‘It Was a Whirlwind. A Lot of People Made a Lot of Money’: The Role of Agencies in Facilitating Migration from Poland into the UK between 2004 and 2008
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The period after May 2004 – when Poland acceded to the European Union – until the onset of the recession in the UK in late 2007 saw a multitude of British employment agencies bringing migrant workers from Poland and placing them in temporary employment in the food industry, in construction, in social care, and in jobs in logistics and transport. Up to one half of the migrants who arrived in the UK after 2004 found work through an agency. As they arrived, a growing number of media and NGO reports highlighted both the exploitative living and working conditions in which many Polish workers found themselves and the role of agencies in this. Yet, the specific role of agencies as intermediaries between employers and workers has been comparatively neglected within the wealth of scholarly literature that analyses post-2004 East–West migration. This article documents how and why agencies recruited Polish workers into the UK labour market after May 2004. It argues that recruiting from Poland was a ‘market-making’ strategy for agencies, specifically linked to resolving a temporary crisis in finding a sufficient supply of workers willing to work in temporary agency jobs for low wages and in poor working conditions. The success of this new competitive strategy for agencies rested on: 1) marketing Polish nationals to employers as ideal-type ‘flexible’ workers, and 2) how quickly and easily they could move recruits from Poland into the workplace in the UK. This research contributes to an emerging body of work that analyses the competitive behaviour of agencies and the low-wage markets in which they are embedded, and to an also emerging body of literature exploring the role of migration intermediaries within Europe and internationally.
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