How to Organize Economic Immigration? Lessons From Poland

By: Agnieszka Kulesa, CASE Economist

Since 2015, managing labor immigration has been high on the European agenda. As the European Union (EU) is facing long-term economic and demographic challenges, the European Commission estimates that its working age population will decline by 17.5 million in the next decade. According to the OECD, immigration could allow to fill this gap, mitigate regional imbalances across the Member States and reduce short term labor scarcity in specific occupations. Shortages have already been seen, both in high-tech sectors as well as in low-skilled jobs. To deal with the demographic challenges and a steady outflow of its own workers, Poland has introduced its own measures that have been successfully attracting foreign workforce. Evidence shows that Poland’s participation in the EU-originated instruments has not led to enhanced economic immigration from third countries but might have contributed to the success of national measures.

EU immigration policy

According to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU and its Member States share competences as regards legal immigration policy. While the EU might lay down the conditions governing entry into and residence in a Member State for third-country nationals, the Member States retain the right to determine volumes of their admission (Article 79). Member States are also free to negotiate and implement bilateral labor migration agreements with third countries of their choice and to use available national immigration and labor market measures to attract foreign labor force.

The European Commission (EC) has been calling for a “new policy on legal migration” of the EU for some time already, and these efforts intensified in 2015 with the adoption of the European Agenda on Migration as a direct response to the so-called migrant and refugee crisis. In his annual state of the EU address delivered on September 12, Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, once again called on Member States to come forward with initiatives to open legal pathways for third country nationals willing to work in the European Union.

According to the proposal for a political roadmap presented in December 2017, a more comprehensive and sustainable migration and asylum policy was to be gradually adopted by June 2018, including the launch of first pilot projects for coordinating legal economic migration with key third countries. The progress in this area has been slow so far. While recognizing the need for skilled migrants, the EC has also been a strong advocate of the revision of the Blue Card directive that introduced a work permit allowing high-skilled non-EU citizens to work and live in any Member State (excluding Denmark, Ireland and United Kingdom). Meanwhile, the negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council have been blocked due to such disputed issues as the recognition of professional experience, minimum wage, and the labor market test (the procedure for acquiring information about the situation on the local labor market in order to confirm that there is no local labor force to fill in vacancies).

In the 2015 European Agenda on Migration, the EC refers directly to Mobility Partnerships (MPs) as “the most elaborated bilateral cooperation frameworks in the field of migration”. MPs are one of the main tools of the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility, which is since 2005 the overarching framework of the EU external migration and asylum policy. Introduced to “identify new approaches to improve the management of legal movements of people between the EU and third countries”, MPs were designed to guarantee third countries greater opportunities for legal migration in exchange for assistance in combating and preventing illegal migration. They are legal predecessors of Common Agendas on Migration and Mobility and compacts announced simultaneously with the introduction of the Migration Partnership Framework in June 2016.

There are three sides to each MP: the third country, the EU, and the Member States. In case of this EU-initiated policy instrument, Member States play a central role not only in initiating particular agreements by mandating the EU to start negotiations with the agreed third countries, but they are also key in bringing individual MPs to life: no such agreement can be concluded without EU Member States as co-signatories. Yet, their participation in MPs is voluntary. Among the specific tools used in the framework of MPs are: knowledge management tools (e.g. migration profiles), dialogue tools (e.g. seminars or conferences), and cooperation tools, including the capacity-building process, exchange of experts, partnerships as well as operational cooperation and targeted projects and programs. A combination of these would be used in specific projects adjusted to the needs of third countries.

Poland’s use of the Mobility Partnership framework

Poland’s approach to immigration policy has been comprehensive — to enhance foreign economic migration, the country used the EU’s existing external dimension cooperation framework and introduced specific, targeted legal measures. What has worked and what has not?

Nine Mobility Partnerships have been signed by the EU and its Member States so far — with Armenia (concluded in 2011), Azerbaijan (2013), Belarus (2016), Cape Verde (2008), Georgia (2009), Jordan (2014), Morocco (2013), Moldova (2008), and Tunisia (2014). Poland is a signatory to as many as seven of them (all except for Cape Verde and Morocco), which places the country right behind France (eight MPs) and ahead of Germany, Sweden, and Italy (six MPs each).

Within these partnerships, according to the information obtained from the Polish Ministry of the Interior and Administration, in 2008–2017 Poland participated (mostly as a partner state) in 25 specific projects implementing MPs. Cooperation was directed especially towards public administration bodies in Georgia (eight projects), Tunisia and Azerbaijan (five projects each), Moldova and Armenia (four projects each). The thematic scope of projects encompassed, among other things, such issues as border management, implementation of readmission agreements, management of returns and reintegration measures, and relations with diaspora. In addition to that, Poland was transferring its experience regarding the adjustment of migration‑related law to the European standards. Only one project referred directly to labor migration policy — Belarusian experts participated in a study visit to Poland to gain experience in managing economic emigration within the framework of the Technical Assistance and Information Exchange instrument.

Although it has been argued that cooperation within the framework of MPs goes far beyond specific projects, the evidence from Poland seems to rather suggest that it might in fact be reduced to it. Moreover, there is a strong argument for the thesis that there is an untapped potential to MPs, which despite their weaknesses — related to the voluntary character of participation of EU MS and imbalanced position of its signatories (in principle, the EU is willing to open legal migration channels in return for readmission) — have capabilities to positively influence European immigration policy (see for example this article in Polish).

Poland’s national labor immigration measures

Mobility Partnerships are often incorrectly referred to as instruments which allowed Poland to set the frameworks for economic immigration from the Eastern countries. In fact, Poland introduced its simplified procedure for hiring foreign labor force as early as in 2006, before the introduction of MPs in 2008. Currently, the scheme allows the citizens of Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russian Federation and Ukraine to legally work in Poland for up to six months during the consecutive 12 months without having to obtain a work permit. The scheme is based on employers’ statements of entrusting work to a foreigner and this fact is registered in regional labor offices (Powiatowe Urzędy Pracy) (for details regarding numbers of work permits and employer’s statements see Table 2).

The use of the measurement has been steadily increasing. According to data from the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy, voivodships issued approx. 235,000 work permits for foreigners from third countries in 2017, and regional labor offices registered approx. 1.8 million statements of entrusting work to a foreigner from about 1.1 million employees. These represent increases by 80% and 40%, respectively, compared to 2016.

According to the National Bank of Poland, the scale of economic immigration to Poland has clearly increased over the past few years, and so has its sectoral distribution. Foreign labor force is now present in such sectors as agriculture, catering, cleaning, construction but also, increasingly, in services such as transport or customer service. The chart below shows the dynamics of the number of statements of entrusting work to a foreigner in comparison to work permits (see Chart 1). The greatest number of statements of entrusting work to a foreigner has been issued to the citizens of Ukraine, which is the only Eastern Partnership state with which a Mobility Partnership has not in fact been concluded. Economic migration to Poland of citizens from the other Mobility Partnership states has been rather stable, with a slight increase in case of Moldovans and Belarusians. Labor migration from Jordan and Tunisia to Poland remains marginal.

The so-called “statement system” (“system oświadczeniowy”) has gained so much popularity amongst employers that the government plans to further liberalize it by allowing the citizens of the selected third countries to work in Poland on the basis of employer statement for up to 12 months. The change is planned to come into force as of January 1, 2019, in the new Labor Code.


Poland has not used the Mobility Partnership framework to foster its own specific, and apparently relatively successful, labor migration-related policy. The country, however, utilized this platform for cooperation with third countries to support and expand the scope of its own already existing labor migration measures (e.g. Armenia was included in the “statement system” only in 2014).

Whether a solution similar to the Polish “statement system” would be applicable in other UE MS is an open question. Its popularity among both Polish employers and foreign workers, especially from Ukraine, seem to prove that streamlining and simplifying procedures — what has been strongly advocated for by the European Commission — works best while countering problems with labor market shortages through targeted immigration and labor policy measures. There are, however, risks that need to be taken into account, such as the lack of administrative capacity to manage increased immigration and hostile public attitudes. Simplified immigration and labor market access laws might also have strong social and economic effects on the sending countries, resulting, for example, in brain drain. The question how the Polish “statement system” influenced social and economic situation of Ukraine and other third countries requires further research.

CASE — Center for Social and Economic Research is an independent, non-profit economic and public policy research institution, established in 1991 in Warsaw.