Romanians call for equal rights
By Petru Clej
October 15, 2008
A petition signed by more than 4,000 people has been handed into 10 Downing Street calling for the work rights of Romanians in the UK to be brought in line with other Eastern European immigrants.
The petition has garnered support form people around the world, as well as from other Eastern European nationals.
As things currently stand Romanians and Bulgarians are not allowed to work freely in Britain, but are restricted to certain types of work, such as fruit picking.
Nationals from there have not been granted unrestricted access to the UK labour market since the countries joined the EU at the start of 2007, unlike workers from eight former communist countries which joined the EU in 2004.
In the rural Herefordshire village of Marden dozens of Romanians are working in the fields, picking strawberries and doing the work British people are reluctant to do.
Mihail is an agronomy student in Bucharest, but this was not his first choice as a place to work in Britain.
“I applied for a job as shop-assistant, together with a friend from Romania.
“There were three of us, two Romanians and a Slovak. The level of my English was above medium. His was very poor, but he got the job and we Romanians did not.”
The farm, owned by the S&A Group, relies upon foreign workers paid 5.52 an hour, but the Romanians – and the managers – are frustrated by the restrictions placed upon them.
The Romanians only work eight hours a day unlike the 10-hour days worked by Poles, Lithuanians and Slovaks who are on the packing line – which is considered industrial work and therefore not open to them.
Jan Willem Nerebout, welfare manager for S&A, says 504 Romanians worked on the farm this year, up from only 46 last year.
But still more workers are needed to meet UK demand for strawberries, and yet the company is allowed only 1,700 work permits a year for Romanians and Bulgarians.
“These people from Romania, they come here, they contribute to the British economy, they earn money and then they go home. It is a win-win-win situation, I just cannot understand these restrictions,” Mr Nerebout says.
Once the yearly quota for farm workers is exceeded anyone else has to apply on an individual basis for work permits or apply for self-employed status.
On the farm there are also Poles, Slovaks and Lithuanian workers and, according to Mr Nerebout, the workers spend 4m in the village each year.
Cristina Irimie, the London-based editor of weekly newspaper Romani in UK, organised the petition to call for changes in the employment law.
“On our online petition we have gathered signatures from Romanians who live all over the world and they want this to be repeated in other EU countries which, like Britain, have not opened their labour market for Romanian nationals,” she says.
“The petition was also signed by UK citizens and by other foreign nationals who live here, like Poles.”
The Romanian community in Britain has grown since Romania joined the EU.
Ion Jinga, the Romanian Ambassador, puts their number at 50,000, although they are concentrated in the South East, and particularly around North London.
Ovidiu Sarpe, who has lived in Britain since 1979, has a business – Patiseria Romana – in Burnt Oak.
He believes everyone would benefit from the full opening of the labour market, with Romanians paying taxes and being entitled to medical and social care.
“They would be protected from exploitation, especially on building sites. Now, whether you are an electrician, a bricklayer or an engineer, you just carry bricks for a pittance,” he says.
In 2006 and 2007 the UK government kept these restrictions and expectations are that they will remain, according to Romanian Embassy sources in London.
A spokeswoman for the UK Border Agency said the government would inform the EU before the end of the year if it is to maintain the restriction on Romanian and Bulgarian workers after taking advice from the Migration Advisory Committee.
An EU country can impose labour restrictions for up to seven years.
The Romanian community has enlisted political support to try to convince the government to change the rules.
“Economic migrants from Eastern Europe have made a huge contribution both to the UK economy and to the local areas where they have chosen to live,” says Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent East, one of the constituencies where many Romanians live.
“It is absolutely vital that the government takes steps to ensure that those who have come here to work are not open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers.”
The campaign also has cross-party support of MPs.
The Trade Unions Council (TUC) is also in favour of the removal of restrictions.
Sean Bamford, of the TUC's EU and International Relations Department, says EU labour mobility has benefited Britain and is a fundamental right for EU workers.
He says the downturn makes the case for change stronger.
“To a degree, market forces will mean if the work is not there, the UK will not be a very attractive proposition to come in.
“It is also important that we make sure migrant workers are not exploited, therefore not undercutting existing workers within the labour market.”
Mr Bamford says the decision to restrict workers was politically motivated by the large influx of workers after 2004, especially Poles.
Migration Watch UK is opposed to the opening of the labour market for Romanians and Bulgarians, until other EU member countries also scrap restrictions.
Its chairman Sir Andrew Green says: “If it is true, as some claim, that very few will wish to come here, we (and they) have little to lose.
“But the government massively underestimated immigration from Poland, which is considerably richer that Romania and Bulgaria.
“They simply cannot afford another blunder of that kind – especially with a recession looming over the horizon.”
In the 18 months after 1 January 2007, 40,500 Romanians and Bulgarians applied to work in the UK and 32,000 were granted permission.
Moreover, the trend shows a downturn, with just 8,205 applying in the second term of 2008, compared to 10,420 in the corresponding period of 2007, a 20% drop over a year.
Many Romanian workers feel frustrated and discriminated against.
“If somebody can help us Romanians who want to do honest work, please do.
“Because Romanians have always proved they are good workers,” says Ioana, a veterinarian technician turned strawberry picker.