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Roll out the welcome mat for the Polish plumber

Austrian job agent Christian Mitterdorfer smiles and shakes hands with Poles, hoping to entice them to work in his country, which opens its labour market to EU newcomers on May 1.

“I have several hundred jobs available, even up to a thousand,” said Mitterdorfer in his booth at a jobs fair in the Polish city of Wroclaw.

Once feared by workforces in Austria as well as Germany, the proverbial Polish plumber is now being wooed as Vienna and Berlin seek to top up a shortage of skilled labourers.

EU agreements also require both nations to fully open their job markets to the bloc’s eastern workers as of May 1, marking seven years since the European Union’s 2004 ‘big bang’ expansion bringing 10 mostly ex-communist states of eastern Europe into the fold.

It also happens to coincide with International Workers’ Day.

Worried about an influx of cheap skilled labour back in 2004, Germany and Austria slapped seven-year “transition periods” on their job markets, restricting access to workers from newcomer states.

As the ban expires, fear has turned into hope of attracting skilled east European workers who enjoy a reputation of getting the job done on time and done right.

Manning the booth of the AMS Austrian state employment office from the Voralberg region in western Austria, Mitterdorfer was competing for Polish job-hunters with labour agents from both Germany and non-EU Switzerland, which will also liberalise access to its job market on May 1.

“Mainly we’re looking for technical specialists in the building, metal and electrical sectors as well as employees for the tourism sector and medical professionals,” Mitterdorfer told AFP at the job fair.

At the same time, Sandra Titkemeir of Germany was looking for customer-friendly employees to work at the Merkur-Spielothek casino chain.

“We’re creating a lot of new jobs but we can’t find enough qualified personnel in Germany,” Titkemeir told AFP.

“Poles are very well qualified, they’re customer friendly while Germans are more reserved… and don’t want to work far from home,” she added.

New recruits can count on training courses and gross salaries ranging from  EUR 1,200 to 1,500 (USD 1,750 to 2,190) per month.

In Cottbus in eastern Germany, the Chamber of Commerce is hunting for service sector employees in neighbouring Poland and is targeting young people with training programmes.

Studying business in his hometown of Zielona Gora near Poland’s western border with Germany, 19-year-old Pawel Konieszka was spending two weeks in training at the Kaufhof department store in Cottbus.

He helps clients in the home appliances department in halting German.

“I’m very excited about it, I’m happy,” he told AFP.

Maxi Becker, the store’s human resources manager, has already hired three Polish trainees. Kaufhof is attracting more and more Polish customers while fewer locals are applying for work in the region with a declining population.

For many Poles, working abroad holds the promise of a better future. Even though Poland was the only EU state to record economic growth during the 2009 global recession and its economy continues to expand, joblessness recently reached 13 percent and young Poles are particularly hard hit.

“In Poland, salaries are low but prices are high. My girlfriend and I want to go abroad not to roll in dough but to live a normal life,” said Michal Barwicki, a mechanic in his twenties visiting the Wroclaw job fair.

“In Switzerland I think I could earn nearly EUR 3,000. In Poland, it’s PLN 3,000, so about four times less,” says 50-year-old Wlodzimierz Drej, who happens to be a Polish plumber.

Polish employment agencies have been loath to estimate the number of workers who will head to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. German experts, however, expect to see around 100,000 workers arriving from the east each year after 1 May.

In the wake of the EU’s enlargement, over a million workers from eight new eastern members — a majority Polish — moved to Britain and Ireland, the only EU member states to have immediately opened their labour markets to newcomers in 2004.

Bernard Osser and Mathilde Richter / AFP / Expatica