Without pay or medical help during the pandemic, dreams of a better future are proving elusive for Nepalese migrant workers in Romania

Without pay or medical help during the pandemic, dreams of a better future are proving elusive for Nepalese migrant workers in Romania

From the bedroom window of the shared accommodation where he finds himself in forced isolation along with 60 other migrant workers from Asia, Sabin, a 27-year-old Nepalese man, has tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. He wonders if he will receive a salary for his days away from work and what lies ahead for his professional future in Romania.

(Andreea Campeanu)

At the beginning of October in Bucharest, Sabin and about 20 of his colleagues fell ill. “We had fever, cough and migraines. The human resources office only called us once and asked us to stay home for two weeks,” says the 27-year-old Nepali. They received neither a PCR test (a polymerise chain reaction test for Covid-19) nor a medical examination that could give them sick leave, even though their Romanian employer is required to provide them with the name of a doctor. It was only after the 14-day quarantine was over that a doctor finally came to test him. The result: Sabin was positive with Covid-19 and had to spend several more days in isolation. He doesn’t know if he will be paid at the end of the month for the first two weeks of leave.

From his room, he can see several identical light yellow and beige buildings recently built in this poor area in the south of the Romanian capital. These buildings house 400 other workers from Nepal, India, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Dashain, Nepal’s most important religious festival, began in mid-October. Though unable to organise large gatherings, Sabin hopes to end his isolation by inviting a few friends to celebrate the final days of the two week-long festival, and to forget, if just for an evening, the last few agonising months for him and his compatriots.

“I had been working at an Italian restaurant in the city centre since the spring of 2019. When all of the restaurants closed in March, I found myself without work and only two third of my wages,” says Sabin. “I only had 1,500 lei (US$360) in unemployment and it’s really very difficult for workers like me because we have to pay back loans and help our families.” In early May, he was hired by a large Romanian e-commerce company. “I scan the products, I package them, I do a bit of everything,” he explains. “The problem is that I work part-time, 32 hours a week for US$270 net. I was supposed to become full-time this month before I got sick.” Over the last six months, he has only been able to send US$300 to his wife, who has been unemployed and without means in Kathmandu since March.

Illegal practices by employers

According to Romania’s General Inspectorate for Immigration, Sabin is one of 4,324 Nepalese who came to Romania in 2019. With three million Romanians living in Western Europe (according to a Eurostat study from 2017), the country has relied on thousands of workers from Asia to compensate for the labour shortage. Between 2016 and 2020, Romania increased quotas for non-EU workers from 3,000 to 30,000 work permits. After initially focusing recruitment efforts on Vietnam, employers are increasingly seeking workers from India and Nepal. In 2020, Nepalese account for the largest number of arrivals from Asia, with 2,831 work permits. Many of them work in the restaurant and hotel industry, among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. According to estimates, nearly half of the industry’s 230,000 jobs could disappear by the end of the year.

While not all the workers have lost their jobs, many are simply not being paid. Padam, 39, and eight other colleagues have not received their wages during four months, from May to August.

“I used to work at a restaurant in Bucharest and for the last two months I’ve been working at a pizzeria in Timișoara, in the west of the country. Our former employer told us that we will receive our salary but we’re still waiting,” he says.

While he receives food and housing, this father of two is no longer able to send money to his family or repay the loan he took out from the Nepalese agency that sent him to Romania and for the piece of land he bought in Nepal. Padam and his colleagues have sought the help of a lawyer but the process is proving to be labyrinthine: “Every month, we signed a paper that our boss gave us. He told us it was to receive our salary. We finally found out that it was a receipt for our salary, which he usually gives us in cash. We shouldn’t have signed that piece of paper because now we have no proof that we didn’t receive our salary.”

Even before the pandemic, some employers took advantage of non-EU workers’ lack of knowledge of their rights and the Romanian language. While Romanian seasonal workers themselves suffer from labour law violations in Western Europe, the new migrant workers endure the same treatment in Romania: unsanitary accommodations shared by a dozen people, 12-hour days without breaks and six-day weeks for US$520 a month. By comparison, the average Romanian wage is the equivalent of US$750 net for 40 hours a week. Some employers also confiscate workers’ passports and do not tell them the essential steps to take in case of health problems.

“It’s a domino effect of social dumping, which will only have negative consequences for social rights in Romania and in Europe,” says Bogdan Hossu, president of the Cartel-Alfa trade union, one of the most active in Romania (with 600,000 members). “In 2011, we had new legislation that completely deregulated the labour market. It essentially forbids inter-professional and sector-specific collective agreements. This opens the door to all sorts of abuses. Even before this wave of Asian workers, Romanians were modern-day slaves.”

Fighting depression and isolation

Work permits for migrant workers in Romania are tied to a two-year work contract. “They don’t dare to protest or ask to change jobs because employers will sometimes ask for a large sum of money in exchange or cancel their contracts. If they don’t find work within three months they have to return to Nepal. It’s even more risky during the pandemic because there are hardly any jobs left,” explains Uva Raj Laahmichane, 26, who makes YouTube videos telling other Nepalese workers how to not be fooled by agencies and employers.

Uva Raj came to Bucharest in 2019 and works 40 hours a week in a printing shop for US$820, a rare find. “I spent three years in Dubai and I got to know my rights,” he explains. “Most of the Nepalese who come here don’t know their rights, which makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.” The former radio host and social worker quickly became a point of contact for Nepalese migrants. Some contact him to help them find a new job or for advice when they find themselves in a bind. “They think I’m from the government,” he says with a laugh, “but I tell them ‘I’m a worker like you!’ I just want to help.” He then gives them the number of Honorary Consul of Nepal Nawa Raj Pokharel, who can do more to help.

With Nepal’s embassy located in Berlin, Pokharel is the country’s only official representative in Romania. “I came here in 1986 and I was the only Nepali until 2008. It was then that I set up an association to help my compatriots,” he explains.

“In 2018, the Nepalese government named me Honorary Consul so that I could deal with paperwork and problems faced by Nepalese workers.” While this appointment makes him more credible with employers, Pokharel receives no compensation except when he translates official documents. “It is work that I carry out in addition to my work as a business consultant. Sometimes I receive 100 calls a day and I deal with paperwork until 1 o’clock in the morning,” he explains. He contacts companies that fail to respect their employees’ working and housing conditions. “So far all of the problems have been resolved with a phone call,” he says, “especially when companies hold on to passports. Some of them don’t know it’s illegal.”

A tragic event in early June shocked the Nepalese community in Romania: a 25-year-old restaurant employee hanged himself in a park in Bucharest. Pokharel was the only point of contact: “It’s the first time that I’ve had to deal with an event like that. I had to take care of all the documents to send the body to the family.” Because of the pandemic, the body couldn’t be sent home until early October.

Uva Raj spoke with some of the young man’s friends: “We can never truly understand why someone decides to take their own life. According to his friends and family, he was doing well and didn’t have any major financial problems. But there’s no doubt that many Nepalese are in a depressed state at the moment, especially being far from home and with large debts to pay back.”

From the European dream to the Schengen dream

Despite the pandemic, the newspapers of Kathmandu are still filled with advertisements for work in Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic. This new market for migration to Europe is good business for Nepalese recruitment agencies, which are more than happy to put future workers into debt. They sell the ‘European dream’ and a better climate than that of Qatar and the Emirates, the top destinations for Nepalese workers. In exchange, would-be workers pay up to US$6,000, while the minimum wage in Nepal is equivalent to around €100.

In 2018, Sabin, then newly married and working as an online journalist, bought a house in Kathmandu with his partner. To reimburse the loan of several thousand euros and help his family, he decided to go abroad to work for a few years, a popular move in Nepal where remittances from migrant workers account for more than 25 per cent of GDP.

“In my country, the agencies sell Romania as a beautiful country with great companies,” he says. “They promise good hours and well-paid overtime. And also that you can travel to the rest of Europe. I saw that salaries could be as high as US$820 and that employers had to pay for accommodation and food, so I took the plunge.”

After obtaining a new loan of US$4,700 to pay the agency, it informed him only a few days before his departure that it had found work in a restaurant for only US$520.

Burdened with debt and with his visa already paid for, he had no other choice: “I was angry but I couldn’t do anything. So I went to Romania anyway, but I am having a lot of trouble repaying these debts.”

Pokharel is familiar with the abuses of some of these agencies: “When I find out about them, I put them on the blacklist and they can no longer sign an agreement with the Nepalese authorities to send workers.” However, some manage to hide and nothing prevents them from setting up new agencies under another name.

Only after arriving in Romania do many workers learn that, contrary to what the agencies promise, they are unable to leave Romania to travel in the rest of the Europe, as the country is part of the European Union but is not in the Schengen Area. Many agencies have seized upon workers’ disappointment for their own gain. During the lockdown, ads from fake profiles appeared on social media groups of Nepalese in Romania: “Can’t find a job in Romania? Want to work in Poland or the Czech Republic? Contact us.” In exchange for a few thousand euros, the workers are promised a better job in those countries, which have also seen an influx of tens of thousands of Nepalese. 42,703 Nepalese people have come to Poland over the last three years, where they represent the second largest group of migrant workers after Ukrainians. “I don’t know who is writing these ads, but it is completely illegal. The workers cannot leave Romania,” says Pokharel. “And if they break their contract, they have to find another job in Romania or return to Nepal.”

The situation in Poland and the Czech Republic is hardly better: workers do not receive sick leave and work for hours on end without a break. While their wages are slightly higher, they sometimes have to pay for rent and food. Unlike Padam and Uva Raj, who hope to stay on for a few more years, Sabin dreams of a better life in the West: “Once my contract is up I want to leave Romania for another country, France or Germany for example.” Romanians and Poles are no strangers to such dreams for a better future.

This story has been translated from French.

This report was made possible thanks to the Journalism Fund’s European Cross-Border Grant, which allows journalists from different countries to collaborate on the same subject. The author of this article received the grant along with journalists Ula Idzikowska (Poland, Czech Republic) and Abhaya Raj Joshi (Nepal).