– In theory, the migrant workers should have the rights that a Romanian worker has. But over the last 10-20 years, workers’ rights have been eroded and only recently, started regaining some of their strength. In practice, workers feel some pressure not to speak up when there is a workplace accident, when they are overworked, when they are not paid enough – says Radu Stochita, Romanian journalist and trade union activist.

Interview by Vladimir Mitev.

For some time now, Romania has seen an increase in the number of workers from outside the EU, often from Asia. How many workers from non-EU countries are currently in Romania? And what is the general situation around them?

It is quite difficult to estimate exactly how many there are at the moment because some of them have expired permits. I am sure that what I can say accurately is the fact that we have been receiving approximately 100 000 of them every year for the last 2-3 years. That is the number.

Every year Romania decides on the number of foreign workers that could be brought into the country. And in recent years the number has been 100, 000. They tried to increase it to 140,000. But due to the fact that the authorities dealing directly with migration do not have the capacity to process the documents, the number has remained at 100 000. Nevertheless, I have seen some figures that say they are 400 000 – less or more.

I think the important thing is to look at how many of them come each year. I mean, not that many of them go to Germany or come back home, but 100 000 of them come to the country every year. This is a relatively new phenomenon for Romania, given that the way we experience migration is mainly outwards. So we were moving out of the country, and now people are coming into the country, which is definitely changing the demographic balance of the place.

What makes these people make the effort to come to Romania? How do they feel in your country and what problems do they face?

The effort is the same as that of the Bulgarian or Romanian worker who wants to get better living conditions. We can compare it to someone from Ruse or any other city in Bulgaria who finds very little or no work in the city they are in and wants to get some money to help their family and build a better life, not only for their family, but also for the people in their community. So that’s one of the problems.
The second one that we don’t often talk about is informal employment. Formal employment as we know it, having a contract or at least a contract for some of the work that we do in the economy, is a relatively isolated phenomenon seen in North America, Europe and maybe some parts of South America and Asia. Most of the people in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, we could list more countries in this group, work in the informal economy, as we call it.

Working in the informal economy involves many risks, one of them being the possibility of being fired more easily than when you have a contract. Because of the insecurity that comes as a result of the lack of protection, they want to look for something that is more protective in theory. And that’s very important to distinguish, because in theory, when they come here, they’re covered by an employment contract, right? They should have the rights that a Romanian worker has. But as we know, over the last 10-20 years, workers’ rights have been eroded and only recently, started regaining some of their strength. In practice, workers feel some pressure not to speak up when there is a workplace accident, when they are overworked, when they are not paid enough because they think they may not find another job, and for migrants this can be even more pressure.

What are the sectors in which most of these foreign workers are employed? And how do they work? Do they get the same wages as Romanians for the same job?

It is interesting in advance that you asked me this part about wages. If I’m not mistaken, maybe before 2017 for someone, for a Romanian company to attract a foreign worker, they had to give a higher salary than to a Romanian. It had to be higher than the minimum wage, and that was given due to the fact that you had to show that you really couldn’t find a Romanian worker. That was very discouraging, saying that instead you really need to look inwards, look at your own country and see what you can offer your own people. It is roughly the same nowadays, although there is no pay discrimination today, if we can call it that. You can pay a migrant worker in the same way as a Romanian worker.

In fact, if you really look into it, you will realise that these migrant workers are coming to the country because Romanians do not want to take the vacancies. One of the reasons is that, in general, they do not have enough money to live on. The working conditions are not good and there is not enough money. And they realize: well, I don’t want to put up with this job. The year is 2024. I sacrificed so many years of my life working for another company, or for the government. I want some dignity. It’s a matter of dignity. Although there are a lot of people in this country who treat us as promoting the issue of laziness, they say Romanians are lazy. They don’t want to take on a particular job. We need to bring in Asian workers.

It’s a false narrative. And it just reinforces what we’ve had so far. It is a very damaging discourse about work as work, I would say.

But to answer the first part of your question. The Asian workers work mostly in construction and food processing and we have a couple of people who work in stores. They work in the food delivery sector, particularly through platform applications. So there are people delivering food in Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara, in the big cities.

How does Romanian society and the Romanian state welcome these workers from non-EU countries and how do they treat them?

In theory, it should all be amazing, because the law probably has the same clauses as in Bulgaria. It’s not the best, but it’s strong enough to make you in theory very strong as a worker and give you a lot of respect. But its application in practice is different.

I mentioned at the beginning of the interview that the contingent that can come to Romania has not increased to 140 000 because the directorate that deals with immigration does not have enough resources and people. That is one of the main problems, the fact that we do not have enough staff working in these government agencies to deal with migrant workers from Asia and Africa.

The second problem is the fact that the war in Ukraine has been going on for two years and two months. A lot of attention is being paid to the Ukrainians. There is no problem with that. But there was no money for those Asian and African workers who often, you know, face abuse, discrimination. There are very few or almost no organisations that deal with them. Not because people in this country don’t care. As we know, many of these NGOs operate on a project basis. They need funds, and in order to have access to funds, you have to have someone to give you the money. The patron and the benefactor can often put conditions, like “I only want to work with Ukrainian migrants” or “I only want to work with refugees”. Therefore, those who are neither Ukrainian migrants nor refugees, so for now they are in limbo.

I am quite optimistic that the situation will change. But this is at the level of institutions and organisations. I think it is important to look at the people as well. I know a lot of people who are against migrants and tend to be racist, although maybe there is a little bit of patriotism in me that doesn’t want to generalise.
I don’t think everyone looks at them and ascribes a negative stereotype when they see a migrant worker in traffic or on a construction site, and I think people are more likely to accept them than to kick them out of the country. I think both elements exist, just have a look on Instagram.

A little tip for journalists, when they want to research migrants coming into an Eastern European country, they should log into TikTok or log into Instagram and look at the videos people post. It’s a bit hard to find, but not impossible. And there you see the way they look at the country. Many of them feel good about being here. I mean, for some of them it’s a performative act because they want to show people back home that they’re OK here. It may not be, but they want to show that. But also in the comments you see the way Romanians react to these videos. Some of them are happy, as I have seen it. I have commented on a couple of them. I said, “Welcome to Romania. We are very grateful that you are here. Thank you for your work.” But there are also a lot of racist people who just look at the color of their skin and think they’re, I don’t know, monkeys or something. But again, I don’t want that to be a generalization because I’m not that pessimistic or nihilistic and I don’t think old people are like that. I think it’s a group and I don’t think it’s a majority. There’s also a lot of people who are willing to welcome them and talk to them and learn from them.

Could you tell me more about the efforts of unions or NGOs to protect the interests of workers? What has happened in that direction in Romania?

I work with the trade unions, and they are in a contradictory position. In fact, in 2022, not the one I am working with, but another one, I think, voted for restricting migrant workers’ ability to change jobs in the first year on the grounds that it’s a risk factor for the employer. So essentially they sided with the employer.

On the other hand, trade unions and migrant workers in Romania have very poor relations. And I think this is a problem. I think it is based on ignorance. Some unions do not want to deal with migrants. I cannot give you specific examples because I only know that I have heard gossip. Let’s say, but I know for a fact that in 2019 in Slatina, somewhere in the southwest Romania, Indian migrant workers were not paid or were paid $0.10. Other workers in the Indian migrant worker group showed solidarity. So they staged a strike, which was a beautiful moment, very beautiful, because striking then was harder for their brothers and sisters.

We haven’t seen many migrant workers’ unions, which is a disadvantage. One of the reasons is that unions do not have sufficient capacity to organise. Unions have not focused on organising, which is sad, but it is something that we can all change. But there is also a cultural barrier in that many people do not know how to approach migrant workers because they think there is a very big cultural gap between them, which I do not agree with. And I think it is just cognitive dissonance. You know, it’s a self-imposed barrier because we can say that about any culture. You and I can say that Bulgaria has a very different environment than Romania and that’s why I can’t understand it. I am building a wall between you and me, but instead what we can do is build bridges between people. And I think that is what I would like to see. Those bridges need to be built as soon as possible because we are going to see more and more workers, migrant workers coming into the country.

I think what I’ve seen in recent months, organizations, not so much, but individuals, I haven’t seen more individual action. I’ve seen more researchers reaching out to me. I’ve seen more people trying to get in contact with migrants to understand them. I saw people going to their traditional restaurants, talking to them, understanding their struggles. But the problem is that often many of these people have done that and come back to me saying they don’t know what else they can do. That’s a fair question, because we have no idea what else we can do in some of these situations. And I think that’s very emblematic of the whole discourse. I was telling you about the fact that not enough attention is still being paid to these migrants because there is a war going on, and also because this is quite a new phenomenon for Romanians. We are not used to it. And I think we will soon have a million of them in the country. You know, almost 5% of the country will be Asian or African workers, who are not from the EU and come here. It could be even more than 5%. And that will be a shock for many Romanians. I do not think it is necessarily a negative shock, but something will have to change, because it will be a question of how do we open our arms to these people? There will be people who will try to turn us against them. And I don’t want that to happen.

Romania has just entered the Schengen area and, from now on, it can also release Schengen visas. How does this affect or influence the situation with third-country workers, given that they may now be able to get a visa through Romania and perhaps go somewhere else to work if they have problems in Romania.

Yes. I do not think we have seen enough of that yet. It’s only been a couple of weeks. So we don’t know what will happen. That’s a good question.

There will be people who will try to leave. You can’t stop it because it’s already happened. People were trying to leave Romania illegally, across the border, on foot. And there are many reasons for that. One of them is the fact that, yes, they can look for better jobs. Maybe they were in a questionable situation here. There are a lot of things that are going on. I would say that rather than focusing on that, I don’t want to call it xenophobic or racist at all (but it leans in that direction). How many of them will leave? Will we fuel migration to Europe? I don’t think that’s what we should be looking at. Instead, we should look at the reasons why they are leaving Romania.

We have joined Schengen and there are still migrants in Bucharest. I meet them every day. I talk to several of them every week. Not so many of them may have left or are trying to leave the country. Some of them want to stay here. And some of them want to stay here because they want to have a life here to some extent. And that is what I would ask, if I were in the position of the Romanian authorities, is what can we do to provide the others who are trying to leave with better living and working conditions in the country? That is a long way off, I would say, because the way we look at migrant workers at the moment is to see them as commodities. And that is quite problematic.

Again, I repeat, we do not have enough staff in the institutions to deal with them. They recently tried to change the legislation to allow to give permission to renew the work permit, every two years, instead of saying one thing – well, you don’t have to come every year, you can come every two years. And that’s not only emblematic of the fact that, well, maybe they have more confidence in the workers, but also that they don’t have the capacity to process as many of them anymore. So their numbers have increased dramatically. And people need to know that it actually takes more people to handle the situation.

But I don’t think I want to end this conversation on a negative note. You know, I just think I want to emphasize the fact that there are so many of them and there’s going to be more and more coming. It’s not something that we need to stop. I don’t like people saying we have to stop this, because the migrants are going to colonize our country or something. That’s not going to happen.

What I like about it is that it leads to cultural dialogue. It leads to cultural dialogue. It brings diversity to cultural dialogue. It exposes Romanians to something they have not seen before. It makes the country vibrant. But if we are talking about work and industrial relations, what needs to happen is for more trade unions to get involved and actually work, and for the government to protect them, because there is a very good chance. There is a chance that they will be used against the workers themselves in Romania in this situation. And by that I mean the fact that you can always pay the migrants less than you pay the Romanian workers. You can say to the Romanian: well, you can no longer ask for EUR 500. This is just an example. You have to accept 400, because the migrant will take 380. That is something that I think we have to bear in mind.

I think there is a lot of nihilism and pessimism in the media about this, and I understand why. But I think I would also urge people to talk to migrants more. They are nice people, all of them. I’ve met all the nicest people and some of them who, you know, are maybe a little more conservative than I am. We need to find out where they are coming from, reveal to them what Romania has to offer and welcome them here. Not just the conservatives, but everyone. Really.

Some time ago you won a scholarship that took you to Nepal and you had to research labour relations there. Do you think that the experience that Romanians have had and will have with migrant workers from third countries, especially from Asian countries, will make them more genuinely interested in getting to know these countries and these people.

Oh, absolutely. But that goes for everyone. It’s not just for Asians or Africans. It’s true for Americans, Brits, Italians, everybody. To me, it’s active government. You know, it’s direct, well, or just democracy. It’s active citizenship. I think that’s the word I was looking for, active citizenship. You don’t just have to look at your family and your house when you think about society, you have to look at what’s going on around it. I think that’s very important. And it’s important because, first, as a person you can learn a lot, and second, you have an obligation. And I stress that it is an obligation. It’s not like, oh, you have an opportunity to be on duty. You are Romanian, you were born in Romania and you have to help others who come here to live better, because by helping them you can help yourself in this situation.

Labour rights are not something that we are just talking about now. But labour rights are not something that only applies to Romanian workers. I repeat again, if migrants’ labour rights are going to become fewer and fewer, you know, we can expect the same thing to happen to Romanians. And people have written about this for decades, for centuries. So if we want to be strategic, you know, we need to come together and create more solidarity networks. And then individually we just need to get out of our houses, because lately people have become so individualistic that they only care about their family and their little house. They’re like, nothing matters to me except the family in the house. And I don’t like those people and I think they’re selfish and I think they don’t know anything about the world and that instead of opening their arms, they just close their closed hearts because they’re very afraid. They think everything is dangerous. You know, everybody is trying to get them. Perhaps that last part shouldn’t have been in the interview. But you know why I said it – I mean, we need to open our hearts to them.

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