Although the wartime influx from Ukraine is obviously heterogeneous, it is unique at the same time: the refugees are mostly women, often with children, who intend to stay in Poland temporarily. What might be the consequences of the appearance of this group for the labour market?
Even before the war broke out, Poland officially had more than 800,000 foreigners on the labour market, or at least that was the number registered with the Social Security Institution (ZUS). Three fourths of these, namely about 600,000 people, were Ukrainians. Since then, more than 2 million people have crossed our border; some of them have gone or will go to other countries. It is estimated that a few hundred thousand, or maybe a million people, will stay on the Polish labour market. We know very little about the demographic structure of this group. The perception is that these are actually mothers with children, and they’re often accompanied by elderly people. However, the question is how many families are there with a grandmother and/or grandfather. In the context of the labour market, this is an important question since family members can provide child care. We lack information on how many women have no children, what kind of education and qualifications female refugees have – whether these are high or low, useful or useless on the Polish labour market. The language barrier is another question. We should know all this in order to be able to plan scenarios for the labour market.
It can be assumed that most people ended up in large cities where the labour market needs are the biggest. Yet, it may still turn out that there are no jobs for newcomers. However, those Ukrainian women who end up in smaller towns may struggle with the same problems with getting a job as Polish women do, namely lack of adequate transportation or lack of public child care. Statistically, fewer women in Poland are employed than men and than women in other European countries – these barriers will equally affect Ukrainian women.
Pre-war statistics show the two sectors in which Ukrainians were most often employed were construction and industry, and 60 percent of work permits were issued for workers doing simple jobs. Where do we go from here? Will women have to adapt to the demands of the market? Or will the labour market adapt to their needs?
I think it’s both. Again, we still do not know how many men have left Poland, or how many will return and when. The big question now is how the war in Ukraine unfolds, and this has implications for the labour market. Even before the war, employers were already facing staff shortages in certain professions. This included both low-skilled and highly qualified workers. The population of Poland is aging, there are fewer people in the labour market, so in the face of these developments, employers must adjust their hiring policies to better attract people who have previously stayed outside the labour market. I mean women, people with disabilities, individuals who are currently in the agricultural sector but are actually redundant in it.
For years, we were used to having large cohorts of young, educated people entering the labour market. The labour market took in everyone. Now organisations need to do more to hire people. The situation is similar with attracting employees from Ukraine. Employers may need to do much to achieve the goal: enabling further training, improving qualifications, learning Polish, providing transportation or even childcare. Action by state authorities is not enough.
Will employers start to recognise women’s needs in these efforts? Does gender play a role? Will the presence of so many women in the labour market change anything?
Assuming that the conflict lasts for a long period of time and that women would not quickly return to Ukraine, I think we will clearly feel the economic turmoil of having many more women in the labour market, those seeking employment or unemployed. This might translate into structural changes. For example, the representation of women in sectors previously dominated by men may grow. You can easily imagine this in transportation, for example. You can already see female bus drivers in public transportation. This percentage will grow, and employers will tend to think more about what can be changed to hire even more women. In a few years from now, the employment structure in this sector may be significantly different.
What might this tendency to recognise the needs of women include?
Continuing on the example of the transportation industry, manufacturers of means of transportation will start designing them in consideration of the fact that a vehicle may be driven by a woman and therefore the steering wheel should be positioned a little differently.
What about pregnancy, maternity, menstruation? Is there anything that may change in employer’s approach to female workers?
Demography is uncompromising. If employers want to retain male and female employees, they will have offer increasingly flexible solutions. However, menstruation is a new topic, only in its infancy on the labour market. I would not expect any significant changes within a year or two. And when it comes to pregnancy or maternity, the actual problem is not with the scope of protections for women but with the enforcement of Labour Code provisions. This is partly a consequence of poor labour inspection. Obviously, it is important to think more on how to reduce discrimination. Female workers from Ukraine will be in a weaker bargaining position. This is a huge challenge for the labour inspectorate: to ensure that equality in employment is enforced when hiring people from Poland and Ukraine. What I mean is, offering the same contracts or closing the wage gap.
Discrimination can affect Ukrainian women in several areas: because they are foreigners, because of their gender, because they’re mothers, etc. Which area is associated with the highest risk of unequal treatment?
Poorly educated women without a good command of Polish and who have children will require the most support. I don’t think the government can solve all these problems, so the activity of NGOs will be very important in terms of assisting women in the labour market.
Sooner or later, we will also witness conflicts, e.g., why Ukrainians are provided with support that Poles are not. It is a risk we need to face also in the context of access to the labour market and it will not be easy to resolve potential tensions.
Interview by Anna Zaleska
The text was published at gazetaprawna.pl on 25 March 2022