Trapped in irregular work: the case of Filipino migrants in Poland

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‘I was not aware I was illegal’ – this is what Robby (not his real name) said in an interview with Al Jazeera in one of several recent press articles about Filipino migrant workers in Poland.

As ‘emerging markets’, Central and Eastern European countries have become ‘new destinations’ for Filipino migrant workers due to labour supply shortages and active recruitment. However, as the press articles detailed, many Filipinos have experienced exploitation and deception as they pursued the promise of a better life in Poland.  This blog post delves into the different systemic issues and institutional roles that contribute to these migration trends.

The Philippines Labour Export System

As one of the largest and ‘model’ labour-sending countries, the Philippines has a highly institutionalised labour export process that encompasses the entire migration process, from pre-deployment to reintegration, and includes the production and marketing of ‘good workers.’ This also means that the Philippine state has regulated where and how it sends its workers.  The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) reiterated in an advisory in 2022 the warning against unlicensed recruitment agencies operating abroad and in the Philippines, particularly those deploying Filipino workers in Poland.

Instead of returning to the Philippines to obtain permission to work overseas – as required by Philippine’s policy framework for labour emigration – many Filipinos already working abroad often pay exorbitant fees to recruiters who promise better-paying jobs in countries like Poland as well as permanent residency in Europe. Robby and many other Filipinos were deployed in Poland through the so-called ‘third-country recruitment’. However, they soon found out that none of those promises would be kept.

Risks of Third-Party Recruitment

Apart from potentially going into debt to pay the recruiters, it has also been reported that Filipino migrants in Poland have experienced various forms of exploitation and abuse, such as having their passports confiscated, being forced to work in factories under harsh conditions with deductions from their wages that they cannot properly take account for and living in unsuitable accommodation upon arrival. In addition, these migrants also eventually found out, to their surprise, like Robby did, that they did not, in fact, have the proper documentation to work in Poland. Some of them continued to live in various forms of irregularity in Poland while others have tried to move elsewhere in Europe in search of fortune in the midst of their precarious situation. Others like Robby were caught by the authorities and sent home.

Poland’s Labour Migration Framework

Poland’s labour migration framework contributes to these dynamics. Below, we detail how Poland’s approach to entry, residence, and work authorisation has changed over the years in order to demonstrate the context of how migrants end up with an irregular migration status.

Before 2007, almost all foreign nationals needed a work permit. The process was complicated and costly and discouraged many employers from entering into legal employment contracts with foreigners. Migrants, especially those arriving from neighbouring countries, had relatively easy access to the territory (e.g. as tourists or visitors) but limited opportunities for work authorisation. As a result, both employers and migrants were not inclined to formalise their work relationship. While Ukrainian and Vietnamese migrants—who were the most numerous migrant groups at that time—had different legal situations, both often resided and/or worked irregularly, lacking access to the formal labour market.

Reforms in 2006 and 2007 introduced the possibility of cost-free authorisation of short-term migrant labour and reduced the complexity of applying for a work permit, which is required for long-term employment of migrants. These changes benefited citizens of countries in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, like Ukraine the most, providing them with easy access to lawful short-term employment in Poland. Migrants from Asia still had to rely on the standard work permit system, and thus remained more susceptible to irreguralised work settings.

Starting in around 2014, Filipino, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Indian migrants became increasingly significant in Poland’s labour market, primarily employed in administrative services and transport. They have largely come and found work through state-licensed as well as third-party recruitment agencies. The majority of them only hold temporary residence permits in Poland.

From 2015 onward, Poland intensified its efforts against illegal border crossings and irregular migration, focusing on preventing the use of fraudulent documents, stopping unwanted movements, and improving repatriation. The country moved from a relatively lenient approach in the 1990s and early 2000s to an increasingly stricter stance, driven by EU mandates and changing regional geopolitical dynamics.

In 2018, there were new restrictions on the authorisation of short-term employment for citizens from Eastern Neighbourhood countries. At the same time, a new type of work permit was introduced for all third-country nationals. This new permit is specifically for seasonal work and it is easier and cheaper to obtain than the traditional work permit. Additionally, this new type of permit also streamlined the visa application processes.

In this context, it is important to highlight that many Filipino migrants might possibly hold legal documentation for entry, residence, and employment in Poland, being recognised by the Polish authorities as migrants with a regular status, but if they have arrived from a third country without adhering to the official and sanctioned deployment procedures of the Philippines, the Filipino authorities may consider their recruitment and overseas employment as ‘irregular’.

These past and present examples from Poland illustrate who an irregular migrant is and what conditions they might experience, which can depend on many things, including the year of arrival, country of origin, and labour market needs and the use of intermediary services.

Conclusion: What led to Robby’s experience?

The experience of Robby and many like him did not result from one particular thing. Instead, as explained above there were a variety of factors at play. We currently do not have a clear picture of how labour market regulations, migration policy, employers’ needs, and migrants’ own aspirations all interact; most research on the experiences and exploitation of migrants tends to focus on one or two of these areas in exclusion of the rest. In our work with the PRIME project, we’ll be looking to understand and tease out the complexity of these factors and their interactions in Poland, but also in countries across Europe. We think that this comparative country approach, coupled with a multi-sector approach, will provide a much deeper understanding in order to develop contextualised and, therefore, more effective policies that support business needs, take account of the state’s migration control objectives, and provide more effective protections to migrants like Robby.

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Rizza Kaye C. Cases is an assistant professor at the Department of Sociology, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman. She obtained her PhD in Sociology and Social Research from the University of Trento, Italy in 2018. Her research interests include migration studies, sociology of health and illness, social network analysis, social capital, and relational and comparative sociology.

Marta Kindler is a sociologist. She works as an assistant professor the Centre of Migration Research and the Institute for Social Prevention and Resocialisation, University of Warsaw. Marta Kindler’s research focuses currently on the role of social networks in migration.

Monika Szulecka is a researcher in migration law, migration policy and migratory phenomena, political scientist and criminologist working at the Centre of Migration Research of University of Warsaw and Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences.