Reports on crisis 2: Romania - Wildcat

Wildcat asked people in several countries to write down observations about social effects of the crisis.
The following is a report from Romania, written in February 2009.

Submitted by Khawaga on December 22, 2009

"The return of the strawberry pickers"

- Romania, Turnstile of Migration

At the turn of the year the airport Bucarest-Baneasa bursts at the seams. During normal business times the passenger volume of this airport for cheap airlines is already enormous, now things have gone way beyond capacity limits. Endless queues, undefined waiting hours and sticky air. Most of the people pushing and shoving their way through the terminal hall are Romanians working abroad: capsunaris, strawberry pickers as they are called in Romania, disregarding whether they work as construction workers in Bologna, as old people's carer in Paris, dockers in Rotterdam or agriculture labourers in Andalusia. Approximately 10 to 20 percent of the Romanian population - up to five million people - permanently or temporarily work abroad, mainly in Italy and Spain. Most of them spend the festive season at the end of the year 'at home' in Romania and this is when you can observe one of the biggest inner-European migration movements in the bus terminals and airports of this country. .

For some time emigration has posed a massive problem for local companies. According to a study by Manpower, Romania was the country with the highest degree of labour-shortage in 2008 1 . Particularly affected were; the construction sector (with half of the vacancies remaining unfilled), tourism and the shoe- and textile industry.

Although in the past years the wage level in Romania has increased considerably it is still the lowest in the EU. In the textile factories workers are still only being paid a little more than the legal minimum wage 2 . Nowadays hardly anyone is willing to sweat for these wages. Efforts undertaken by the companies to recruit more people from the countryside fail again and again due to lacking qualifications, frequent absence from work and the unmotivated attitude of the workers towards factory work. In order to retain the remaining local employees the companies offer them two months unpaid holiday for seasonal work abroad in addition to the regular paid holidays. Despite this they did not manage to curb labour attrition due to workers shifting jobs to the new plants of the automobile parts manufacturers and electronic industries where higher wages were on offer.

The labour shortage was supposed to be solved by import of work force from Asia. Right from the beginning these migrant workers from China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines caused conflicts and organised resistance against the management.

We report here on two examples from the textile industry:

Of the former 1,200 local employees at the apparel manufacturer Mondostar in Sibiu, only 350 kept working after new offers became available. In order to avoid bankruptcy the company hired 95 female Philippine textile workers in May 2008. The work contract with a commercial job agency in Manila guaranteed a basic wage of 400 US Dollars, 100 percent bonus for over-time and free accommodation and food. On the basis of these promises the workers took the risk of taking out individual loans of 2,500 US Dollars for the agency fee and the travel expenses.
Forcing the women to sign a second contract after arrival Mondostar tried to undermine the previous contractual agreement, to squeeze out a maximum labour performance and to lower their own expenses. For a 60 hour working week the women received a monthly wage of 235 US Dollars. From the agreed basic wage 165 US Dollars were deducted for food and accommodation and the over-time was not paid at all. The Philippine women found themselves in an real dilemma: their permission to stay in Romania was tied to the work contract, but if they quit the job they would have had to face massive debts back home in the Philippines.
Most of them have years of experience of working in textile factories in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Namibia, South Africa or Brunei or as domestic workers in Hong Kong or Singapore. They are able to compare conditions and they know how to organise themselves. After two months they started to boycott the over-time and confronted the company with an ultimatum. Their complaint at the Philippine embassy resulted in Mondostar not being allowing to hire any more Philippine workers. In reaction Mondostar sacked six women for 'lack of discipline', amongst them the four spokeswomen elected by the workers, and cut the wages even further alleging that the seamstresses did not meet the companies' fixed production targets. In consequence 78 workers decided to stop being fucked over and to quit their jobs with Mondostar in September 2008.
Back in the Philippines the workers filed a legal case against the job agency in Manila and Mondostar, supported by a welfare organisation for the OFW 3 , which had also paid the travel expenses for the return trip. The legal proceedings saw a first success: the workers did not have to pay the 2,500 US Dollars commission to the agency.

The condition for the migrant workers' struggle for the betterment of their situation is everything but favourable. The workers' permission to stay is bound to the work contract, which provides the employers with an effective way of putting pressure on them. Usually the textile workers live in dormitories on the factory premises, which makes them easier to control. The contact to local workers is further impeded by the fact that in most cases their work stations are separated from each other. In addition to that there are the language barriers.

The degree of employers' repression against migrant workers is shown in the example of the Italian textile manufacturer Gamba, which runs two bigger plants in Bacau, under the name Sonoma and Wear Company. Three years ago the manufacturer was the first in Romania to apply for a licence to employ 1,000 Chinese garment workers. Some months later in January 2007 Wear Company became internationally known when 400 Chinese women went on a spontaneous strike after not having been paid the promised wage sum. After the strike some of the women returned to China, but it has still not become clear whether they returned on their own accord or whether they have been deported.
At Wear Company Gamba started a new attempt, this time employing 500 contract workers from Bangladesh. But here again, the company was only able to quell the workers' discontent by heavy intimidation and repression. In summer 2008, after several textile workers from Bangladesh did not return to the factory, their remaining colleagues were locked inside the factory premises for two months. More workers left the factory and did not return, again the remaining workers got locked in - this procedure became common practice. Despite the the Romanian media and the Inspectorat Teritorial de Munca (ITM) - the official board responsible for labour law issues - being informed about the matter, no one followed up the case. In January 2009 a report was published in the English Bengali press saying that more than half of the 800 employed contract workers from Bangladesh had left the job and crossed the border to other European countries. The reports also mention a week long strike of 200 Bangladeshi workers in a Romanian textile factory 4 . Little to nothing is known about the current situation of the remaining workers at Wear Company. What is known is the fact that the textile entrepreneur Gamba aspires to become the consul general for Bangladesh in Romania.

Impact of the global economic crisis

In this young member country of the EU the global crisis will change the social relations drastically. An economic growth rate of 9.3 percent as in 2008, wage increases of 25 percent and an unemployment rate of under 4 percent - this dynamic might well be broken. Currently short-time work is spreading in Romania and for the first time in years the Romanian labour market is witnessing an end to hiring. In the automobile industry, in the steel- and chemical industries redundancies are on the agenda.
Due to the abolishment of the import quota 5 , the increasing wages and labour-shortage, the textile industries are retreating from Romania. The employers' association of the Romanian textile industry announced that this dynamic is aggravated by the current lack of orders. It is most likely that the importing of foreign workforce - which has not gone beyond an experimental phase yet - will find a sudden end.

In the near future the turnstile of migration might also change direction for the "strawberry pickers". In Spain the real estate sector and therefore the construction industry has collapsed due to the global crisis; 500,000 Romanian construction workers are now threatened by unemployment. Will the airports and bus terminals soon be over-crowded by homecoming labour migrants. What kind of future outlook do they have? Will they be willing - after having got used to much higher wages and having made new experiences - to subject themselves once more to the prevalent conditions of long working-hours and low wages in Romania?

By Ana Cosel

Reproduced from Wildcat Germany - check out their excellent English-language content here.

  • 1Manpower has published a survey on 22nd of April 2008 stating that 73 percent of employers questioned in Romania complain about not being able to find enough workers.
  • 2In the time between 2000 and 2008 the legal minimum wage has quadrupled from 35 Euro to currently about 135 Euro. In the textile industry workers are hardly ever paid more than 200 Euro.
  • 3OFW = Overseas Filipino Workers, for more information see:
  • 4In the Romanian press only one item was published reporting that out of the 500 Bangladeshi workers employed in Bacau 100 had disappeared. The police asked the public for assistance.
  • 5In January 2005 the international import quota for textile goods was lifted. The textile industry in China and India benefited from this reform given that their products can now be more cheaply exported to the US and European market. The textile companies in Romania could hardly keep up with these new competitors.