When I was in the UK in mid-2010, the most interesting new development for me was the strange respect of Polish people that the Brits seemed to have found themselves in, seemingly by accident. This seemed to hinge largely on the high quality of plumbing performed by Polish plumbers; and the abundance of Polish plumbing, in return, seemed to be the most tangible evidence of borders-opening-to-new-EU-members. More precisely: the end of the 7-year moratorium on people-movement from the ex-socialist, Eastern-European, mostly-Slavic, and in all other ways intrinsically inferior European countries, and into the historically-capitalist, Western-European, Germanic-and-Mediterranean, and in all other ways intrinsically superior European countries.
When the EU expanded, such Western Europeans were all aflurry at the cheap and nasty labour that would pour in. Online sources are a bit hard to find so many years into the past, but look at this sample from the BBC News:
“This is being driven by business which wants mass cheap labour. As a worker I do not want cheap competition.”
“Now the citizens of current EU countries have to give serious to consideration to whether or not they want to spend the rest of their lives funding a crazy scheme to integrate the rich, poor and even poorer nations of Europe. I know I don’t. Given individual nations’ failure to do this domestically it doesn’t seem to be feasible on a continental scale.”
“Full membership is going to be a hopeless disaster. There are more farmers in Poland than there are in all the current members of the EU put together. There will have to be a massive redistribution of wealth of Polish farmers and there will be riots on the streets of France, Spain and Italy when these countries find out what’s at stake.”
“Surely this is just going to create a tide of economic migration from poorer East European counties to the west. Who is going to pick up the tab for their benefits? The British tax payer I suppose! I am totally against it!”
“If people are already angry about asylum seekers, then they ain’t seen nothing yet!”
“I definitely welcome new countries to the EU, but not until these countries can offer as much economically back to the member states, as the member states offer to the applicant. After all the EU is not a charity.”
All of these, not by design, come from commentators from the UK (citizens of other countries made more moderate comments and generally refrained from bringing in labour cost). Around 2004, when the 7-year period was ending, The Guardian was warning that “Downing Street must not surrender to xenophobic arguments over a feared influx of eastern European immigrants”. The German BPD was diagnosing public fears such: “75% of Germans surveyed expected unemployment to rise following the accession of the Central and Eastern European states; only 28% welcomed the expansion. In France, the ‘Polish plumber’ became a symbol for a perceived threat to the national labour market due to EU expansion, a perception that helped fuel France’s rejection of the EU Constitution in May 2005”. And, travelling around the EU in 2004 and 2005, I did not exactly feel welcome and respected.
But how the tables turn! Come UK in 2010, and everyone seemed as surprised as I was that they had so much praise for the Polish plumber (PP having become, by then, the synecdoche for all East-to-West European intramigration). The underlying attitude seemed to be of genuine surprise (not some bleeding-heart trying) and mild reluctance, but also general relief that life could be good. Apparently this had started in 2005, straight after the people-moving ban was lifted (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C), continued throughout 2006 (Exhibit D), when it was linked to rising prosperity. By 2008, the return-migration of Poles was a worry (Exhibit E), in 2010 their return interpreted as sign of fat cows around the corner (Exhibit F) – or just a good thing in and of itself, and even when Eastern-European-directed racism awoke again, in 2011, Polish plumbers were singled out and mercifully exempt Exhibit G). Indeed, businesses now market themselves as Polish.
Why? Because they seemed to have introduced into Britain, that first of industralising nations, the sense that a manual job could be well done, with skill and professional pride.
“I feel humbled to have temporarily had at my service one of this country’s 95 Polish plumbers.” wrote Peter Dobbie (Exhibit A) in 2005. “In Britain today, the Polish plumber is seen by mortgage payers as something of a hero. He – I have yet to come across a she – is like a resistance fighter, parachuted into occupied France during the Second World War, nurtured and passed from safe house to safe house. The Polish plumber I employed was quick and efficient. He found the cause of the pong that hung around the outer drains of chez moi. He was cheap and did not make me feel that he was doing me a favour by just turning up at the promised time. He left a card which gave a first name and a mobile telephone number. I would not hesitate to pass him on to the next victim of blocked drains or broken central heating.”
“They are coming in and making a very good reputation as highly skilled, highly motivated workers,” said Christopher Thompson (Exhibit B), a diplomat at the British Embassy in Warsaw, in 2005.
“It is hard to go a week without reading an article about the army of Polish workers becoming a shining success story in construction and home repairs.” wrote The Guardian (Exhibit C)
During my 2010 visit, even the cause of this plumbing excellence was identified. Everyone told me the same thing. “It’s because they have apprenticeships, in Poland.”
An apprenticeship in Poland is the same as in Austria (see video): 3 years of work placement, with 1-2 days of academic study a week, after the age of 15 or 16. This is precisely the sort of system Britain abandoned after the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and the 1980s (because the financial services made so much more money, remember?), and that countries like Australia possibly never had – see previous writing on Australian attitudes to jobs-well-done, or inspect the quality of craft on any house built 1787-2011. An apprenticeship of this sort is a serious commitment, and out of it comes a professional pride. Many semi-academic high schools and universities, from architecture and graphic design to hospitality and technical sciences, work as essentially highly-skilled technical schools. My little sister, who is about to graduate from an applied arts’ high school, is essentially learning a trade. That is fine, and there is no loss of status associated. (Here I am reminded of a conversation I had with my Australian ex-husband, long ago, on the subject of children and our parental expectations. While I was claiming to be a liberal future parent, he asked: “But what if your child said they don’t want to go to university?” This caused me great confusion at the time, while I was trying to understand what he meant by the question, and why this was parental anathema. I myself was considering a TAFE at the time, before I realised how little they were respected in Australia.)
In contrast, according to The Daily Mail in 2006:
“Mr Kosniowski, one of the original Polish community in Southampton, says: “We supply skilled workers rather than labourers because there is a shortage. A lot of young British people are not interested in trades or apprenticeships. The problem is that the emphasis in this country was on getting young people educated rather than skilled.” It is a sad truth that apprenticeships fell out of favour in Britain in the Seventies and Eighties when the manufacturing industries shed jobs and the construction industry went into decline.”
(Long aside: the specifically British attitude to manual work, which is respected on the level of product (especially if foreign) but not on the level of person, is a class-related attitude, and is quite probably the reason why Britain, among other things, has such awfully poor-quality food. While Australia is supposedly free of class hangovers, its own attitude to craftsmanship reveals basically the same set of problems. In most European countries there is a certain recognition that society is a complex system of inter-dependence, which leads to a respect for the waitress, the coffee-maker, the plumber, the farmer, the baker and so on, and results in a number of structural supports to the art of waiting tables, baking bread, etc – fiscal, educational, migration, and so on. (Read Michael Symons’ One Continuous Picnic: a gastronomic history of Australia to find out, among other things, how a cascade of contradictory laws, introduced in the first half of the 20th century, decimated the small bakers of Australia. This is a kind of gross negligence that speaks of societal values.)
Perhaps Britain is permeated with an aristocratic-wannabe snobbery towards manual work, as this wealth of literature suggests. But poor-settler countries like Australia, Canada, the US, more insidiously, feature a kind of delusion that we can all somehow be a civic middle class, which in the collective psyche translates into white-collar, and perfect equality and prosperity-for-all would somehow mean literally freeing everyone from the need to fix objects, grow food, milk cows, make machinery, and so on. Again, if this seems like a caricature, picture yourself the billion suburban houses built in these countries in the past century or so, all little manors in little parks, or houses with gardens that are not used for growing food even if that is the single most appropriate use for a small house garden. Or the idea of university for everyone, which eventually leads to the loss of manual skills such as those promulgated through apprenticeships. In other words, if you put ideas of equality on top of a very strong class culture, this weird homogeneity appears in the idea of what everyone should be like: instead of respect for all kinds (or classes) of labour, the society tries to get everyone to fit into one labour class. And even when the practical need for lost skills is then reasserted, it gets reappraised in a strangely semiotised way – as an image of longing for a fantasy – so that growing your own food/milking your own cow/building your own house comes to stand for suburban middle class par excellence. Which is to say, if good plumbing ever rises to an actually-appreciated craft, in places like the UK, Canada and Australia it is more likely to result in suburban hipsters opening boutique plumbing businesses than in a structural access to apprenticeships for all high-school leavers.)
For all these reasons, the Monocle video podcast above is very interesting – as is Monocle’s general abundant coverage of craftsmanship. As Hugo McDonald, the Monocle Design editor, says in the clip above:
Beyond creating a workforce that continues to produce beautiful things, the apprenticeship system fosters a social attitude of respect between generations, attention to detail, and an ability to make, do and mend almost anything. At a grassroots level, it is these qualities that keep a country intact.