The recipe for cross-border Asian labour fraud: abandoned in Ilfov region and jobless after paying thousands of euros to come to Romania

An investigation into migrant labour between Nepal and Romania

By Diana Meseșan, Andrada Lăutaru, Radu Stoichiță, Muna Kunwar, Roma Gavrilă (illustration), Libertatea, Wednesday 26 July 2023, 06:55

Libertatea has pieced together the story of several Nepalese workers who paid thousands of euros to come and work legally in Romania, but found themselves without jobs, victims of a network of middlemen who recruit and cheat people, including people they know. Their situation mirrors the abuses Romanians went through when they went to work in the West 20 years ago. In the first episode, we show who is involved in the fraud. 

An investigation accomplished over several months, in Bucharest and Ilfov, but also in Kathmandu, Nepal.

On the morning of 25 June 2022, Bhima*, a 39-year-old man, boards a Turkish Airlines plane at the airport in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Final destination: airport Otopeni, Romania (the Bucharest International Airport). The man from western Nepal has a Tika on his forehead, a round mark made of red powder mixed with water and rice or dried turmeric, which is applied during religious ceremonies and when starting a new job. In Hinduism, it is a symbol of good luck. But luck won’t be on his side much in Romania. He takes a souvenir selfie and posts it on Facebook the next day.

Prema*, aged about 24, also with a Tika on his forehead, boards the same plane. He takes a selfie, photographs the clouds during the flight, then posts it all on TikTok. He studied Business Administration, but decided to finish his studies and come to work in Romania. “Because I had no money.” 

Legal documents, apparently

The two men are part of a group of about 8 people who will work in Romania for two years, until the summer of 2024. The documents are all made through the same recruitment agency in Nepal to work for the same company in Romania. It’s all legal, at least that’s what their papers show. They can check their foreign work permits issued by the Nepalese government directly on the Nepalese Ministry of Labour website.

The employer listed on the paperwork is a Romanian company: Workpower SRL They are out of work after several weeks in Romania Around 9pm, after more than 12 hours on the road, the Nepalese workers arrive at Henri Coandă airport. A driver from the construction company picks them up. “We were delighted to come here,” says Prema. Delighted, even if things aren’t quite clear to them. They had several documents with conflicting information: employment contracts with a company called Workpower SRL work permits issued by the Nepalese government where Workpower SRL is listed as their official employer and employment notices and other contracts from a construction company HP Construction & Engineering SRL.

The latter are only in Romanian, so they don’t understand the content. But the lack of logic in the documents is made up for by the word of the recruitment agent who handled, for a fee, their arrival. Agent who is a friend or even relative of some of them. A few weeks later, the Nepalese workers find themselves jobless, penniless and without support, crammed into a house in Ghermănești, Ilfov. They are offered a different field of work from the one promised in Nepal. They knew they were coming to work in a machine shop or a hotel, but ended up in construction, among bags of cement. Without experience, such work is beyond them. So they are no longer taken on. What’s more, their boss, from a company other than the one listed on official documents in Nepal, no longer answers their messages. “We just want to work,” they say. Later, another group of 10-11 Nepalese arrives at the same company. They have no construction experience either.

One of the workers asks his employer for help, but he doesn’t answer. What seemed legal and safe turns out to be a tangled tale of suspicion and accusations of cross-border fraud. Several people claim that their CVs, employment contracts, signatures and stamps have been forged, that they have been lied to and cheated, Libertatea has documented over several months in Bucharest and Ilfov and in Kathmandu. 

How money is made from migrants 

Taking advantage of people’s desperation to get a job in Europe and employers’ desire to secure cheap labour from outside Europe, cross-border criminal networks are cheating both Asian employees and employers in European countries. They take their money, then disappear. They send workers thousands of miles away from home to jobs that don’t exist or for which they are not qualified. It’s a recipe that has flourished in recent years and seems out of the control of the authorities, precisely because of its transnational nature.

The Employers’ Association of Romanian Labour Importers has drawn attention to the phenomenon. Some of these intermediaries are officially registered recruitment agencies, others are “middlemen” who broker without any official status, but only a few contacts, a lot of ambition and no moral restraints. Romanian employers pay several hundred euros to “import” a worker from Asia. But the bulk of the money is in Asia. Workers willing to come to Europe pay these middlemen thousands of euros per person, money borrowed from banks.

Libertatea has obtained bank statements proving these payments of thousands of euros to various agents in order to get a job in Romania. In the five years between 2017 and 2022, the number of employment permits issued by Romania to Nepalese nationals based on applications submitted by companies here increased 100-fold, from 184 in 2017 to 18,658 in 2022, according to data sent by the General Inspectorate for Immigration (IGI) at the newspaper’s request. The total number of employment notices for foreign workers increased 22 times, from 4,921 in 2017 to 108,913 in 2022.

Employment permits for Nepalese nationals Infogram (in 2023 until 19 April 2023)

German contractor seeks Nepalese for firm in Romania 

The story begins in Romania with a German contractor, based in Ilfov county, and a construction labour shortage. Heiko Pabst is the administrator of HP Construction & Engineering SRL, founded in 2014. Last year it had a turnover of 435,786 lei and a loss of 173,041 lei, according to the portal. Its business is “Construction works of residential and non-residential buildings”. In 2021, because he couldn’t find any Romanian workers to work at his construction company, Pabst decided to hire labor from Asia, he tells Libertatea reporters. He says he placed an ad, and shortly afterwards a Nepalese man named Pravesh Shah, employed at a recruitment agency in Bucharest owned by a Nepalese man, sought him out. Shah promised to bring him skilled workers from Nepal. For this, Pabst paid him several hundred euros for each worker, the entrepreneur reports.

Next, Shah sent him the CVs of 100 people, and he selected 30, the businessman says. In November 2021, his company submitted the documents to the General Inspectorate for Immigration (IGI) to obtain employment permits for the workers.

One of the permits obtained by the construction firm to bring Nepalese workers into the country Pabst says he then travelled to Nepal three times to meet and test the prospective employees, but failed to see them even once. Each time, the agent gave him other excuses: the Covid-19, holidays, “people are not from Kathmandu”. With forged CVs In the end, “7-8 people” arrived in Romania in a first shift to work for his company, Pabst continues. Several more workers arrived in the following weeks. In total, 18-19, he says. Of these, two would flee the country after a week, and most had no construction experience, contrary to what their CVs, received from Pravesh Shah, promised.

“There are 17 left, and out of 17 there are 3-4 usable on construction,” says the contractor. They were very weak. “We have a man in construction who weighs 40-42 kg, and a bag of cement weighs 50 kg. What do we do with him?” asks Heiko Pabst. “We asked him if he was a plumber and he said he doesn’t know about installation, he’s not a plumber. I have your CV in front of me and you are a plumber. And the gentleman said – no, he worked 3-4 months in a hotel, he was a porter. That’s all. And why does it say here in the CV? “I didn’t make the CV, that’s what Mr. Shah did”, Heiko Pabst recounts, in Romanian, the dialogue with one of the Nepalese workers. “All fake,” he adds about the CVs he received. He wanted skilled workers for his company, but he made the documentation for unskilled workers.

He claims he was advised by the recruitment agency to do them that way, because it would be much more complicated to get work permits for skilled workers and it would have taken even longer in the recruitment process. 

Agent disappears

A few months after the Nepalese workers arrived in Romania, “agent” Pravesh Shah has gone missing. Both for the workers and for the German contractor. His last WhatsApp messages to the workers were sent on 4 and 5 January. He tells them not to worry and that he will always be on their side. Then he doesn’t reply at all. It was not his first “disappearance”.

On 4 January the agent assures them that he will always be there for them.

The last messages sent by the workers no longer reach the agent, his number is no longer working. Pravesh Shah had absconded a year ago with the client database of the Romanian recruitment firm where he was employed, says Heiko Pabst. He got the information from the company’s own representatives, who filed a criminal complaint. 

The complaint 

The owner of the recruitment agency filed a criminal complaint at the 14th Police Station in Bucharest “for treason, use of personal data and theft” against Pravesh Shah, with whom he had worked for several months, and another Nepalese collaborator on 14 January 2022.

In a conversation with Libertatea, the Nepalese businessman, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the two had stolen two laptops and two phones, as well as a database of all his clients. They then used the company’s name to bring in workers from Nepal for at least three Romanian employers, he added. Afterwards, the two “came to me several times, complained, apologised, said they had made a mistake and that they had families,” says the agency owner. 

He says he withdrew his complaint a month later. Since then, he hasn’t heard from Pravesh Shah. The case was referred to the DIICOT, but the institution closed the case “under the aspect of committing the offences of illegal access to a computer system, altering the integrity of computer data and unauthorised transfer of computer data,” DIICOT (the Romanian prosecution that deals with organized crime and terrorism) told Libertatea. For the crime of theft, the case has been returned to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the 4th District Court. The story of the fugitive “agent” who went from Nepalese worker to middleman in Romania. 

Born in 1984 in Banke, a district in western Nepal, Pravesh Shah first arrived in Romania in 2019 for a job as a waiter, documents on the Nepalese government website show. He also appears in a June 2019 video report about Nepali workers arriving in Romania. “Our contract is for 2 years, but I think I will stay here for 5 to 10 years, because I like it here, because I want to make my future brighter!” he says.

Pravesh Shah, in a video report from June 2019

He works for a few months at a restaurant chain and, although he has experience as a waiter, he is fired for becoming a kind of union leader and creating “trouble”. “He was very good. He had worked in the Emirates. He was also smarter than the others (Nepalese, ed.). The problem is that he caused a riot among the employees, he made them protest against one of the working conditions they agreed to,” the human resources (HR) director at the company tells Freedom. He wished to remain anonymous. At some point, Shah shifted to a more profitable field: he ended up brokering labour from Asia to Romania. He looks for Romanian employers who want workers from Nepal. He also writes to the human resources director of the restaurant chain where he used to work to make him an offer, but he is turned down. At the same time, Pravesh Shah also contacts the German contractor in Ilfov, who accepts his offer. “He came with people’s CVs and said let’s recruit directly from Nepal,” says Heiko Pabst.

Another Nepali becomes middleman

Pravesh Shah did not act alone. One of his collaborators is another Nepali who arrived in Romania a few years ago, Yuvaraj Upadhayay. There are photos of the two together.

Yuvaraj Upadhayay is also from western Nepal, like Pravesh Shah. Shah was in charge of looking for companies in Romania (but not exclusively, he also recruited workers), while Upadhayay looked for labour in Nepal. He even recruited from among his own relatives or acquaintances. “The two worked for 2-3 years in Romania, then went to Nepal, where they find people and send them to Romania. They have direct contacts with companies in Romania, the company sends work permits, they contact an agency in Nepal, which does all the paperwork, then they send the workers to Romania,” describes Teka*, one of the workers, the scheme of the two. He was part of the group of Nepalese who arrived in Romania on 25 June last year. His wife is related to Upadhayay.

Yuvarah Upadhayay (left) and Pravesh Shah (right)

Money trail

The two agents – Pravesh Shah and Yuvarah Upadhayay – collected thousands of euros in fees from the workers they sent to Romania. Such local agents are very successful. People trust them more than official recruitment agencies because they are from their community. In 2018, the Nepalese government banned the local agent system, but there are still plenty of such agents active. They are now operating under the radar and the government is failing to control them. We have obtained bank statements with payments made to them by three workers from the group that came to Romania in the summer of 2022. Two of them made payments in the name of Yuvaraj Upadhayay or his wife, and one made payments to Pravesh Shah’s wife – Teka*. 

One of the workers paid a total of 520,000 Nepalese rupees, or about €3,600, to informal agent Yuvaraj Upadhayay and his wife, bank documents show. The money was obtained through a bank loan, Teka says. The payments were made in four installments over eight months. One of the cheques also states the reason for the payment: “going abroad”.

The payments were made in four installments over eight months. Prema, another worker, also paid Upadhayay more than 500,000 rupees (more than €3,300) to get here, he says, showing photos of bank documents for some of the payments. He is also a distant relative of the agent, and the money was borrowed from the bank with a mortgage. He has turned the house where his whole family lives, “my brother, my brother’s wife, my wife, my mother and father”.

Agents’ taking advantage of Nepalis’ naivety

“The journey to Romania for a worker would actually cost a modest sum of a few thousand rupees to pay for a work visa (a few dozen euros), but recruitment agencies are taking advantage of Nepalis’ ignorance of the legal mechanisms by charging those who want to work abroad a lot more money, explains Hari Krishna Neupane, a Nepali migrant workers’ rights activist based in Kathmandu. They often can’t borrow directly from banks, so they turn to various companies that can charge interest rates of up to 30% or more, he adds.

The minimum wage in Nepal is 15 000 Nepalese rupees a month, about 525 lei. More than 70% of the population works in the informal economy, and for them it is no guarantee that they will get that minimum wage. Also, more than 80% of the population relies on subsistence farming. Some of them earn no income at all and depend entirely on their children who either go to work in large urban centres such as Kathmandu or Pokhara or migrate out of the country to support them financially. We tried to contact the two agents repeatedly, both by phone and on WhatsApp and social media, but they did not respond.

Nepalese agency involved in the scheme

The two “freelance” agents worked with a state-licensed Nepalese agency, Reaz & Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd. It handled the workers’ paperwork. It is owned by Pradeep Shrestha, Upendra Shrestha and Mitra Dev Ghimire, data from the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), Nepal’s Ministry of Labour, shows. The agency is based in Kathmandu.

Nepal recruitment agency headquarters. Photo: Muna Kunwar

There are 1,540 registered recruitment agencies in Nepal, according to DOFE. Of these, 920 are active, 220 are blocked, others are suspended or in pre-suspension phases. Agencies are privately owned, but must be licensed by Nepal’s Ministry of Labour to operate. Licences are granted for one year. If they send workers abroad with false documents, the licence is revoked. Reaz & Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd is listed as active. The Romanian agency whose name appears in official documents in Nepal accuses fraud Another Romanian company, Workpower SRL, appears in the workers’ documents, with a turnover of 4,798,240 lei in 2022, 503% higher than the previous year, and a profit of 610,931 lei in 2022.
Workpower SRL is owned by two citizens from Pitești and Argeș, aged 73 and 83 respectively. Alexandru Ioniță-Leancă is in charge of the company. His telephone number appears on the standard contracts of Nepalese workers. He is a former lawyer at the Argeș Bar, sentenced in 2011 to 1 year and 4 months in prison for the crimes of influence peddling and forgery.

The two recruitment agencies in Nepal and Romania (Reaz and Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd and Workpower SRL) did indeed have a collaborative relationship. On 19 November 2021, Workpower SRL sent a “demand letter for recruitment” to the Nepalese agency, specifying the number of workers required. The contracts were to be valid for 2 years and the working hours: 8 hours per day, 6 days per week.

Application sent by the Romanian agency to the Nepalese agency
Reaz and Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd posted a job advertisement with Workpower SRL

Contacted by the newspaper, Alexandru Ionita-Leanca claims that the Nepalese agency Reaz and Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd misused its contract with Workpower SRL to obtain work permits and place people with HP Construction & Engineering SR. He says that Workpower SRL had no form of collaboration with that construction company. The workers’ employment contract forms with Workpower SRL are false, the Romanian accuses. He says he found out about the “fake situation” after the unemployed Nepalese workers themselves contacted him, trying to get support or at least some answers from someone. The agency admitted the situation to him and he subsequently stopped working with Reaz and Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd, says Ionita-Leanca. He says he has not filed any complaint with the police.

Contacted by Libertatea, the Reaz and Farah Employment Services Pvt Ltd agency did not comment on the allegations made by the Workpower SRL representative that they had misused contracts with their company letterhead. It only admitted that it had obtained permits from the Nepalese government for six workers brokered by Yuvaraj Upadhayay to come to Romania, but said Upadhayay was not their direct employee. 

Construction firm also accuses fraud 

When the Nepalese workers arrived in Romania, they were also carrying contracts with HP Construction & Engineering SRL, which bear the signature of Heiko Pabst, the company’s administrator, and a company stamp. All the documents they had with them were received from the two agents they interacted with: Yuvaraj Upadhayay and Pravesh Shah. They had never been to any company’s premises, they signed some documents in a hotel room in Kathmandu before flying to Romania, the workers say.

When confronted with the contracts, Pabst said it was not his signature or the company’s stamp. Someone would have forged those contracts too, he claims. He says he has not filed a complaint with the police, but only a report to the General Inspectorate for Immigration (IGI). We asked the IGI for details of the complaint, but they replied that the information requested was not public. IGI, Labour Inspectorate and Romanian Police do not have data on possible fraud The Labour Inspectorate, under the Ministry of Labour, does not have data on how many petitions/complaints/submissions were made by non-EU citizens working or having worked in Romania in the period 2020-2023. The General Inspectorate for Immigration, subordinated to the Ministry of Interior, has told us that it does not have “statistical data on the number of complaints/submissions of a criminal nature, related to activities in the field of labour recruitment, redirected to criminal prosecution authorities”. 

The institution also states that it does not have any competence regarding contractual relations between Romanian employers and recruitment agencies in Asia. We also asked the Romanian police how many complaints have been made by Nepalese citizens working or having worked in Romania between 2020 and 2023. The institution told us that it does not hold the data in the form we requested and that the law does not require any institution to process the information it holds in order to provide those concerned with some kind of “a la carte” statistics. The Romanian police cited a 2009 Court of Appeal decision saying that such work would be far too “burdensome” for the institution.

*** What life was like for the group of Nepalese workers in their first year in Romania in the next episode of Libertatea’s investigation.

*The names of the workers have been changed to protect their identity.

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