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Poles and prejudice

Polish discrimination 480p

Although Poles make up the third largest foreign-born community in the UK, new research from LSE shows they are being exploited at record levels in their adopted country.

In August 2015, thousands of British Poles downed tools and marched on Westminster to vent their frustration at the hands of employers, landlords and clusters of xenophobic individuals. Years of negative attitudes and exploitation culminated in a day-long protest to show their anger at the rise of anti-Polish rhetoric fuelled by the media and echoed across the country.

For PhD student Dagmar Myslinska, a Polish-born lawyer raised in the United States, the event was grist for the mill for her thesis, started a year earlier at LSE.

Using Polish migrants’ experiences as the basis for her PhD studies, she is researching incidents of discrimination against white migrants in the UK, specifically looking at housing and employment issues.

Dagmar (pictured below right) argues that open borders and freedom of movement within the EU have helped western employers to maximise profits and exploit vulnerable groups, such as Poles.

Their passive temperament, strong work ethic and willingness to work under poor conditions have played in employers’ favour, many of whom take advantage of Polish workers, paying them below the award rates and refusing to provide valid employment contracts.

Dagmar headshot“Most Poles are employed in precarious temporary arrangements without any legal protection, are underpaid and often required to work under very difficult conditions that other ethnic groups would not tolerate,” Dagmar says.

“Many get threatened with termination if they refuse to perform tasks or put in time beyond their job descriptions, get blamed for others’ mistakes and penalised for small infractions, whereas other immigrant workers are not targeted. Some Polish workers have even compared their workplaces to labour camps.”

Their rights are rarely protected through trade union membership as they tend to work in industries and jobs where union density is low, Dagmar says. Fear of retribution and victimisation also make them less likely to file official complaints to the employment tribunal.

Likewise, unscrupulous landlords capitalising on a shortage of housing in London, in particular, are renowned for charging Poles skyrocketing rents for substandard properties, Dagmar’s research has found.

“In rural areas, landlords are buying up entry-level accommodation, making migrant tenants more vulnerable. A lack of deposits and references make their situation more precarious. As in the employment context, Polish tenants are often threatened with physical violence, eviction and even job loss in cases where landlords and employers are colluding,” Dagmar adds.

Despite the fact that Poles are protected under both EU and UK anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of ethnic origin, there is little appetite to enforce the legislation, Dagmar says.

At the heart of the issue is a tacit belief that any prejudice against white migrants cannot be deemed racist because Poles, like other Eastern Europeans who experience similar treatment, are Caucasian and predominantly Christian.

“There is less of a stigma associated with discriminating against whites than non-whites which encourages less overt, but just as damaging, exploitation. Their whiteness is a resource in some sectors – such as aged care – and their religious and European heritage makes them more employable than other third-country nationals.”

The discrimination, fed by the ‘Polish plumber’ stereotype, is borne out by a 2015 poll which showed that 23 per cent of Poles had experienced some form of discrimination in the UK. A 2014 survey also indicated that 71 per cent of Poles had been – or known a fellow countryman – subjected to either verbal or physical abuse at the hands of British whites or other groups.

Dagmar’s research is grounded in a framework known as critical race theory which explores the intersection of law, race and power structures. Originally applied to examine the experience of Afro Americans after the civil rights movement, the theory can be expanded to understand various power hierarchies which affect minority groups.

Her research challenges the EU’s official narrative concerning the 2004 enlargement of the European Union to include former Eastern Bloc countries.

“The inclusion of Eastern European nations was described as a major step towards promoting human rights, securing peace and improving prosperity for these countries. However, migrants from Poland and other Central and Eastern European states have faced ongoing prejudice, micro-aggression and discrimination in the UK, at work and beyond,” Dagmar claims.

“There is a very clear hierarchy of whiteness and belonging when it comes to Europe, driven by Western European nations. Despite the rhetoric, my research shows that while Eastern European countries have officially been a part of the EU for more than a decade, they have never been completely embraced.”


Dagmar Myslinska is in her second year of a PhD in LSE’s Law Department. Her thesis title is “White Migrants and Anti-Discrimination Law in the UK: Bridging the UK/EU Gap with Critical Race Theory”.

Dagmar graduated from Yale University with a B.A. cum laude, in Psychology, and Film Studies. She received her J.D. from Columbia University School of Law. Between 2012 and 2014, Dagmar was an Assistant Professor at Charlotte School of Law in the USA. Prior to that, she was a lecturer-in-law at Columbia University School of Law, and an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law and at Seton Hall University School of Law. She has also taught as a visiting professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, Japan Campus. Before entering academia, Dagmar practised law, specialising in commercial litigation and pro bono immigration law in New York.

Main image by David Holt Photography.

Posted February 2016