Ukrainian workers head abroad for higher wages, better lives

Some 1.2 million Ukrainians now work in Poland, where average wages are about three times higher than back home. Above, Ukrainians disembark the Kharkiv-Warsaw bus in Warsaw. (AP)
Updated 25 March 2019
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Ukrainian workers head abroad for higher wages, better lives

  • Ordinary Ukrainians long for better wages but see them stuck at a monthly average of $350
  • Ukrainians are replacing some of the 2 million Poles who left for Western Europe after Poland joined the EU in 2004

TERESIN, Poland: Not long ago, Andriy Lytvynenko was fighting Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. These days the Ukrainian war veteran drives a trolley up and down aisles of a supermarket warehouse in rural Poland and loads it with grocery items.
Unable to support his wife and three children as a driver at home in Ukraine, he recently left for the better pay offered in neighboring Poland.
“We fought in the war to make things better, but nothing has changed,” the 36-year-old veteran, wearing a safety vest and helmet, said as he worked. “Friends die and that’s it. And everything remains the same.”
As Ukrainians get ready for a presidential election on Sunday, millions have already voted with their feet to leave a nation mired in corruption and inequality, a nation where the separatist war in the east has dragged on for five years, killing 13,000 people and showing no signs of ending.
With Russia in control of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev is unable to fulfill its aspirations of joining the European Union or NATO. Ordinary Ukrainians long for better wages but see them stuck at a monthly average of $350. Business owners crave transparent rules and predictability but often face being extorted for bribes by corrupt officials, an intractable problem in Ukraine.
Many Ukrainians who dream of a decent existence are seeking it elsewhere.
In a nation of 44 million people, about 5 million — more than one in 10 people — now work abroad, according to an estimate by the All-Ukrainian Association of Companies on International Employment.
The group’s president, Vasyl Voskoboynyk, says the large-scale emigration is helping to “release pressure in our boiling kettle” by significantly lowering Ukraine’s jobless rate and injecting large sums of cash into the economy in the form of money sent home. Those remittances reached $11.6 billion last year and are expected to rise to $12.2 billion this year, nearly 12 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product.
“These are huge numbers,” Voskoboynyk said. “It’s much more than what we get from the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) or from foreign investments.”
For Ukraine’s government, that still isn’t enough. It is considering a new law to tax the income earned abroad.
Many Ukrainians work abroad for only a few months at a time, returning home often due to legal restrictions in EU countries. That has created a back-and-forth work migration that leaves open the possibility that many could return home for good if economic conditions in Ukraine ever improve.
“(But) sooner or later, if people see that there are no changes, we will lose them,” Voskoboynyk said.
While workers going abroad have traditionally been in agriculture, construction or domestic jobs, a small but growing number are skilled specialists like doctors, nurses and computer specialists, threatening the former Soviet republic with a brain drain.
Dr. Oksana Lozova, head of the cardiology ward at Regional Children’s Hospital in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine, said a doctor in her hospital recently left for Poland but smaller cities are feeling the loss of doctors and nurses much more.
“Experienced professionals are leaving and their places are filled with inexperienced young people,” Lozova said.
Lozova was treating a 9-year-old girl for rheumatoid arthritis who had been brought 80 kilometers (50 miles) by her mother for treatment because there were no specialists nearer.
Ukraine’s economic stagnation was visible in the pale bricks that had fallen from hospital’s facade, in the potholes in city roads, in the white zebra stripes almost totally washed away at pedestrian crossings.
Ukrainians have been drawn to Western European countries like Italy and Germany, but also to neighboring ex-communist countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which years ago entered NATO and the EU, and have since seen corruption fall and their economies expand.
The country attracting the most Ukrainians has been Poland, population 38 million, where some 1.2 million Ukrainians now work, according to the central bank. There, average wages are about three times higher than in Ukraine, around $1,050, still low by Western standards but growing fast.
The Ukrainians are replacing some of the 2 million Poles who left for Western Europe, especially Britain, after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Those who chose Poland do so because of its geographic proximity, cultural and linguistic similarities that make integration nearly frictionless and a booming economy desperate for workers.
“Poland is now the China of Europe,” said Andrzej Korkus, the CEO of EWL, one of the work agencies that places Ukrainians in construction, warehouse and other jobs.
Of the 600 employees at the supermarket warehouse where Lytvynenko, the Ukrainian war veteran, works, 43 percent are Ukrainians. Manager Marcin Szczepanski said so few Poles are willing to work in warehouses now that the business could not function without the Ukrainians.
Poland has also seen a huge surge in recent years in the number of Ukrainian university students, some of whom say they are better off paying tuition in Poland than the bribes required at home. Many of them stay on after graduation, taking jobs in Poland.
Medical professionals from Ukraine are also filling gaps left by Polish doctors, dentists and nurses who fled west for higher wages, but the process takes longer.
Olena Aleksiychuk, a 31-year-old Ukrainian dentist, left behind her parents, a home and her private dental practice in western Ukraine four years ago. She spent nearly three years learning Polish and passing Poland’s medical licensing exams. In that time, she worked as a dental hygienist, but says the temporary demotion was worth it, given the higher wages and greater opportunities to develop professionally that are available to her now in Poland.
She said she personally knows about 50 Ukrainian doctors, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who are now taking steps to work in Poland.
“Life is more comfortable in Poland. It’s safe and it’s all easier,” Aleksiychuk said, speaking from in her treatment room in a sleekly designed clinic run in a Warsaw neighborhood full of modern glass office buildings. “You don’t have to worry about what will happen tomorrow.”
One of her patients was also from Ukraine.
Lesya Benko, 25, arrived in Poland in 2015 and is now an account sales manager for a global headset company in Warsaw. Benko said she now runs into so many Ukrainians in her daily life — in stores, coffee shops and offices — that sometimes “you can’t tell if you are in Ukraine or Poland.”


London climate protesters seek talks with government

Updated 21 April 2019
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London climate protesters seek talks with government

  • Some 831 arrests have been made and 42 people charged in connection with the ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests

LONDON: Climate change protesters who have brought parts of London to a standstill said Sunday they were prepared to call a halt if the British government will discuss their demands.
Some 831 arrests have been made and 42 people charged in connection with the ongoing Extinction Rebellion protests.
On the seventh day of demonstrations that have occupied key spots in the British capital, organizers said they were willing to switch tactics from disruption to dialogue.
“We are prepared to pause, should the government come to the negotiating table,” Extinction Rebellion spokesman James Fox told AFP.
“What the pause looks like is us stopping an escalation.
“We can discuss leaving if they are willing to discuss our demands.
“At the moment, we haven’t received a response from the government... so we’re waiting on that.”
Extinction Rebellion was established last year in Britain by academics and has become one of the world’s fastest-growing environmental movements.
Campaigners want governments to declare a climate and ecological emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, halt biodiversity loss and be led by new “citizens’ assemblies on climate and ecological justice.
“We’re giving them an opportunity now to come and speak to us,” Fox told AFP.
“If they don’t take that opportunity, and if they refuse to come and negotiate with us, then this is going to continue and this is going to escalate in different, diverse and very creative ways.”
Police said they had managed to clear the Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus junctions of protesters, who remain in place on Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square.
“We remain in frequent contact with the organizers to ensure that the serious disruption to Londoners is brought to a close as soon as possible and that only lawful and peaceful protests continue,” the police said in a statement.
Calling for an end to the protests, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said more than 9,000 police officers had been responding to the demonstrations, which had left the force as a whole overstretched.
“This is now taking a real toll on our city — our communities, businesses and police. This is counter-productive to the cause and our city,” he said.
“I’m extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime if they continue any longer. It simply isn’t right to put Londoners’ safety at risk.
“You must now let London return to business as usual.”
In the blazing sunshine on Waterloo Bridge, police lifted protesters and carried them off to waiting police vans.
“I’m genuinely terrified. I think about it all the time. I’m so scared for the world. I feel like there is going to be calamity in my lifetime,” student Amber Gray told AFP.
“I don’t even feel comfortable bringing children into this world knowing that that is coming.
“And I don’t want people in the future to say to me, ‘why didn’t you do anything?’“
Retiree Kathy Hayman said politicians were “ignoring and denying.”
“I’m amazed really at the lack of consciousness that they have and the lack of responsibility.”