Moving home is one of life’s most stressful experiences. When that move also involves moving to a new country, the stress factor can go off the scale. Yet for Mariusz Pietrzak (51) and son Bart (24) the move from western Poland to rural Oxfordshire was rewarded with a new life that justified every bit of their emotional investment.
For immigration to be considered a success it should benefit both sides of the agreement. The immigrants will need to gain what they consider to be a better life, whilst the host country can expect to benefit from their contributions to the new country.
UK Home Office immigration laws that are now designed to entice only those with the best education and the highest earning potential assume that these are the only people who can benefit a country such as Britain. Yet farmers who have had to watch their crops rot in the fields or hoteliers who lack the staff they need to clean their rooms may not agree.
Every country relies on a population with a broad cross section of abilities. Incomers with degrees in cybernetics might be welcome but no more so than those with the ability to drive a lorry or mix a good cocktail.
Mariusz and Bart were able to settle in Britain four years before Brexit slammed the door on others like them. Their contribution to Britain has been through their craftsmanship with wood. They arrived with only their skill and independent spirit of enterprise to support them, neither of which would be adequate for obtaining a work permit in Brexit Britain today.
Mariusz’s skills with joinery greatly exceed his abilities as a linguist. So ten years ago he would have struggled to meet the English language reading and writing requirements that the Home Office now imposes. He and his son would also have struggled to find a corporate sponsor or be able to anticipate a salary in excess of £25,600. Their plans for launching what has since become the MPBP Group Ltd, at times employing up to ten people, would probably have been shot down in flames.
Luckily, Mariusz arrived in Reading at a time when moving to a new life elsewhere in Europe was simply a case of buying a ticket. With his younger sister already resident in Reading for several years, Mariusz at least had a welcoming base, but he arrived on her doorstep with no equipment or tools of his trade.
What he did have, however, were exceptional craft skills that he had learned through the family’s five generations of business in wood working in Poland. When this was combined with his willingness to work hard and conscientiously, it proved to be just what was needed to establish a reputation within the building trade in Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
Mariusz began by taking-on simple joinery jobs as a sub-contractor but these expanded steadily in line with his reputation for craftsmanship and reliability. Meanwhile Bart, who was then a 16-year-old apprentice still back in Poland, was working hard to master his trade so he could join his father in business in the UK. That moment came in 2013 when Bart joined his father who was by that time established in Reading.
Their first priority was to find a workshop where they would have the space and equipment to undertake the sort of work that would enable them to build their own business. Although they enjoy living in Reading, their dream came true when they found a rural workshop a few miles away on a farm in Shiplake, Oxfordshire.
Their luck continued when they were able to equip it with machinery they bought from the estate of a deceased boat builder in Caversham. From that point onwards the MPBP Group Ltd became a reality and it has been growing steadily ever since. Working close to the River Thames in one of the prettiest parts of rural England is a bonus that Mariusz had not anticipated. He said:
“Long before I came here, I remember being impressed by a programme on Polish television about Henley-on-Thames and its surroundings. I never imagined that one day I would be living and working in the area”.
Although the language of craftsmanship is international, Mariusz sees some notable differences between England and Poland. UPVC double glazing is increasingly the norm everywhere so their ability to make or repair and fit solid wood windows sets them apart from other UK trades people. Mariusz points out:
“Timber windows and doors are most often in demand for the restoration of listed buildings and there are many more of these here than in Poland.”
For Bart, a visible example of English exceptionalism was that, unlike almost all of Europe, English windows open outwards. Fortunately, adapting to this long-established pre-Brexit difference was not a challenge.
Through being able to provide high quality woodwork in addition to general building skills, Mariusz and Bart Pietrzak and brother-in-law Mateusz Lysiak, who joined the company soon after, have become valuable contributors to England’s heritage in the Thames Valley. Building companies report a notable shortage of skilled carpenters, joiners and cabinet makers and the team from Poland has been working to fill that gap. But it’s not proving easy as Bart explained:
“We would like to expand our business but the skilled people we need are not around. We take on apprentices and work to train them up but this is a slow process.”
The demand for skilled woodworking in their area is not limited to building restoration. The MPBP portfolio today includes the precision joinery needed for hardwood furniture, stairs and fitted kitchens in modern houses whose owners are not satisfied with the factory-made products so widely available elsewhere. For Polish immigrants who chose to uproot their lives and stake everything on making a new start in England, this is a reassuring source of customer demand.
“We were not affected by Brexit because we arrived before it, but it made some of our customers nervous. The oak we work with costs more than £5,000 per cubic metre so we have to ask for a one third deposit. When customers thought we might be suddenly shipped back to Poland they were reluctant to pay as much. We simply changed to taking smaller deposits more often and that made everybody happy.”
“We will never go back to Poland to live. After ten years, England feels like my second homeland and I am now a British citizen.”
He is conscious of the small details that make his new home feel more rewarding.
“I love the beautiful views and the nature across the whole country. The people here are a lot more open, especially in our area. I really enjoy having conversations with random people on the street. People do not rush as much.”
Mariusz had reservations about this point because they had both remarked on how retired people in England always appeared so busy.
“They always seem to be going somewhere with things to do”, said Bart, thinking about many of their clients whose energy they admire. “Back in Poland retired people just seem to sit around and watch television”, added Mauriusz .
Regardless of whether this is true or not, the energy that Mariusz and Bart have invested in their own enterprise is not something that others could repeat today. The immigration restrictions now imposed by the government would make it impossible for them to start a business as they did ten years ago. It is, therefore, very fortunate for the owners of fine homes in England that Mauriusz and his family were able to beat Brexit and make their skills available in this demanding market.
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