A woman and child from Ukraine wait in a ticket hall at a Polish railway station
In transit: a woman and child from Ukraine wait in a ticket hall at a Polish railway station. Most working-age refugees from Ukraine are women © Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images

Iryna Bilokolodskykh and her young son Rodion were among the cohort of Ukrainians who fled to Poland shortly after Russia’s all-out attack on their country, one year ago.

In Dnipro, the Ukrainian city in which she lived, she left behind not only her home and relatives, but also a good job as an executive producer of commercials, having previously worked for a decade as a banking analyst. She has struggled to find anything similar in Poland, and now works for a foundation that organises Polish language classes for Ukrainian refugees.

However, she feels grateful for the job and the opportunity to help other refugees. She is on a renewable six-month contract, which in normal circumstances might not be ideal, but fits her mindset during a war that has “taught me to live in the here and now”, she explains. “Do I have a long-term plan? Yes, but for six months.”

And Bilokolodskykh’s experience typifies both the successes — and the frustrations — of Ukrainian women seeking to work and support themselves during the war.

Portrait of Iryna Bilokolodskykh and her son Rodion
Iryna Bilokolodskykh and her son Rodion: ‘Do I have a long-term plan? Yes, but for six months’ © Andrey Krupenko

Poland was the EU’s main gateway for Ukrainian refugees last year, with about 1.5mn registering for temporary protection in the country, according to the government, and more than double that number crossing its territory on their way to other states.

Even before Russia’s invasion, Poland already hosted about 1.3mn Ukrainians and they have helped to integrate the refugees.

Of the new refugees of working age, the overwhelming majority have been women, since Kyiv last year swiftly banned men from leaving the country in order to fight against Moscow’s invasion. Between 60 and 70 per cent of these women had found a regular job in Poland by the end of last year, according to government figures. Poland collected about 4bn zlotys (€840mn) in taxes and social security payments from Ukrainian refugees last year and expects that amount to climb to 6bn zlotys in 2023, according to Bartosz Marczuk, deputy head of the state-run Polish Development Fund.

As such, Poland is a standout example of the rapid integration of refugees into the workforce — achieving a far higher employment rate for Ukrainians than Germany, notes Paweł Kaczmarczyk, head of the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw.

Kaczmarczyk says this success is also due to the fact that “the Polish labour market now needs foreign workers”, and has seen their numbers growing even during the pandemic. But he also highlights a mismatch between the high level of education of many Ukrainian women and the jobs they have found.

His research shows that between 50 and 60 per cent of working-age refugees hold a university degree, but only one-third of refugees who found work in Poland landed top-tier jobs. For the others, he says, there are multiple challenges: Polish demand is mostly for low-paid foreign workers; some Ukrainians cannot transfer their skills, notably to jobs that require fluency in Polish; and some refugees settled in regions that offered them access to social services but poorer job choices.

Among those who are struggling is an accountant from Odesa who left last March with her three-year-old daughter and now works in the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant in Warsaw. She is on a temporary contract that expires in August and prefers not to give her name because she is “actively looking for another job”.

But she has not been able to gather sufficient proof of her past diplomas and work experience to apply for better jobs. “In Odesa, they don’t answer my emails,” she points out. For now, she manages somehow to pay the equivalent of almost $450 a month for a rental apartment, plus $200 for kindergarten and related costs for her daughter, on a monthly salary of $600.

Employers have been keen to welcome Ukrainian women. “Many are better educated, digitally connected, and used to work remotely, especially during the Covid pandemic,” says Franek Hutten-Czapski, chair of Boston Consulting Group’s Polish office.

But labour experts also acknowledge that working in Poland is still an uphill struggle for those on a temporary contract, or employed in the underground economy.

“There was a first wave of migration but we don’t really know much about what happened after that,” says Iga Magda, a labour economist at the IBS research institute and professor at the Warsaw School of Economics. “Probably, those who came later were much less likely to have skills, languages and money to invest in an apartment.”

Magda estimates that 40 per cent of the Ukrainians who now have a steady job in Poland are women, while 60 per cent are men — often working in sectors such as construction where Ukrainians had a strong presence before 2022.

“Women are much more likely to work unregistered because many are in the care sector, which is still mostly part of our shadow economy,” she says. The government’s official labour registration numbers are also unreliable, she adds, because they do not always take into account what happened next: “Women could register but it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t just with temporary work [or mean] that they still held a job one or two months later.”

Still, some Ukrainian women have managed a relatively smooth job transfer to Poland, and now work remotely for their Ukrainian employers in businesses ranging from technology to advertising and marketing.

Portrait of Dariia Maslennikova
Dariia Maslennikova on her move from Kyiv to Warsaw: ‘It hasn’t been easy emotionally but I felt welcomed’

“We relocated part of the company to Warsaw because it was the closest big city [outside Ukraine],” says Dariia Maslennikova, a manager at Ukrainian IT company Nextiva, which moved 20 of its staff to the Polish capital a year ago. “The arrival was chaotic, it hasn’t been easy emotionally, but there were also a lot of volunteers everywhere to help us and I felt welcomed.”

Maslennikova now rents a flat in Warsaw with a fellow Ukrainian, having previously lived in the flat that she owns in Kyiv. She is also facing a higher tax bill than in Ukraine, where she says the IT sector benefits from more tax exemptions than in Poland. “The cost of living is higher here, but I also know that prices in Ukraine have gone up now,” she says.

Like many others, she expects to live in Warsaw longer than anticipated and is taking Polish language classes to help her integrate. “I thought that I would be here for a few months, but I think that it’s now going to be for quite a long time,” she says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article