Why one Polish MP is working as a handyman in London

Artur Debski, a sitting member of the Polish parliament, has been looking for jobs, sleeping on floors, and trying to make ends meet in one of the top destinations for Polish emigrants.

Sara Miller Llana/Staff
Artur Debski (l.) and Krzysztof Nowak sit outside a London pub on Saturday. Mr. Debski is a member of the Polish parliament, but has been living the life of a migrant worker in London to experience what life is like for the hundreds of thousands of Poles – like Mr. Nowak, a chef originally from Warsaw – who have left their homeland since 2004 to work in Britain.

A migrant newly arrived in a foreign country, with little money and fewer contacts, is a busy man – certainly not one with free time for a journalist.

So it’s not surprising that Artur Debski, who arrived in London from Warsaw last weekend, failed to respond to the dozens of calls I placed to his cellphone during his first week in his new country.

Except that Mr. Debski is actually a Polish politician, only here to experience what the typical Pole goes through when he or she first sets foot in Britain, as hundreds of thousands have done since Poland joined the European Union in 2004.

On May 1, Poland and nine other central and eastern European countries mark their 10th anniversary as members of the EU. But not not everyone is celebrating. Movement of poorer Europeans within the bloc has become a political lightning rod as they’ve gained access to much richer markets, as well as their education, welfare, and health systems. Meanwhile, politicians like Debski lament a lack of opportunity at home that sets the stage for exodus in the first place.

Debski has been condemned in Poland for seeking publicity. But no one can accuse him of not taking his role seriously. “I’m sorry,” he wrote, when he finally replied to one of a half dozen emails I had sent him. “I’ve been very busy looking for a job. I can meet with you tomorrow evening about 6 p.m.”

When we finally did meet, on a Saturday evening after he’d spent six hours helping his new boss do renovation work, Debski, dressed in a hooded blue sweatshirt and jeans, says his intent is to understand why Britain has drawn an estimated half million Poles in the course of a decade, many of them young. “This is a big problem for my country, we are losing the young people who are our future,” he says.

New waves of European migration have also come to be seen as a problem for receiving countries like Britain, which was taken off-guard by its own underestimation of how many Poles would arrive once the EU expanded from 15 to 25 members in 2004 (and now counts 28).

At the start of this year, when all restrictions were dropped for EU members Romania and Bulgaria, fresh fears of mass migration and so-called “welfare tourism” surfaced across Europe. British Prime Minister David Cameron chimed in with an opinion piece in the Financial Times ahead of the Jan. 1 date, writing: “Free movement within Europe needs to be less free."

Krzysztof Nowak, a chef who had been out of a job in Warsaw for a year when he arrived in London in 2006 and got a job four days later, says Mr. Cameron has angered tax-paying Poles who put more into the British economy than they take away in welfare. “His last speeches about immigrants, people are very upset about this,” says Mr. Nowak, who connected with Debski via Twitter and met him at the Greenwich Pensioner last Saturday.

Despite the hostile rhetoric coming from the political class, Debski says life in Britain is still more alluring than in the post-Communist state that he says is too burdensome and bureaucratic, despite its recent economic success, particularly during the height of Europe’s debt crisis.

Debski, a businessman who has been a parliamentarian for the opposition Your Movement party for 2-1/2 years, arrived in London on April 5 on a budget airline, and plans to stay until April 22.

He slept on the floor of an acquaintance’s home his first night, got rejected from his first attempt at opening a bank account, and finally landed a one-week contract through the Polish community in a tax and accounting office that caters to Polish transplants. It’s worth 267 pounds ($450) a week. His commute is 43 minutes door-to-door from the apartment he’s staying in for free in East London, the home of a man visiting Poland for Easter.

“The first three days were crazy,” he says. Among the biggest challenges: his less than perfect English and steep prices, especially for public transport. He tried to maintain a 100-pound ($168) budget per week, like many of his compatriots are forced to do, but it was too tight.

Still, with a job, and persistence, he says opportunities abound in Britain – and will continue to draw young Poles, he says, until his home country offers the same possibilities. “Young people come here first for money,” he says. “And second for freedom.”

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