Are eastern Europe’s migrant workers heading home?
Sergejs Cakss swerves his 2002 Volkswagen Golf around potholes in one of the poorest parts of the European Union, near the Russian border.
Where he lives in eastern Latvia, jobs are scarce and the national infrastructure is in ruins. Thousands of Latvians packed their bags for a better life in Ireland and Britain after the Baltic nation joined the EU in 2004.
Four years later, some, like Sergejs, have returned while interest in jobs abroad have dropped. Others are watching the economy back home as eastern Europeans weigh the region’s strong growth and rising wages against the advantages of working in the West.
Judging from the number of registered working residents from eastern Europe in Britain and Ireland, about 2.5 percent of Latvia’s 2.3 million citizens have moved to work there, the second highest level among the newcomers that joined the 27-nation bloc nearly four years ago.
People from Lithuania, Latvia’s Baltic neighbour, have been the quickest to leave, with 3.3 percent of the population now working in Britain and Ireland. Slovakia is third and Poland fourth. Experts say the actual number of migrant workers who left is probably higher.
Sergejs, his wife, Jana, and their 19-year-old son, Vladimirs, have all separately worked abroad, but never planned to emigrate.
"These trips are just to make a little bit more money to last us for the rest of the year," Sergejs said in his home in the Latvian village of Audrini, where a job with a monthly wage of 300 lats (427 euros) is considered well-paid.
He worked at a Royal Mail post office in London for three months, making more money than in a whole year in his current job as a fuel station attendant in the nearby town of Rezekne. His wife, a kindergarten teacher, helped tend gardens in Italy for "some Russian oligarch" last summer.
Language problems abroad, homesickness and proximity to the rest of the family are the main reasons that they decided to return to Audrini.
Phenomenon of emigration
Mass emigration from eastern Europe splashed in the international media, such as when Polish future prime minister Donald Tusk campaigned for Polish votes in England.
In recent months, though, the exodus has subsided.
"It’s the beginning of the return," Janis Laucis, an assistant director at the state-run placement agency in the Latvian capital, commented.
"Some do come back. Most, though, come, look around, if they see that there’s nothing here for them, they leave," he said. In the next three to four years, some workers will return to live in Latvia permanently, he predicts.
Although no official numbers exist, anecdotal evidence suggests more Poles are returning home because of an improving domestic economy and limited career opportunities in Britain, where most Poles emigrated after labour markets opened in 2004.
Polish officials believe more citizens will come back as wages rise. Marek Okolski, a migration expert at Warsaw University, predicts that the emigration wave will stop around 2010.
Once ubiquitous ads offering help in finding a job abroad have almost disappeared and anecdotal evidence suggests that eastern Europeans are calling family and friends to check on opportunities back home.
"I have been talking to my schoolmates and monitoring wages and jobs available, but so far the money is not good enough to give me the standard of living I like," said Lenka Blaskova, a Slovak, who has worked in Ireland since 2005 as a payroll clerk for a German company.
Making a living in Ireland, she’d be able to pay off her mortgage in Slovakia in three to five years, compared to 30 years if she had stayed there.
"The wages would really have to go up at least 100 percent for me to decide to return for good," she said, adding she plans to stay in Ireland for two years to pay off her mortgage before returning to Slovakia for good.
Improvements at home
But wages are pushing up across Eastern Europe. In Slovakia, a post-communist hub of the auto industry, the average wage rose 7.2 percent in 2007 as the economy grew by a hot 11.6 percent.
Labour markets in the Baltics are tightening. In Latvia as well as Romania, one of the EU’s poorest nations, wages have shot up by about 30 percent annually.
Despite an expected slowdown this year, economic growth in the former communist countries remains faster than Western Europe’s. Eight of the 10 eastern EU members posted growth of more than 6 percent last year.
Meanwhile, the Irish economy is forecast to slow down as well after years of "Celtic Tiger" growth that pulled in eastern migrants.
Regardless, some are always on the look-out for greener pastures.
"Now we get ads to go further," a Latvian woman named Zane said in a recent newspaper article. "The inbox is filled with job offers from Canada, Australia."
DPA with Expatica