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New EU Members Face High Migration

Lelde Kurme graduated from a top Latvian university and could take her pick of jobs from a long list of "accountant wanted" ads found in most of the nation's newspapers.

But Kurme, 28, is moving next year to London where she expects to start out waiting tables or even washing dishes while her English improves.

"I plan to work one year at jobs that Brits themselves wouldn't do to improve my English," Kurme said, adding she later wants to study in Britain and get an accounting job there.

Kurme will join the hundreds of thousands of workers from former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe who have left their homelands in search of better wages since the nations joined the European Union last year.

While there are no exact numbers on the workers going West, concerns are growing among new member states that the migration is depriving them of much-needed labor and threatening to slow some of the fastest-growing economies in the EU.

Fears among more established EU nations that the bloc's expansion would lead to a massive flood of cheap labor have not materialized.

EU citizens can live and work anywhere in the bloc, but most established members imposed special restrictions on the newcomers in the east, fearing a massive flood of cheap labor. However, the three countries that fully opened their labor markets to new members — Britain, Ireland and Sweden — say the influx of workers from eastern and central Europe has been manageable.

The real labor crisis appears to be in the nations where workers are leaving.

"It is a big problem. Before Lithuania joined the EU, workers used to appreciate their jobs. Now they leave to the West for good," said Robertas Suliauskas, a spokesman for Palink, which owns Lithuania's second-largest supermarket chain, Iki.

Iki has lost about 10 percent of its work force this year, or about 200 employees per month, Suliauskas said.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which are home to just 7.2 million residents, estimate the numbers that have left are in the tens of thousands — possibly more.

And the trend seems to be growing. A recent poll of 800 Riga high school seniors showed that 78 percent intended to leave Latvia after graduating.

To counter the loss of workers going West, new EU members find themselves looking East.

A Latvian parliamentary committee concluded last week that the country may need to invite workers from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine in the next four years because its homegrown workers were leaving en masse.

Iki's competitor, VP Market, is considering importing workers from Ukraine, said its co-owner, Ignas Staskevicius.

"The only way to prevent employees from leaving is to raise salaries. It is not easy to do this while keeping prices at the same level," Staskevicius said.

The westward flight of workers is already hurting these countries' economies and could seriously slow growth over the next few years, said Morten Hansen, an economics professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga.

"They need more, not fewer workers, to keep their economies running at current levels," Hansen said, adding that shrinking work forces will face a greater burden caring for their nations' rapidly aging populations.

In Poland, an estimated 500,000 people have left to find work elsewhere in the EU in the past 18 months. However, Polish officials are less concerned about the migration, given the country's high unemployment rate.

But Deputy Labor Minister Jacek Mecina said the country needed to prepare for the prospect of specialists leaving for better paying jobs abroad. It may already be happening: Polish hospital administrators recently said they may look to Ukraine to replace some doctors and dentists who have gone West.

Istvan Eger, president of the Hungarian Doctor's Chamber, blamed deteriorating job conditions in Hungary for the exodus of that country's doctors.

More than 1,000 doctors have asked the chamber for certificates needed to work in other EU countries in the past 18 months, and Eger said they were drawn by wages that are sometimes up to 15 times what they could earn in Hungary.

"The quality of Hungary's medical schools is still very good by European standards, but the deteriorating job conditions mean we are increasingly unable to keep the doctors here," Eger said.

The countries receiving the new workers are largely grateful for the extra help.

A British Home Office report found immigrants from the new member states were "contributing to the success of the U.K. economy, whilst making very few demands of our welfare system, or public services."

In Ireland, Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians are now ubiquitous in most of the lowest-paid lines of work, such as waiters and farm workers, and it's common to see Baltic license-plated cars contributing to Dublin traffic jams.

Ireland's Central Statistics Office found that 133,000 people had moved there from the 10 new EU states between their admission in May 2004 and October this year, and just 1 percent of them were claiming welfare benefits.

Ireland has the EU's lowest unemployment rate, 4.3 percent, and the rate has dropped since May 2004.

Sweden, whose Parliament rejected a government plan to restrict immigration from the EU newcomers, has seen only 7,000 people from the new member states receiving work permits this year in a country of 9 million.

"We have had no bad experience whatsoever from the expansion," Employment Minister Hans Karlsson said.

Experts predict the westward flow of labor will slow as wages rise in the new member states. Slovenia, the wealthiest former Yugoslav country that achieved EU-like standards even before joining the bloc last year, has seen relatively few of its citizens head west.

By Timothy Jacobs

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