Are Polish migrants really going on strike – and giving blood – to highlight their contribution to Britain?

Some in the Polish community have called media coverage of a potential immigrant strike this week "irresponsible" – but even if few Poles actually take part in industrial action, we have a duty to recognise their contribution.

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Polish migrants have been in the headlines again this week with the story of a planned migrant strike to take place today – but many Polish organisations are now claiming that the strike, and media coverage ahead of it, is irresponsible.

The number of Polish workers coming to the UK is significant. In the year ending September 2014, 98,000 Polish citizens registered for a National Insurance number – a number second only to the 104,000 Romanian migrants who registered in the same period.

The Daily Mail has reported that migrant workers from Poland are “the backbone to a number of industries, such as construction”. On census day, 2011, Polish migrants had the highest employment rate of any nationality living in Britain – 20 per cent higher than British residents.

And they are just a fraction of the migrants from the European Economic Area who, research at University College London found, contribute an average of 34 per cent more in taxes than they receive. In fact, they help ease the fiscal burden that UK-born workers place on the government.

That's not to say, however, that everyone in Britain recognises the contribution of Poles in the UK. While specific research on British responses to Polish ex-pats is hard to find, there are plenty of reports of anti-Polish sentiment in the country, particularly from areas where a sizeable Polish community has settled.

Police investigate anti-Polish graffiti in West London. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Tomasz Kowalski is editor at the Polish Express, where a poll showed popular support for today’s proposed action. He’s surprised that a movement seems to have grown without a clear leader.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he tells me. “It’s a new kind of social movement. Like a huge flashmob.”

Of course, it’s hard to tell how many people will be involved in the action. “There’s no one now who can say ‘yes, I’m going to go on strike’”.

“I will be in Parliament Square, and I’m curious about what might happen. There are so many Poles in Britain, and it’s hard to generalize. Not all of them can strike: some think it’s not the right moment, some don’t feel a reason to. But maybe 10,000 people will be in Central London.”

For Kowalksi, though, the most important thing isn’t how many Polish workers strike – it’s the fact a conversation has been started. “It’s moments like this when I talk to journalists, who can tell their readers what’s going on. Why Poles are disappointed.

There’s such a lot of emotion around this project – I’m thinking, there’s something wrong between Poles and Britons. Maybe we forget we’re citizens of the European Union. Maybe we forget Poles are legally in Britain. Maybe Britons feel they’re in danger.”

This is the first proposed migrant strike in the UK; but migrant workers have a long history of prominent industrial action, particularly overseas.

The New York shirtwaist strike – the “Uprising of the 20,000” – of 1901 was initiated by Clara Lemlich, a Ukrainian Jew who called out for a platform, in Yiddish, at a union meeting before leading 15,000 of her colleagues on a walkout the next day. A landmark of the American labour movement, the factory workers’ strike gained them better pay and shorter hours.

In 1911, Polish cotton workers formed a union in New York, despite their leaders facing blacklisting and even eviction from their homes. Although companies hired strike-breakers and called in the state militia to attempt to quash the protest, the union eventually won promises of better treatment including, as James S Pula and Philip Bean explain in their study of migrant strikes, “a wage increase, public posting of piece rates, improvements to company housing [and] the rehiring of all strikers.”

Yet these strikes were confined to specific workplaces, with clear demands. Perhaps the closest thing to what has been proposed for today is the 1975 women's strike in Iceland, when a reported 90% of Iceland’s women refused to take part in labour, unpaid or otherwise. Five years later, Iceland was the first country to democratically elect a female president in Vigdis Finnbogadottir – an act she attributes in part to the women’s walk out.

But a successful strike requires mass participation; and even then, it can be a long, drawn-out process, with disciplinary action and even violence against strikers. At the least, people taking industrial action are likely to face censure. 

There are concerns that a strike by Polish workers in the UK may do more harm than good. In fact, several prominent Polish organisations have even called the UK media’s reporting “irresponsible” -- especially as the strike has no union backing, leaving employers free to discipline workers who walk out.

Jakub Krupa, London Correspondent with the Polish Press Agency, tweets a notice from an employer.

Tadeusz Stenzel, Chair of the Federation of Poles in Great Britain, has called the proposed strike an “irresponsible and divisive way” of presenting a case in the immigration debate. Instead, his organisation are encouraging Polish workers to get involved with local communities. They say that Polish migrants are thankful to be in the UK, and want to foster cohension.

There’s even a call for alternative action, as Poles are being encouraged to donate blood today as a way of emphasising their contribution and fostering British-Polish relations. Although the organisers of the #polishstrike campaign believe a strike could be successful, and note that there is discrimination against Polish workers in the UK, they believe that the time is not right to strike. Forty prominent Poles, and Polish organisations, have signed up to the idea.

It’s likely that few people will actually down tools today – either because they don’t support the strike, don’t feel able to participate or, possibly, haven’t even heard of the plan. Yet in a week when the Guardian has highlighted the hypocrisy of British migrant exploitation, the urge to redress is understandable. If, as the Daily Mail writes, Polish migrants are at the “backbone” of UK industry, British citizens have a responsibility to recognise their contribution.

More information on #polishblood, in Polish and English, can be found here. A guide to the rights and regulations surrounding industrial action in Britain is available on the UK Government website.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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