Return of more than 100,000 people leaves businesses reliant on migrant labour facing a struggle for staff

For years, Mila has taken short-term jobs in Poland, one of more than a million Ukrainians who have headed across the border to boost their incomes, and help fill gaps in their western neighbour’s overstretched labour market.
But three weeks ago, worried that she might not be eligible for medical treatment in Poland during the coronavirus pandemic, the 67-year-old decided to leave her job looking after an elderly lady in Krakow and head back to her home town of Lviv in western Ukraine.
“People in Krakow started wearing face masks. We heard that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky gave some two weeks to come back, warning that the borders would be closed,” she said.
“Then it got really scary, especially when Polish television channels showed what was going on in Italy, Spain and Germany. They showed lines on the border with Germany, with Poles in line returning. As I was watching this unfold on the television, my head started to hurt.”
Mila was not alone in returning home. As the coronavirus pandemic has closed borders across the continent over the past couple of weeks, more than 100,000 Ukrainians have rushed back to their country via the checkpoints on Poland’s eastern border, in a striking reversal of an exodus to the west that had been one of Europe’s biggest recent migrations.
In the six years since Ukraine’s economy nosedived after Russia annexed Crimea and stirred up a proxy separatist war in the eastern region of Donbass, Ukrainians headed west in vast numbers in search of work and a better life.
Last year, Poland issued 1.5m special short-term work registrations to citizens from its eastern neighbour — far more than to any other nationality — and these workers have helped ease the huge labour shortages in Poland’s factories, constructions sites, farms, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
This is more scary than Russia’s war against our country . . . We are facing this invisible virus. It’s not clear where it came from, and who it will take next
Mila, Ukrainian worker in Poland
But as the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic drives some of these workers home, businesses that depend heavily on migrant labour, and which are in sectors that are still running despite the lockdown, are facing the prospect of a renewed struggle for staff.
Poland’s main farmers’ union has warned of paralysis if the Ukrainians are unable to enter the country for this year’s fruit harvest. Construction groups are also feeling the pressure. “It’s our number one problem,” said Cezary Maczka, a board member at Budimex, Poland’s biggest construction company.
“If you look at our subcontractors, in some of them up to 70 per cent of the workforce is from Ukraine . . . It’s not that these companies are disappearing, but due to lack of people, they are pushing back the deadlines for the jobs that they had in the contract.”
Other sectors are less affected: at hotels and restaurants that have been ordered to close, or factories that are running far below capacity or barely at all, survival, rather than staff shortages, is the main concern.
Marek Piechocki, co-founder and chief executive of LPP, Poland’s largest fashion retailer, said that about 200 of the 800 Ukrainians working in the company’s distribution centre near the port city of Gdansk had left. The rest have been reallocated to its ecommerce centre, where business has picked up as customers cooped up at home order clothes online.
But with the company burning through cash, each of its outlets closed as the result of lockdowns across Europe, the focus is less so much on finding staff than it is finding the funds to pay those it already has.
“[The situation] is very dynamic. It’s the beginning of the [economic] crisis. Entrepreneurs are looking once again at how many people they need and probably everybody is expecting some cuts in the jobs,” Mr Piechocki said. “If the orders are smaller, for sure they do not need so many people.”
Myroslava Keryk, head of Fundacja Nasz Wybor, a foundation that supports Ukrainians in Poland, said they had headed home for a variety of reasons. Some lost jobs and housing, and so had little choice. Others worried that the shared accommodation where many migrant workers live exposed them to a greater risk of catching the virus.
Another problem, she says, was that many are on short-term work registrations. With Polish government offices closed due to the pandemic, many were unable to prolong their stay, and left rather than risk getting into trouble for overstaying. The Polish government has since tweaked the rules to allow short-term workers whose registrations expire more time to regularise their status.
Ukraine’s president, Mr Zelensky, sees the unexpected wave of returnees as an opportunity to keep migrant workers at home by creating jobs for vast infrastructure projects, such as building roads that could help ease the pain of a pending recession.
“I believe that we must do everything to keep these people in Ukraine. We really need your knowledge and skills,” he said last week in an address to the nation.
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But for many Ukrainian migrants, the future remains deeply uncertain. Some still plan to return once the crisis passes. But others fear that the economic damage will be such that there will be far fewer jobs on offer.
Mila, who has spent her time since returning to Ukraine in quarantine, is among those who do not know whether they will return. “When will this end? Will they allow us back? Will we want to go?” she asked.
“This is more scary than Russia’s war against our country. At least there we have our brave soldiers protecting us, but here we are facing this invisible virus. It’s not clear where it came from, and who it will take next.”