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waging war

Poland's plummeting unemployment figures mean overseas investors are having to increase workers' wages, but the country is still ahead of its regional competitors. Zosia Wąsik reports.

'Amazon: we moved here to pay the least in Europe' said the billboard, designed in the style of the world’s biggest e-commerce retailer, which was put up in July 2017 in the Polish city of Poznan. 

The billboard was part of a staff protest over pay at a nearby Amazon logistics centre. To avoid further tensions, Amazon reacted quickly to the labour union’s demands. The company increased wages by 12.5% for all employees in three warehouses across Poland. However, it has not been discouraged from expanding in the country and is building two new warehouses there. Soon it will employ a total of 9000 people at its five Polish locations.

Healthy figures

FDI in Poland has been steadily increasing in the past decade. The country has long provided multinational companies with a central location in Europe (relatively close to the German market), a dense network of suppliers, and a skilled, efficient and cheap workforce.

The first two factors still stand. But unemployment in Poland is the lowest in history – it fell to 6.5% in 2017 – and there is an increasing lack of skilled employees on the market. To fill vacancies, companies are having to offer higher wages to candidates. In 2017, the average salary in Poland rose 7.3% to the record level of 4974 zlotys ($1488) per month.

“There is [no such a thing as] a bad job market. There can only be a salary offer unadjusted to the market,” says Amazon spokeswoman Marzena Więckowska. “The market is changing, so we are also trying to change our offer and adjust. If we were not able to find employees, we would not be opening another two centres in Poland.”

Other investors seem to be thinking along the same lines, given that Poland's level of FDI has not stopped growing. The Polish Investment and Trade Agency (PITA), the governmental body responsible for attracting multinational companies, was working on no fewer than 175 investment projects in December 2017. Their total value grew 30% – when compared with 2016 's figures – to €5.65bn, according to the agency.

Krzysztof Segner, the deputy head of PITA, does not believe that low unemployment will discourage foreign investors from moving to Poland. “The decreasing unemployment rate is a challenge but not a barrier for companies that want to invest in Poland,” he says.

Common problems

Andrzej Kubisiak is the spokesman of Work Service, the biggest employment agency in central and eastern Europe (CEE), which often consults foreign investors. In the past three years, he says, companies have paid more attention to location of their investments and have asked about the availability of staff before entering the Polish market.

“These questions have been arising. Investors can see this change,” he adds. “But they still decide to come to Poland because the labour costs continue to be lower than in western Europe, while the quality of work is still higher than further in the east.”

Mr Kubisiak believes there are ways to accommodate new investors in Poland. “When it comes to R&D or IT investment, companies should look at big academic hubs that still have the pool of candidates, such as Rzeszów, Lublin and Olsztyn. They are not as drained of talent as Kraków, Wrocław or Warsaw,” he says.

He adds that there is not much competition for Poland from other CEE countries, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary, because unemployment is at a record low in all of them and they struggle with similar problems. For its part, Poland has found a solution to the decreasing unskilled workforce: the availability of immigrants from the east.

Since 2014, there has been a growing number of Ukrainian immigrants coming to Poland to find work. There may be as many as 3 million in 2018, according to research from recruitment company Personnel Service. Ukrainians often fill the gaps in the Polish labour market. “This factor is often taken into consideration by future investors,” says Mr Kubisiak.

Hiring spree

Some investors, however, do not wait for shifts in the labour market and take matters into their own hands. One such company is German automotive giant Daimler, which is building a Mercedes-Benz factory in Jawor, western Poland.

The company is currently in the middle of the hiring processes, as the factory is due to open in 2019. Mercedes-Benz’s communication director in Poland, Ewa Łabno-Falęcka, says that about 50 staff have already been appointed to white-collar positions. “We did not have many problems,” she says. “There were some jobs for which we received more than 200 applications.”

By the end of 2018, the company will have hired 200 blue-collar workers for the factory. “We realise that there is a lack of hands to work and we are not hoping for a miracle. We are trying to safeguard our interests and for that, we are taking actions,” says Ms Łabno-Falęcka.

For a year, the company has been working with engineering schools around the region, such as the Wrocław University of Science and Technology. They also provide technical schools with more professional equipment and organise workshops for girls to encourage them to train as engineers.

Experts are optimistic about the future. Przemysław Polaczek, managing partner at auditor Grant Thornton, doubts that low unemployment will lead foreign companies to invest in other countries in the region over Poland. “They will simply come with a bigger suitcase of money than 10 years ago,” he says.

At the same time, he wonders if Poland’s competition will in the future be not central European countries but those in western Europe. “We need to ask ourselves: what are our ambitions? Maybe we should promote our country not only to companies that want to invest in CEE. We need to check if we can compete with the Netherlands or Germany.”

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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