SIEMIATYCZE, POLAND — Every Friday morning, hundreds of people line up in this rural northeastern town to board buses for a 22-hour ride across Europe.
Their destination: Belgium, where they will work illegally in wealthy households, on farms, and in construction groups in and around Brussels, the capital of the European Union.
While Poland won't join the EU until May, obscure little Siemiatycze (Shem-yah-TIH-cheh) is already closely tied to the EU economy. At least a fourth of the 16,000 population now makes the journey to Brussels.
They and thousands of other illegal laborers from the east are quietly altering the EU's landscape even before the political and economic union expands. Whether politicians like it or not, these shuttle migrants are Europe's new labor movement.
Irene, a petite blonde from Siemiatycze, is among them. She has commuted to Brussels by bus for the past 11 years, where she cleans houses for six to seven Belgian families each week. She has helped her sister, sister-in-law and niece find similar jobs in the capital. She doesn't reveal her last name, fearing authorities will track her down.
"It's a job, just like any other," Irene says, shrugging. "One of my clients even called me while I was in Poland to tell me the grocery list for this week."
"You won't find a family here that doesn't have an [immediate] member or a cousin working in Belgium," says Marek Malinowski, an editor at Glos Siemiatycz, the local weekly newspaper. "There are so few jobs here that it's understandable why people would go."
Once in Belgium, Poles rely on an elaborate underground network that includes its own virtual job exchange, doctors, dentists, shops, and a postal system - the latter run by minivans, which offer next-day delivery in either country.
Seeing the potential for a larger invasion of cheap labor from Eastern Europe once new member states from that region join, the EU bloc has voted to prohibit labor migration from those countries for up to seven years.
Yet "illegally or legally, the new member states that will join next May already form a part of the EU's work force," admits Christian Klos, a member of the Immigration and Asylum Unit in the EU Commission's Directorate for General Justice and Home Affairs. "People from accession countries [are] already coming here for work under the guise of tourism."
Most of the Polish commuters do not try to legalize their stays in Belgium. Given the three-month limit for tourists from Poland, shuttlers often take along just a small suitcase or handbag, perhaps carrying a package for relatives or friends in the capital.
Currently, just 2,120 Polish citizens are registered as Brussels residents.
But Elzbieta Kuzma, a researcher on illegal immigration at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), estimates that 35,000 Poles, the vast majority from the country's northeast, live and work there. The proof of their presence is down at Brussels' Les Abattoirs market, where Belgian butchers sell kielbasa and other popular Polish sausages. Ethnic food markets (also run by Belgians) cater to the eastern immigrants' tastes with fresh sour cream, dumplings, teas and candies, all imported from Poland.
Some experts see advantages for both sides of Europe in the Poles' peregrinations. Without undocumented workers, "many Belgian mothers wouldn't be able to work or have careers," stresses Joanna Apap, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "Much of Brussels wouldn't be built. A whole sector of the economy wouldn't be here," she says, adding, "Most of Western Europe secretly knows these immigrants are necessary to fuel the economy."
When they go back home, the Poles transform their hometowns with their earnings. In Siemiatycze, shiny Mercedes whiz down the same roads as dusty Fiats. Designer dress shops, a Levi's jeans store, and a new hotel and restaurant welcome customers in the town's center.
A bit outside town, on a hill near the scenic Bug River, a neighborhood some locals refer to as "Little Belgium" is fast expanding. Brightly painted two- and three-story houses line the street. Many grounds have landscaped gardens and wide garages. On others, construction workers hammer away at frames of new homes.
It's a stark contrast to neighboring towns, where wooden shacks and jalopies line the streets. Siemiatycze's jobless rate is just 7.8 percent - less than half the national average and well below the regional one. The Brussels contingent is overwhelmingly responsible for the difference.
"With very few exceptions, every new business that opens and every new house that's built here comes from Brussels money," says a young store manager.
"Everywhere you turn, there are people who either work illegally in Belgium or used to."
A key player in Siemiatycze's transformation was Zbigniew Radomski, who is now its mayor. As head of the local state-run PKS bus operations after communism's end, he created the route to Belgium as a way to save his business. Back in 1990, PKS had already ceased to exist as a state-run company. "We were just trying to survive," Radomski recalls. "We noticed a lot of people were traveling for jobs, so I decided to help them get around."
Soon, at least one PKS bus per week left the town's limits for Belgium. These buses changed more than just the business direction of PKS. Radomski's idea unwittingly solved a bigger problem: how to keep an isolated town in Poland's northeast afloat after communism.
In 1989, thousands of the town's residents lost jobs when two state-run factories went out of business.
Ukraine and neighboring Belarus had been outlets for labor and goods along the Polish border, but their markets also failed. And small farmers struggled amid new import pressure from the West. Residents of Siemiatycze, soon looked west: at first to the lucrative but distant informal economy of the US, but increasingly to neighboring Western Europe.
By early 1990, hundreds of townspeople were commuting to Brussels, helped by communist-era émigrés from their region. The trip was expensive, but less costly than heading to the US for work. With no bus transportation, most labor migrants had to collect thousands of zlotys to fly or travel by train.
Today, it's much easier to get to the EU. More than a dozen bus companies and countless minivans service the Siemiatycze-to-Brussels route with comfortable air-conditioned vehicles. A one-way bus trip costs $61 to $91. PKS's fleet of 12 modern Mercedes, Scanias, and Volvos has more than 1,000 passengers during busy weeks.
Although Poles can easily transit Germany as tourists, sometimes suspicious German authorities fine drivers of smaller minivans for operating such a vehicle commercially without the required license. Some drivers avoid trouble by unloading passengers a few miles before the border, putting them into taxis for the crossing, then reloading on the other side.
The economic draw of shuttling to Brussels is obvious. Women can earn roughly $10 to $11 per hour, off the books, cleaning houses and caring for children or the elderly. Men fetch $10 to $12.25 an hour in construction, painting, and odd jobs. That's about one-half to one-third of formal wages for such labor in Belgium. But it's at least four times the salary of an experienced schoolteacher or office worker in this part of Poland.
The social benefits of the labor commute are less clear. Radomski stresses the cultural exchange Siemiatycze's commuters have spurred. Some schoolchildren now learn French so they can visit parents during summer vacation, for example. But many residents note instead the broken families and children left behind.
Janek, a lanky father of two who owns a farm on the outskirts of Siemiatycze, commutes to work in Brussels anyway. He needs to, he says. In Belgium, he earns 50 euros ($61) for an 11-hour day of odd jobs on a large farm just outside the capital. Without these earnings, Mr. Janek's own farm in Poland wouldn't survive. "The only way to live from the farm here is to have one person abroad," he says. "Whatever you produce, the money you need to invest is always more than what you bring in." So several times a year, Janek boards a bus to Brussels for a three-month stint of work. "I dread the trip," he says gloomily, shortly before a stop in Warsaw during a recent commute.
But back in Siemiatycze's center, Mayor Radomski is cheerfully handing out the last of a batch of dark-blue buttons framed with the yellow stars of the EU. He ordered the buttons shortly before Poland's referendum last June on joining the EU, in an effort to encourage town residents to vote. The buttons serve a second purpose. Their slogan may be the strongest answer yet to the EU's restrictions on laborers from new member states. Wrapped around the town crest, the slogan reads: "Siemiatycze: We're already in the European Union."
A thousand miles away in the Belgian capital, many of the town's shuttle migrants are saying the same thing.
• This is the first installment in an occasional series.