Transnational labour fraud scheme: how Asian workers paid to come to Romania and were left jobless [VIDEO]

Cross-Border Talks’ Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is joined by Andrada Lăutaru and Radu Stochita, two Romanian journalists. They have recently co-authored an investigation into cross-border fraud schemes concerning Asian workers wishing to be legally employed in Romania. As they write, taking advantage of people’s desperation to get a job in Europe and employers’ desire to secure cheap labour from outside the EU, cross-border criminal networks are cheating both Asian employees and employers in countries like Romania. 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.

Andrada and Radu explain how one of such criminal networks actually worked and how no institutions – neither Romanian nor Nepalese, as the victims in this case were Nepalese citizens – showed genuine interest in protecting workers’ and human rights. Second part of the investigation is to appear soon.

The entire transcription of the video is available below.

Good morning, everybody in the newest issue of Cross-border Talks! My name is Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat and I am joining the program from Katowice, Poland. Today I will have the honor to host the talk with two outstanding journalists from Romania, Andrada Lautaru and Radu Stochiță working for Libertatea magazine. They have authored a really moving journalist investigation on how money is made from desperate people wishing to work in Europe and, more precisely, from Nepalese workers coming to Romania. The investigation has been republished by Cross-border Talks, so you can also find it on our website. But in case you prefer listening/watching to reading, we invited Andrada and Radu to speak about their findings today in this episode.

Apart from being a journalist, I have worked with migrants as well. I have experience of working as an interpreter and the person who facilitates the legalizing of the foreigners’ stay in Poland. Reading this investigation, I had a feeling of deja vu. I had a feeling that despite time passing, the governments in our parts of Europe, the social services have still been to a large extent disinterested in solving the issue of people taking advantage of the foreigners’ desperation to get a job in Europe and employers desire to secure cheap labor from outside European borders. While we see the dispute on migration increasingly channeled towards the cultural or identitarian questions and the far right threatening everybody with foreigners who will destroy our traditional culture and lifestyl, the business is happy with securing cheap labor from outside Europe to pay less, to secure more profit and not to care about these workers at all. Given this experience of mine, the topic of today has personal importance to me. And now I welcome Andrada and Radu to the program. I’m very, very happy to have you with us today.

Andrada: Thank you so much for inviting us. First of all, I would like to mention that this investigation was made together with two other colleagues, Diana Meseșan, my colleague from Libertatea, and a Nepalese journalist based in Kathmandu – her name is Muna Kunwar. Without them, this investigation wouldn’t have been possible. But unfortunately, they cannot join us today. We will speak in the name of the four of us.

Just for a brief introduction as well. My name is Andrada Lăutaru. I’m a Romanian journalist, and for the last four years I’ve been working for Libertatea newspaper, the biggest newspaper in Romania. We also have a print version and the online edition. The investigation that we are going to talk further about was published last week. We divided it into two pieces – the first chapter was published last week and thank you for translating it into English. Next week or at the end of this week, possibly on Friday, we will publish the second episode also. Maybe we can today talk a bit about the first one and then leave a bit of unknown for the second one. Radu, if you want to introduce yourself..

Radu: Sure. My name is Radu Stochiță. I work as a freelance journalist. I was the one that pitched this story to one of the editors of Libertatea, Iulia Roșu. A couple of months later, it saw the light of the print and of the online edition. I was initially in Kathmandu when I started documenting this. The whole effort started with a couple of meetings I had with Nepalese families and Nepalese workers. When I was there, I was there on a scholarship and they were complaining about this specific case: about the workers outside of Bucharest, not having access to anything, not having a job and being stuck in one house for a couple of months. I approached the newspaper. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the piece and all four of us, plus the editorial team, worked together for the past months to assemble something. I would say that hopefully we will shape policy in the end. We should raise awareness, but hopefully it will encourage the public authorities to actually take action.

Yes, I would be very happy to see public authorities actually being more active against such cases, because although you start your story with individual histories, it becomes obvious from the very beginning that the story of the Nepalese workers is not a sad exception, but rather a part of the transnational fraud scheme. Could you explain how the scheme works? Who is behind it and who are the affected? Who are the people who suffered?

Should I or do you want to start?

Go ahead. Go ahead, Andrada.

OK. So basically, as Radu already mentioned, everything started in Nepal. The scheme works more or less like this. There are workers who want to come to Romania in order to have a better paid job, considering that the average salary in Nepal is less than €100. 

They pay around €3,500 to some agents. They call themselves agents, even though they are not officially legally affiliated to any employment agency. These agents, in most cases of Nepalese workers who came to Romania and to whom we talked, are their relatives or neighbors. People that they trust in. 

So the interested workers take money from the bank or loans from other people with a lot of income interest. After paying €3,500, they get the promise that they will come to Romania in order to have unqualified jobs – most of these people don’t have any particular job qualifications and they are honest about this. They believe that after paying this amount of money, they will arrive in Romania and they will work in the cleaning sector, as cooks etc. The salaries that they are promised to receive are somewhere around 500, €600 per month. Seemingly, a good deal, even though their contracts contain illegal provisions. For example, the fact that they have to work for six days a week and the normal working week in Romania has five days, not six. Also, the working hours are extended in comparison with the legislation, but they accept all these conditions just for the sake of a better living.

I would just like to make a short parenthesis here. All this situation, which we also mentioned in our investigation, brought us all in the past. In the early 2000 a lot of Romanians were wwere going to work in the West, and it was exactly the same scenario. They were paying 1000 euros with the promise that in a few months abroad they would have the chance to pay their debts and also increase their income. And they often fell victims to fraud.

Going back to Nepal, as I said, the scheme starts with an agent that takes the money from Nepalese workers willing to come to Romania. After that, the ‘agents’ do all the papers for them. We discovered that in doing the papers they do a lot of fraud, in terms of faking CV’s. Even though they know that people are not qualified, they send them to qualified jobs.This is exactly what happened in the case that we documented. Around 20 Nepalese workers arrived last summer, in 2022, in Romania, expecting to start working in some auxiliary positions. That was written in their contract, but they ended up in a construction company. They were not able to do the job. The owner of the construction company also says that he was cheated by the Nepalese agents who told him that he would get a qualified workforce. 

The authorities didn’t help these people. When we first met them in January, seven months ago, they were in this legal limbo in which they didn’t even have the papers to stay legally in Romania as they had not started the work they hoped for. They were living on money that their families back in Nepal were sending to them just to have something to eat. A complete chaos.

The lives of the migrant workers in Romania are filled with uncertainty. What we did in this investigation is that we uncovered, building on the work of other journalists and activists from the past, we uncovered once again the fact there is quite a long chain of people, institutions, and informal groups involved in the fraud. As a result, the information gets lost along the way. The first contract they sign in Nepal, for example. But I think the same can apply for many other migrant workers. The authorities, the legal aspects that Andrada just mentioned, in fact cannot make the case of an invalid contract. In Romania, you cannot sign a contract which stipulates that you are going to work 12 hours a day or ten hours a day for six days. That’s not going to be registered automatically. What ends up happening actually is that they get tricked into believing that this is what the working conditions of the country are going to be. Due to a lack of interest from the Nepali government, from our own government, from the employers to teach people about their rights, they end up in a situation where they put up with anything and everything, ‘because it’s just the way things are’. And this is going to be a bit better than what it is like in Nepal for them, at least money wise. 

I think what we did with the chain is very important because that should be a formula that needs to be applied, a formula that needs to be like the base for, I think, any investigation concerning migrant workers. My initial idea in the beginning of the investigation was to blame the Romanian employers. But after our journalists conducted interviews with them, we realized that there was also something else. I don’t want to believe that they’re necessarily tricked, but there was a lot of lacking information on their side as well because of some informal groups that were part in the middle: recruiting people to work, placing them and so on and so forth. There is a whole ‘dark area’ which we do not know well and only by conducting those investigations we’re actually going to be able to see how complicated and long the migration chain. Those are not only things between Nepali government and Romanian government or employers. 

Another aspect: some of the contracts are just in Romanian, while most of the workers speak English. The language is a big barrier for them in order to understand and be able to shout out for their rights. During our investigation, one person showed us three contracts, one in Romanian and two in English. Each of them had different signatures, different offers. They said they signed them in a hotel room before coming to Romania, before the flight. 

The main ingredient here is that these people really trust  the first agent, the intermediate. They trust him so much that they agree to sign a contract in a language that they don’t understand. Talking about the language barrier, we also discovered that the Romanian institutions like Immigration Service and labour control, that are responsible for giving work and stay permits in Romania, don’t have any Nepalese speaking workers. This makes their situation even more vulnerable – the workers cannot speak in any language that is comfortable to them. And the documents are in a foreign language. It makes their situation even harder.

I know it is difficult to speak about numbers, but you mentioned in your investigation how did the number of employment notices grow and how bringing foreign workers to Romania became a whole new area of activity.You write that they used to be a small group, just a few thousand Nepalese citizens coming to Romania to work. And now this number has grown to 100 thousand or more. My question would be, how big is this grey zone or dark area that you have just mentioned? How many people may be involved and how many were hurt by these transnational fraud schemes?

In 2017, there were less than 5000 Nepalese workers in Romania. And by 2022 last year, their number increased 22 times. So now we are speaking about more than 100,000. It’s hard to say how many of them are having their promised job or have found a suitable employment after experiencing  a situation that we discussed. But the fact is that we cannot talk about numbers. Not even the authorities have these numbers. However,  we can talk about our living experience. For example, in Bucharest, in the center, there is a park near the Union Square. If you pass there every day or on the weekends, you see tens of people from Nepal just hanging around drinking a soda. This wasn’t happening two years ago. You see them. They are visible in the metro, in the park. Their number has greatly increased over the last few years. Our colleague, Diana Meseșan, together with another colleague, Daniela Ionașcu, published another investigation a couple of weeks ago about the situation of global workers because many of them are working for global corporations. So while I don’t like talking about numbers that I don’t know, I would risk saying that 1 in 3 global deliveries in Bucharest nowadays are Asian workers.

Yes, we start seeing them everywhere. I do not reside in Bucharest. I come from a smaller town and I see them around here as well. In Bucharest, I mean, even in the nightlife, they end up becoming strong participants, especially in the places where there is no entrance fee. In  the old town, the main tourist attraction for foreigners, you will find a lot of Nepalese workers and lots of Indian workers that just sit in front of the bars and try to observe the people. Sometimes they partake in dancing and drinking. 

With regards to the numbers,it could be extremely valuable for the governmental institutions, for the Migration International Migration Office or however it’s called, to do their job and research those people. But over and over again, what we find out is that the work that gets done for migrants is often done by migrants themselves in some kind of informal way. There are people in Nepal that might want to help those people and identify where they live in precarious living conditions, send them some money, try to pressure some people. There are also some activist groups, but they are on the fringes at this point. There are just not enough people and there is not a lot of governmental intervention into this, it’s very hard for us to actually be able to grasp the number.

We have mentioned that the number of them has increased and and probably will also continue to increase because there is also a lot of misinformation regarding how many vacant job positions we have, as a country, to fill up. Lots of people, including the ex-minister of labor, used to say a couple of months ago that there are 1 million jobs we were not able to find Romanians for, even though the governmental body for the employment force would say that a more accurate number would be closer to 60,000. Because of this misinformation and this actual lack of understanding, the narrative that we need to open up for more people to come can be pushed forward. We can decide if this is good or bad, depending on each of our own political beliefs. But based on that, they’re not doing more to integrate them into the country to help them with the transition to Romania. They just want to bring them here and let the employers do whatever they want. 

I would also like to return for the moment to the issue of the chain of people. There are many people involved, starting from Nepalese authorities to Nepalese agents to Romanian authorities to Romanian employers. But in the end, as we discovered while talking to them, the workers were left alone. We saw hundreds of attempts to reach someone from Nepal or the Nepalese consulate in Romania. No one answered them for months. We became their last resort, after contacting a television from Nepal, because their story was also streamed in January when we met for the first time with them in Nepal. Nothing changed. And then they had trust and we are really grateful for them opening up to us and giving us all the documents that they were having. 

As we will publish in the second chapter of our investigation, some of the people from this group might not even be in Romania. We don’t know if they are still there, if they are working. We know about a couple of them who  eventually managed, after a year of effort, to get another job, a job that was proper for them. But with some of them, we lost track of them. That is why it is so hard to talk about numbers, so hard to keep track when there is no legal assurance. There is no way to do this.

What you have said gives a very sad impression of a state that keeps no track of people coming and disappearing into Romanian territory, a state which does not care about exploitation of foreigners coming to work here. Which has, I could say, no coherent migration policy and apparently leaves things to their own ways without caring if people are hurt, if people disappear, if people are forced to work. I would ask you why it is so. Why is the Romanian state indifferent? Surely there are also other actors in this story, but let’s focus on the Romanian state for a moment. What is the main reason for this failure? Is it indifference? Is it a lack of resources? Is it lack of knowledge, or what grounds would you name?

I think it’s a mixture of the three. Just as an example, when we went with the workers that we wrote about to the immigration office, we talked to an employee there, and he told us that the number of employees at the immigration office was the same as it had been in 2017. But as we discussed in the beginning of our meeting, the number of people applying for these permits increased in the meantime 22 times.

I don’t know which are the main reasons for which the Romanian government and the Romanian state doesn’t get involved and doesn’t take other legal actions in order to make the living not only for the for the immigrants coming to Romania easier, but also for the people working in the Romanian institutes have a direct contact with them. Lack of personnel is a fact. So I guess it’s a mixture of the three reasons that you mentioned when you asked us the question. I don’t know if Radu has other thoughts.

I fully agree. A couple of weeks ago we could see an investigation into the care homes for people with disabilities which had been started months, even years ago. We’ve seen once again how people turned a blind eye, how they were like, let’s say, local networks of influence that stopped the authorities from actually intervening where they should have. I do not know if it’s as grave, as bad as it was in those cases of foreign workers. But definitely there is a combination of all three negative factors you mentioned. 

I fully believe that if the state wants to engage more, everything starts from the mentality and the methodology as well. A state which is friendly towards migrant workers, which has someone in the administration who works at their benefit, wants to integrate them, wants to make them have a good life here, would be very different from a punitive state that just wants to get their data to like send them out of the country if they overstay their permit by a week. I think that’s also very important to see. But right now, the Romanian state might even have a strategy of migration – just like it does have a written strategy on cancer treatment and on disabled people. But nothing is being done, there is just a document somewhere…

The cheap states of Central and Eastern Europe, for it is not only a Romanian problem, became areas where the locals can’t count on good wages and stable jobs, but also as the areas where foreign workers are invited to work and then left without resources. This perhaps not so unexpected result of making states cheap, making cuts on state administrations, and basically turning these areas into reservoirs of cheap labor force, both native or brought from outside Europe. For a moment, I can only congratulate Andrada, Radu and their coworkers who are not with us today for the job they did in this investigation. I can only join your hopes to see it influence the reality, not only raise awareness, but also make somebody who makes decisions think that this is absolutely not something that should be happening. So thank you very much for being with us today.

Can I say one more thing? One important element is in your name for the publication Your media is called Cross-Border Talks. Cross-border is a very, I think, important approach we put into this article, and I think it should be employed everywhere in this kind of investigations. Of course, there is a core local component in Romania, but we must also speak to the people from the country that are coming from to also understand their local context, which is very important because. There is often a very big misunderstanding when it comes to migrant workers. The misconept is that when they come here, they have a much better life than they have in their home country, because there is just full poverty over there, while here there is some prosperity. This is completely false. Here they have no support mechanism, and in Nepal they have  the family, the village and so on and so forth. Being able to talk to some people about their experience of their daily lives, living there for a bit is also going to bring such a humane perspective to the story, which I think is what we need. We don’t only want to show the facts, but we want to humanize those people that have been numbers for so long. They are just numbers in the eyes of many people in Romania.

And sometimes not even numbers… This sounds cynical already, but as we discussed, no one keeps track of them. And I also want to add something in order to sum up in a more optimistic way. Perhaps change takes time, but I think a good first step is also the thing that we managed to talk to so many people and they trusted us. Thank you so much for translating our investigation so it can reach more audiences. I hope that their voices, after being written, will not be shut down again. So yeah, I truly hope that this is just the first step towards talking and writing about it. And maybe not long from now, we will see some actual changes. We will keep writing, that’s for sure. Thank you.

Thank you very much. At the end, I wanted to encourage everybody to support Cross-border Talks so that we are able to amplify even more voices across borders doing these kinds of good jobs. We can raise more awareness. We can contribute to social change even more. Thank you again for being with us and see you again.

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