- Share to or
‘There’s nothing we can do but wait’ For workers from Nepal, the road to Romania is long and uncertain
‘There’s nothing we can do but wait’ For workers from Nepal, the road to Romania is long and uncertain
Story by Radu Stochita for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.
Since joining the European Union in 2007, Romania has seen its workforce dwindle steadily. Given the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc, millions of Romanian nationals have gone abroad and, in doing so, helped fill labor gaps in the E.U.’s wealthier member countries. Today, however, Romania finds itself on the other side of the equation. Faced with a labor shortage of its own, Bucharest is turning to Asia to boost its workforce, recruiting tens of thousands of workers from as far away as Bangladesh and Vietnam. After increasing its annual quota for non-E.U. workers to 100,000 last year, Romania registered more than 10,600 new employment contracts with workers from Nepal alone. But securing the necessary paperwork is just one of the many hoops Nepali migrants have to jump through. In a dispatch from Kathmandu, Romanian journalist Radu Stochita reports on the time and money workers spend en route from Nepal to Romania — and what awaits them at their destination.
This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
NEPAL — As we set out for his family home, Batsa (name changed) tells me to hold tight to the back of the motorcycle and brace myself for a “painful” ride. “Back in the day, we had to walk three hours to get to the bus stop,” he recalls.
It takes us three hours to reach his village from Kathmandu, driving slowly through the hills where the Nepali government has yet to pave the roads. When we finally arrive, Batsa’s mother, father, sister-in-law, brother, and niece come out of their rooms to greet us. Gathering everyone around to talk, Batsa hands each of us plates of rice and dal — a lentil soup.
Batsa’s brother spent three years working in Qatar but says that part of his story is “in the past.” “Now I want to stay and live with my family in Nepal,” he tells me.
This time, Batsa will be the one to leave. Instead of going to the Middle East, he plans to go to Romania — a country that registered new employment contracts with more than 10,600 migrant workers from Nepal last year. Like many other Nepali migrants, Batsa is seeking better working conditions and a chance to earn enough money to send some back home. He wants to help his family build the remaining floors of their house. “I will stay for two years at first, work, then come back home, get married, and see,” Batsa tells me.
Batsa is a qualified electrician with several years of experience. The company he used to work for was stable, but the pay wasn’t enough to cover his family’s expenses. “We are still okay, because we are a middle-class family. We have the buffalo farm, [and] we have some land that we work,” he explains.
Around 66 percent of Nepal’s population relies on agriculture for their livelihood and more than 70 percent of the population is involved in the informal economy. The country’s minimum wage is currently 15,000 Nepalese rupees per month — about $115. But for those working in the informal sector, labor protections like the minimum wage are not necessarily enforced.
The Nepali government has adapted over the years to meet the rising global demand for migrant workers (who often provide cheaper labor), officially authorizing labor migration to 110 countries. At the same time, it’s not uncommon for migrant workers to go through India to countries like Iraq, even though Nepal has formally banned its nationals from working there. Per the 2021 census, roughly 80 percent of the 2.2 million Nepalis living overseas are men. Most are relatively young, between the ages of 25 and 35, and they typically send a portion of their earnings back home. According to the World Bank, remittances make up more than a fifth of Nepal’s GDP.
In March, the Nepali government lifted the two-year cap on foreign employment approvals, allowing migrant workers to sign longer-term contracts overseas. The government also granted Nepal’s diplomatic missions the authority to renew labor approvals, taking the burden off of the country’s Foreign Employment Department. (Previously, workers whose labor approvals had expired had to return to Nepal to obtain re-entry permits.) “We have been trying to make the process more flexible and bring more reforms in the labor-migration sector,” Labor Ministry Secretary Ek Narayan Aryal commented on the changes.
Be that as it may, applying to work abroad remains a long and arduous process. “The wait can take up to seven months, and it all depends on the authorities’ response rate,” says Aayush (name changed), an agent working for a recruitment company in Kathmandu that sends workers to Romania, as well as the Middle East.
Indeed, would-be migrants like Batsa have to deal not only with Nepali bureaucracy, which at times involves paying bribes, but also with Romania’s immigration office, which has proven to be inefficient. Moreover, there is no Nepali embassy in Romania itself; migrants facing issues must contact either the honorary consul, who has no formal diplomatic powers, or the Nepali Embassy in Berlin.
Finding a job also requires dealing with third-party recruitment agencies like the one where Aayush works. Colloquially referred to as “manpower” offices, these companies have working relationships with employers (or partner agencies) in foreign countries and supply them with workers — for a fee.
Batsa first heard about the job he applied for eight months ago. “I immediately reached out to ‘manpower’ and expressed my interest in applying,” he recalls. “I had to take an exam, for which I traveled outside of my village to their testing site. They recorded me doing electrical wiring, and they sent it to the commission, which later determined that I passed.” (Not all Nepali applicants go through this type of examination process, since the vast majority are placed in “unskilled” jobs.)
After receiving his exam results, Batsa moved back to his village to wait for his work permit to arrive. In the meantime, he worked on the family farm full-time.
‘Dedicated, serious, and committed’
Batsa messages me daily, sometimes asking for advice about Romania. There’s little I can say: once he gets to Europe, his fate might be completely different from what was promised. Although migrant workers tend to expect better-paying jobs that align with their qualifications, investigative journalists have found that they often end up doing low-skilled, manual labor.
In the past, some migrant workers simply took it upon themselves to find better employment, either in Romania or elsewhere in Europe (since a Romanian work visa doesn’t allow them to legally travel to other E.U. member countries, the latter may involve crossing the border irregularly and then working under the table).
But Romanian employers who have paid commissions to recruitment agencies are often loath to cut loose their employees.
Journalists found that some employers even confiscate foreign workers’ passports to keep them from changing jobs. The Romanian government’s recent amendment to the Labor Code has complicated matters further, prohibiting migrant workers from leaving their jobs during their first year in the country without written permission from their employers.
Sanjeev (name changed) lives in a house south of Bucharest with 10 other Nepalis who haven’t worked in months. Their employer brought them to Romania and then refused to pay their salaries, he says. “Even [when] we tried to tell him that he should pay [us], since we have a contract, he refused,” Sanjeev recalls. When the workers tried to quit, their boss asked for money in exchange for breaking their contracts. Unable to pay the sum, the workers are now stuck in limbo. “There’s nothing we can do but wait,” Sanjeev says. “We’ve been thinking about leaving, but he asked for 1,000 euros [$1,100] — money that we don’t have.”
Adequate housing for migrant workers is another persistent issue. Upon reaching the Bucharest airport, workers are typically shuttled directly to pre-arranged accommodations. According to the payslip of a Nepali worker who left Romania last year, his employer deducted 964 Romanian leu — about $215 — from his monthly salary to pay for his bed in a room that he shared with three other people. By comparison, a two-bedroom apartment in an affordable Bucharest neighborhood costs roughly $400 a month, half of what the four migrant workers were collectively paying for a shared room.
Nepali recruiting agencies often portray migrant workers as “dedicated, serious, and committed” but make little effort to ensure they know their rights. In turn, some Romanian employers take advantage of this fact, scheduling them to work long hours without overtime pay and denying them paid sick leave.
A worker named Padam, who took a job at a mountain resort in Romania in 2019, told the Kathmandu Post that he sometimes worked 12-hour shifts without so much as a bathroom break. After the coronavirus pandemic hit, he was forced to change jobs and ended up going four months without pay.
When asked about the work week in Romania, Batsa incorrectly assumes it’s six days — as is the case in Nepal — rather than five. “I attended pre-departure training, but I couldn’t follow everything, and we had to finish in a couple of hours. It was not pre-departure training only for Romania, but for Middle Eastern countries, for Malaysia, so they rushed us,” he says.
In February, journalist Diana Meseșan, who covers migration issues for the Romanian newspaper Libertatea, reported on the case of one Nepali worker who took his own life after developing a gambling addiction and falling into debt. “It was sad to document this story especially since it focused on a man who found himself alone here with outstanding debt and no resources to turn to,” Meseșan recalls.
Many Romanians are unaware of the difficulties migrant workers face. “Our interaction with the migrants is often minimal if not non-existent,” observes Anatolie Cosciug, the vice-director of the Romanian Center for Comparative Migration Studies. “Up until two years ago, we were barely seeing them in any public places, but now it’s impossible not to see migrants serving us food, handing us our groceries, or [working] on construction sites.”
Cosciug notes that, according to his research, Romanians’ attitudes towards migrants are “generally positive.” But he also says that the government’s strategy for integrating newcomers hinges on “outsourcing” most of this work to NGOs. Journalists have tried to shed light on the exploitation migrant workers often face, but their reporting appears to have inspired little action on the part of the government, so far.
“[Migrant] workers are seen with a lack of humanity, since they are discussed only in plural form, stripping a person of any individuality,” Meseșan says. “I saw this in my reporting when talking to politicians, to employers, and also with recruiting agencies.”
Starting in 2022, Romania upped its annual quota for non-E.U. workers to 100,000 people, citing a labor crunch. According to Eurostat data, Romanians are the European Union’s “most mobile” citizens, with some 2.3 million, or nearly a fifth of the working-age population, living elsewhere in the E.U. for work purposes.
* * *
Two days after my visit to the village, Batsa sends me a photo of his newly-issued work permit. During a brief phone call, I ask about the next steps in the process. Batsa is thinking of ways to come up with the money to pay the recruitment agency. His father is already planning on taking out a loan, he says.
“They are asking me for five and a half lakhs [more than $4,000],” Batsa explains. His family, he continues, has around 30,000 rupees ($228) left over after all of the farm’s expenses are paid off each month. “I cannot take a loan from a bank because they don’t give money for such things. I have to go to a private creditor to get this money, and they will ask for a 30 percent interest rate,” Batsa says. “I plan to pay my debts in the first year,” he adds.
After months of waiting, Batsa will now be off to Romania in a matter of weeks — if not days. The people around him, his family members and the neighborhood friends he grew up with, are all trying to enjoy their last moments together.
Batsa’s parents are anxious about his imminent departure, although their son says he fully intends to come back for good one day. “I would like to return home; to save enough money and live here, in the village, with my parents and my future wife.”
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
- Share to or