A decade ago, the "Polish plumber" became the symbol of British fears of immigrants coming in poorer Europe Union countries. After the UK's referendum to pull out of the EU, uncertainty reigns for all.
SLOUGH — Pawle, Karol and Marcim are flying high. Poland has just defeated Switzerland in a penalty shootout in the Euro soccer championship this past Saturday, to reach the quarterfinals. With red-and-white paint on their faces and scarves around their necks, they are jumping up and down and singing in a small square in this town west of London, as cars waving the Polish flag pass by, honking, joining in the celebration.
Still, this victory comes with a bitter taste for Marcim Malinowski. He has been living in the United Kingdom for seven years now and British decision to leave the European Union could now spoil everything. "I'm angry. We came here and took on the jobs that the British turned down. We help this country grow. And now, they're telling us to go home!" For Malinowski, a construction worker whose English is still a bit spotty, it feels like a "betrayal."
Slough can sometimes seem like a neighborhood in Warsaw. Since the opening of British borders in 2004, a large Polish population has settled down here. Their cheap labor and hard work is in high demand because of the nearby Heathrow Airport and the presence of numerous factories and warehouses.
Since then supermarkets where all the products are directly imported from Poland, and some of the clerks barely speak English, have sprung up. Grocery stores run by Indians even put Polish signs to attract new customers.
In the face of such circumstances, the so-called "Brexit" has sparked deep worries. Edyta Kosnik, who works in marketing and studies for a Master's degree in the evenings, has been living in Slough for 12 years. "I did not sleep that night when they counted the votes, I was glued to my TV. I still can't believe it," she says. "Statistically, it means that one out of two British people I know wants me out of here. I'm mad at the "Leave" campaign because of the way it made immigration its main argument. I felt directly attacked."
The Scotland option
Adam Waszkun arrived in Slough two years ago with his two young children. "I landed at the airport and I asked the taxi driver to take me to where there were jobs for Poles. He brought me here." The next day, he found a job. But if he has to, he is ready to leave: "If Scotland becomes independent, I might go there."
During the referendum campaign, supporters of Brexit made immigration inside Europe a central argument for leaving the EU. Since their victory, a few incidents against Poles have been reported. In London, racist graffiti was painted on Poland's cultural center. In a school near Cambridge, anonymous leaflets were left behind that read: "No more Polish vermin."
In Slough, however, no one really believes that expulsion is imminent. Three million Europeans live in the UK, including nearly 900,000 Poles, making it the country's first foreign community. A massive departure is unthinkable. "Anyway, who would agree to work for low wages? The British?" mocks Karol Patalas, one of the soccer supporters. For now, the dominant impression is that the political storm may not change everyday reality much.
Outrage, however, is not unanimous at the Polish supermarket Smaczek, "This vote concerns the British, it is their choice," says Karolina Bisaga, a saleswoman, "And if we have to leave, we'll leave."
Many Poles in Slough live in a parallel world, working in factories where few words are exchanged, with no real local ties. Even if they've been living here for several years, they still feel like they are not necessarily settled.
Even more surprising, many of them support the British decision. "Let's be clear: I'm taking someone else's job," says Dariusz Truchel who has been living in the UK for 13 years and manages construction sites, "How would you feel if millions of people suddenly came to your country? For several years, I saw Romanians arrive Romania began benefiting from free movement in the EU in 2014, and they also put pressure on the wages."
Some of the soccer fans say they would have voted "Leave" if they could have. "Immigration needs to stop," says Pawle Lukoszewski with no trace of irony, "there are too many people who come here and take advantage of social benefits."
This kind of speech seems to be taken straight from UKIP, the anti-European, anti-immigration party. But his friend Karol Patalas explains that it all comes down to self-interest: "I've been here for 14 years, they can't send me back," he says. "We came here and accepted jobs with slightly lower wages than the British. But now, new immigrants are coming in and taking even lower wages. It is not good for us."