Polish Migrant Workers in Ireland’s Black Economy: a Phenomenological Investigation

Polish Migrant Workers in Ireland’s Black Economy: a Phenomenological Investigation


School of Business Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology Dublin Road, Galway IRELAND


School of Business Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology Dublin Road, Galway IRELAND

Abstract: Following Ireland’s decision to open up its labour market to citizens of the EU-8 countries in May 2004 thousands of Polish workers migrated to Ireland. The irony of Ireland, for centuries a net exporter of human capital itself, now experiencing net immigration was heralded as an economic coming of age. Undoubtedly these Polish migrants were influenced by the higher earning capacity available to them and the lure of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’. Some of these migrants did not become regularised within the Irish labour market, opting instead to remain in the shadow economy with its attendant lack of employee rights, reduced pay and job insecurity. This article through interviewing these migrant workers in a pilot study examines their motives for migrating to Ireland and their subsequent experiences and reflections.

Key Words: Polish migrants, black economy, Ireland, EU enlargement, illegal workers, self- selection hypothesis, migration drivers


On 1 May 2004 eight Central and Eastern Europe countries (EU-8) – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, along with Malta and Cyprus joined the European Union. Concerns about millions of work-seeking migrants led most governments to erect barriers to the free flow of the new EU-8 citizens, initially for at least two years (The Economist, 2004). Sweden and Ireland however, opened their labour markets imme- diately; while the United Kingdom (UK) required the simple registration of employees (Department for EU Presidency Communications, 2011). Unsurprisingly, within a relatively short period, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Sweden received the highest number of migrating workers (Fihel and Okolski, 2009). This article will interrogate the experiences of one cohort of these migrant workers, focusing on Polish work- ers in Irelands’ shadow economy. Using exclusively qualitative data this article explores their experiences; from their decision to migrate, their subsequent arrival in Ireland and latterly their experiences as shadow economy participants.


Since 1990 Ireland has evolved from one of Europe’s economic laggards, into an exemplar of economic success (Lee, 2002). During the period 1994-2000, referred to as the ‘Celtic Tiger’, all mac- roeconomic indicators were positive (Sweeney, 2008; Murphy, 2000), with Ireland leading the European Union in economic performance (Sweeney, 1999). Between 1991 and 2003 Ireland’s economy grew on average by 6.8, per cent per annum (Keohane and Kuh- ling, 2007), Gross National Product (GNP), doubled in real terms between 1987- 1998 (Sweeney, 1999), and 450, 000 new jobs were created between 1993 and 2000 (O’Hagan, 2000). Unemployment, Ireland’s longest-standing problems alongside emigration, fell from 18 per cent in the 1980s to 4.2 per cent in 2000 and net migration replaced emigration, thanks to skill shortages (Keohane and Kuhling, 2007; Sweeney, 1999). This export-led growth (Kirby, 2002), meant living standards progressed dramatically; creating major sociological changes that secularized, liberal- ized and cosmopolitanised Ireland ( Keohane and Kuhling 2007).

Concurrently Poland also began transforming its centrally planned economy into a market economy (Balcerowicz, 2000), based upon private enterprise (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, 2011). Paci et al (2004) attribute Polish migrants’ arrival in Ireland to domestic reforms leading to in- creased poverty and unemployment which peaked at 20 per cent in 2004. Corbett (2009), using Ravensteins (1885) typology, deconstructs migration into push and pull factors. Push factors cause people to leave their home country but must be accompanied by pull factors, which attract migrants to a new country (Dob- son, 2007). Mansoor and Quillin (2007) categorise economic push factors as: poverty, unemployment, low wages, high fertility rates, lack of basic health care and education, and pull factors as: prospects of higher wages, potential for improved standard of liv- ing, personal and professional development.

Jandl et al. (2009: 23) ascribe the change of resi- dence for economic reasons to human capital theory, arguing: “a rational individual bases his decision to migrate on the present value of future income streams (his ‘human capital’) in any possible location net of migration costs.” A fundamental tenet of human capital theory is the self-selection hypothesis: ‘(…) potential movers will base their migrating decision on the possible gain they can secure, by transferring their existing human capital to a different location, thereby increasing their future real income stream. Because the gains in income will be higher for certain individuals than for others- owing to their specific endowment with human capital- and because direct migration costs are supposed to be the same for all, it follows that migration will preferably be undertaken by individuals with certain characteristics.’ (Jandl et al., 2009: 23)

The self-selection hypothesis (Tassinopoulos et al., 1998) depicts younger unmarried people as more likely migrants as the burden of social, psychological and financial costs for older people is allied to the percep- tion of diminished returns from migration investment relative to one’s life expectancy. Such individuals are more inclined to migrate, because of their enhanced position to gain, analyse and assess information about the destination country, thereby reducing their adjustment costs (Kahanec and Zimmermann, 2009). Consequently, the self-selection hypothesis profiles the typical migrant as young, well-educated and without dependants (Jandl et al., 2009), because the risk of failing to achieve the expected improvement is lower for them (Tassinopoulos et al., 1998).

Tassinopoulos et al., (1998) and Kahanec and Zimmermann (2009) suggest economic migration decisions are multi-faceted, incorporating: job oppor- tunities, unemployment rates, personal taxes, the cost of living, earning differentials, the quality of public goods and the generosity of welfare systems. Addition- ally, contend Martinello and Rath (2010), migrants consider the costs of maintaining family ties such as return trips and the psychological costs of adjustment. Established migrants also play an important role in encouraging additional migration, through reducing transaction costs, providing information, enhancing job opportunities, and helping newcomers to familiar- ize themselves with the new environment (Galgoczi et al, 2009; Martinello and Rath, 2010). Coimbra (2001) and Martinello and Rath (2010) highlight the illu- sion/myth of return phenomenon amongst migrants, whereby migrants remain torn between their wish to return home and remaining abroad.


Ireland and Poland occupy a pioneering status in the historiography of migration and ethnicity (Belhem and Tenfelde, 2003). Political and economic migra- tion has been embedded in the Polish consciousness for centuries (Korys, 2003; Fihel and Kaczmarczyk, 2009). Previously partitioned under Prussian, Austrian and Russian rule, Poland has been one of the largest emigration areas in Europe, providing a reservoir of labour for countries worldwide (Iglicka and Ziolek- Skrzypczak, 2010). Burrell (2009: 2) comments on this phenomenon thus: “By the Second World War Poland has build up a multi-faceted trajectory of mobility, with strong internal and external migratory links, and an enduring tradition of emigration”. After the Second World War migration from Poland was however seri- ously limited by the communist regime (Kaczmarczyk, 2006), with reliable migration statistics unavailable until 1989 (Okolski, 2006). Long-term emigration in the 1980s is estimated to constitute 3 per cent of the total population (Kaczmarczyk, 2006). Regime change in 1989 resulted in permanent emigration being replaced with various forms of short-term mobility, often described as false tourism (Weinar, 2011; Fihel and Okolski, 2009): Polish people were migrating, usually for less than three months, as tourists, and en- gaging in secondary labour markets overseas, to save money for life in Poland (Fihel and Okolski, 2009). Polands’ EU accession triggered substantial migration destined mainly for Ireland and the UK (Kahanec and Zimmermann, 2009) increasing the number of Polish emigrants residing in the EU from 750,000 in 2004 to 1,860,000 in 2008, before falling to 1,570,000 in 2009 (GUS, 2010). The change in legal status following en- largement in May 2004 applied to both new migrants and those already working, regularly or irregularly, in Ireland (Laczko, 2006), and a significant number of Personal Public Service Number (PPSN) applicants, Ireland’s unique reference number that accesses social welfare benefits, public services and information, had already been irregularly employed in Ireland.

Irish authorities’ expectations of these migrants was to fill prevailing low skilled occupations (FAS, 2008), and 64,731 PPS numbers were issued to Polish citizens in 2005, 93,787 in 2006, compared to 3, 828 issued in 2003 (Department of Social Protection, 2010).. Laczko (2006) identified the dominant factors influencing Polish migrants decisions as frustration and lack of prospects in their homeland. Nolka and Nowosielski (2009) demonstrate that only 3 per cent of interviewees in their survey were jobless before migrating to Ireland and almost twenty percent had never sought employment in Poland, but immigrated immediately after graduation. Undoubtedly Ireland’s high wage status, good living and working conditions were significant pull factors (Kropiwiec, 2006), and Nolka and Nowosielski (2006) demonstrate that Pol- ish people perceive the Irish as friendly with positive attitudes toward immigrants, with over 75% of those surveyed claiming that they had never experienced any form of discrimination. Collectively these factors cre- ated a positive vision of Irish society amongst Polish migrants (Laczko, 2006),

Typically, Polish immigrants to Ireland are em- ployed in occupations not reflecting their educational attainment (Barrett et al., 2006), undertaking low- skilled and low-paid jobs (Turner et al., 2009). One possible reason for this was their insufficient knowl- edge of English, but most of them have not reported their frustration, as they believe working in Ireland to be temporary; the previously cited illusion of return. (O’Connell and McGinnity, 2008; Fihel and Okolski, 2009). Grabowska-Lusinska (2007) estimate that 23 per cent of Irelands’ Polish migrants work in con- struction, 13 per cent in the food sector, 11 per cent in hotels, 9 per cent in transport section, 8 per cent in caring services, and finally 7 per cent work in domestic jobs, reinforcing the hypothesis that Polish migrants undertake low skilled jobs. Similarly, Laczko (2006), using AIB (2006) research, suggests that 75.9 per cent of nationals of the new member states work in low skilled and/or seasonal industries. Between May 2004 and December 2006 Polish citizens, constituted almost 60% of all PPS numbers issued to EU-10 nationals (Grabowska-Lusinska, 2007). Interestingly however, the Department of Social and Family Affairs suggests that, of the 210,502 PPS numbers issued to Polish nationals between January 2004 and April 2007 only 69% of them were activated (Grabowska-Lusinska, 2007), fuelling the hypothesis that some of remaining 31% PPS holders, were engaged in Ireland’s shadow economy.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland characterized conditions in which immigrants work illegally as ‘3D’ jobs: dirty, difficult and dangerous, with an absence of employee rights (O’Connell and McGinnity, 2008), with migrants dependent on, and begotten, to dishonest employers (Kupiszewski and Mattila, 2008). Construc- tion has become synonymous with irregular migrants, incorporating shadow employment practices, including ‘bogus self-employment’ arrangements. Grabowska- Lusinska (2007) found, the number of Safe Passes issued to Polish nationals, employed on Irish construc- tion sites, to be quite low relative to the number of Polish, who admitted to working in the construction sector; suggesting that many of them are undeclared.

Horticulture also experienced an increased number of migrant workers after 1st May 2004, and also became associated with exploitive practices (Kupiszewski and Matilla, 2008). Increased labour market partici- pation by Irish women also meant Polish women in Ireland began to perform domestic work; invariably undocumented and underpaid. Commenting on this, Grabowska (2007) indicates Polish workers were often unaware they were employed in the hidden economy, had difficulties with transferring to official employ- ment, and did not know where to report the problems associated with their status. These factors, aggravated by their poor command of English, and an exploitative propensity amongst some Irish employers, meant that for some Polish migrants the shadow economy ap- peared an attractive option.


The ‘shadow economy” goes under a variety of pseudonyms: ‘parallel’, ‘hidden’, ‘informal’, ‘unregis- tered’, ‘unofficial’, ‘underground’, ‘shadow’, ‘illegal’, ‘untaxed’, ‘second’, ‘clandestine’, ‘undeclared’ (Tanzi, 1982; Cullis and Jones, 2009; Pater, 2007; Allesandrini & Dallago, 1987). Allesandrini and Dallago (1987: ix), proffer the following definition: ‘(…) the income that is not reported to the tax authorities, regardless of whether such an income is, or is not, measured by the national accounts.’

Leddin (1998) declassifies the shadow economy adopting a transactions perspective: illegal transac- tions, unreported for obvious reason, such as drug dealing, burglary, robbery, prostitution; and legal transactions, such as unreported income from informal work. Unofficial work is defined by Contini (1990: 4) as: ‘(…) the production of goods and services utilizing manpower (often outside the factory premises) that remains outside wage regulations, without health and social security cover and with no safeguarding of its working conditions.’

Clandestine employment is characterized by Tanzi (1982: 29) as: ‘(…) having a sole or secondary gainful, noncasual occupation that is carried out on or beyond the fringes of the law or the terms of regulations and agreements.’

Using Tanzi’s (1982) definition two categories of clandestine workers are evident:

• People, employed in both formal and informal (‘cash-in-hand’) economies, whose informal job income is surplus to their earnings from declared and appropriately taxed job.

• People, systematically or casually carrying on clandestine work as their sole occupation. The criticism of these workers results from their propensity to also enjoy further unearned income, such as social welfare benefits (Tanzi, 1982; Cullis & Jones, 2009; Pater, 2007).

Using 2004-5 data Schneider and Buehn (2007-9) assessed the average size of the shadow economy (as a percent of ‘official’ GDP) in 76 developing countries was 35.5 per cent, in 19 Eastern and Central Asian countries 36.7 per cent and in 25 high income OECD countries 15.5 per cent. Lemieux (2007: 10) attributes this increasing shadow economy involvement to Adam Smith’s celebrated treatise “The Wealth of Nations” (1776): ‘Every time the propensity to exchange is con- sidered, individuals try to circumvent the constraints in order to obtain what they perceive as the benefits of exchange. In other words, when impediments prevent exchanges in the official economy, demanders and sup- pliers will often retreat in the underground economy to pursue their trades.’

This imputed rationality in Smith’s 1776 treatise is however contested in other literature. Bovi (2002) attri- butes public income disadvantages and the under-pro- vision of public goods to the shadow economy, whilst the Employment Development Department (2008), suggest shadow economy businesses gain competitive advantages over compliant businesses, resulting in unfair competitive practices. Pater’s (2007) criticisms of the shadow economy highlight the deprivation of employees’ rights, low wage levels and loss of social security benefits. Additionally, Pater (2007) laments clandestine employment’s ‘fare dodger effect’: work- ers who conceal their earnings have an opportunity to receive social benefits even though their real income may be higher than the income thresholds for benefit eligibility. Finally, Schneider and Enste (2002) contend a prospering shadow economy makes official labour market statistics unreliable, leading to inappropriate social policies and programs. Conversely however, Schneider and Enste (2002) highlight that at least two- thirds of shadow economy income is ultimately spent in the official economy, and Tanzi (1982) and Pater (2007) suggest that unregistered work is often the only income poorly qualified workers receive.

Cichocki (2006) traces initial research on Poland’s shadow economy to the collapse of communism which was notionally characterized by full employment. Subsequent employment market changes encouraged Polish nationals to seek work elsewhere (Currie, 2009), whereby Polish ‘tourists’ traveling mainly to EU Member States undertook unregistered employment in metropolises, such as Berlin, Brussels, London, Vienna and Rome, working as cleaners, home help or construction workers (Fihel and Okolski, 2009, Fihel and Kaczmarczyk, 2009). Fihel and Okolski (2009) indicate that these workers were typically lowly- qualified and forced to enter shadow employment. The Polish Central Statistics Office (GUS 2009) estimated the size of Poland’s shadow economy in 1995 was 2,199,000 people before falling to 785,000 in 2009 (Kalaska, 2010). Jablonska (2009) however disputes these figures, cautioning that they omit moonlighting and therefore understate the true scale of Poland’s shadow economy.

Kalaska (2010) categorises shadow economy participants in Poland as having low qualifications, having completed only primary or vocational school , and willing to accept lower levels of social security and workers rights (Walewski, 2007). These typically work in households as carers, on farms as auxiliary staff, in construction, restaurants and retail (Walewski, 2007). Those with higher education are usually en- gaged in secondary labour markets including, health care specialists, teachers and financial services workers (Walewski, 2007; Blaszczak, 2010; Kalaska, 2010). Polish society’s ambivalent attitude to the shadow economy activity is noteworthy also; Anam (2008) believes that in Poland engagement in the shadow economy is more a conscious choice than by necessity, while Walewski (2007), using research conducted by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy indicates that forty five per cent of Polish people have very strong preferences for undeclared work.

Fagan (1993) suggests Irish clandestine employ- ment peaked at 15% of GDP in 1983 before falling back to 11 % in 1992. Subsequently, during the Celtic Tiger era, the shadow economy was effectively overlooked due to sufficient taxes being submitted by businesses (Kieran, 2009). Schneider and Buehn (2009) indicate that in the years 1996-2006 the size of the shadow economy was on average 13.4 per cent of Ireland’s GDP. The Irish Small & Medium Enterprises Association estimates the cost of shadow economy activities in 2010 at 14 per cent of GDP; approxi- mately €22.5 billion per year. Ireland’s Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton highlighted the societal pressure to pay people “under the counter” (McGee, 2011), particularly in construction, childcare, hotels, road haulage, restaurants, bar trade and private secu- rity (Weston and O’Hora, 2008; Sinclair et al., 2008; Murdoch, 1993).

Fielding (2011) suggests that Irelands’ generous social welfare system is responsible for the size of the shadow economy. Irish social welfare payments are paid to individuals, who prove their inability to financially support themselves and their families, and are also paid to immigrants from EU-10 (Barret et al., 2011). Because only official income is consid- ered while assessing entitlement to payments social welfare recipients do not disclose unofficially earned income, effectively breaking the law (Murdoch, 1993). The Irish Labour Market Review (2008) highlights the large differential between social welfare rates in Ireland and Central Europe, whereby EU-10 workers become disincentivised from working in their home countries, if the amount that they can earn is less than Irish social welfare entitlements. (FAS, 2008). Weston and O’Hora, (2008) also identify Ireland’s social welfare system as a potential contributor to shadow economy engagement; income thresholds are higher and Ireland is one of the few OECD countries with an unlimited duration of social welfare benefits.


Because the phenomenon of engagement by Polish nationals in Ireland’s shadow economy is relatively un- explored a qualitative and phenomenological research approach was adopted, seeking to understand both the participants’ perspectives (Mack et al., 2005), and the qualitative diversity of their experiences (Denscombe, 2010, Kvale, 1996). Semi-structured interviews with 9 females and 11 males, aged from 21 to 57 years were conducted between July and November 2011. Sixteen individual face-to-face interviews and one group inter- view were conducted through the medium of Polish to allow interviewees to disclose less socially acceptable views and experiences in their first language. All in- terviewees undertake, or had undertaken, undeclared work in Ireland in various sectors. Data about research participants are presented in Table 1 (see Appendix 1), where Gaelic Christian names are used to ensure anonymity.

Denscombe (2010) suggests, people in small-scale research tend to be chosen deliberately and this survey sample was compiled using ‘snowball sampling’; a non-random, purposive sampling method (Hall and Hall, 1996) to identify beforehand all those who might fall into the category of interest and to whom the research question would be significant (Smith and Osborn, 2008). The sample was constructed with the assistance of researchers’ colleagues, all Polish nationals, who confidentially referred their friends, having met predefined criteria. Quota sampling was then used to ensure sectoral representation (Hall and Hall, 1996), and interviewees were invited to participate. Interviews commenced with open ended questions probing reasons for migration to Ireland, then progressed to interviewee’s initial experiences in Ireland, and culminated in an exploration of their shadow employment experiences in Ireland, their reasons for engagement, working conditions, pay rates and responsibilities. Interviewees were also invited to share their perceptions of the advantages and disad- vantages of illegal employment. Because interviewees may not wish to self-disclose and the researcher has to interpret interviewee’s mental and emotional states, an interpretative phenomenological approach was then adopted for data analysis (Smith and Osborn , 2008)


6.1 Pre-Migration Decision of Polish Migrants

All interviewees arrived in Ireland between 2004 and 2007, suggesting the impact of EU enlargement on their decisions (GUS, 2010; Kahanec and Zimmerman, 2009). Most interviewees indicate their decision was economically driven:

“I didn’t have work and I couldn’t find any. My brother, who lived in Ireland for the last 5 years, said that I could come to him, because there was plenty of work there.” (Brian, 27)

However, personal reasons were also evident:

“I first came to Ireland, because I wanted to; be- cause everyone was leaving; because it was a chance … to see how it really is to live somewhere else. I was bored with always seeing the same faces of customers at work. I needed to change something in my life.” (Aoife, 32)

It is evident that ‘pull’ factors from abroad were also important in addition to economic ‘push’ factors. The pre-migration situation of the interviewees sup- ports this view: only two were in fact unemployed be- fore they migrated, four migrated after or during their education, while another fourteen people left existing jobs to improve their lives. This supports Nolka and Nowosielski’s (2009) research which similarly demon- strated low unemployment amongst Polish migrants.

Nineteen interviewees cited the advantages of chain migration, highlighting the help of friends or family members, which is consistent with Galgoczi et al (2009) and Martinello and Rath (2010) who have highlighted chain migration as a vehicle for reducing psychological and financial costs.

Describing their beginnings in Ireland Aoife and Cormack remarked:

“I first came to Ireland in June 2006. I came to my

friend, who arranged work for me.The second time, I came to Ireland with 50 euro in my pocket. I stayed with my cousin, who said: there you have a room, when you find a job, then you will return [money for rent] and for now manage yourself. ” (Aoife, 32)

“I had only three days to prepare. I left my job and I came here. We lived together; he [friend] helped me to register and do a Safe Pass [course]. There were seven of us in the house. Later he brought more Polish people. There were about thirty of us then.” (Cormack, 36)

It is noticeable that Polish migrants worked in diverse industries. Kieran describes his numerous jobs below:

“I worked as a sale assistant, kitchen porter and in security. I killed crabs for one French guy, I painted for a Polish guy, did fences for an Irish one, fixed cars, renovated Irish houses and now I’m putting in carpets…” (Kieran, 21)

Turner et al. (2009), AIB (2006) and Grabowska- Lusinska (2007) indicate that Polish immigrants under- take low skilled jobs, often below their qualifications. Most male interviewees worked in Ireland’s construc- tion sector in unskilled roles, whilst both male and females undertook roles in hotel and catering, health and beauty, domestic work, agriculture and farming.. A major limiting factor to migrants’ socialisation and employment seeking was their level of English, which they generally accepted to be low at their arrival. One of the interviewees said:

“I thought my English was good until I went out on the street, then suddenly it turned out that I didn’t know what the Irish are talking to me about.” (Deirdre, 33)

Connecting her level of English with work opportu- nities, one interviewee attributed her shadow economy activity to this language deficit:

“I tried [to find legal job], but I thought that I don’t have sufficient English to get a job anywhere.” (Saoirse, 26)

6.2 Shadow Employment of Polish Migrants in Ireland

The majority of interviewees were adamant that they had not any express intentions of working in Irelands’ shadow economy. However, most of them do state that illegal employment is acceptable but only as a form of temporary or additional work, contrasting with Anam’s (2008) findings that illegal work in Poland is in fact a conscious choice. The migrant chain is again evident, with interviewees accessing illegal employment, through their friends or relatives. Only in three cases was employment obtained outside the migrant chain: by advertisement in a local newspaper, an advertisement in a local shop and through a work agency.

Explaining their motives for involvement in the shadow economy a host of reasons are offered:

“My situation is clear: I don’t want be registered in Poland, in Ireland, or anywhere. I don’t want my name to be present in any documents. It’s too big a risk.” (Liam, 25)

Kieran explaining his motives, said:

“I looked for a legal job. I sent a number of CV to factories, I asked in FAS (employment agency) and I still couldn’t find a job. When I had a chance to earn some money- I took it. I didn’t get any benefits then so I had to manage somehow.” (Kieran, 21)

Brians’ introduction to the shadow economy was as follows:

“My friend told me staff were needed in the hotel he worked in. I didn’t know that I worked illegally, and actually I didn’t care. The most important thing was that I was getting money. I prefer to work legally, but if I could not get a job again, I would take even an illegal one.”

(Brian, 27)

Clara’s’ shadow employment experience differs substantially from those above:

“It began during the [beautician and masseuse] course. Friends were coming when they found out that I did this course. Our teacher advised us to take money for our work from the very beginning. And then the ‘mini- business’ started. It is my extra income, but first and foremost it lets me practice.” (Ciara, 29)

Fionns’ entry into shadow employment was multi- faceted: allowing him to use his unique skills and to evade tax.

“I could work on Saturday in construction, but then I would exceed the tax threshold, so let say instead of getting 120 euro, I would get 70. Thus, most of us preferred renovating private houses then and got 100-120 [euros] in cash. What’s more, the work in the construction site was boring. Everyday we were doing the same, standard jobs. In peoples’ houses we could show our skills. In Ireland every house inside looked the same. We changed their routine. We showed Irish people new solutions; new ways things can be done.

We did it the way we had learnt in Poland and they liked it. They asked us for advice.” (Fionn, 47)

Cormack outlines that the only work he could get were small short-term renovation jobs in his village and was unsure when he would next get more jobs. Reporting such work meant Cormack could lose his benefits; the so called social welfare trap. Conversely Malachi’s reason for engagement in the shadow economy appears more premeditated and calculating, displaying a disregard for the illegality of his activities:

“It didn’t seem to me anything wrong [to work illegally]. For me illegal job it is not theft, breaking the law…despite that you rob country of taxes. It does not seem to me so bad as it might do to other people. Someone, who always is able to find work must be … flexible” (Malachi, 28)

Nine interviewees stated that when they came to Ireland they could not find a legal job, but needed to gain experience and illegal employment was more ac- cessible to them. The insidious, unavoidable aspects of shadow economy participation are typified by Niall, who left this job after a few days stating, that he had ran away from Poland to avoid shadow economy involve- ment. Subsequently Niall once again found himself engaged in the illegal labour market; this time having being misled by an Irish employer. For a few months Niall actually believed he was legally employed, and analysed Polish migrants’ predicament thus:

“Some kind of habits that you bring from Poland, there is always some kind of our ‘burden’ that you feel you must have a work.(…) Because of these habits people become a little bit less fussy, taking jobs of- fered to them and do not ask too many questions.” (Niall, 30)

This comment provides evidence of pre-condition- ing obtained in Poland, where shadow employment is widely approved by society (see Walewski, 2007). Niall’s statement also supports Grabowskas’ (2007) hypothesis that some workers are unaware they work illegally. Deidre however sees no wrong in unde- clared work, displaying instead a degree of ‘pride’ in her attitude:

“[I engaged in the shadow economy] because I didn’t have any other choice. There wasn’t someone who could provide for me… I think I also didn’t want to give up completely without a fight and return home as a dog with ‘curled up’ tail because I came to the con- clusion if I already came here I will try” (Deidre, 33)

Ireland’s ongoing recession appears to be provid- ing only a limited impetus for some Polish workers to remain in shadow employment:

“Nobody wants to work illegally. I now have fewer hours in my regular work than before. I had to start cleaning houses to earn some extra money. If they give me more hours in my [regular] work, I wouldn’t have to do this.” (Sinead, 45)

Only Sinead and Cormack support McGee’s’ (2011) contention that the recession is worsening the problem of the shadow economy. On the contrary, the majority of interviewees were employed in the shadow economy both at the beginning and end of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ era. Presently only Kieran, Liam and Eamon, remain in full time shadow employment, suggesting that this is a conscious choice. Interestingly, Sinead also contends that cleaning or child minding is commonly accepted by people as an unofficial category of work, so therefore did not feel pressure to report it.

Interviewees engaged in shadow employment typically planned to stay only for a short period in Ireland, viewing their migration as addressing short- term economic needs, a view consistent with both O’Connell and McGinnity (2008) and Fihel and Okolski (2009). Their shadow economy experiences are typically negative with working conditions and inequality of treatment attracting much criticism:

“When we did some dangerous, unhealthy things, he [employer] cared only about himself. For example, when we put fiberglass wool blanket on the floor, he used mask on his mouth, while we worked without it.” (Brian, 27)

“The hardest work always ‘fell upon us’- the international team, because others had contracts….. They had their [trade] unions. We had to work harder because we didn’t have a choice…..they can fire you and you are unemployed the next day.” (Padraic, 39)

These experiences illustrate the ‘3D’ dimensions of illegal work (dirty, dangerous and difficult), previously identified by O’Connell and McGinnity (2008). The earnings from such work also attract considerable criticism:

“When I worked 10 hours in very busy place, it turned out that I didn’t work 10, but 7, because they paid me only for that many. But it is known, because of lack of contract, I couldn’t argue. What I would achieve? Nothing really.” (Deidre, 33)

Eamon, a farm worker, earning very little, is however satisfied with his earnings but for personal reasons:

“(…) I get 50 to 80 euro per week, but they also give me accommodation and food. I’m happy with it. If I got more money, instead of food and accommodation, I would probably spend most of it on alcohol.” (Eamon, 57)

Fisherman Liam highlights the considerable risks, some Polish migrants faced:

“Boss picks us up from a fixed place at a fixed time. He takes us to some harbor. Then we go in a fishing boat, out to sea for two, sometimes three weeks. We never know where we are going and when exactly we will come back. Then we have one or two weeks break and go out to sea again. We get 3,000 euro per month. The worst thing is that if something happen to us, nobody knows where we are.” (Liam, 25)

Interviewees when probed on the benefits of shadow employment highlighted the opportunity to earn extra untaxed income with recent increases in taxation making the shadow economy even more attractive:

“People get more money from illegal work. It depends on what you are doing, but you will usually get more from an illegal job.” (Kieran, 21)

Fionn, who works legally and illegally in construction reiterates Kieran’s belief, and is more pleased with his shadow employment earnings, than those from his official one. Flexibility and informal relations with the employer were also cited as potential benefits:

“(…) [in illegal employment] both the employer and employee do not feel obliged to anything.” (Aoife, 32)

The entrepreneurial ambitions of Polish migrants were also identified by some interviewees, exclusively female and service sector related, as being facilitated by shadow employment. Interviewees, considering self-employment, suggested that unregistered work facilitated early market recognition, helping them to build a customer base:

“I had so much work, that I just had to finally rent the premises and register the company. I had no space anymore at home for the equipment and I was tired with strangers coming to my house.” (Claire, 35)

Ciara also displays entrepreneurial ambitions performing her work as a masseuse and beautician from home yet remaining in the shadow economy.

“I considered registering the business, but since the recession everything changed. I gave up the idea, especially as I noticed myself that I have fewer customers now.” (Ciara, 29)

Social welfare payments were cited by only two interviewees as the reasons for remaining in the shadow economy. One interviewee declared, this was a significant factor for him to engage in shadow employment, whilst retaining his benefits:

[Presently] I would go to the legal job only if they paid me well. Now I get 500 euro benefits a week. I will not go to work for less. I will not get more money from work than from the State!” (Kieran, 21)

Similarly Cormack’s’ fear of losing social welfare benefits prevented him from reporting earnings, the duration of which was uncertain; effectively locking him into the shadow economy. Cormack highlights that when reporting additional income to the Social Welfare, one can lose benefits immediately and to regain them would cost a lot of time and paper work. These examples partially confirm Fielding’s (2011) concerns that the attractiveness of Irelands’ social welfare system is significantly contributing to the ongoing problem and also correspond with Grabowska- Lusinska’’ (2007) assertion that Polish workers trapped in the shadow economy do not know where to look for help.

Two main disadvantages with shadow employment were identified; the lack of employee protection and the psychological costs, in particular the fear of detection. The responses below indicate the daily fear which some migrants faced:

“If they caught me, they would take away my benefits.” (Kieran, 21)

“The downside of that work was that I worked in terrible fear. When I worked beside the road I risked that…they would come [control]. I was stressed when I worked illegally.” (Cormack, 36)

Deirdre was forthright in her assessment of shadow employment:

“(…) in long term there is absolutely none advantages.” (Deirdre, 33)

This combination of fear of detection, non entitlement to statutory employee rights, is illustrated quite graphically as she reflected on her experiences:

“(…) the reality was less beautiful than my dreams.”

(Deirdre, 33)


This article presented an empirical exploration of shadow economy engagement by Polish migrants in Ireland, considering their pre-migration decision making processes, subsequent arrival in Ireland, and reflec- tions on their experiences. It is evident that pull factors, typically family and/or friends already living in Ireland exerted a strong influence on the migration decision. Whilst chain migration mitigated some of the typical migration risks, such as accommodation and support, it also exposed new arrivals to an already established shadow economy culture amongst resident Polish nationals, a sequence of events that confers no advan- tage on either the Irish state, or indeed the migrants. Other worrying portents for the future normalisation of Polish migrant workers are their poor command of English, and their modest prior educational attainment, creating low self-confidence and an inevitable accep- tance of shadow employment. This inverted version of the self selection hypothesis resonated across the interviews: young Polish workers, poorly qualified, entering Irelands’ labour market often on the basis of a job offer from a friend, and unsure of its legality. The interviewees themselves do not see such decisions as irrational, when framed against the decision making model of short term economic gain, then a return home. No evidence emerged of a conscious decision amongst migrants to seek shadow economy work; rather what emerged was an accidental evolution into undeclared work, motivated by economic need and occasionally assisted by unscrupulous employers.

Reflecting on their experience, interviewees who worked illegally display only limited guilt, possibly as a consequence of their prior acclimatisation with Poland’s shadow economy. Maeve’s statement: “I do not have any remorse; she [the employer] should have regret as she employs people illegally”, is therefore instructive. Two recurring themes underpin interview- ees experiences; their self-perception as victims of un- scrupulous employers and compatriots, with attendant reduction of rights and safety entitlements, and their intention to remain in Ireland only for a short period, heightening the pressures to maximise their earning potential, avoid tax, and avail of social welfare pay- ments. Despite its short term attractiveness, shadow employment is however ultimately viewed negatively by the majority of interviewees, not for any renewed sense of citizenry, but rather because of its huge psy- chological and long term economic costs. Whilst the sample is too small to be generalised this research has highlighted an almost inter-generational introduction to shadow economy involvement for Polish migrants. Despite the Irish governments’ decision to issue PPS numbers to migrant workers upon arrival in Ireland this trend, if ignored, will result in the marginalisation and under-utilisation of large numbers of Polish migrants in Irelands’ official economy.


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LAURENCE ELWOOD School of Business Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology Dublin Road, Galway IRELAND larry.elwood@gmit.ie http://www.gmit.ie

MARLENA GONTARSKA School of Business Galway- Mayo Institute of Technology

Dublin Road, Galway IRELAND m.gontarska@vp.pl

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