Germany and Poland compete to fill labour gaps

Already desperately short of workers, Polish businesses are worried that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians on whom they have come to rely may be tempted by higher wages further west as neighbouring Germany opens its doors.

Germany and Poland compete to fill labour gaps
A new draft legislation aims to attact skilled vocational workers from abroad. Photo: DPA

“The panic is affecting mainly businesses in the farming and construction sectors relying on Ukrainian workers,” Krzysztof Inglot, head of the Personnel Service employment agency, told AFP.

“People are often illegally employed in these sectors and these workers will go to Germany,” said Inglot, whose agency recruited 9,000 Ukrainians on behalf of Polish employers.

“But for those who are legally employed in Poland, there will be less incentive to move given the higher cost of living in Germany,” he added.

With many working for a few months and then going home, it is difficult to pin down exactly how many Ukrainians work in Poland, but cautious estimates suggest more than a million.

They fill a yawning labour gap that emerged when some two million Poles sought better-paid jobs in western Europe, mainly Britain and Germany, after their country joined the EU in 2004.

Poland's Union of Entrepreneurs and Employers (ZPP) first sounded the alarm about a possible fresh labour exodus in November when it got wind of German moves to open the job market of the EU's largest economy to non-EU nationals.

SEE ALSO: 'Historic Day' as Germany takes step forward in relaxing rules for foreign workers

Eagerly anticipated by German business groups, the draft legislation aims to attract from abroad skilled vocational workers with German language skills and promises them eased visa procedures and reduced red tape.

Those looking jobs such as cooks, metallurgy workers or IT technicians would be allowed to come for six months to try and find employment, provided they can financially support themselves.

The Bundestag is expected to consider the legislation later this year.

Official statistics show that around 140,000 Ukrainians currently work in Germany, although the real number is likely higher as those who have obtained Polish visas can cross into Germany, where salaries can be up to three times higher depending on the type of job.

Worst-case scenario

With their workforces ageing, Poland and Germany are competing to fill labour gaps experts believe are bound to grow in the coming decades.

Poland has experienced expansion each year since it shed communism in 1989 and is one of the EU's fastest growing economies.

While its right-wing PiS government forecasts a 3.8 percent growth in 2018, international institutions like the OECD are more bullish, predicting 5.2 percent but warn that a labour crunch could slow that to 3.3 percent by 2020.

But according to a worst-case scenario set forth by Polish employers, Poland's GDP could decline by an estimated 1.6 percent should half a million Ukrainian workers leave.

Germany currently has 1.2 million vacancies on its labour market.

The nation of 81 million people is expected to need 12 million new workers over the next three decades.

The ZPP employers association estimates Poland, which currently has a population of 38 million, will need five million migrant workers by 2050.


For many Ukrainians, working abroad has become a lifeline.

Living standards in Ukraine are well below that of its western neighbours and the nation is struggling with the economic and social fallout of an armed separatist conflict in its east.

Officials estimate 3.2 million of the country's 45 million population have permanent jobs abroad while seven to nine million find work on a seasonal basis.

They sent about 10 billion back home to their families last year, according to Sergei Fursa, a Ukrainian economist working for Dragon Capital investments.

Poland is a popular destination for Ukrainians seeking work abroad because it is close and has a similar culture and language.

“Poland is our first natural destination,” Igor, a bicycle mechanic who has been working in Warsaw for four years, told AFP.

“The language is easier for us than German or English, it's closer to home, we can make friends easily.”

But higher wages are tempting many to leave.

Nearly 40 percent of Ukrainians working in Poland said they are considering seeking work in Western Europe, according to a survey by the OTTO Work Force employment agency quoted by Poland's Rzeczpospolita daily.

To avert a possible exodus, the ZPP wants the government to streamline procedures for hiring foreigners, to offer them permanent residence and even a path to citizenship.

Poland is slated to extend work visas from the current six months to a full year, Inglot said, adding that he hopes for a further extension to 18 months.

Similar measures are being prepared or have already been adopted in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, two smaller EU economies that are reliant on car production and are also facing shortfalls of workers.

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Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

Germany has regulations on working during a heatwave - but does that also apply to people who work remotely? We take a look.

Reader question: Is it ever legally too hot to work from home in Germany?

The number of people working from home shot up during the Covid pandemic, and though employees no longer have the right to work remotely by law, many have chosen to stick with more flexible arrangements and set up a home office at least part of the week.

This is great news for people who enjoy a lie-in more than a long commute, but there are some downsides. One major issue is that it’s not always clear how Germany’s strict employee protection rules actually apply in a home setting. The rules for working during a heatwave are a good example of this.

How does Germany regulate working in extreme heat? 

By law in Germany, employers are responsible for creating a safe environment for their workers. This means that they should try and keep the temperature below 26C at all times and are legally obliged to take action if the temperature goes above 30C. 

That could include putting blinds on the windows to prevent the glare of the sun, installing air conditioning systems or purchasing fans. In some cases – such as outdoor manual labour – it could also involve starting and finishing earlier in the day. 

And in really high temperatures, employers may simply decide to call the whole thing off and give their employees a ‘hitzefrei’ day – basically a heat-induced day off – to go and cool down in a lake. However, business owners are generally given free rein to decide how hot is too hot in this instance (except in the case of vulnerable workers). 

READ ALSO: Hitzefrei: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

Do the heat rules apply to ‘home office?’

Unfortunately not. In most cases in Germany, the company isn’t directly involved in setting up the workspace for an employee that works from home, aside from possibly providing a laptop or phone for remote use. 

“The occupational health and safety regulations regarding room temperature do not apply in this case,” labour law expert Meike Brecklinghaus told German business publication T3N. “This is because the employer does not have direct access to the employee’s workplace and in this respect cannot take remedial action.”

That means that on hot days, it’s the employee’s own responsibility to make sure the environment is suitable for working in. 

woman works from home in Germany

A woman works in her living room at home. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Naupold

One duty employers do have, however, is to instruct their workers about the best way to set up a healthy work environment at home, for example by giving guidance on how to regulate the temperature. 

“In the end, it is the employee’s responsibility to maintain his or her workplace in a condition in which he or she can perform his or her work without the threat of health impairments,” Brecklinghaus explained.

What can home office workers do in hot weather?

There are plenty of ways to keep flats cooler in the summer months, including purchasing your own fan, keeping curtains or blinds drawn and ventilating the rooms in the evening or early morning when the weather is cooler.

However, if heat is really becoming a problem, it’s a good idea to communicate this to your employer. This is especially important if you have a health condition that makes it more dangerous to work in hot weather. 

In some cases, you might be able to negotiate for the employer to pay for the purchase of a fan or mobile air conditioner as goodwill gesture. If possible, you could also arrange to travel to the office where the temperature should be better regulated.

Another option for early birds or night owls is to arrange more flexible working hours so you can avoid sweltering at your desk in the midday sun, although this of course depends on operational factors. 

READ ASO: Jobs in Germany: Should foreign workers join a union?