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Poland needs workers to reach its goal

Technician Janusz Pazgan checks a turbine in the renovation department of the Kogeneracja power plant in Wroclaw.

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KAI RYSSDAL: Today, French president Nicholas Sarkozy made his first public comments about the transit strike that's disrupted daily life in that country for the past week. He picked a good day to do it, too. Teachers and other civil servants decided to join the picket lines today. Sarkozy said he's not going to negotiate over his plans to reform public sector pensions. The French government figures the strike's costing almost half a billion dollars a day in lost wages and productivity.

Labor unrest of another sort is happening elsewhere in Europe. Poland will be hosting the European soccer championships in 2012. It's a big deal. So big, that construction on new roads and stadiums has already started. But the question is -- who's gonna do the work?

Brett Neely reports.


BRETT NEELY: Wroclaw is one of six Polish cities that'll host the games in 2012, and it seems as if the whole place is under construction. New roads, new buildings, new streetcar lines, new highways -- not to mention the new stadium. All in all, at least $11 billion worth of infrastructure projects to be completed in four and a half years, just for one city. Times are good for Polish workers. Adam Bernachik is renovating an old building in the historic city center.

ADAM BERNACHIK: I have more work than last year. Three times as much as the year before.

But a nationwide labor shortage could prevent all of that work from being finished on time. As many as two million people, roughly 10 percent of Poland's work force, have left the country since it joined the European Union in 2004. Many construction workers have landed in Ireland and Britain, where they can work without a visa. They earn as much as six times more in those countries than in Poland. In fact, it's Polish manpower that's building London's Olympic facilities for 2012. The labor shortage is starting to threaten the Polish economy. Andre Kubiza runs the human resources office for a Polish construction firm.

ANDRE KUBIZA: I can tell you that this year we offered wages that were double those we offered than last year.

Even if the stadiums and roads get built on time, there may not be enough workers to staff the city's hotels and restaurants. Until recently, Maciek Buba was the manager of a big restaurant in the center of Wroclaw.

MACHIK BUBA: For a year, I couldn't hire any chef. Every one of them has gone somewhere. Nobody answers the advertisements. Nobody comes to work as a chef.

He raised salaries at the restaurant three times last year. It didn't help. The solution, for now, seems to be importing labor. Andre Kubiza tells me his construction firm hopes to get several contracts related to the soccer tournament. He's already recruiting workers from the Ukraine and India. He says they'll earn the same as Polish workers but . . .

KUBIZA: These workers from Ukraine and India will cost our company more because we have to pay their living expenses and we have to pay for food.

Poland's government recently made it easier for Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians to work in Poland.
And last summer, Poland's labor minister went shopping for workers in Asia. On the list: Chinese construction workers who are almost done building next year's Beijing Olympics. It's not just workers who are profiting from the shortage. Marcin Dubaj is one of several entrepreneurs who recruits workers from Belarus and the Ukraine for Polish companies.

MARCIN DUBAJ: Because I was sending a lot of people to work in U.K. and I have a lot friends in Ukraine and I did have a idea that someone have to fill the gap here, you know.

Working in Poland, he says, is a step up the economic ladder for many Eastern Europeans, in the same way that working in Britain and Ireland is for Poles.

DUBAJ: For example, a construction worker is getting, in Belarus $200, $300, and here is earning something like $1000, even more.

Right now his firm brings in about 100 workers a month, and he expects to hire more as Poland's economy grows and the labor shortages get worse. Foreign workers can provide Poland with the extra muscle it needs to build stadiums and roads. But they won't be able to make up for a bigger loss to Poland's economy. The Polish workers who leave are the country's most entrepreneurial, well-educated and highly-skilled. And more than half say they don't know if they'll return.

In Wroclaw Poland, I'm Brett Neely for Marketplace.

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