Recently Spain told Romanians, in effect: “Our economy is so screwed up we can’t even find jobs for our own people, especially with this little debt thing we have. So we’ve decided the EU principle of free movement of workers doesn’t apply to you. Go home.” Romanians, more than the citizens of any other EU candidate or member this past decade, have been the last-hired, first-blamed nationality of choice, Europe’s wetbacks. Even when “Romanian” was not used as a euphemism for “Gypsy criminal,” there have been times when Romanian passport holders were subject to extra border checks and, even as the country prepared to join the EU, forced to undergo a complicated, expensive procedure simply to visit, much less work in, the Schengen area.

Life has probably gotten better for most Romanian workers in the EU since the country became a member in 2007, but the wide income gap between Romania and most of the other members ensures that they often fall victim to various job scams and unscrupulous employers. The Prague Post yesterday ran the latest in a series of articles on the dodgy practices of several Czech agencies that hire cheap labor to work in the forestry industry. Romanians interviewed by the paper told how Czech middlemen in Romania promised monthly pay of 1,200 to 1,600 euros – good money in this country, a fact that should have raised a red flag – but when they arrived here, what salary they received, if any, shrank quickly as allowances for food and supplies were subtracted. The men claimed they worked extremely long hours in grueling conditions, stripping bark from freshly-cut trees, and most soon returned worn-out to Romania.

The agencies that hired in Romania also reportedly hired, and subsequently maltreated, Vietnamese and Slovaks.

Representatives of one of the agencies that recruited the workers claimed Romanian workers were paid according to performance, so the hard workers earned much more than the slackers, while a man from a second agency, named both by Romanian and Slovak migrants as their supervisor, said some Slovaks rarely showed up for work or came to the job drunk. If they were indeed promised 1,200 euros and up, someone should have realized that something was amiss, and they certainly should have insisted on seeing job contracts in language they could understand. The Romanians said they never received the promised contracts in their own language, but language difficulties should not have been an issue for the Slovaks.

Still, it may turn out to have been no more than a case of exploiting poorly-educated people’s ignorance of conditions in the Czech labor market, rather than a true scam. In any case, these stories cast a light on the hard lives of many labor migrants in the EU, and on the income gap between the richer and poorer halves of the union that is hardly likely to shrink under the prevailing theory of cutting budget lines precisely where the poor and underemployed will be most affected. The American folk singer Woodie Guthrie knew a thing or two about trying to make a living in hard times, as in this verse from his song about “hard travelin’ ” workers back in the Great Depression:

I been doin’ some hard harvestin’,
I thought you knowed;
North Dakota to Kansas City
Way down the road;
Cuttin’ that wheat and stackin’ that hay,
Tryin’ to make about a dollar a day,
I been doin’ some hard harvestin’, Lord.

Ky Krauthamer

Ky Krauthamer is a senior editor at Transitions Online. Email: ky.krauthamer@tol.org

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