The road to Romania is bumpy and once there, workers are exploited tooAsians fill labour gap as Romanians head westward. Nepalis dreaming of working in Europe are ready to pay commissions although Romanian companies pay agents as well as airfare.
Padam arrived in Romania in September 2019 having paid a Nepali recruitment agency Rs560,000 to land a job at a mountain resort in Sinaia, around 123 km north of Bucharest, the capital of Romania.
“I could sometimes earn up to Rs5,000 in a day,” said Padam, who was at times working 12-hour shifts without even taking toilet breaks.
But in March, the coronavirus pandemic struck. As elsewhere, the tourism industry in Romania witnessed a slump. Padam, who has to send at least Rs50,000 home every month to service his family's loan, had no option but to look for another job.
But his experience with the new job was terrible. “I wasn't paid for four months,” said the father of two. “The company still owes me around Rs4.7 lakhs.”
According to Romania’s General Inspectorate for Immigration, Padam is one of 4,324 Nepalis who landed in the eastern European country in 2019. With an estimated three million citizens having left the country of around 19 million for greener pastures in Western Europe, Romania is now banking on Asian workers--initially Vietnamese, now Nepalis and Indians--to do hotel, restaurant, babysitting and construction jobs Romanians won't do.
Asian workers cost less, are qualified, have training or experience and are prepared to go abroad, Anne Marie Stavri, who operates Jordan River Recruitment agency in Romania, told the Post.
Between 2016 and 2020, Romania increased its quota for non-EU workers from 3,000 to 30,000 and Nepalis are benefitting. This year alone 2,831 work permits have been issued for Nepalis.
But with no labour agreement between Kathmandu and Bucharest and lax regulation of the foreign employment sector in Nepal, migrant workers, easily wooed by dreams of travelling and working in Europe, are being exploited at every step of their journey, a six-month-long cross-border investigation by the Post has found.
Recruitment begins with prospective workers approaching recruitment agencies for a job in the eastern European country where little or no English is spoken. The Nepali company then shows the workers’ profile to its partner agency in Romania which has been hired by the prospective employers. If the profile fits the need, it pays the Nepali agent a commission as well as airfare for the worker.
But throw in some desperation, big dreams, greed for fat commissions and information asymmetry, and the whole process turns into an exploitative system for Nepali workers.
“Agencies expect to make a minimum Rs450,000 from each worker and leave the rest to the sub-agent, who gets them the people who want to go abroad,” Ramesh, a sub-agent who didn’t want to be identified, told the Post.
Last October, for the first time, Ramesh, who has been sending workers to the Gulf and Malaysia, sent two workers to Romania. Since then many aspirant candidates have been calling him everyday to go work in Romania.
But Ramesh says he is in a fix as sending Romania although it means more money, also means greater risk. Further, the false promise of permanent residency and provisions to bring families to Romania seems deceptive to him.
“I am reluctant as Romania is a new destination for Nepali workers. No one knows what will be the income and kind of work for Nepalis there,” said Ramesh, who received around Rs200,000 as commission for sending the two workers to Romania. “I sent two workers as excavator operators but they were asked to work as labourers in the first month. I may have earned more money compared to those I send to the Gulf, but if workers return home, the [legal] compensation amount is also going to be higher. Who is going to pay them?”
Some of the recruitment agencies seek commissions not only from their counterparts in Romania, but also from prospective workers. Also, agencies often end up underdelivering on their promises to the workers.
When S. was preparing to go to Romania for work, his recruitment agency promised him good hours, well-paid overtime, an opportunity to travel to Europe, and pay of around US$820 per month.
“I took the plunge,” said S.
He took a loan of around Rs500,000 to pay his recruitment agency. But just before his departure, he was informed that his restaurant job would only pay him US$520.
“I was angry but I couldn’t do anything. So I came to Romania anyway. But now I am having a lot of trouble repaying the loans,” said S.
Once workers arrive in Romania, provided they have not been duped earlier, there are different ways for them to get exploited.
Although Romanian law says people need to work only five days a week for 40 hours, they may end up working 12 hours a day, six days a week, according to Uva Raj Lamichhane, a Nepali migrant worker and video blogger based in Bucharest.
“If you work more, it’s counted as extra hours and you need to be paid for those extra hours. Some Nepalis, especially in the hotel business, are made to work 60 hours but only paid for 40,” he said
Some employers are even found to have seized passports of Nepali workers they hire. If workers want to change jobs, a whole set of other problems arises.
Most workers come to Romania under a two-year contract but employers, having invested in workers’ airfares and in paying a commission to agents, are reluctant to let them go.
“When the employers see that the [foreign] employees have not fulfilled their contract, they come to us and break the contract,” said Cristian Stoica, chief commissioner at Bucharest General Inspectorate Directorate.
Such workers then have to be deported, according to him.
“This can be a voluntary choice of the employees. If they don’t want to leave, our office determines whether they can remain on Romanian territory or not, depending on specific conditions,” Stoica said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made workers even more vulnerable to exploitation. While employers have an excuse for not paying their workers, the health of workers is also being undermined.
S., who was diagnosed with Covid-19 in October, was locked up in a building with 65 other Asian workers. As his company only got him tested 15 days after he reported symptoms of the disease and was ordered to stay home, he was unsure he would be paid for the time he spent at home undiagnosed.
Bogdan Hossu, president of the Cartel-Alfa trade union, one of the most active in Romania says the exploitation of workers in the country is an example of “social dumping.”
“In 2011, we had new legislation that completely deregulated the labour market. It essentially forbids inter-professional and sector-specific collective agreements. This opens the door to all sorts of abuses,” Hossu said. “Even before this wave of Asian workers, Romanians were modern-day slaves.”
Nepal does not have an official mission in the country. Nepal’s embassy in Berlin oversees bilateral affairs in Romania and its honorary consul Nawa Raj Pokharel, the “only Nepali in Romania until 2008”, is the country’s only official representative.
The business consultant, who doesn’t receive any compensation from the Nepal government for his work, said, “Sometimes I receive 100 calls a day and need to deal with paperwork until 1 o’clock in the morning,” he told the Post.
He said he contacts companies in case he gets complaints of them not providing Nepali employees proper working and housing conditions.
“So far all of the problems have been resolved with a phone call,” he said, “especially when companies confiscate passports of the workers as some of them don’t know it’s illegal.”
But Sujit Kumar Shrestha, general secretary of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), denied that Nepali workers were being exploited in Romania and problems were being faced by only a small number.
“Cases of exploitation and forced labour are rare. Romania is 99 percent safer than the Gulf and other destinations,” said Shrestha. “Those exploited have fallen into the trap of sub-agents, educational consultancies and human traffickers. If they go via registered recruiting agencies, then such agencies will be accountable for their safety and protection.”
Shrestha denied that Nepal-based agencies charge as much as Rs1 million for jobs in Romania but accepted that they might charge around Rs300,000-Rs400,000.
“Airfare is expensive. There are no direct flights. A one-way ticket might cost between Rs100,000-Rs150,000. Then it takes around Rs50,000 to send the candidate to India for the visa interview,” said Shrestha.
He denied getting air tickets or commissions from agencies in Romania for sending Nepali workers.
“The ‘free visa and free ticket’ policy is in place for other labour destinations like those in the Gulf,” he said. “I don’t see any chance that workers can be sent to Romania at zero cost.”
However, Romanian agencies and the chief executive of a restaurant chain where Nepalis work confirmed to the Post that employers pay for the flight tickets.
“Yes, it's an investment. Nepali workers are paid around 2,000 lei which is less than Romanian workers but we also have to take care of their food, accommodation, agency commission and a two-way air ticket,” said Daniel Mischie, co-founder of City Grill. “In the end, it works out to around 2,800 lei [approximately Rs80,000] per month.”
While Honorary Consul Pokhrel can provide some fixes to problems Nepali workers face, Nepal’s government needs to step up to ensure that workers are not exploited in Romania, or eastern Europe, experts say.
“As of now, there is no meaningful connection between both the Nepal and Romania government. The labour migration to Romania is confined to outsourcing agencies in both countries,” said Rameshwar Nepal, a labour migration expert who was one of the members of the task force that recommended Romania as one of the prospective new destination countries for Nepali workers.
“We picked Romania as it was a new destination and there was a possibility of signing a government-to-government agreement,” he said. “A bilateral labour agreement or any deal would at least work in the destination country as the government there would make employers more responsible.”
Meanwhile, Padam is now working in Timisoara, a town near Romania’s border with Serbia and earning around 3,300 lei (Rs95,000) a month. He has started sending some money home. But he’s lost hope that he will ever get the money his former employer owes him.
“The boss said we were like family, and we’d be paid soon,” he said. “We were the stupid ones to have believed him.”
(This story was funded by journalismfund.eu and hostwriter.org)