When Poland and a number of other Eastern European countries joined the European Union in 2004, Britain experienced one of the largest single waves of immigration the country has ever seen. More than one million Eastern Europeans - most of them Polish - came here to profit from Britain's booming economy. While the 'Polish plumber' has become something of a symbol for the new immigrants, Polish workers play an important part in all areas of the British economy, particularly in the construction, hospitality and catering sectors. Now, as a recession looms over Britain, Polish workers are leaving the country. Claudia Blume reports from London.
Grzegorz Mrozek is talking to an employment adviser at a London charity. The Polish construction worker is desperate.
"I lost the job, I think maybe lose the house, homeless - very difficult," said Mrozek. "Maybe next month I will move to Poland."
The charity offers free meals to unemployed migrants like Grzegorz Mrozek. More and more Polish workers have lost their jobs since Britain started to slide into a recession. New ones are hard to find. Janie Kidston manages the employment project UR4JOBS.
"It is much, much harder now, particularly in construction, particularly in manufacturing and particularly in things like cleaning, which were the main areas of work where we were sending people," said Janie Kidston.
When the British economy was booming, it was easy to find jobs, for example as construction workers or painters. Hundreds of thousands of Poles moved to the U.K. when Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Polish businesses, restaurants and shops are now a common sight throughout the country. But the boom times are over, and many Poles are returning home.
Krzysztof Trepczynski is head of the economic department at the Polish embassy in London.
"I think that the peak was at the beginning of last year when there were 700,000 - 750,000 Poles in the UK," said Trepczynski. "And since that time we see a slow downturn trend. Our estimation is that at present there are about half a million Poles."
Trepczynski says rising unemployment is not the only reason for the exodus. The exchange rate is another, particularly for those sending money back to Poland.
"When we joined the European Union, [the] British pound was almost seven Polish Zloty," he said. "Last year it dropped down for a little more than four Polish Zloty. It means the salary receipt here by Poles automatically was less in Polish Zloty for [by] about 30 percent."
Trepczynski says that another incentive for returning home is that the Polish economy is still doing relatively well. While a number of Eastern and Central European countries will experience an economic slowdown this year, Trepczynski says Poland's projected growth rate for 2009 is still a robust 1.7 percent.
Not everyone, of course, is thinking about going home. Many Poles have established successful careers and businesses in Britain, such as solicitor Jacek Krawczyk-Talikowski, who specializes in the legal needs of the Polish community. He is busy, in spite of the economic downturn, but says the focus of his work has changed.
"I used to have more clients interested in business development - setting up the companies, taking loans, thinking about future development thinking about new business initiatives - now I am beginning to have lots of companies, lots of clients who are either pursuing debts or in terms of individuals, I have a lot of employment law cases," he said.
Yet he and many of his fellow countrymen still see their future in Britain. So despite a growing exodus, the Polish community will remain a part of British society.