• Julia Kowalonek
  • Arkadiusz Laslowski
Location:
Aberdeen
Date:
Saturday 29th November 2008
Reference:
SWI2008/014

Simon:

I guess we’ll start with when you first came over here, the decision to come. So going back to when you’re in Poland. If you could say a bit about why you decided you wanted to come to work here or whether you ... like, some people go through job agencies, some people just get up and just arrive.

     

Julia:

So myself I came to Scotland over three years ago and it was just because I haven’t had anything to do in Poland. I used to work as a teacher but it was a very low pay job and friends were staying in Stonehaven near Aberdeen and they said they will help me find a job and accommodation. So I decided to take a risk and come here. After a couple of days found a job with Asda, was my first job in Scotland. After three months I change my job, start working for Stagecoach Bluebird as interpreter and admin stuff. Yep, that’s how it began! OK?

Arkadiusz:

So, me now. It was a decision taken from day-to-day, from one day to another day. Maybe because of personal circumstances. In Poland I was working for two years as an interior decoration centre manager and head instructor, decorative instructor. It was a well paid job, very interesting. I really loved it, it was my hobby also. But, because of my personal circumstances and maybe because some of my friends found jobs in England, I decided to go abroad also. I found an offer in Poland. I went to an interview in Katowice, in different city. It was one interview and then I had another interview in a different company. I got the job and from day-to-day I just left Poland. When I came to England it was Scunthorpe. I started working as a packer in quite a big warehouse for BB Distributions. I was there for three months. Actually, after one and a half month I just left a job in the warehouse because I’m a trade person so I found a job as a painter-decorator for a quite big and long-lasting company. For a long time they’ve been on the market. I met a girl. We move out to Leeds and from there she found a course in Robert Gordon University, Management of Economics, so we moved over to Aberdeen. So I found there also a job, already being in Leeds, I found a job in Aberdeen City Council as a plasterer so when I got here I had an interview and after a couple of days I started working for Aberdeen City Council. Then I left because I didn’t like the environment that I had to work with and some people were pretty nasty about my nationality, about the way I speak. Some cultural differences I think. And I started working for different companies. In the meantime I was doing different jobs, mostly decorating. Some designing. Probably mostly just painting, decorating, plastering and at the moment working at ATR Tool Rental but in ... (inaudible) ... and I might stay for longer time but I’m not looking forward to it. So I think that would be it.

Simon:

You’ve done quite a lot of different stuff.

     

Arkadiusz:

Yes, I’m over four years in Great Britain so that’s a long time.

     

Simon:

You both came here at quite an early stage. Even more so I guess when Poland entered the EU and opportunities to work here became available. Do you feel that the kind of circumstances and kinds of attitudes to Polish workers have changed since you’ve been here?

     

Arkadiusz:

Oh yes, definitely. At the beginning when I arrived we were just very, very different from people. We were exotic for everyone. But when so many Polish started coming to Great Britain and people just, I think, got used to that. But they were ... I don’t even know how to say it, but they were concerned about their jobs and the way that we are taking off everything from them. We are not letting them doing basic jobs from labouring from anything to working in a factory or fish factory or something like that so they were concerned. I’ve heard many times just swearings and abuses because I’m Polish but at the moment I think people just get along with Polish, and to come in it’s not anymore looking for us as just a cheap working force. They also looking that we are intelligent, we want to develop ourselves and we are just the same people as they are. But I don’t know about different Polish people, their experiences. My experience is at the moment quite good. I really like being here. I am treated as everyone else so that really has changed. It has changed. And you Julia?

Julia:

I think Scottish people are fine with Polish people who can speak English. They don’t really like when they cannot communicate with Polish people. And I think ... I don’t have any problems myself with Scottish people because I can communicate. I can go everywhere, do everything, when I want. Polish people who cannot speak English find it more difficult to interact with the Scottish. If it changed? I think it’s getting better. I’ve noticed that many Scottish people want to learn Polish nowadays which is quite funny but nice at the same time. I have some friends who were asking me already if I can give them some Polish lessons so yeah, it’s getting better.

Simon:

It’s quite significant that your work in Stagecoach involves interpretation. Do you feel ...? It’s interesting that they’ve actually employed somebody to occupy that role.

     

Julia:

They had really no choice. They decided to bring about fifty Polish drivers from Poland and I’d say most of them could not speak English at all. Some of them just had basic English. So Stagecoach decided to employ someone who could help with filling in papers and just helping to communicate between employer and employee. But I’ve noticed recently after three years that it’s got so much better now that they don’t really need me anymore because drivers ... most of them now can speak good English after three years. They learn quite a lot so they can communicate already but, I believe, without interpreters in the beginning they would struggle a lot. They would struggle. There would be many problems.

Simon:

Did Stagecoach actively decide to go to Poland to employ Polish drivers and bring them here?

     

Julia:

That’s it. There is an agency in Poland who’s selling drivers to UK. So they cooperate with each other, Stagecoach and the other agency.

Simon:

And you’ve mentioned earlier about looking to Romania and to Bulgaria so it sounds like this is a company policy, like: “Oh, so where can we find the drivers to go here?”

     

Julia:

Umm ... Think Scottish people are ... they find that job as bus driver is not well paid and for Polish people and Romanians it is still quite good money. That’s why they come here. They work for that money but I’m not too sure it’s a good solution. I think they should try to get their own people to work for the company as well but, you know, they are trying to save money as well by bringing people from Eastern European countries as well. It’s good for me. I have a job at least because of that.

Simon:

You came from being a teacher so it’s quite a qualified job. If you were going to work in a shop, here it’s a thing most people will do while they’re students or something and I guess the same in Poland. You go to university, maybe do a job like that but ...

     

Julia:

I haven’t finished my university so I was working and studying the same time so I was getting just minimum wage which was probably something like two hundred pounds a month. Impossible to live on that money. I don’t know. Polish people, I think, they are not afraid of doing different job so to become a cleaner wasn’t a problem at all. I knew it was just going to be a temporary job just to get some money and look for something better ... (inaudible) ... doing that permanently for a number of years ... No, I don’t think I could do that. But it’s not a problem. I can do any job if I have to. I think that’s ... Polish people are good. (laughs)

Arkadiusz:

I think we’re just more inventive because of the history looking backwards. Polish history, there are so many changes all the time so we just had to get along with that and be very inventive in everything we were doing and trying to develop everything where we could from ourselves. I think it’s that because someone ... For example, so many factories just went down, just crashed completely. Bankrupt. And so many people lost jobs so they had to start doing something else. And social services in Poland, they’re not like here that they can give you opportunity to change your job. It changes position and changes everything in your life. Here you can get opportunity to do a course or something to somehow establish yourself in the community, to change your position, to change everything. In Poland, you won’t find that. You’ll never find that so you just have to think on your own. Maybe because of that.

Julia:

Very quickly because government doesn’t help you at all!

Arkadiusz:

Not at all.

     

Julia:

It’s a big part. You cannot afford being unemployed. You have to do anything. Even if you are a manager, if you lose that job then you’ll have to start cleaning. You have to do something. You can’t live on benefits, there are no benefits really. Here people can afford staying at home and doing some course, taking time, finding job ... It’s so slow, easy.

Arkadiusz:

Exactly. In Poland life goes much much faster. Much much faster. Unfortunately.

     

Simon:

Both of you are moving ... You’ve kind of come through some typical jobs people get when they first arrive and you’ve both proceeded to move towards better kinds of work that are more suited to your own skills. What’s that experience been like?

     

Arkadiusz:

It’s actually ... At the beginning it’s just you have to do it, you have to start somewhere. But when you start and you find opportunities to see that there are so many different jobs and so many different things you can do which you are actually skilled in them, so it was actually very good and you felt like: “Wow! I wouldn’t find that anywhere else, especially in Poland.” So I think we were working much harder to get to that position, to find that suitable time and place and job and everything. That’s a very good feeling, that you have chances to do everything the way you want and where you want and how you want and it’s a very good feeling really. And it’s incomparable to the feeling in Poland. Honestly. You can live your life the way you want, not the way you must.

Julia:

Yeah, you have some dreams you can actually live really so ...

     

Arkadiusz:

You can realise yourself, your life, somehow. Or at least there are chances to do it and no one’s going to bother you about that.

     

Simon:

At what point did you two realise that: “Oh, I can work towards this,” was it quite early on that you realised that you could or ...?

     

Julia:

When I met Ron from GREC (Grampian Racial Equalities Council), he asked me if I would like to be a police officer and I was like: “Why not? I’ve always wanted to do that job.” I’ve even applied in Poland, it’s impossible to get that job as a police officer. It’s like you have to have plenty of money or someone you know from the police already or be really, really skilled or intelligent. I don’t know.

Arkadiusz:

Or have three master degrees.

     

Julia:

Or that, yes. To be honest, I wouldn’t think of applying for that job here as well because I thought: “OK, first of all my English is not as good as Scottish or English people’s so no chance,” but Ron said that: “No, you should go for it. You are smart and intelligent and stuff like that, you can do it!” So it was a support kind of, I was like: “OK, let’s try it. It’s not going to cost me anything.” So just because I found out that you need to be in the UK for at least three years before you can apply so I’m going to wait until three years. Just recently put my application form at my entrance test and I’m very happy I passed it so I’m waiting for my interview. Fingers crossed! Maybe I’ll get that job. (laughs)

Simon:

Is part of your interest in the fact that, in a way, it will make quite a difference for the Polish community in Aberdeen to have someone like you on the police force? Just the fact that people speak Polish and the police can’t understand the Polish culture ...?

     

Julia:

I think it’s going to be very useful for other people. I work for the police just now as an interpreter. It’s just, when they have a problem they call me. Whenever they need me I go and interpret for them. And it happens very often unfortunately. But to have someone employed on a full-time basis, it’s going to be really helpful for them. I had some of my friends laughing already: “Before you leave the company, you know, must get your number so when we have some problem we can call!” So he has a police officer that will come over so ... yeah, we’ll see.

Simon:

What sort of ... what sort of things do you get asked to come in and deal with? Is it domestic incidents or ...?

     

Julia:

Emm ... It’s kind of everything. Because it’s still ... I would say probably 80% of Polish people who are staying in Scotland cannot speak English, that’s what my impressions are. I don’t know if there have been many statistics done but I think that’s quite ... Really any problem, domestic or whatever. It’s difficult for everything. The smallest things ...

Simon:

Do you think people who’re in that situation of not speaking English feel like they’re constrained? Or are some people just trying to cope with what they can?

     

Arkadiusz:

Yes, definitely. I know ... actually, my friend who is working with me in ATR Tool Rental. At the moment his English is very basic but he’s a specialist in some kind of technician way. And he can’t speak that fluent like I do, he can’t understand. So much so that he even told me that: “I feel so no one is treating me seriously because actually they can’t even talk to me properly.” If I’m there, if he won’t understand, which mostly he doesn’t, I’m to translate it so he feels like he’s on the side. He’s alone there. He’s not enjoying the company of other workers, other employees. Even his supervisors, they’re not treating him the way they would if he spoke the language. But I think that’s not only his feeling, I think most feel like they’re separated from the society.

Julia:

But sometimes I think it’s their fault, Polish people. Some of them are like: “Oh, what’s the point of studying English? I’m going to be going back to Poland anyway. I just came here to earn some money.” You know? So everybody’s attitude is good really but there are so many people that don’t care really and they speaking English? Oh no. There are supermarkets, they don’t even have to speak to anyone. They get the stuff. Now when you go to the bank, most offices there are some Polish workers so ...

Arkadiusz:

In most of them actually.

     

Julia:

Yeah, most of them.

     

Arkadiusz:

You can ask for interpreter and it’s not a problem.

Julia:

Mmm. So in a way you feel sometimes sorry for them but on the other hand I’m like: “Their own fault really,” because there are courses they can take, English courses. Some community centres are for free and people don’t do ... Most people don’t take opportunity to study English so ...

Arkadiusz:

And maybe they just don’t want to do the effort to learn the language and that stuff because they don’t have to. They’re going to go back to Poland so ...

     

Simon:

Do you think the decision is relating to people’s attitudes whether they’ve come for long-term to be resettled here or they’ve just come for the short-term to ...?

     

Julia:

I think if someone decided to come here, to settle here and stay for a longer time, yeah, I think they do try and learn some English and meet Scottish people and try to find out a bit more about the culture and stuff. And if someone decided: “I’m just coming here for one or two years, it doesn’t matter. I go back to Poland.” They’re staying at home, working twenty-four seven almost ... No. I mean, that’s it.

Arkadiusz:

I would feel like in jail; not knowing the language, not knowing the people and couldn’t actually understand anything. It’d be like jail or far, far in the desert. It’d be the same feeling. There are people around me but they’re not the people I can understand. No. Terrible. I wouldn’t go abroad if I wouldn’t learn the language, not a chance. I wouldn’t be so brave and maybe stupid at the same time because it’s very risky. If anything happens to you and you can’t speak the language ... If you were in a field, not in a city, you might just die or something. If there is accident or something, no one can understand you: “What’s wrong with you?” It’s not ... There’s no one that could help you then so that would be ...

Simon:

Well, it’s one of the things that Ron has said where there’s been cases of exploitation in the workplace.

     

Julia:

When you get your contract of employment and you can not read it and you sign because that’s what people do. You take contract, sign it without knowing what it says so ... And then there are problems. You’ve signed it.

Arkadiusz:

Exactly. Exactly.

     

Julia:

Employers are telling you to do overtime and you do it, they don’t pay you ... You know, you can not really complain about it because you cannot say anything. You cannot go to an employer and say: “Pay me for that and that and work those and those hours.” You cannot say that.

Arkadiusz:

They can’t defend themself.

     

Julia:

They can’t and employers, some of them, are using that.

Arkadiusz:

Yes, some are very cheeky. Especially recruitment agencies. I’ve had that problem in Leeds. The first agency and the owner was Polish. Actually, he was born in England but he was Polish. And all the employees in there were English, but the guy was really trying to cheat on the money. Actually he did, I just give it up because I left late but he really ... He was, with so many of his employees, treating them terribly because they don’t know the language. For example, I was taking care of these people. I was translating for them, I was sorting out their problems of documents, papers, banking, everything. I was also at work translating what my employer is telling them to do and everything. It was all a hassle. And the other thing, I wasn’t paid for translating. It was terrible. But I know someone has taken him to the court and I think that he regrets it, what he did. Hopefully, hopefully. He wasn’t a very nice person. He was not.

Julia:

I think people are afraid of losing their jobs as well, so they do whatever their employers are asking them to do even if it’s not pay or whatever. They don’t know where to seek for some help. So they are working very quiet, saying nothing ...

Arkadiusz:

It comes from back in Poland because in Poland everyone is afraid they might lose their job. You might ... I don’t really know really. That’s why here Polish are so afraid because that mental thinking is still in them. So they’re really doing everything their employer said, it doesn’t matter if it’s against the law. The other thing, they don’t understand the language so that’s really bad.

Simon:

Yeah, cos like a UK employee ... They know they have certain rights, they know that there’s places they can go to to take them to an industrial tribunal ...

     

Arkadiusz:

Yes, like Citizens Advice Bureau or ...

Simon:

And they know if the worst happens and they lose their jobs they’ll have benefits.

     

Arkadiusz:

It’s true.

     

Julia:

To apply for benefits you need to know ...

Arkadiusz:

You need to fill out a lot of papers.

Julia:

... and speak to someone.

Arkadiusz:

That’s why I’m not applying for anything. Too much hassle. Anyway, I wouldn’t like. I prefer to work. It’s earning money in the right way, not being lazy.

Simon:

Earlier you were saying, in regard to people who were supporting families back in Poland, that there’s less benefit to doing that now financially because of the change in the balance of the pound to the złoty and the recession, so have you yourselves experienced any noticeable signs of that? I think about two years ago was like a peak ...

     

Arkadiusz:

Yes, it was six złoty per pound. That’s a lot of money. Now it’s like four fifty złoty per pound so it’s huge difference.

Simon:

And that difference is enough for someone who’s thinking about going away from their family for a long period of time?

     

Julia:

To come back to Poland? Yeah, it’s ... People are sending to Poland a thousand pounds a year so that one fifty makes a big difference.

Arkadiusz:

Exactly.

     

Julia:

So, you know ...

     

Arkadiusz:

It’s like good monthly wages.

     

Julia:

And nowadays in Poland you can find well paid jobs so, you know, they’re deciding to earn maybe a bit less than here but to get on with their families. There are so many people who are going back to Poland. I’ve heard from my friends that if they got a pay rise and this is what it would be ... Not that strong as just now you know? They would stay just because they do not earn that much here and the pound is so cheap and stuff. Then they are planning to go back to Poland really soon.

Simon:

Do you think the recession really is affecting people?

     

Arkadiusz:

Definitely. Definitely. Especially the people which are having big families because they need to earn much more money now at the moment than they had to do two years ago, so it’s really a big difference. So their standard, their living standards, are going down presently. And that’s that. So they have to work harder, spend more time at work, so they’re not so healthy and it’s like a circle.

Simon:

Is the recession hitting people harder in Poland or people who work in low wage jobs here?

     

Arkadiusz:

I think both. Both cos even though ... If they can’t work harder than here and so they cannot send more money to Poland. They cannot even send the same level, the same amount of money, to Poland so people in Poland can’t afford the same amount of things and they can’t have ... Sorry, I forgot the word. They can’t live the same, standard of living they can’t afford it so it really affects them both. And I think even more people which are living here because the life costs here much more actually than in Poland, and the amount of money they have to send to Poland is bigger so they have less for themselves. It’s not good.

Simon:

Do you think that maybe people get a bit trapped? That the people who came here short-term to try and help their families and then there’s no jobs back in Poland they can go to and ...?

     

Arkadiusz:

There might be some but actually most of Polish people ... I mean men. Women have much bigger problem in finding jobs in Poland.

Julia:

Men, because of Euro 2012, they can build roads and stuff ...

Arkadiusz:

Exactly. In Poland there are much more jobs in Poland. Women are really struggling to find a job unless they are well educated. Like I am saying, a couple of master degrees and stuff like that. Bachelors or something like that. They might find a job as a cleaner, for example, because in Poland a lot of cleaners they have master degrees so that’s a shame because there are no jobs in their specialities. Oh, if they are about and they don’t speak the language or they did a different language so ... And they’re not so brave to go abroad, that’s the other thing.