Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Romanian Search for Good Life Abroad

Workers struggling to make ends meet at home are heading for western European countries in unprecedented numbers.
By Daniela Tuchel

In front of the Office for Labour Force Migration in Bucharest, hundreds of people are waiting in line, hoping to be selected for a job abroad.


Most have come from hundreds of kilometres away, from different corners of the country, and have spent the night sleeping on the pavement or talking to each other. Those who have been employed abroad before give much-sought-after advice to the less experienced.


Romania's poor economy has led to an unprecedented number of people looking for work abroad over the past few years. The International Organisation for Migration recently estimated that 1.7 million Romanians are working abroad.


The top destinations are Spain, Italy and Germany, countries that have signed contracts with local recruiting agents in Romania and with Office for Labour Force Migration.


The Romanians usually find jobs in construction and agriculture, sectors that at home have been hard hit by unemployment.


The determination of many people to work abroad has not been dented by the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, which claimed the lives of many Romanians working in the city.


"The number of people applying for jobs in Spain is as big as ever," Nadia Constantin, spokeswoman for the Office for Labour Force Migration, told IWPR.


"At the beginning of the year we had 2,000 applications for Spain and no one has changed his mind since the attacks."


Sixteen Romanians lost their lives in the blasts and 80 were wounded, according to Bucharest officials.


Romanian nationals came second only after the Spanish themselves in terms of a death toll.


Leon Cute, from the northern town of Bistrita-Nasaud, is one of thousands who would rather try the hardships of exile than endure a life of poverty at home.


He told IWPR that he had to work abroad, or his wife and two daughters would not have enough money to eat. Cute left for Spain by bus along with 100 other Romanians three days after the attacks in Madrid.


"I've been to Spain before," he said. "I worked in the fields for a rich farmer earning 1,200 euro a month, of which I paid 200 euro for food and accommodation. I sent the rest home to my family and am going to do the same now."


Cute told IWPR that he was "not afraid" of life in Spain after the recent outrages. "The salary I get there is the only hope for my family to survive," he said.


Italy is another destination for those seeking work abroad. According Constantin, Romanians mostly work there in the catering and tourist sectors as waiters, cooks and receptionists, earning from 700 to 900 euro a month.


Constantin told IWPR that little work was currently available there as most businesses only wanted seasonal labour in the summer.


About 50,000 Romanian migrants worked in Israel in the 1990s, mostly in construction or in domestic service, according to Kav LaOved, an Israeli NGO that defends migrant labour.


But the flow to Israel has dried up. "In 2002, the Israeli government decided to stop issuing working visas for foreigners," Constantin explained.


Germany still has openings for legal foreign workers but few Romanians apply, owing to stringent laws concerning knowledge of German.


Job applicants must have a fairly high degree of fluency in the language - no matter what field they work in - and must also take tests.


"Few people can speak German in Romania, so we have a lot of vacant positions," Constantin said. "We have 100 openings for students who are going to work as seasonal workers in agriculture and tourism. They are paid 800 euro a months."


The lack of any similar language tests explains the popularity of work in Spain.


In Madrid alone, the Romanian community numbers at least 28,000. But this is only the official figure - it is widely assumed that the real number working illegally in Madrid is much higher.


"I met dozens of Romanian workers while travelling across Spain," said Maria Dima, a Romanian tourist in Madrid.


"They say their families would starve if they did not send money back home every month."


She told IWPR about the overwhelming grief the large Romanian community in Spain suffered after the March 11 attacks, "In Madrid, I saw desperation in the eyes of the people who lost a leg or an arm in the explosions; it was almost impossible to hold back your tears."


The country treated the Madrid bombings as a national catastrophe. In Bucharest, people laid flowers and lit candles in front of the Spanish embassy, while March 14 was declared a day of mourning in honour of the victims. Theatres cancelled performances and sporting events were postponed. The Romanian flag was flown at half-mast on public buildings.


While TAROM, the national airline, gave free tickets to two members of each grieving family to visit injured relatives in Madrid, the government also promised financial compensation in the form of 7,500 euro for the next-of-kin of people killed in the blast and 2,500 for those who were wounded.


Most of this money will trickle back to poor villagers in Transylvania and southern Romania. In Peretu, in Teleorman county, for instance, 500 of the village's 700 inhabitants are working in Spain and several are on the casualty list in Madrid.


Marin Berbecanu left the village to work in Spain only two weeks before the bombings. He had been on his way to his first job when bombs exploded in the commuter train he was travelling in, seriously injuring him


"He lost a leg and has severe burns all over," his weeping mother said. "We still don't know if he is going to make it. There are four of us in the family living on 50 euro a month. Marin didn't chase a dream to become a millionaire. He just wanted some money to buy new clothes for his sons at Easter".


Spain will continue to draw Romanians in search of a better life, whatever the dangers. At home they might earn as little as 70 euro a month. In Spain they can expect up to ten times as much, leaving plenty to send home.


Capital Weekly, a financial publication, recently stated that Romanians working abroad send home more than 2 billion euro every year. It is a figure well in excess of the amount of foreign direct investment in the country.


Daniela Tuchel works for the Bucharest-based newspaper Libertatea.