LONDON: Marcin Grodski is among an estimated one million Poles who flocked to Britain over the last decade, but after a failed business and a broken heart, he is heading home unhappy and underqualified.
Grodski, 30, arrived here in 2002, two years before Poland and seven other former eastern bloc countries joined the European Union, opening the door to their residents to seek work in the wealthier West of the continent.
He jumped the gun and moved to Britain ahead of the masses to make a proper living, pursue higher education and support the relatives he left behind in his hometown of Lomza, eastern Poland.
But faced with Britain’s stagnant economy, rising living costs and a failed relationship, Grodski is quitting the capital to return to Lomza in April — and he cannot hide his disillusionment.
“It’s been the experience of my lifetime, it’s a beautiful country, but after nine years I still cannot afford to buy a place in London and I don’t think I can stay here any longer,” he told AFP.
Grodski, who currently shares a house with friends in Norbury, south London, was hit hard by the recession.
When he arrived he started at the bottom, spending nine months holding a massive placard on London’s Oxford Street shopping district directing people to discount shops. In his spare time, he learned English.
Then he turned his hand to construction — “a natural choice for Poles,” he says — which suited his tall frame and generous build and he quickly rose to the position of site manager.
Filled with confidence, he set up his own construction firm but his timing was bad — shortly after he went into business the economic crisis took hold in 2008.
One of his clients went bankrupt, leaving Grodski £20,000 (about RM100,000) out of pocket, and back to square one.
“It was going very well for the first six to eight months and then suddenly everything crashed,” he said.
“It wasn’t nice, I needed another year to get back on my feet.”
Grodski said the tide has now turned back home in Poland where investment, particularly in the construction industry, is creating more attractive opportunities for people like him.
“All the Polish people I know including myself were working hard getting the money just to build a place in Poland.
Much better in Poland
“So the country invested a lot to build roads and public facilities to deal with this. In every city no matter how big or small, there is something going on. Poland is one big building site.”
Grodski believes his experience in Britain should help him secure a job with a big construction firm in Poland.
But far from returning well-equipped to take advantage of these new opportunities, he fears he will be lagging behind his peers who never left the country.
Unlike him, they have the qualifications he could never take the time to obtain because he was so busy working in London to make ends meet.
“Everyone in Poland is qualified and three-quarters of the people I know are engineers. I’m still under-qualified so I was thinking of getting back to school for a year or two,” Grodski said.
He admits he has always earned enough in London to have cash in his pocket and until recently was still financing his younger sister’s education, but now he is willing to reduce his income in return for a better quality of life.
“It’s sad to say but the standard of living is much better in Poland. If you have a decent job you can live like a human being. In London you can barely afford a double room.”
Grodski’s decision to leave became final when he called off his engagement to his Polish fiancee just months before they planned to marry this October.
“I have nothing left here, she was the closest person and I lost her. I was considering leaving the UK before that, but after we split up I decided I’m going home.”
Grodski is not alone in quitting Britain.
Senior researcher Carlos Vargas-Silva of Oxford University’s Migration Observatory said the number of Polish migrants has “decreased quite significantly” in the last three years.
The Migration Observatory used the Work Registration Scheme (WRS), which required all citizens from the countries that joined the EU in 2004 to register to work, to monitor the migrant population, although the scheme was scrapped this year.
“With the WRS we knew who came into UK for the first time and more than one million Polish people registered. We know that now we have about 530,000 in the country,” Vargas-Silva told AFP.
The Migration Observatory finds that Poles are leaving for a variety of reasons, but ultimately, very few plan to stay indefinitely.
“They all come with the intention of staying here probably less than five years, that’s very, very common,” Vargas-Silva said.
Indeed Grodski knows at least four other Poles preparing to leave London.
“My plan is to set up a business back in Poland to create well-paid jobs for people like me who have been living in the UK, because at the end of the day, we all want to come back.”