Andrada Lăutaru, Diana Meseșan, Muna Kunwar, Radu Stochița, Libertatea, 9 August 2023
Two Nepalese agents managed to bring “18-19 unskilled Nepalese workers” to Romania with forged CVs in exchange for thousands of euros. They were hired by a construction company in Ilfov county, which also participated in their recruitment.
- The workers thought they were coming to work in hotels and car workshops, Libertatea revealed in episode 1 of this investigation. Because they had no construction experience, they were not taken on by their Romanian employer.
- From there they entered into a spiral of despair and helplessness that lasted almost a year. What happened to them in Romania we show now in the second episode of an investigation in the country and in Nepal.
Wearing gloves and with her hair covered, Prema* takes the loaves from the conveyor belt and places them in a yellow crate. He repeats the gesture quickly. Next to him works a colleague. The images are captured in a video Prema posted on Facebook on 25 July 2022. The young man thought he was going to work in a car workshop in Romania as a “helper”, as promised. “Workshop helper” mentions his job notice on the Nepal Ministry of Labour website. But he ended up working for a construction company in Ilfov. He was given an employment contract for the occupation of “unskilled worker breaking and cutting building materials”. Because he had no construction experience, he was not taken on after a few weeks. Prema was then “hired out” to a bread factory in Slobozia.
Who was involved in the recruitment process
“18-19 workers” from Nepal, including Prema, most with no construction experience, were placed at HP Construction & Engineering SRL, a construction company in Ilfov County, in June and July 2022. Of these, at least seven had come with work permits from Nepal for other fields and for another firm, according to documents obtained by Libertatea. We described the chain of frauds through which they arrived in Romania in the previous episode. Two Nepalese agents were responsible for their recruitment: Pravesh Shah and Yuvaraj Upadhayay, to whom they were paid around €3,500, according to payment orders seen by the newspaper. Both had worked for several years as labourers in Romania before they started brokering the arrival of other Nepalese workers here. Pravesh Shah was initially the link between the Nepalese workforce and the construction company HP Construction & Engineering SRL in Ilfov, owned by Heiko Pabst, a German businessman based in Romania. Subsequently, the construction company also became directly involved in recruiting workers from Nepal for several economic sectors. On 5 March 2022, HP Construction & Engineering SRL sent the paperwork for a collaboration with a Nepalese recruitment agency to hire 120 people, including 30 construction workers, 5 nannies, 10 housekeepers, 10 cooks or 5 construction engineers. The contract provided for 8 hours a day/6 days a week work, for net wages of between $550 and $1,300. At the same time, an advertisement for these jobs was published in a national newspaper in Nepal. The advertisements are published by agencies in Nepal for foreign companies.
“We cannot comment on the content of the ad and the timing of its publication, as we did not publish it. However, it is indeed based on our initial intention – which never materialised – to do what is called ‘personal leasing’, an activity which we never materialised”, the German businessman replied in writing, after consulting his lawyer.
To this end, Heiko Pabst also went to Nepal together with Pravesh Shah and a Greek contractor based in Romania to talk to the agency there in March 2022 and interview workers. A few weeks earlier, the Greek had co-opted Shah and another Nepalese national as partners in one of his companies, according to information in Romania’s Official Gazette. The process of recruiting the 120 people from Nepal stalled after the first workers sent by local agents arrived. They were unqualified and their CVs were false.
Hired at a bread factory
After realising that most of the workers brought in could not work in construction, the German contractor says he made several phone calls to find “solutions” for them. About two to three weeks had passed since the Nepalese were in Romania. The “solution” found for some of them was to send them to another company, to the bread factory, under a service contract. There are five workers, says one of those who worked there. They worked for “the bread company” in Slobozia for about two months, from July to September 2022.
The company’s representative, Iuliana Elena Mihai, explains, in a conversation with the newspaper, how the collaboration worked: the Nepalese remained employed at HP Construction & Engineering SRL, but provided services for Tritipan, based on a collaboration contract between the two companies. The bread company made payments to the construction company, which paid the Nepalese. WhatsApp conversations between Nepalese workers and a female employee at the bread factory, seen by the newspaper, confirm this flow of money. “(We had, editor’s note) just a service contract, we didn’t give the workers any money, because we couldn’t give them any, we paid our invoices to this provider, which they issued to us, and that’s it,” she says. “It wasn’t our employees, it was their employees, they collected their money rights from this company.”
How much do Romanian agencies charge
Both the General Inspectorate for Immigration (IGI) and the Labour Inspectorate have said in answers to Freedom that foreign workers can only work in the field for which a work permit has been issued. A new employment permit is needed to employ the foreign worker in a new job. “The foreigner employed on Romanian territory on the basis of an employment permit can work strictly for the function for which our institution issued the employment permit,” IGI said.
Also, not every company can act as a temporary employment agent. A permit is required, explains the Labour Inspectorate. “Temporarily posting a number of foreign workers to a bread factory was a stopgap solution. The workers who arrived to work in construction turned out to be both unskilled for the job and physically unfit. After their arrival, we realised that there were irregularities in the selection process in their country of origin, and this affected us directly and immediately, as on the one hand we could not involve them in our work, and on the other hand every day of their stay was a cost for us. This was the reason why, at that time, we turned to this solution”, the contractor replied in writing.
“If it violated legal rules, we take responsibility, but it was not a practice of our company, but a one-off case,” he adds.
“It’s staff leasing,” explains sociologist Ștefan Guga, researcher and consultant at Syndex Romania, a consultancy firm for trade unions. “They are leased like any other machinery.” Temporary employment agencies operate on this model. “You go and hire from them, and they sign service contracts with other companies that need labour. It’s a special regime for that,” he adds. Guga believes such practices make migrant workers even more vulnerable.
“What shall we do now, sir?”
The Nepalese workers were in Romania on a visa granting them a 90-day right of residence, which expired on 24 September 2022. “They left us because they (the employer) were going to issue them residence permits, their period of stay was expiring,” says Iuliana Elena Mihai, the bread factory representative. On the day their visa expired, one of the workers sent a WhatsApp message to the German businessman, informing him that the bread factory told them to leave because their visa had expired. He also tells him that they have returned to the “house hotel” in Ghermănești, Ilfov, where they had originally stayed. He asks him what to do next.
Messages are sent in English, with some mispronunciations, making communication difficult for both sides. The employer asks them why they went back to that house and why they always listen to other people. He tells them to stop talking to him. “Excuse us sir, we are your employees,” the workers write. They address him as “sir”. “Plz sir, help us”.
If your visa expires and you don’t take further steps, you are “illegally” in the country and can be deported. To avoid being “returned” to your country of origin, you must apply for a temporary residence permit. In the case of the Nepalese, some of the applications were submitted on 23 and 24 September 2022, according to documents seen by Freedom. Then the months-long wait for a residence permit began.
January: On hold
“We have a contract, but we don’t have a job,” Prema tells us in a park in front of Snagov Town Hall, Ilfov County, just a few hundred metres from the house where she lives.
It’s mid-January 2023. It’s been more than three months since the Nepalese workers left the bread factory, and they haven’t worked since. Their papers are pending. The young man is wearing a pair of green sweatpants, a thin jacket and slippers with bare feet. He is shivering with cold, but also with indignation. It’s eight degrees outside. Next to Prema, three other young men from Nepal are standing in the park in front of the town hall. They are in the same situation.
Of the initial group of about 20 people, half remained in the same uncertain legal and professional situation, they say. The rest found temporary solutions. The men say they survive on money from home and their families send them the equivalent of 400 lei a month for food. At the moment, the reality they imagined when they came to Romania is quite the opposite: families in Nepal send them money, not the other way around.
“I can’t stay here like this”
In Nepal, the family is the basic structure. Welfare is poor and almost no one receives a pension. This means that people are very dependent on their families. That’s why children who go abroad to work always come back to help their parents. Thousands of kilometres from home, workers continue to live in their home in Ghermănești, jud. Ilfov, provided by the construction company when they arrived in Romania. It’s a massive, single-storey building with at least seven rooms and an unfinished fence.
The German contractor says that some of the workers continued to live in the house in Ghermănești without his consent after he terminated their contracts. “They stayed there without our knowledge,” he explains in Romanian. He says he was called by the landlord from whom he rents the building, who asked him “why are there so many Nepalese there?”. He told him there were more than 10.
Their situation in Romania, live on Nepalese TV Desperate because they can’t work for the construction company and have no residence permit, the workers have been asking for help everywhere. This is proven by messages sent to the Nepalese Honorary Consul in Romania, to the agent Pravesh Shah – who brought them to Romania, to a Nepalese worker and activist based in Bucharest, who put them in touch with a Nepalese activist, and finally to a Nepalese TV station.
The presenter calls the agent Yuvaraj Upadhayay, who was paid thousands of euros to come and work in Romania. On air, the agent says he wanted to help them.
February and March: “We are helpless”
“It’s six months today since we’ve had problems abroad,” Prema wrote on Facebook in early February.
“We trusted different people and public representatives (…) We were tricked by Yuvaraj Upadhayay to send us abroad and now we are helpless. I ask you to catch him and help us, where have all the leaders disappeared? Why didn’t the local government talk about what happened? (…) Didn’t you see all the money given by farmers and poor people through Siddhartha Bank after taking loans of 5 lack (about 3,500 euros – ed.)?”.
In another Facebook post in early March, the young man states that he has fallen into depression. From one meeting to the next with Liberty reporters, he is increasingly weak and does not grimace during the discussions. At the end of his rope, he says he is considering returning home, even if it means that the debts will be even harder to pay.
April: Residence permit
“Attention!!! Falling plaster/tile”.
This is the warning posted on one of the buildings of the Romanian Immigration Office, located on a street in the centre of Bucharest. Hundreds of immigrants and employers from Bucharest and Ilfov come here every day to get their work permits and residence permits.
April 2023 It’s a multi-body house, painted a bright yellow. Inside, applications from Bucharest are processed. Sample documents are taped, some loose, to the walls. Most are in Romanian, a language most of the people who come here don’t understand.
There are modular containers in the yard for Ilfov applications. Several dozen people are waiting here too, including Prema and some Nepalese colleagues. It’s a cold early April day and they are dressed in summer shoes and thin jackets. The queue is longer than the institution’s courtyard. Mostly Asian men. Prema holds the appointment slip. But in reality they don’t keep track of the time. Nepalese workers wait in silence. They look down, make no eye contact with anyone. A few times someone gets in front of them. They say nothing. The responsibility for resolving their legal situation lies with the foreign worker. But in practice, it is the employers who make these arrangements for the foreign employees, the latter not knowing the Romanian language and the bureaucratic procedures here, which makes it almost impossible for them to manage on their own. The General Inspectorate for Immigration has no Nepali or Tamil speakers among its employees, the institution confirms in a reply. Every now and then, someone comes out happy and takes a selfie with their residence permit. Thirty minutes before the end of the shift, people stand tense with their hand on the container doorknob. The programme is getting longer.
Queuing at the Romanian Immigration Office
The number of temporary residence permits for employment purposes has increased 11 times in the last five years, from 2,961 in 2017 to 32,732 in 2022. Of those issued last year, 7,215 were to Nepalese nationals, according to data provided by the IGI at the request of Libertatea. Residence permits for Nepalese citizens Infogram If people didn’t work overtime, they wouldn’t have a chance to cope with the growing number of applications, an employee of the Romanian Immigration Office explains. Although the number of applications has increased enormously, the number of employees has remained the same, he adds.
Prema’s turn comes. In a few minutes, he emerges from the container with a smile on his face. He finally has his residence permit, valid for one year. At the time, the 24-year-old had been in Romania for almost 10 months, of which he had worked for less than three months. For the rest, he survived on money from his family and asked for help everywhere.
Heiko Pabst says he terminated their employment contracts after seeing that they could not work in construction. He did not give details of when this happened. Four workers say they paid the construction company €300 or the equivalent in lei for “release papers” (an agreement that they can work for another company and a decision to terminate their employment contract), so that they could leave for another employer before their one-year anniversary, as required by the current law. They gave the money in cash, they claim.
- In October last year, the Government issued Emergency Ordinance No. 143, which states that once foreign employees from non-EU countries arrive in Romania, they can only change their place of work during the first year with the written consent of their employer, Libertatea reported.
- In practice, some employers ask for the equivalent of the amount spent to bring the foreign worker if he wants to leave for another company within a year. Sometimes the worker pays the amount, sometimes the new employer.
Heiko Pabst has categorically denied that he asked for or received money from the Nepalese to conclude the amicable contract ahead of schedule.
I or HP Construction have not received any money from anyone. Yes, and I say that in court. That is 100% clear, I did not receive 300-400 euros. We paid, okay? People (cost us money – ed.) every month – gas bills and everything. What we paid, what a mess they made. All the broken house
The German administrator: “We have no knowledge whether anyone has actually asked them for this amount, claiming that the company is the beneficiary of the payment,” he adds in a written response after the interview.
Abuses in Romania, documented by a Nepalese living in Bucharest
Lhakpa Tenji Sherpa, a Nepali worker based in Romania who makes social media videos informing workers about their rights, tells how he receives phone calls from Nepali workers who come to Bucharest “from early morning until midnight”. The reason is always the same: people have found themselves caught in a chain of abuse and need help. “Fake agents with fake names, issuing fake documents,” he sums up some of the problems faced by those who ask him for help. There are also agents who contact people on social media and sell them “big dreams”. Fake ones too.
Basically, people are promised in Nepal that they will come to Romania to work in hotels or restaurants, for example, for a salary of 500-600 euros a month. Only when they land in the country they are confronted with the truth: “They have a different job, a different salary, the work schedule is longer,” explains Lhakpa. “They sign contracts for 3,000 lei, but they get 1,800, 1,900 lei,” he adds.
Libertatea revealed that such practices are also found in the case of couriers and food deliverymen in Bucharest, hired by “partner fleets” and placed on platforms such as Glovo, Tazz, Bolt, etc. Most of the time, the workers sent to the country are unskilled and do not speak much English. Thus, their vulnerabilities are as great as the amounts they pay to come here. The activist also points to another phenomenon, the high number of suicides or fatalities among cheated Nepali workers: “four bodies sent from Romania to Nepal”, this happened at the end of May, a few days before his meeting with Libertatea reporters.
Now Prema, the young man who documented on social media his excitement at coming to work in Romania and then his depression at not being able to work, is now posting pictures of himself in a happy mood. They are photos from the hotel where he works and the park where he spends his free time in a town near Bucharest. At the end of April, after obtaining all the documents to live and work in Romania, he found a stable job. Similarly, two other Nepalese in the group found work in a restaurant and another man took a job in a factory. Another Nepali in the group fled to Portugal.
The German contractor says he will never bring in workers from Asia again, in fact he will give up construction and go back to engineering, where he will provide technical advice. Pravesh Shah, who contacted the newspaper the day after we published the first story, has been away in Portugal for the past few months, during which time he has not been in touch with workers. He has recently returned to Romania, he says by phone. He points to the other Nepalese agent and the German contractor for the fate of the Nepalese who came to work in Romania.
The other agent to whom the workers paid thousands of euros, Yuvaraj Upadhayay, vanished earlier this year. The workers have not been able to reach him since. Libertatea reporters have tried to contact him by phone on several occasions without success. “The agent has not been seen for three months,” neighbours told Libertatea in June.
There is no complaint with the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) of the Ministry of Labour in the name of the agent, said Guru Dutta Subedi, spokesperson at DOFE. It is the institution in Nepal that has the authority to look into cases of foreign employment fraud. A relative of his wrote on Facebook in January, “Honorable uncle, your name is in the national media. It’s a pity you can’t see that you have been accused of cheating, selling your land and disappearing. I wish a solution would emerge soon. Being out of touch is not a solution. I wish we could get in touch, ask for help and move on.” In Yuvaraj Upadhayay’s place, a new local agent is operating in the same area.
*The names of the workers have been changed to protect their identity.