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Romanian firms importing workers

To get around the chronic labor shortages plaguing this traditional textile center - as well as many industries across Romania - Sorin Nicolescu, who runs a clothing factory, came up with an original solution: import 800 workers from China.

„The explanation is very simple,” said Nicolescu, general manager of the Swiss-owned Wear Co. „We don't have any Romanian workers because they have all left to work in Europe.” Wear Co.'s move has ignited a national debate about the gaping holes in Romania's work force and whether foreign workers from the East are the best way to fill such jobs. Foreign investors have been attracted to this poor Balkan country because of its low wages and, since January 1, its membership in the European Union. But at the same time, those low wages and freedom of movement around Europe - made even easier by EU membership - have been fueling a wave of emigration that threatens to slow Romania's economic boom. „This was happening before we joined the EU,” said Ana Murariu, a production manager at Wear Co. „Now it's even worse.”

Romania, a country of 22 million people, received $12 billion worth of foreign direct investment last year. That helped the economy grow 7.7%, with an unemployment rate in January of 5.4% - well below the EU average. But with monthly wages averaging $282, after taxes, roughly 2 million people - or 10% of the population - have left since the Communist government fell in 1989, according to analysts' estimates. Italy and Spain are the most popular destinations for Romanian workers, where they usually do manual labor, legally and illegally, and generally for lower wages than the locals. Nicolescu said he had decided to look for workers in China because he had contracts there, and those companies had put him in touch with a local employment agency.

Those who are hired pay about $2,000 out of their own pockets for transportation and the employment agency's fee, according to one of the workers. Once they reach Bacau, a drab industrial city of 181,000 in northeastern Romania, they go to work in a large, inconspicuous warehouse on the outskirts of town. Inside, some 170 Chinese women operate sewing machines attached to tables stacked with finished and unfinished garments. Most of the tables, arranged in long rows, are empty. The plant expects 500 more workers - all Chinese - by the end of May. The facility is clean, freshly painted and well lit. The only sound is the rapid, repetitive thud of the sewing machines as the workers sew together previously tailored pieces of garments. They make mostly sportswear for brands ranging from Prada to Carrefour. All the production is for export.

Nicolescu said he paid the women about $261 a month after taxes. The legal minimum wage is $132 a month after taxes. The company operated with Romanian workers until 2003, when operations were suspended because the work force had dwindled to 200. Nicolescu said that the company had posted hundreds of job offers for both qualified and unqualified workers at a local agency but that they had gone unanswered. „It's very difficult work, and it's not well paid,” Nicolescu acknowledged. He said the industry found it hard to attract young workers to replace the current ones, most of whom are nearing retirement age.

„I'm not very pleased about working with foreign workers because I have to provide them food and housing” on top of their salaries, Nicolescu said. That amounts to an additional $130 per worker each month, he said, in addition to the $400,000 he spent building the dormitories. Critics say the plant would find Romanian workers if it offered better wages. But Nicolescu countered that higher wages would make his products uncompetitive internationally, pointing out that textile manufacturing had already left most of Europe in search of lower costs, including wages, in places like China.

Cornelia Barbu, deputy director of the Bacau County employment agency, said inspectors had thoroughly checked conditions for the Chinese workers. „They are treated very well, they have a social club and a kitchen,” she said. „They live much better than most of the Romanians living abroad.” Xiu Xian Hong, from Fujian Province, who came here last July, described life as better in Romania than China. „It is quiet here, and the air is much cleaner,” she said through a Romanian-speaking Chinese translator who worked at the plant. „The work is the same, but the pay is more.” But she said she missed her 3-year old daughter and her husband back home. Hong said she had come to Romania because it was the only destination offered when she sought work at an agency in China. She said she planned to stay at least three years, hoping to save enough money to start a business when she returned. (,