Platzforma, 24 June 2022
Tens of thousands of workers are currently employed in factories in the Baia Mare area, most of them built in recent years on greenfield sites after the old industrial sites in the city were abandoned. In almost all factories producing furniture, mattresses, clothing and footwear, most employees receive the minimum wage as their basic income, which the young and “disciplined” ones manage to supplement by working extra hours or full shifts, depending on their employer’s needs. Some resort to working a few months a year abroad to ensure the survival of their families. These factories are themselves placed in a precarious position in the capitalist circuit, operating as outsourcers for large Western companies – with the largest volume of production and the largest number of employees dedicated to Ikea. The experience of managers and workers in these factories shows how factories and employees alike are in an extremely vulnerable and volatile position, where bargaining power is minimal and continued compromise is essential for survival.
I met Lia on a hot summer’s day near the train station in Baia Mare. She was pregnant, with bad teeth and carrying a cheerful six-year-old with a mobility impairment. Lia is a 32-year-old Roma woman who works as an upholsterer in one of Baia Mare’s factories. She is sharp-tongued, proud of doing her job well and loves her work.
She grew up in a children’s home and, unlike many of her co-workers, she has her baccalaureate. She has three children with her first partner, who died. She was at the train station waiting for her current partner, who has been away at work for three weeks. The older children are in foster care in a nearby village. The youngest was also in foster care, from where Lia managed to take him back just a few months ago. Lia is paid the minimum wage, but works long, long hours to earn an average of 2,300 lei a month. She’s grateful – the opportunity to work extra has helped her increase her income enough to get her younger son back into the system. She dreams of moving from the makeshift home she lives in, with a toilet in the backyard, to a village where she can commute and rent a suitable place to live. That way she could bring home her older children, whom she now only gets to see on Sundays.
Just as before 1989, tens of thousands of workers are employed in factories in Baia Mare and the surrounding area. But the logic of the current wave of industrialisation is very different from the previous one.
Whereas in the socialist period most workers had a good social status and a quality of life that placed them clearly in the middle class, now most of them live in a perpetual state of precariousness, on minimum wage or a little more.
They have to work hard and continue to supplement their incomes to ensure their survival and that of their families.
State-owned factories built during the socialist era have been replaced by subsidiaries of transnational corporations or factories and workshops founded by local entrepreneurs, mostly built on greenfield sites outside the city. Most of the low-paid jobs are in the production of furniture, mattresses, clothing and footwear. Aramis, the factory with the most employees – about 5,500 – is a furniture supplier to Ikea. Ikea also receives most of the furniture and mattresses produced by the Taparo group’s factories. Of the clothing and footwear workshops, most operate on a lohn basis, supplying only the labour force for international brands, from whom they receive raw materials, designs and sometimes production technology.
We wonder, then, why the situation of tens of thousands of workers in the Baia Mare area is so vulnerable and so precarious, despite the fact that they work full-time, often overtime, and the companies that sell the products of their labour are, by any standards, prosperous? And how do these individuals and families survive on such low incomes? To answer these and other questions, we made the field in 2021 together with a team of anthropologists, talking to dozens of workers from several of the factories in and around Baia Mare, managers from these factories and representatives of the local administration. In what follows, I will continue to talk in particular about the situation of low-wage factories and their employees.
As anthropologists, we can look at and understand the specific context in which work is configured in factories in the Baia Mare area on several levels. Ethnography gives us access to the details of workers’ day-to-day strategies for different aspects of life, from earning enough money to support themselves to living a meaningful life. At the second level, it is significant to look at the place of the city and the region in recent history, to understand how this wave of industrialisation came to be shaped at the intersection of historical events, state strategies or geographical particularities. At the third level, the economic context of the Baia Mare area is an instance of economic mechanisms and power relations that are unfolding and can be understood at a global level.
Anthropology needs to constantly interrogate and integrate the tension between particularism and universalism; on the one hand, the workers in these factories have individual biographies that can only be understood in the local and specific context shaped by their families and communities, by the social transformations during their lives; on the other hand, the mechanisms that shape these individual destinies are specific instances of phenomena that have already been happening on a global scale for many centuries. This does not mean that we can see the world as a coherent sum of local contexts with linear, intelligible, predictable historical transformations. On the contrary, social processes are full of ruptures, fluidity, tensions, apparently different reactions to similar circumstances. Each specific phenomenon becomes intelligible at the intersection of particular histories and general processes (Kasmir and Carbonella 2008, Kasmir and Carbonella 2014, Narotzky 2018), and historically informed anthropology must take into account and aspire to access both dimensions at any given time.
The generation of young and middle-aged adults who constitute the mass of industry employees have experienced downward class mobility compared to their parents’ generation who came of age during the socialist period.
Having become employees in the context of Romania’s full incorporation into the global neoliberalism of the early 21st century, their position as cogs in the capitalist profit-making machine was from the outset quite narrowly defined.
For locals from the city or nearby villages, with medium or lower levels of education, the most plausible option to get a job is the nearby factories. This is despite the fact that wages are low, the work often hard, and access to work often involves commuting. What’s more, some of the factories work shifts and weekends, which is an added challenge for families with young children. The most vulnerable of these workers are the Roma, who also face discrimination and even fewer opportunities to choose a job. For the other ethnic groups, in terms of working conditions and wages, factories looking for semi-skilled workers are practically similar as employers, especially as all of them provide workers with transport to work in their own minibuses. Basic wages are so low (in the case of those on minimum wage – 1386 lei a month) that even if they work full-time, workers earn far less than they need to make a decent living.
As such, in addition to the day job, everyone is building strategies to supplement this income. Most often workers work extra hours and shifts, including night or weekend shifts. In some smaller factories and workshops, the formally recorded minimum wage is supplemented by overtime pay paid on the black, “in the envelope”, at the end of each month. But these additions have their limits. On the one hand, because of the great physical effort they require, they are only available to young, healthy workers. On the other hand, the level of net income is unlikely to rise much above the still insufficient threshold of 2 000 lei a month. As a result, a significant proportion of these workers have no choice but to give up their factory jobs for a few months each year, usually in the summer, and take up other, better-paid jobs. Some pick mushrooms, berries and herbs, or work on farms in local villages. Most go abroad to work, often in agriculture or construction. This way they manage not to emigrate permanently and continue to live with their families most of the time, but also to earn at least a few months more to cover some of their higher expenses over the year. In other words, in order for big companies to be able to continue to produce at unrealistically low costs in Romania, Romanian workers have to move themselves to work at least temporarily in the service of the same capital under the slightly more decent conditions offered in Western Europe. The logic of capitalism’s continued growth is based in large part on the differentiated geography of the production and disposal of goods.
Work in industry is taken almost for granted by these workers. Few of them feel that they have or will ever have better work or pay options.
In these circumstances, therefore, other small differentiating factors become important. For all of them it is important to have a good relationship with managers. It also matters that the commute is as convenient as possible – which depends not only on the absolute distance to the factory, but also on the route of the minibuses on the way to pick up other workers. For some employees, factory work is an opportunity for which they are grateful; these include those with households in the countryside for whom the wage is a way of supplementing their income, or those with no qualifications or work experience who end up with their first job later in life. These people are trapped in a structure of opportunities so limited and so rigid that access to low-paid work is seen as a privilege.
Factories in this category are perpetually looking for new employees. Staff turnover is high and it has become expected that in the summer months the number of employees will fall and not return to desired levels until late autumn. Unlike factories that pay higher wages and look for more skilled labour, which put in a lot of effort and achieve better results when it comes to employee retention, the others have become accustomed to always recruiting and offer temporary migrants a new job as soon as they return to the city. For factories, one of the main problems they face is securing full batches of workers for each shift to make their production norms. That’s why the most valued are “disciplined” workers, who the employer can rely on to come to work regularly and not miss shifts, take sick leave or quit without telling the HR department. The factories’ benefits policies have themselves continually changed over the years in response to the problems they have faced, so they are designed to encourage discipline and predictability on the part of employees. Those who do not meet these expectations are simply not entitled to receive the extra benefits. One implication is also that workers who embody this ideal of discipline can end up earning incomes at these factories comparable to or even higher than incomes at factories offering more generous employment wages.
Although factories in the Baia Mare area produce goods for Ikea or for luxury brands of clothing, footwear or furniture, they have very little freedom when it comes to giving their employees income. After all, the main reason these companies want their products made here is to keep production costs as low as possible. However, over the last few years, wages in Romania have gradually increased and factories, which are having trouble finding employees to work for so little anyway, have had to push for higher incomes in order to keep producing. It’s a delicate balance, because big business always has the option of relocating to other parts of the world, where wages are even lower. Already many of the factories and workshops that have been working under the lohn system in Romania have ended up closing down and production moving to Asia. The only advantage Romania still has is that it has one of the cheapest labour markets within the EU. Moving production outside the EU would involve additional costs, taxes and transport risks, especially in light of the imbalances at the start of the pandemic in 2020. In the next step, as Romanians went to work in wealthier countries in the West, jobs in Romania start to be filled by workers in more precarious positions than Romanians. Already, several factories in the Baia Mari area have started hiring refugees, and the number of Asian migrants heading to Romania is also on the rise.
Kasmir, Sharryn and August Carbonella, 2008, ‘Dispossession and the Anthropology of Labor’, Critique of Anthropology 28(1):5-25.
Kasmir, Sharryn and August Carbonella, 2014. “Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor,” in Blood and Fire, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Narotzky, Susana. 2018. “Rethinking the Concept of Labor,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 24(1):29-43.
Illustration by Sorina Vazelina.
Text and illustration taken from the platform on the Academic Spherd platform.
Raluca Perneș is an anthropologist, sociologist and UX researcher. She studied at Babeș-Bolyai University, Central European University and University College London. In 2009-2010 she did ethnographic research in Ghana. Her research interests are centered around the themes of social inequality, the state, citizenship and legal pluralism.