Young women in their Sunday clothes with rosaries and prayer books. The majority of the roepolakker were Catholics and it was stated in their contracts that they were allowed time off on Catholic holidays. Photo: Museum Lolland-Falster
The Poles House in Ringsted monastery 1915. Photo: Ringsted Museum and Archives.
During the period 1893-1929, a large number of young Poles came to work in Denmark mainly in agriculture on Lolland and Falster. In 1914, there were about 14,000 Polish seasonal workers in Denmark, employed in the cultivation of sugar beet. A total of about 3,500 Polish workers settled permanently in Denmark.
A shortage of labour in the late 1800’s brought a large number of seasonal workers to Denmark from areas such as Poland and Ukraine. Three quarters of these were women and many were under 20 years old. The majority were Roman Catholics, whose congregation in Denmark thereby quadrupled within a few years.
In 1911, the Polish workers accounted for 3.8% of agricultural workers in Denmark. Most of these were employed in the cultivation of sugar beet, as milkmaids or
in other agricultural work, while a few were employed in brickworks or in peat bogs.
The first 400 Poles came to Denmark in 1893. Their numbers increased until 1914, when around 14,000 Poles came to Denmark. After the First World War, the number of seasonal workers decreased to around 1400-1500 per year in the years 1924-26.
THE SUGAR BEET FIELDS
The introduction of both sugar and fodder beet in the Danish agricultural production in the 1870’s led to an acute shortage of manpower, not least because of an exodus from rural to urban areas and from Denmark to, for instance, USA at the same time.
Beet cultivation is labour intensive. The work was done by hand and one worker was only able to cultivate 3-4 acres of land with beet. This meant that Lolland and Falster needed 4000 workers in the beet season that stretched from early spring to late autumn. In 1911, Polish workers accounted for more than 27% of agricultural workers on Lolland and Falster. The workers were, therefore, quickly nicknamed “roepolakker” (Beet Poles).
14-HOUR WORKING DAY, DORMITORIES AND POOR PAY
Work in the beet fields was physically hard. The working day often stretched from 5 o’ clock in the morning to 7 o’ clock at night. As work in some places was paid as piecework, the long working day was not unpopular as it meant that workers could earn extra money by working longer hours.
The Poles were recruited by organized German-speaking agents – the so-called “Aufsehere”, who usually travelled around Galicia in the winter and signed contracts with young workers. Some were also sent to Denmark through the so-called import associations that supplied workers to Danish and German employers.
The Aufseher often arranged for transportation and accommodation of the workers during their stay. Poles were quartered in so-called barracks – i.e. large dormitories where they slept in bunk beds and were each given a cupboard. These barracks often belonged to the larger estates or acted as joint accommodation for workers employed on the smaller farms. Some workers lived with the local workers of the farm on which they were employed.
Following criticism of the conditions for farm workers, a new law was adopted in 1908 which, inter alia, should ensure that the Poles were given better housing conditions.
FROM SEASONAL WORKER TO IMMIGRANT
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, approx. 7-8000 Polish workers were trapped in Denmark. Many men did not want to go into active service. Between 3 and 4000 Poles took permanent residence in Denmark – many because they had started a family.
In 1920, Polish workers were guaranteed the same conditions as Danish workers, and, in 1929, rising unemployment in Denmark led to the Danish government stopping the import of Polish workers.
PROPER WORKING CONDITIONS
Following criticism, in particular from the trade unions, of the working conditions of farm workers, a law to protect foreign workers was adopted in 1908, known as the “Polaklov” (the Polish law). It ensured that the workers should have a contract, better housing and insurance against accidents and it regulated wage payments but not the amount of remuneration. It ensured that every worker should have a lockable cupboard for food and a box for the potatoes that were often a part of the salary.