"We have to work like horses"
Filipina Textile Workers in Sibiu, Romania
Like many other companies in the Romanian textile and construction sectors, textiles firm Mondostar has had to struggle with a persistent labour shortage for several years. Amongst the local workers hardly anyone is willing to work for the low wages paid in the textile industries. Since three months ago Mondostar has employed 95 women from the Philippines in order to counteract the shrinking supply of labour. Hoping for a good job in Europe, the workers from the Philippines borrowed money while still in their home country. They needed the money in order to be able to pay the high fees of the recruitment agency in Manila. The agency recruited them for Mondostar, signing a contract which entitled the workers to a basicwage of US-Dollar 400 and 100 per cent extra for overtime. In fact the women were never paid this wage. The following report is based on conversations with some of the Filipina workers.
The labour shortage worsens
Only three years ago the Romanian company still employed about 1,500 local workers – male and female – manufacturing suits for export to Germany and Switzerland. Now there are only 400 local workers left. Most of these are older women whose wage is a contribution to the family income. Apart from them hardly anyone is willing to do factory work for a monthly wage of US-Dollar 250 (1). Young people move abroad or look for jobs in different sectors. Many former Mondostar employees have shifted to the automobile parts manufacturer Takata, producing air-bags. The newly opened green-field plant in the west of town offers higher wages and better working conditions (2). According to a union representative at Mondostar, the textiles company recently tried to hire more people from the countryside, but failed. People from the countryside engaged in subsistence farming are less dependent on a factory job. The company would have difficulties with their unmotivated attitude to work, a high rate of people on sick-leave, absenteeism and an ongoing high rate of staff turnover.
Mondostar still has many open orders, the machinery is ready for use, but the people are missing. On their search for productive workers and a way out of crisis the company finally signed a contract with the EASTWIND International Agency in Manila, which recruited qualified women textile workers for them.
Namibia, Taiwan, Brunei ... Romania
At the end of May 2008 the Filipinas came to Sibiu. A precondition for their employment was work experience as seamstress. Each of them had to pay 120,000 Philippine Pesos (about US-Dollar 2,500) to the agency, for recruitment and the flight to eastern Europe. In order to be able to pay the money the women had to take out a bank loan or a mortgage secured on the property of relatives. The work contract signed in the Philippines entitled them to a basic wage of US-Dollar 400 and 100 per cent extra for overtime. Many of the women, aged 26 to 52, had already worked overseas as seamstresses in textile factories, e.g. in Namibia, Taiwan and Brunei. The women say it is common in the industry to work overtime and to be paid extra accordingly. According to their own calculation Mondostar would have to pay them US-Dollar 600 to 700 including overtime, after reductions for food and accommodation.
However after a short time the Filipina workers realised that the Romanian company would not stick to the contract. Quite the contrary, the company would try to extract the maximum work at lowest cost.
After arriving in Sibiu the women had to sign a second contract, which was written in Romanian and which apparently codified wage deductions and other details. During the first two months the women worked daily from 6:30 am till 6:00 pm, including Saturdays. At the end of the month the pay slip showed 570 RON (about US-Dollar 235). For the second month they were only paid the same amount. Each month US-Dollar 165 for food and accommodation was cut from the basic wage. Given a weekly working time of 60 hours, the pay for the overtime alone would have amounted to additional US-Dollar 400 - actually the overtime was not paid at all.
In the dormitory, which is situated right on the factory premises, eight women have to share a room. Breakfast and lunch are provided, but the women have to sort out dinner themselves. The canteen food is miserable. "Sometimes it's so bad that we'd rather not eat lunch at all". Inside the factory the women from the Philippines are seated separately from the local workers. Their forewomen are Romanian. "They are always on our backs and force us to work harder. We have to work like horses!"
Mondostar in SibiuThe women are disappointed by the management's behaviour and angry about earning so little. They are not even able to pay back the loans at home let alone to support their families. They decided to fight back and in the third month they refused to do overtime. They announced an ultimatum to the management: by mid-August the full wages and 100 per cent bonus should be paid. At the beginning of August they filed an official complaint at the Philippines Embassy in Bucharest. Consequently the embassy stopped any further recruitment of seamstresses for Mondostar. A setback for the company given that they wanted to hire 180 more workers. The Inspectorat Teritorial de Munca (ITM) was informed, as well. The ITM is a Romanian state institution which monitors compliance with legal labour standards. The results of the inspection and further measures are not known yet.
The Filipina workers find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their permission to stay in Romania is bound to the one-year work contract with Mondostar. If they leave the contract early they would lack the money for the flight back home and in Manila they would face huge debts. It would take a long time to claim the money by suing the agency for false pretences. If they continue to work in Sibiu under the given conditions they will not be able to save money. After all they would earn less than back home in Manila.
Meanwhile the management demonstrates how they plan to treat rebellious workers. In response to the protest of the Filipina workers, their four spokeswomen, whom the women had chosen amongst themselves, were sacked along with two others. Consequently they lost their legal permission to stay in Romania and had to fly back to Manila. The Philippines embassy in Bucharest organised this 'deportation'. In the factory the remaining workers have already elected four new spokeswomen.
Mondostar in SibiuThe management now wants to pay according to performance, but the targets are absurdly high. About 50 workers are supposed to tailor 500 pairs of trousers in an eight-hour shift. They just about manage to tailor 280 to 300, even after seven Romanian workers have been allocated to work with them. In other factories where the women had worked before the corresponding target was about 250.
The women like to be in Sibiu and they would like to stay. People are friendly towards them. "It's only the situation at Mondostar which is unbearable for us." They have often seen local people wrinkle their nose when they hear that the women work at Mondostar. In the region the company is unpopular and well known for bad wages.
So far there are not many companies in Romania employing a foreign workforce. The few existing attempts at exploiting foreign workers are often accompanied by conflicts and actions of resistance by the migrant workers (see contribution below: "Open letter - Indian Workers in Marsa/Sibiu").
Open Letter: Indian Workers in Marsa, near Sibiu
Half a year ago in a metal factory in Marsa, a town neighbouring Sibiu, there was a conflict similar to the current one at Mondostar. Since May 2007 the factory had employed 43 workers from India, paying them US-Dollar568 before tax. The boss of Grande Mecanica Marsa allocated numbers to the Indian workers, because he wasn't able or willing to pronounce their names. He just called the men Sorin 1, Sorin 2, ... Sorin 24.
At the beginning of January 2008 the contracts of 30 Indian workers were terminated. According to newspaper articles the men were dismissed because they had not turned up for work since December 20 2007. The same sources state that during that time the company was shut down for a company holiday. The workers had complained that they were forced to work overtime, which they did not get paid for. "According to our contract our working times are ten hours per day, six days per week. The
company did not adhere to the contract and made us work 115 to 130 hours per week." (3) As early as October 2007 the Indian workers had addressed the media through an open letter, declaring that the management treats them like slaves: "Day in day out we are tortured psychologically. It seems like the management wants to get back at us for complaining at the Indian embassy. For example before shift starts, when we want to put on our protective clothing, the supervisor eggs us on saying there is no time for putting on the clothing. All the time the management turns up at our work stations telling us: 'faster, faster! And bear in mind that you are constantly filmed by the surveillance cameras.'" (4)
For companies in Romania employing foreign workers means an additional bureaucratic effort and higher costs. In return they hope for a motivated work-force which is always available and more easily controlled than others would be. The fact that legal permission to stay is tied to the work contract provides the employer with a significant tool to put pressure on the workers. Employers increase the workload and try to extort overtime without paying for it. Moreover, actual expenditure for food and accommodation is reduced to lowest level, while a considerable part of the wages is deducted.
But it's not possible to make the 'industrious and docile' Asian workers drudge like horses just like that, to give them numbers and keep them under control. They won't put up with everything. The intimidation by employers has only a limited impact on them. Many of the Filipina workers have years of experience of working overseas, they are able to compare conditions, they know how to organise themselves and try to enforce their own interests.
Ana Cosel, 27th of August 2008
(1) Currently the legal minimum wage in Romania is 150 Euros or US-Dollar 220. In the textile industries the wages are only just above the minimum wage (US-Dollar 220 to 280).
(2) The car industry suppliers usually pay slightly higher wages in order to attract qualified workers in times of lack of work-force.
(3) Sources: Realitatea.net externer Link (January 23 2008), Sibiu Standard (January 15 2008), Ziarul de Sibiul (October 8 2007) and Ziarul de Sibiu (May 25 2007)
(4) Quoted from the Indian workers' open letter published in a newspaper article of October 8 2007 at www.ziaruldesibiu.ro externer Link