Byline: FIONA BARTON
THE shelves of the Polskie Delikatesy are crammed with jars of red cabbage, pickled cucumbers, smoky kabanos sausages, dark Polski chleb (bread) and racy, indecipherable magazines. I ask a question and the assistant, a young woman with long black hair, looks at me blankly, shrugs and shakes her head.
I turn to two other customers, a pair of stocky men in work clothes, but they are equally puzzled. So, unable to make myself understood, I retreat.
I feel like a foreigner, but this is not Warsaw, Kracow or Gdansk. I am in Southampton, an English city where one in ten of the 220,000 population is now believed to be Polish.
No one knows exactly how many Poles live in the city, but estimates start with 'at least 10,000' and rise to 30,000.
What is indisputable is that Southampton is experiencing the biggest influx of foreigners in its history. It's the most visible manifestation so far of the largest wave of immigration for at least 300 years.
Home Office figures show that 205,000 Poles have come here to work since May 2004, when Poland and other former Soviet bloc countries were allowed to join the EU.
Most of the larger EU countries blocked citizens of the new member states from migrating in search of work until 2009 - but not Britain.
The phenomenon of the Polish plumber - the hardworking, ever-available tradesman - has been experienced all over Britain. There can hardly be a street in the country where a kitchen or roof hasn't been fixed by an eastern European.
But while the middle classes have been full of praise, others claim the competition has meant British workers losing out. Last month, unemployment figures climbed to 3 per cent - the highest since October 2003 - giving fresh ammunition to the critics.
However, economic forecasters the Ernst & Young Item Club claimed last month that the influx had actually kept interest rates down and boosted the Treasury's coffers by [pounds sterling]300million.
So what is the truth? Is this dynamic new workforce filling a need in Britain, boosting the economy and teaching the indigenous unskilled population about the ethos of hard work? Are these foreigners being welcomed or shunned?
In a major three-part investigation, the Mail has visited cities across the country, from the suburbs of Southampton to the estates of Manchester.
We've spoken to Polish workers in a Woolworth's warehouse in Rochdale, those at a Tesco distribution company in Middleton, food plant workers in East Anglia, the plumbers of London and the Polish hairdressers now appearing in our towns and cities.
And we've been to Poland, to the city of Rzeszow, to uncover the human cost of this mass exodus of young, ambitious workers forced to earn a living abroad.
For the first time, it's possible to establish the truth behind one of the biggest waves of immigration in modern times.
What emerges is an extraordinary picture of contrasts: hope and greed; hard work and exploitation; ambition and grinding poverty. But one thing is certain - the outcome of this 'open door' policy is nowhere near as clear cut as the Government would have us believe.
IN London, the Polish population is now put at 50,000, but Andrzej Tutkaj at the Polish Centre in Hammersmith believes there may be ten times that number living in and around the capital.
Yesterday, David Roberts, director of enforcement and removals at the Home Office, admitted that the Government is no longer bothering to hunt hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and told MPs he did not have the 'faintest idea' how many were at large in the UK.
Numbers are likely to increase if Bulgaria and Romania join the EU in January next year - something which EU leaders said yesterday they were determined to push ahead with.
The Government's figures are notoriously unreliable. …