Factory or Prison - Bangladeshi workers in Romania

Prol-Position on some struggles of Bangladeshi and Indian migrant workers in Romania in 2007-8.

Textile workers from Bangladesh are kept be­hind locked gates and exploited in Bacau in Ro­mania
In January 2007 the BBC reported on a strike in­volving 400 Chinese female textile workers of the Wear Company in Bacau in Eastern Romania. Dur­ing the strike, Sorin Nicolescu, director of the firm, was physically attacked by about 100 angry wom­en. "Instead of working, they threw themselves at me with forks and spoons. I called the police and security. It's just not acceptable to be attacked in my own country, in my factory, by female work­ers, to whom I have made every concession!" said Nicolescu in a statement to the press at the time. After the strike, through which the workers aimed to impose higher wages and better working condi­tions, significant numbers of women handed in their notice and returned to China.1

Beset by the shortage of labor-power in Roma­nia, Wear Company has again hired labor-power from Asia, this time 500 contract-workers from Bangladesh.

The following report is based on personal con­versations with some workers.

Locked in for two months
The first workers from Bangladesh that we meet in the town-center of Bacau belong to the 74 con­struction-workers who have been employed for three months by the firm Rombet S.A. They are working with local construction-workers on the large construction-site for a new shopping mall. They cannot complain about the food and accom­modation. "But the wages are much too low! We have a contract for 500 US-Dollars on 8 hours a day. But we work 10 hours each day, including Saturday, and we only get 375 US-Dollars!"

They know some of their compatriots at Wear-Company. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, they were all signed up to the Al Abas International agency which arranged their employment in Romania. The fees that the agency charges, which the work­ers must raise themselves, are enormous: about 3,500 US-Dollars per person. In order to raise this large sum, many have taken out a bank-loan or a mortgage on the family-house. The installments plus the interest have to be paid off out of their wages.

It is Sunday, the only free day in the week, on which the textile-workers from Bangladesh usual­ly take the bus into the town-center and go for walks in groups in the park. In the last weeks none of them was allowed to leave the factory-premises. The gate was locked and security did not allow anyone out. "The workers of Wear Com­pany have been locked in for two months. They cannot leave the factory. That's like prison!" one of the construction-workers from Rombet tells us. But we are lucky: on this Sunday the textile-workers are allowed out again and we are able to talk with them about their situation.

They say that the company-management had told them that there were problems with Immigra­tion Police, and for that reason they could not leave the factory. The workers suspect that the company took these measures because 20 of their colleagues had disappeared. These had possibly crossed the border into other European countries in order to find better work there.

The overtime trick
The workers from Bangladesh [2] are seamsters and have a contract for 8-hour days, 40-hour weeks, for which they are supposed to receive 400 US-Dollars. In fact they regularly work 60-hour weeks and are paid 640 Ron (253 US-Dollars). "That is much too little! Our families rely on our money. On top of that come the installments and the inter­est on the loans that we have taken out." In addi­tion a part of the money that they transfer to Bangladesh is retained as processing fees by the money-transfer companies such as Western Union; on small sums these amount to approximately 10 percent of the total sum!

The employer deducts 147 US-Dollars each month from the contractually agreed 400 US-Dol­lars. This is for accommodation in a dormitory on the factory premises, where at any one time 9 men have to sleep in three-story bunk-beds. On top of that comes the food which the company provides, but which isn't enough. The workers are often still hungry after meals.

According to Romanian employment legislation workers can rack up 38 hours of overtime, which must be balanced out in the time-sheets of the fol­lowing months. Each additional hour of overtime has to be paid at double the rate. To complete the sums: on 20 hours overtime a week, Wear Compa­ny steals from each single worker 400 US-Dollars a month that he should be entitled to.

This trick with the overtime is well-known. In Sibiu, a couple of hundred kilometers to the West of Bacau in Romania, female textile workers from the Philippines started a overtime-boycott against the Mondostar company at the beginning of Au­gust, after they received no wages at all for over­time.3

It has to be worth it for the Asian workers to take on the high agency fees. They see the contractual­ly determined basic wage and count on the corre­sponding increased rates for overtime. When the workers are then in Romania the companies at­tempt to undercut the contract by paying lower wages and squeezing more work out of them.

"If it doesn't suit you, go back to Bangladesh"
The residence permit for workers from Bangla­desh is tied to their year-long work con­tract. Their passports and all their important docu­ments are retained by the company, which only hands out copies of these. The company-manage­ment can easily fire undesirable workers and then get them deported. 30 workers just got fired. "As soon as we complain, they say: 'If it doesn't suit you, then we'll send you back to Bangladesh.'" In view of the large debts that await in Bangladesh, this is a threatening proposition.

Unlike the Filipina women at Mondostar, only a few of the workers from Bangladesh already have been able to acquire experience abroad. Many have left their country for the first time. For the workers of Wear Company the step from Bangladesh to Europe is bound up with the hope for better living conditions.[4]

Relying on the workers
The Wear Company in Bacau relies on foreign la­bor-power. According to a study by the temporary work agency Manpower, Romania is currently the country with the biggest shortage in labor-power in the world. 73 percent of companies questioned indicated that they could not find enough labor-power.[5] The textile and construction industries and the service sector are particularly heavily af­fected.

According to estimates 10 percent of the Roma­nian population are working permanently or tem­porarily abroad, mainly in Spain and Italy, where they receive five to seven times the wages that they would get in Romania. The daily propaganda in the Romanian media about the worsening working conditions for Romanians abroad, the catastrophic social effects of ongoing emigration for family-members left behind – children who grow up without care, old people that no-one takes care of – and the threatened "flooding" of the national labor-market by Asian workers does not alter the situation in the slightest.

Bacau is in the Romanian province of Moldova, a region in which the rate of emigration of the local workforce is well above the average. The city of 185,000 inhabitants offers six direct flights each week and ten bus departures each day to Italy.

Publicize the case
In our conversations with the workers from Bangladesh a pressing concern is soon expressed: "We want our situation here to be reported on. Something has to change."

In early September a worker tells us by tele­phone that they are being locked in again. "Last Sunday 16 of our colleagues did not come back. Now the company is forbidding us to leave the factory premises. We do not know yet if we will be let out next Sunday.


Sonoma and Wear Company
Wear Company and Sonoma – two large textile fac­tories in Bacau which produce sports clothing for export – are both owned by the Italian Antonello Gamba. Gamba was the first entrepreneur in Ro­mania who applied for a license for the employ­ment of over 1,000 foreign workers from China.

Since the strike at Wear Company in January 2007 the remaining Chinese workers from the Wear fac­tory in the Southern industrial zone of Bacau were "transferred" to the Sonoma factory on the North-Western edge of town. They work in the Sonoma-factory together with some hundred local work­ers. Since this year 500 workers exclusively from Bangladesh are employed in the Wear factory; even their foremen are Bangladeshi.

Less is known on the current situation of the to­tal of 250 Chinese workers at Sonoma. A month ago a case was covered in the local press: a Chi­nese worker from Sonoma had gone into the center of Bacau on the 5 th August and drawn attention to his situation with a placard. His contract was about to run out, he would have to go back to Chi­na, but the company refused to pay him the wages he was due. He said repeatedly: "No money, no China, no tomorrow." [6]

You can reach the author of the articles on the situation in Romania at: ana.cosel [at] web.de

1 BBC report on the strike: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6286617.stm
2 Unlike the Philippines, which "exports" female labor-power, in Bangladesh it is primarily men who go abroad to work.
3See the report on the 27 th August 2008 by Ana Cosel: http://www.labournet.de/internationales/rumae/sibiu.html (german), http://www.labournet.de/inter­nationales/rumae/sibiu_engl.html http://www.labournet.de/internationales/rumae/sibiu_engl.html (also in this issue of prol-position-news)
4 Repeated strikes and violent protests are occurring in the new centers of production of the textile industry in Bangladesh against low wages and the constant price-rises for foodstuffs. The basic wage of a textile worker in Bangladesh – the large majority of the 2 million workers employed in the clothing industry are women – is around 45 US-Dollars a month. The state is trying to repress these protests violently; police and paramilitaries are playing a decisive role in this.
5 Manpower study published on the 22. April 2008: http://www.euractiv.com/en/socialeurope/romania-skilled-labour-shortage-highest-worldwide/article-171920
6 In Romanian: http://www.desteptarea.ro/articol_15067.shtml

The following two reports appeared in German and En­glish on www.labournet.d http://www.labournet.de/e (10. September 2008) www.Prol-Position.net