Hannah McKay/Reuters
British Union flags fly in front of the Big Ben clocktower of The Houses of Parliament in central London, February 24, 2016. Prime Minister David Cameron, campaigning for Britain to stay in the European Union, has the edge over London Mayor Boris Johnson, the most popular figure in the 'Out' camp, in trying to sway the key group of undecided voters, a new poll indicated.

'Brexit' debate: Could Britain get by without the 'Polish Plumber'?

Many in the UK argue that Eastern Europeans are taking jobs and welfare money away from native Brits, and that leaving the EU is the solution. But it's not so simple.

When Jacek Musialik moved to Britain in 2004 as a 24-year-old, he was one of the first Poles to arrive here on a European Union passport. Poland had just joined the EU, and that meant visa-free access to Britain.

Mr. Musialik took jobs washing dishes and stacking supermarket shelves. With so few Poles in the country, people usually mistook him for a Frenchman.

No longer. 

Now, the image of the "Polish Plumber" has become a fixture of daily life in Britain – and a political football in the heated debate over whether to remain a part of the European Union or stage a "Brexit" and leave the bloc.

Pro-Brexit campaigners blame Poles – and the tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians who have joined them – for taking jobs and benefits from British workers. But the "Polish Plumber" has become an integral, even lauded part of British society. And if Britons vote to leave the EU and Central and Eastern European workers head home, everyday life could stumble – underscoring the contradictions inherent in the Brexit debate.

Taking British jobs?

Musialik, who lives in the picturesque cathedral city of Lincoln, some two hours north of London, hasn’t noticed a change in Britons’ attitudes toward him personally. “The only time I’ve had a negative experience was once, in a pub, when an English man showed me the calluses on his hands and said he had to work so hard because of people like me,” he says, an apparent reference to immigrants’ welfare payments.

But the abstract idea of the foreign worker is much more contentious. As the number of Poles in Britain has skyrocketed – the 2011 national census recorded more than half a million Poles, up from 58,000 in 2001 – so too have native worries that Poles are undermining Britons' employment and welfare.

Much like Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States, Poles are seen as taking primarily unskilled jobs away from working-class Britons.

Even worse, many Britons feel, is the fact that many Poles send the child benefit payments they receive here to their children in Poland. Indeed, the most prominent part of the reform deal Prime Minister David Cameron demanded from his fellow EU leaders in their make-or-break summit last week was a four-year exclusion from welfare payments for EU immigrants in Britain.

Mr. Cameron’s demands caused considerable anxiety in Britain’s Polish community.

“Many Poles also felt that the British government is ungrateful for the contribution of Polish immigrants to the British economy,” explains Ilona Korzeniowska, editor-in-chief of the Polish Express, a British newspaper for Poles. “Cameron’s proposals brought to mind the stereotype of Polish lazybones who only expect social assistance from the government.”

'Works twice as hard for half the cost'

Poles' impact on the British economy is not easily compartmentalized – or severed, should the pro-Brexit bloc have its way.

According to a 2014 study by economists at University College London, migrants from newer EU member states such as Poland contribute £5 billion ($7 billion) more to the British economy than they receive in welfare. (Romanians and Bulgarians qualified for visa-free status in 2014.)

If Polish construction workers, plumbers, and janitors were to stay away, British employers would face a dilemma. Fast-food outlets and cafes are heavily staffed by Poles, though a spokeswoman for the nationwide Pret a Manger chain declined to specify how many Poles it employs.

“We use a Polish builder because his workmanship is excellent, he works twice as hard as the average British builder for half the cost, and he is polite and considerate,” explains London homeowner Debra Hughes-Leitch. “And he is much brighter and better educated than a British builder, and he takes pride in his work.”

Even property owners in ultra-posh Knightsbridge now employ Polish construction crews. One tenant in central London told the Monitor of a construction 10-man crew dispatched to renovate her building. Nine of the men, she reported, were Poles, who worked without a break. The tenth, a Briton, asked her to make him tea.

Poles themselves tried to show how Britain would suffer without them by staging a strike in London last August.

Denis MacShane, a Europe minister under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose opposition Labor Party favors staying in Europe, agrees. “Brexit is likely to see a reduction of investment in the UK, a run on the pound sterling, and the UK economy swiftly looking less healthy,” he says. “As firms close and unemployment rises, the UK would be less attractive to Poles, so they may look to find work in Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and the Nordic countries.”

Witold Sobków, Poland’s ambassador to London, declares himself confident that Britons realize the value of the Poles among them. “Everyone appreciates that Poles don’t come here to get benefits but to work from morning to night. They fill gaps in the economy. Besides, they contribute to the economy, too.”

The proposed deal

Ultimately, the EU agreed with Cameron to a mild cut in migrant welfare. Newly arrived EU immigrants will have to spend one year here before being eligible for welfare payments. They won’t lose child benefits at all, though these will be paid at the rates of the child’s country of residence instead of UK rates as is the case today.

Cameron has declared the deal a success and called on Britons to vote in the June 23 referendum to remain in the EU. Mr. Sobków calls it a win-win. “Of course it’s a compromise, and as part of that we accepted the child benefit [cuts],” he says.

The deal would become null and void if Britons vote to leave the EU. Musialik, who now has a family and a mortgage and stays in touch with large numbers of more recently arrived Poles, says he will stay put even if a Brexit happens. But, he predicts, in case of a Brexit Poles contemplating migration will opt for Germany or the Netherlands instead.

Even so, Ms. Korzeniowska says that most British Poles are pleased with the outcome of Cameron’s EU deal, as it will only affect new immigrants.

Musialik, who now has an office job, agrees. “I started out washing dishes and stacking supermarket shelves even though I had a university degree, because that’s what you have to do if you don’t speak the language well,” he explains. “I didn’t think about benefits when I came here, and I don’t think most Poles do. Maybe a few won’t come because of the reform, but that’s not so bad."

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