An account of some struggles of migrant workers from the Philippines in Romania in 2008.
"We have to work like horses!"
Report from Sibiu, Romania
Like many other companies in the Romanian textile and construction sectors, textiles firm Mondostar has had to struggle with a persistent labor shortage for several years. Amongst the local workers hardly anyone is willing to work for the low wages paid in the textile industries. Since three months ago Mondostar has employed 95 women from the Philippines in order to counteract the shrinking supply of labor. Hoping for a good job in Europe, the workers from the Philippines borrowed money while still in their home country. They needed the money in order to be able to pay the high fees of the recruitment agency in Manila. The agency recruited them for Mondostar, signing a contract which entitled the workers to a basic wage of 400 US-Dollars and 100 percent extra for overtime. In fact the women were never paid this wage. The following report is based on conversations with some of the Filipina workers.
The labor shortage worsens
Only three years ago the Romanian company still employed about 1,500 local workers - male and female - manufacturing suits for export to Germany and Switzerland. Now there are only 400 local workers left. Most of these are older women whose wage is a contribution to the family income. Apart from them hardly anyone is willing to do factory work for a monthly wage of 250 US-Dollars. 1 Young people move abroad or look for jobs in different sectors. Many former Mondostar employees have shifted to the automobile parts manufacturer Takata, producing air-bags. The newly opened green-field plant in the west of town offers higher wages and better working conditions. 2 According to a union representative at Mondostar, the textiles company recently tried to hire more people from the countryside, but failed. People from the countryside engaged in subsistence farming are less dependent on a factory job. The company would have difficulties with their unmotivated attitude to work, a high rate of people on sick-leave, absenteeism and an ongoing high rate of staff turnover.
Mondostar still has many open orders, the machinery is ready for use, but the people are missing. On their search for productive workers and a way out of crisis the company finally signed a contract with the Eastwind International Agency in Manila, which recruited qualified women textile workers for them.
Namibia, Taiwan, Brunei ... Romania
At the end of May 2008 the Filipinas came to Sibiu. A precondition for their employment was work experience as seamstress. Each of them had to pay 120,000 Philippine Pesos (about 2,500 US-Dollars) to the agency, for recruitment and the flight to eastern Europe. In order to be able to pay the money the women had to take out a bank loan or a mortgage secured on the property of relatives. The work contract signed in the Philippines entitled them to a basic wage of 400 US-Dollars and 100 percent extra for overtime. Many of the women, aged 26 to 52, had already worked overseas as seamstresses in textile factories, e.g. in Namibia, Taiwan and Brunei. The women say it is common in the industry to work overtime and to be paid extra accordingly. According to their own calculation Mondostar would have to pay them 600 to 700 US-Dollars including overtime, after reductions for food and accommodation.
However after a short time the Filipina workers realized that the Romanian company would not stick to the contract. Quite the contrary, the company would try to extract the maximum work at lowest cost.
After arriving in Sibiu the women had to sign a second contract, which was written in Romanian and which apparently codified wage deductions and other details. During the first two months the women worked daily from 6:30 a.m. till 6:00 p.m., including Saturdays. At the end of the month the pay slip showed 570 Ron (about 235 US-Dollars). For the second month they were only paid the same amount. Each month 165 US-Dollars for food and accommodation was cut from the basic wage. Given a weekly working time of 60 hours, the pay for the overtime alone would have amounted to additional 400 US-Dollars - actually the overtime was not paid at all.
In the dormitory, which is situated right on the factory premises, eight women have to share a room. Breakfast and lunch are provided, but the women have to sort out dinner themselves. The canteen food is miserable. "Sometimes it's so bad that we'd rather not eat lunch at all". Inside the factory the women from the Philippines are seated separately from the local workers. Their forewomen are Romanian. "They are always on our backs and force us to work harder. We have to work like horses!"
The women are disappointed by the management's behavior and angry about earning so little. They are not even able to pay back the loans at home let alone to support their families. They decided to fight back and in the third month they refused to do overtime. They announced an ultimatum to the management: by mid-August the full wages and 100 percent bonus should be paid. At the beginning of August they filed an official complaint at the Philippines Embassy in Bucharest. Consequently the embassy stopped any further recruitment of seamstresses for Mondostar. A setback for the company given that they wanted to hire 180 more workers. The Inspectorat Teritorial de Munca (ITM) was informed, as well. The ITM is a Romanian state institution which monitors compliance with legal labor standards. The results of the inspection and further measures are not known yet.
The Filipina workers find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their permission to stay in Romania is bound to the one-year work contract with Mondostar. If they leave the contract early they would lack the money for the flight back home and in Manila they would face huge debts. It would take a long time to claim the money by suing the agency for false pretenses. If they continue to work in Sibiu under the given conditions they will not be able to save money. After all they would earn less than back home in Manila.
Meanwhile the management demonstrates how they plan to treat rebellious workers. In response to the protest of the Filipina workers, their four spokeswomen, whom the women had chosen amongst themselves, were sacked along with two others. Consequently they lost their legal permission to stay in Romania and had to fly back to Manila. The Philippines embassy in Bucharest organized this 'deportation'. In the factory the remaining workers have already elected four new spokeswomen.
The management now wants to pay according to performance, but the targets are absurdly high. About 50 workers are supposed to tailor 500 pairs of trousers in an eight-hour shift. They just about manage to tailor 280 to 300, even after seven Romanian workers have been allocated to work with them. In other factories where the women had worked before the corresponding target was about 250.
The women like to be in Sibiu and they would like to stay. People are friendly towards them. "It's only the situation at Mondostar which is unbearable for us." They have often seen local people wrinkle their nose when they hear that the women work at Mondostar. In the region the company is unpopular and well known for bad wages.
So far there are not many companies in Romania employing a foreign workforce. The few existing attempts at exploiting foreign workers are often accompanied by conflicts and actions of resistance by the migrant workers (see contribution below: "Open letter - Indian Workers in Marsa/Sibiu").
For companies in Romania employing foreign workers means an additional bureaucratic effort and higher costs. In return they hope for a motivated work-force which is always available and more easily controlled than others would be. The fact that legal permission to stay is tied to the work contract provides the employer with a significant tool to put pressure on the workers. Employers increase the workload and try to extort overtime without paying for it. Moreover, actual expenditure for food and accommodation is reduced to lowest level, while a considerable part of the wages is deducted.
But it's not possible to make the 'industrious and docile' Asian workers drudge like horses just like that, to give them numbers and keep them under control. They won't put up with everything. The intimidation by employers has only a limited impact on them. Many of the Filipina workers have years of experience of working overseas, they are able to compare conditions, they know how to organize themselves and try to enforce their own interests.
Filipina in Romania -2009 update
Philippine women workers in Sibiu quit their jobs at Romanian textile factory and return to Manila
It was not an easy decision. The 95 Philippine textile workers had come to Romania in May 2008 to work as seamstresses for the company Mondostar. They tried in various ways to make their employer pay the full wage laid down in the work contract but to no avail. Their only remaining option is to terminate the work contract and return to Manila where a mountain of debt and an uncertain future await them.
"We have lost the belief that anything will really change here", Joanne (name changed) said when she and 77 of her colleagues decided to sign the letter of resignation at the beginning of September. "It won't be easy for us to go back home. Many of us had high hopes for the chance to work in a European country." However, if they stay at Mondostar under the current conditions, they will not be able to pay back the loans (and the interest) with which they paid the high employment agency fees in Manila, as their wage is too small. It's not even enough to support their relatives at home. "We only lose time here", Joanne adds. She is disappointed.
Two different work contracts
We are sitting on Piata Mare Square in the center of Sibiu. In the dormitory eight women share one room, so the women can't stand spending any extra time there. They have to get out, walk around or go to the internet cafe. Since they started refusing to work overtime they had more time for that.
Miranda, one of Joanne's colleagues, has brought her two work contracts. We want to go through and compare them, paragraph by paragraph. We are looking for a quiet place where nobody can observe us. The women got more careful since the company management repeatedly tried to spy on them outside the factory. A few weeks ago an office employee from Mondostar sat down at a nearby table when Miranda talked to two tourists. "They want to keep us under control. They want to know who we meet after work and what we discuss. They are worried we might talk about the company and our working conditions."
The workers signed a first work contract with the Eastwind International agency in Manila. It is written in English and sets the basic wage at 400 US-Dollars a month, and guarantees twice the hourly wage for overtime, plus free food and accommodation. It was with these conditions in mind and the expectation of a monthly income of 600 to 800 US-Dollars that the women decided to risk taking up a loan for the agency fee and the travel costs: 2500 US-Dollars for each worker.
When they arrived in Sibiu they were given another work contract. This one is in English and Romanian. Miranda's mother tongue is Tagalog, and until today she had not been able to understand all the clauses of the second contract. "We were urged to sign quickly. We were not allowed to ask questions." This contract was made directly with Mondostar and includes all the above mentioned wage arrangements. But it has several additional clauses which ultimately allowed the company management to lower the wage and to squeeze the maximum work performance out of the workers: according to this contract the 30-day trial period is not remunerated, even though all the Philippine workers are skilled seamstresses. 70 US-Dollars are deducted from the wage for food and accommodation each month. Furthermore, the employer has the right to set production quotas internal to the company. If no hourly wage is paid, with pay based on work performance instead, the wage should be no less than 250 US-Dollars.
Miranda shows me another document. It is the letter of complaint some of the Philippine workers wrote in order to make their situation public. In the first two months they worked 80 hours in excess of regular working hours, but those overtime hours were not paid. Instead, their monthly income was around 235 US-Dollars. The production quota the factory management had fixed was absurdly high. It was just to push the workers to work more. When one female worker fainted due to being overworked the company owner just said: "that does not concern me." Most workers lost a lot of weight and felt weak because the food was bad, had no taste and was undercooked. During conflicts with management the women did not get a chance to speak up. "We often get threatened, and we are treated like slaves and put down as 'stupid'. We are under permanent stress here, and our dignity is violated."
Unreachable work quota and even lower wages
With their complaint, the overtime boycott and the ultimatum they set the factory management for mid-August, the workers got something rolling. First the Philippine embassy in Bucharest declared a hiring freeze for Mondostar . This was a tough blow for the company, since it wanted to hire 180 more Philippine workers. Then the Inspectorat Teritorial de Munca (ITM), a Romanian state body monitoring of labour regulations, got involved. But according to its own statements it did not find any violations of the labour law during its inspections. At a Sibiu ITM press conference early in October the chief inspector Francisc Torok said he could not make out any serious reasons for the resignation of the Philippine workers. Mondostar had offered them good working conditions, he argued. "Altogether we have concluded four inspections. The only complaint the Philippine workers had was the non-payment of the overtime hours. But that was solved."
Up to this day the workers have not been paid for the overtime hours.
The factory management got even more impertinent. It laid off six women for "lacking discipline", among them four speakers the women workers had elected and who had been particularly active during the conflict with the company. The management justified the low wages by stating that the production quotas were not reached and the women had to "be kept at work". Even the union leader responsible for the Romanian workers at Mondostar sided with the company management: "the Philippine workers do not work as fast as us. They want to do overtime and get paid for it, but that is only possible if they perform well. As far as I know they do not meet the production quota within eight hours, that is why they have to work longer." It is impossible to reach Mondostar's daily production quota within eight hours. It was raised from the initial 400 to 500 pairs of suit trousers (for a group of 42 women) and from 200 to 300 suit jackets (for a group of 53 women). The workers talk about similar work in other textile factories where the quota was never above 250 to 300 pairs of suit trousers for a group of 50 workers. "We make 330 pairs of trousers here in eight hours, so we are highly productive! We would never manage to make 500 pairs. That way they want to force us to do unpaid overtime", Miranda states angrily.
In reaction to their refusal to work overtime Mondostar reduced the seamstresses' wages even more. The official reason was that they had not met the quota. Those who made trousers got 141 US-Dollars for August, those who made jackets got just 130 US-Dollars.
Mondostar goes down
The collective resignation of the Philippine workers could ruin Mondostar . The company sits on a part of the land once used by the former state company "Steaua Rosie" (red star), one of the biggest textile mills in state-socialist Romania, which produced army clothes. Mondostar was fully privatized in 1993, and produces male suits for the brands Digel and Strellson . Ninety percent of the suits get exported to Western Europe.
Over the past few years Mondostar has been confronted with a huge loss of labour power. Of the 1200 local workers previously employed in the production department, only 350 are left today. Few Romanian workers are prepared to work in a textile factory under bad conditions and for extremely low wages, a problem that is currently causing a crisis for most light industry companies in Romania. Mondostar needs the Philippine workers, so it tried to prevent or delay the resignation of the women, without meeting their demands.
With the termination of their work contracts the women also lost the right to stay in Romania. They were brought to the Philippine embassy in Bucharest, where they had to wait for two weeks before they could fly back to Manila. The flight was paid for by the Philippine charity organisation OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration).
The collective resignation of the 78 Philippine workers at the end of September caused a stir in the Romanian media. With the help of the Philippine embassy the Mondostar case has been brought to court. The non-payment of overtime hours worked violates the Romanian labour law, despite the special clauses in the work contracts. The workers hope that in this way they might still get their full wages.
A life on the road
"Life is so hard." I often hear Joanne say this sentence, particularly when we talk about her uncertain future. Back in Manila she does not want to lose any time before applying for her next job abroad. That is her life.
She grew up with her grandparents in a village. When she was 17 years old she went to Manila to work as a seamstress in a textile factory. Some years later she went overseas for the first time. She had a three-year contract in Taiwan. "I could have married at the time and started a family. But I was not prepared for that. I wanted to earn myself a living, I wanted to be independent." Today Joanne is 34 years old and has worked in several world market textile factories in countries such as Brunei and Namibia. With her wage she was able to finance her little sister's university studies in computer science in Manila.
Joanne is one of eight million OFW (Overseas Filippino Workers), as the Philippine workers who work outside the country are called. That is ten percent of the population. More than half of them are women, working overseas as domestic helpers, factory workers or nurses. Philippine men living abroad are often employed as seamen. With a part of their income the OFWs support their relatives in the Philippines. Their money transfers make up more than ten percent of the country's gross domestic product and save many people from extreme poverty. The migration of the OFWs is regulated and controlled by the state. The workers themselves have to pay the high administrative and agency fees.
The case of the Philippine textile workers working at Mondostar in the Romanian town of Sibiu is under investigation in Manila, too. The Eastwind International agency faces charges for its failure to fulfil its contractual obligations. The women workers stand a good chance of winning the case, which would force the agency to return the high fees the workers had to pay.
"For the time being my life will continue this way", says Joanne. A friend works in a big textile factory in Swaziland, Southern Africa. "She has told me that they are looking for people in quality control, through direct hiring. I do not have to pay an agency."
For Miranda it is harder to find a new job. She is 48 years old, too old for many employers. She had worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper for six years, looking after a disabled boy, but the age limit for newly hired workers there is 38. "I will return and do men's work again on the Philippines. Pumping air into car tyres at a garage, for instance. I already had that job for ten years once."
Some of the Philippine workers who returned home have already applied for a new job as seamstresses in Estonia. The company offered them a net wage of 850 US-Dollars. Joanne is sceptical. "I have not sent in my application yet. First I want to find out what kind of company that is. I do not want to run into the same problems as with Mondostar !"
Joanne likes to sit in internet cafes. She regularly chats with friends she met through her jobs and who are now living and working around the globe. She stays in contact even though she has not met most of them for years.
And who knows which corner of the world Joanne will get in touch from next.
Ana Cosel, 30th of October 2008
Indian Workers in Marsa (Sibiu): Open letter
Half a year ago in a metal factory in Marsa, a town neighboring Sibiu, there was a conflict similar to the current one at Mondostar. Since May 2007 the factory had employed 43 workers from India, paying them 568 US-Dollars before tax. The boss of Grande Mecanica Marsa allocated numbers to the Indian workers, because he wasn't able or willing to pronounce their names. He just called the men Sorin 1, Sorin 2, ... Sorin 24.
At the beginning of January 2008 the contracts of 30 Indian workers were terminated. According to newspaper articles the men were dismissed because they had not turned up for work since December 20 2007. The same sources state that during that time the company was shut down for a company holiday. The workers had complained that they were forced to work overtime, which they did not get paid for. "According to our contract our working times are ten hours per day, six days per week. The company did not adhere to the contract and made us work 115 to 130 hours per week." 3 As early as October 2007 the Indian workers had addressed the media through an open letter, declaring that the management treats them like slaves: "Day in day out we are tortured psychologically. It seems like the management wants to get back at us for complaining at the Indian embassy. For example before shift starts, when we want to put on our protective clothing, the supervisor eggs us on saying there is no time for putting on the clothing. All the time the management turns up at our work stations telling us: 'faster, faster! And bear in mind that you are constantly filmed by the surveillance cameras.'" 4 The following two reports appeared in German and English on www.labournet.d http://www.labournet.de/e (27. August 2008)
- 1Currently the legal minimum wage in Romania is 150 Euros or 220 US-Dollars. In the textile industries the wages are only just above the minimum wage (220 to 280 US-Dollars).
- 2The car industry suppliers usually pay slightly higher wages in order to attract qualified workers in times of lack of work-force.
- 3 Sources: Realitatea.net (January 23 2008), Sibiu Standard (January 15 2008), Ziarul de Sibiul (October 8 2007) and Ziarul de Sibiu (May 25 2007)
- 4Quoted from the Indian workers' open letter published in a newspaper article of October 8 2007 at www.ziaruldesibiu.ro