20) per hour as a welder. His salary, which varied depending on overtime, allowed him to send about 75,000 pesos ($1,275) to his family each month. Angelo’s wife is back home looking after their two children: a 10-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter who dreams of studying in Canada.

Looking out of a big window in the dining room on a wintry grey day in Poland last year, Angelo lamented the fact he could not further support his daughter’s ambitions. “I don’t think I can afford it,” he said, noting that she may not have any option but to continue her studies in their home country.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

In February, nearly a year after we first met in Sosnowiec, Angelo decided to leave Poland for the Netherlands, where he is now working as a welder. He is hopeful that he will be able to save more money.

“I like it here,” he said, in the last text message before we lost contact.

One of Angelo’s roommates in Poland also left earlier this year for Germany.

Low rates, wage theft, unlawful salary deductions, job precarity, poor living conditions, and the fact that they don’t earn in euros are among the top reasons cited by workers who wish to leave Poland.

Angelo, a welder from the Philippines, decided to leave Poland for the Netherlands earlier this year. Photo by Xyza Cruz Bacani.

Lourdes*, a kitchen assistant in Poland, is counting the days until she can move elsewhere in Europe.

While attending a gathering with other Filipino workers in Warsaw, Lourdes said she did not have the faintest idea of what was waiting for her when she left her job as a domestic worker in Hong Kong.

The 31-year-old arrived in Poland nearly two years ago and has had three different jobs since. The first one, at a meat factory, was the hardest. “We had night and morning shifts… I [was] standing up for 16 hours on my first day,” she said.

The work put severe strains on her body, and she started developing signs of exhaustion. “I was always sick and having fever… because it was very cold in the factory,” she said. The accommodation provided by the company also offered little respite, being “so crowded, I couldn’t sleep.”

Lourdes had paid 27,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$3,457) in illegal fees to a Poland-based employment agency, which promised comfortable living conditions and convenient transport connections. “When I came here, I was disappointed,” she said. Lourdes noted that she called her agents multiple times, describing the dire conditions, but that “they did not care.”

Although many agencies offer free accommodation, some workers complain about being charged hidden fees or inflated utility bills. Several migrant workers also described staying in isolated areas of the country and having to walk long distances to reach the nearest supermarket.

Now as a kitchen assistant, Lourdes usually works 10 or 12 hours a day, six days a week, and receives 20 zloty ($4.90) per hour.

“I am just waiting to receive my TRC [Temporary Resident Card], so I can move to another European country,” she said.

Although Lourdes’ working conditions in Poland have improved, she is convinced that in France she can find a job as a domestic worker and make a lot more – even if it comes at a price. “I know it’s really hard to get papers there,” she said. “But [my friend] is already there and she gets a huge salary.”

Angelo and Lourdes’ cases are hardly unique. Almost all Filipino workers we interviewed in Poland were familiar with the term “jumping,” which many used to refer to those looking for better opportunities within Poland or elsewhere in Europe, often by circumventing official channels.

Liberty Chee, a research fellow at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, noted that Filipinos confronted with unsatisfactory working conditions sometimes end up seeking “to move westward, and there find themselves undocumented.”

Although some workers knowingly take the risk to leave Poland, others believe that their temporary resident permits from Poland are valid elsewhere in the European Union – an impression that is fueled by social media videos where recruitment agents often promote jobs in Poland as a gateway to the rest of the EU. Such online posts are often filled with promises of high salaries, EU citizenship, and the opportunity to settle down with their families.

Chee noted that Filipino workers who find themselves undocumented in other European countries face major risks. “Apart from deportation or possibly jail time and a permanent ban, their job prospects are very limited,” Chee said. They will likely be “hired by companies that are by definition unscrupulous – who may fleece them, exploit them further. So they jump from the frying pan into the fire.”

At least three workers said they had tried to get a job elsewhere in Europe, including Germany, but ended up returning to Poland because they could not find work or did not want to go undocumented.

Sofia*, 25, a former factory worker in Taiwan, only spent eight days in Poland before leaving for Spain, where she had a relative. She thought Poland could be a stepping stone for a better life in Europe.

But a month later, she realized she could not find a full-time job and decided to return to Poland, where she had a valid work visa.

Sofia lamented the fact that she was not given a direct contract with the fish factory she was initially hired for. Instead, much like thousands of other workers, she had become an employee of an agency, which deploys laborers to different companies across the country depending on their needs.

Many migrant workers in Poland are forced to change jobs regularly, and are subjected to different rates, working hours, type of work, and accommodation. Some even go weeks or months without a salary waiting for their next job.

A group of Filipino workers pose for a photo after attending a gathering in Katowice, Poland. Photo by Xyza Cruz Bacani.

“I did not expect this kind of situation,” Sofia said, adding that agents did not inform her about it before she applied.

She said that things were better when she was working in Asia because she could send more money to her family, and it was easier to visit them in the Philippines. “I expected a stable job,” Sofia said. “Sometimes, I just want to go back to Taiwan.”

An Alternative to Ukrainian Workers

While in 2017 the Polish authorities issued just 733 work permits for migrant workers from the Philippines, the number last year jumped to 29,154, according to official figures.

Dwindling numbers of Polish nationals taking manual work and an aging population have triggered an increased need for migrant workers from Asia in Poland, which – excluding Russia – has the biggest economy in Eastern and Central Europe.

A spokesperson for Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Filipino workers’ “dedication and hard work have been valuable in sustaining economic growth in Poland.”

Filipino workers have also been described as an alternative source of labor to Ukrainians, after thousands of men left their jobs in Poland to fight the Russian invasion of February 2022. More recently, Poland has seen many Ukrainian refugees departing the country to seek better opportunities elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany.

Amid this migration shift, the rising number of foreign workers taking jobs in Poland has been under heightened scrutiny, particularly following a recent corruption scandal involving the Foreign Ministry. The prosecutor’s office has accused officials of receiving bribes to help issue visas for migrant workers of different nationalities, but the criminal investigation is still ongoing.

In April, the former Polish consul general in Hong Kong, Aleksander Dańda, answered questions at a parliamentary commission about the issuing of Polish visas specifically for Filipinos in Hong Kong. An ex-vice minister and a former civil servant, who are now under investigation, had allegedly put pressure on the former Polish representative in Hong Kong to expedite the visas for a group of 124 Filipino applicants in the city.

Mikołaj Pawlak, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Warsaw, said that Poland has taken a “quite liberal” approach when it comes to work permits, despite the “strong anti-immigration rhetoric” of some Polish politicians.

He noted that a “murky administrative context” due to the lack of appropriate regulations and their enforcement has made it “easier for agencies to play dirty with migrants.”

The government departments have been “understaffed, underpaid, and procedures are getting longer and longer,” Pawlak said. This has created a market for middleman agencies and legal advisers who offer their services to migrant workers.

As the demand for Asian workers in Poland and other European countries continues to grow, recruitment agents based in different countries – some without proper accreditation – have aggressively promoted jobs online, often charging workers thousands of dollars in excessive fees.

Chee said that “the incorporation of recruiters in a third country” is a worrying trend.

“You see for example Polish-incorporated companies setting up a satellite office in Dubai, who then recruit migrant workers there,” she said. Others develop partnerships with already established agencies or individual agents and share the commissions.

Although third-country recruitment is illegal under Philippine law, thousands of Filipino workers like Lourdes and Sofia have been hired while working in other destination countries in Asia and the Middle East. Poor pay, instances of labor exploitation, and the inability to obtain permanent residency have prompted many of them to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Chee said that some Eastern European companies “source workers from outside the European Union, and then have them work in Western Europe.” Unions have described this as “social dumping,” she said, referring to cases involving workers who are officially employed by a Polish company, while they are actually working, for instance, in the Netherlands or sometimes on the other side of the border with Germany.

“You are paid Polish rates, but your expenses are in Dutch rates. The [difference in] cost of living between the two countries is quite large,” she said.

“All My Friends Leave”

Patricia* was among the workers enticed to Poland with false promises.

“All I knew was that Poland is part of Europe, so I grabbed [the opportunity] because of that. I thought the currency was euro,” she said, speaking on her day off from a shopping mall in the north of Poland.

Back in the Philippines, she had signed a contract with a meat factory that promised about $700 per month. “After we arrived, it was different… We were surprised,” Patricia recalled.

She was placed at a fish factory in the autumn of 2019 and received about $400 at the end of her first month – almost half what she was expecting. “We had no choice but to accept it,” she said.

Patricia flew from the Philippines to Poland in the Autumn of 2019. She received a much lower salary after arriving in Poland than she had been promised in her home country. Photo by Raquel Carvalho.

Patricia persevered through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to reduced working hours and even to about four months with no work at all. Contracts based on “no work, no pay” are the most common among migrant workers in Poland.

But in early 2021, she managed to get a permanent contract at the same factory. That meant she would no longer be tied to an employment agency and that she would be entitled to benefits, such as paid holidays and maternity leave.

Patricia, who now earns 25 zloty ($6.20) per hour, noted that she only started receiving a monthly bonus from her company after being hired directly.

Having made only a couple of Polish friends, she said that her experience in Poland has been mostly isolating.

“I have so many Filipino friends who moved to other European countries. After they get their TRC [Temporary Resident Card], they go to France, Spain, the Czech Republic, Malta… because there is much more money,” she said.

Patricia said she had also planned to leave Poland for France. “But when I heard from my friends that they were undocumented and you can’t go to the Philippines for vacation, I didn’t want to risk it, even for a big salary,” she said, noting that she has three children who rely on her.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many Filipino workers leave Poland through unofficial channels.

Olga Wanicka, a researcher at the University of Warsaw, said that despite the challenges Filipino workers face, many decide to remain in Poland due to the country’s safety, the cheaper cost of living compared to other European countries, and the possibility of eventually bringing their families.

Migrant workers in Poland can usually apply for permanent residency after spending five years in the country and being able to score B1 level on a Polish language test. Another handful of years is needed to get citizenship.

A spokesperson for Poland’s Chief Labor Inspectorate said that his office pays “special attention to foreigners who increasingly migrate to Poland for work purposes, including Filipino nationals.” He noted that “inspections and supervisory activities” of workplaces have been conducted alongside training sessions aimed at raising awareness among migrant workers about their rights.

But, according to Pawlak, Poland needs to develop “better work protections” and “stronger enforcement of contracts.” He said that would be “beneficial for everyone in the Polish labor market.”

Chee also called for more safeguards for workers from Asia across Europe. “Authorities – within the EU – need to recognize that oversight and regulation [are] lagging behind reality when it comes to workers from other world regions,” she said.

The Philippine labor attaché in Prague, Llewelyn Perez, said that she received 66 cases involving Filipino workers in Poland last year, who complained about issues that included unlawful terminations, unpaid or late salaries, and lack of legal documents to remain.

Perez noted that workers have been warned in post-arrival orientation seminars to be “very vigilant about offers of going to other EU countries without appropriate documents.”

In December 2021, her office handled a case involving nine Filipino workers based in Poland who were enticed by a Czech company, which promised to provide them with legal work documents.

“After many months, the company was not able to work on the papers because it’s not in accordance with the Czech rules. The end result is that the workers stayed illegally and unfortunately they were sent back to the Philippines,” she said.

Lourdes, the worker who is planning to go to France, often receives messages from Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong asking about jobs and life in Poland.

“My advice is ‘don’t do it’… It’s difficult here. The work in Hong Kong is relaxed if you have a good employer and the salary is bigger,” she said.

“I tell this to my friends, but they don’t listen because it’s Europe.”

*Names have been changed to protect the workers’ privacy.

This story is co-published in a partnership between The Diplomat, the Hong Kong Free Press, and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Raquel Carvalho reported from Poland with support from the Journalismfund.eu

Guest Author

Raquel Carvalho

Raquel Carvalho is an investigative journalist mostly covering migration, human trafficking, labor rights, gender equality, and security. She has contributed to several global news outlets such as Al Jazeera English and is a former Asia Correspondent at the South China Morning Post. Raquel has led a host of multimedia and cross-border collaborations. Her work has been highlighted by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) Awards, the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) Awards, and the International Labour Organization’s Global Media Competition Anthology on Migrant Domestic Workers. She is also a recipient of the Journalismfund Europe’s Modern Slavery Unveiled Grant.