Ukrainian workers, seeing little hope at home, head abroad

Not long ago, Andriy Lytvynenko was fighting Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. These days the Ukrainian war veteran drives a trolley up and down aisles of a supermarket warehouse in rural Poland and loads it with grocery items.

Unable to support his wife and three children as a driver at home in Ukraine, he recently left for the better pay offered in neighboring Poland.

"We fought in the war to make things better, but nothing has changed," the 36-year-old veteran, wearing a safety vest and helmet, said as he worked. "Friends die and that's it. And everything remains the same."

As Ukrainians get ready for a presidential election on Sunday, millions have already voted with their feet to leave a nation mired in corruption and inequality, a nation where the separatist war in the east has dragged on for five years, killing 13,000 people and showing no signs of ending.

With Russia in control of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kiev is unable to fulfill its aspirations of joining the European Union or NATO. Ordinary Ukrainians long for better wages but see them stuck at a monthly average of $350. Business owners crave transparent rules and predictability but often face being extorted for bribes by corrupt officials, an intractable problem in Ukraine.

Many Ukrainians who dream of a decent existence are seeking it elsewhere.

In a nation of 44 million people, about 5 million — more than one in 10 people — now work abroad, according to an estimate by the All-Ukrainian Association of Companies on International Employment.

The group's president, Vasyl Voskoboynyk, says the large-scale emigration is helping to "release pressure in our boiling kettle" by significantly lowering Ukraine's jobless rate and injecting large sums of cash into the economy in the form of money sent home. Those remittances reached $11.6 billion last year and are expected to rise to $12.2 billion this year, nearly 12 percent of Ukraine's gross domestic product.

"These are huge numbers," Voskoboynyk said. "It's much more than what we get from the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) or from foreign investments."

For Ukraine's government, that still isn't enough. It is considering a new law to tax the income earned abroad.

Many Ukrainians work abroad for only a few months at a time, returning home often due to legal restrictions in EU countries. That has created a back-and-forth work migration that leaves open the possibility that many could return home for good if economic conditions in Ukraine ever improve.

"(But) sooner or later, if people see that there are no changes, we will lose them," Voskoboynyk said.

While workers going abroad have traditionally been in agriculture, construction or domestic jobs, a small but growing number are skilled specialists like doctors, nurses and computer specialists, threatening the former Soviet republic with a brain drain.

Dr. Oksana Lozova, head of the cardiology ward at Regional Children's Hospital in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine, said a doctor in her hospital recently left for Poland but smaller cities are feeling the loss of doctors and nurses much more.

"Experienced professionals are leaving and their places are filled with inexperienced young people," Lozova said.

Lozova was treating a 9-year-old girl for rheumatoid arthritis who had been brought 80 kilometers (50 miles) by her mother for treatment because there were no specialists nearer.

Ukraine's economic stagnation was visible in the pale bricks that had fallen from hospital's facade, in the potholes in city roads, in the white zebra stripes almost totally washed away at pedestrian crossings.

Ukrainians have been drawn to Western European countries like Italy and Germany, but also to neighboring ex-communist countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which years ago entered NATO and the EU, and have since seen corruption fall and their economies expand.

The country attracting the most Ukrainians has been Poland, population 38 million, where some 1.2 million Ukrainians now work, according to the central bank. There, average wages are about three times higher than in Ukraine, around $1,050, still low by Western standards but growing fast.

The Ukrainians are replacing some of the 2 million Poles who left for Western Europe, especially Britain, after Poland joined the EU in 2004. Those who chose Poland do so because of its geographic proximity, cultural and linguistic similarities that make integration nearly frictionless and a booming economy desperate for workers.

"Poland is now the China of Europe," said Andrzej Korkus, the CEO of EWL, one of the work agencies that places Ukrainians in construction, warehouse and other jobs.

Of the 600 employees at the supermarket warehouse where Lytvynenko, the Ukrainian war veteran, works, 43 percent are Ukrainians. Manager Marcin Szczepanski said so few Poles are willing to work in warehouses now that the business could not function without the Ukrainians.

Poland has also seen a huge surge in recent years in the number of Ukrainian university students, some of whom say they are better off paying tuition in Poland than the bribes required at home. Many of them stay on after graduation, taking jobs in Poland.

Medical professionals from Ukraine are also filling gaps left by Polish doctors, dentists and nurses who fled west for higher wages, but the process takes longer.

Olena Aleksiychuk, a 31-year-old Ukrainian dentist, left behind her parents, a home and her private dental practice in western Ukraine four years ago. She spent nearly three years learning Polish and passing Poland's medical licensing exams. In that time, she worked as a dental hygienist, but says the temporary demotion was worth it, given the higher wages and greater opportunities to develop professionally that are available to her now in Poland.

She said she personally knows about 50 Ukrainian doctors, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, who are now taking steps to work in Poland.

"Life is more comfortable in Poland. It's safe and it's all easier," Aleksiychuk said, speaking from in her treatment room in a sleekly designed clinic run in a Warsaw neighborhood full of modern glass office buildings. "You don't have to worry about what will happen tomorrow."

One of her patients was also from Ukraine.

Lesya Benko, 25, arrived in Poland in 2015 and is now an account sales manager for a global headset company in Warsaw. Benko said she now runs into so many Ukrainians in her daily life — in stores, coffee shops and offices — that sometimes "you can't tell if you are in Ukraine or Poland."