‘The workers have chosen to fight’: Romanians strike for living wage

Workers across Romania are on strike. From Satu Mare in the northwest corner to Targoviste in the south, workers are demanding a living wage from the multinational corporations that reap mega-profits from the country.

Map of Romania. Liberation graphic.

Nearly 30 years after the restoration of capitalism, many Romanians live in conditions of extreme poverty and with a grueling work environment. The minimum monthly salary for a single person to survive is 4,400 lei ($1,047 USD). Yet the legal minimum wage for workers is just 2,000 lei ($476 USD), less than half of the living wage. In fact, 85 percent of all individual work contracts in Romania pay less than the minimum needed for survival, and certainly not enough to counter costs of living. Rents continue to rise, with many paying 37 percent or more of their income to housing.

‘In Romania, workers can no longer survive by their own work.’

This is in stark contrast to Romania’s socialist period, where jobs were guaranteed for all; housing cost between 3-5 percent of the salary; and education at every level was free. During the early 1990s many of the large state-owned enterprises, which formerly had produced wealth for the country, were privatized and sold to foreign corporations. Some factories were outright dismantled, creating unemployment where previously there had been none.

Workers today face impossible circumstances when trying to provide for their families, which is why so many Romanians emigrate to other parts of the continent in search of a better-paying job. According to a recent World Bank report, Romania experienced the highest levels of emigration after 1990 than any other EU country. Today, the working diaspora represents nearly one-fifth of the country’s own labor force.

People gather in solidarity with Electroaparataj workers on May 30. Source: Cartel ALFA Facebook

Foreign corporations reap mega-profits from the artificially low wages of Romania. Workers in multiple industries have been on strike for better wages and working conditions in the past few months. Electrical workers at Electroaparataj in Targoviste are continuing their month-long strike to demand a living wage.

Workers on strike at Electroaparataj Targoviste: ‘We must fight!’

Electroaparataj started as a state-owned enterprise in 1948 to produce electrical equipment for local use and export. The factory produced a range of products developed in-house until 1990, when production was slashed in the wake of the 1989 coup d’etat. The factory was completely privatized in 1997 and sold to the Cyprus-based Broadhurst Group, which posted a profit of $23.2 million in 2018. Today Electroaparataj pays its workers the lowest wage allowed by law.

In a statement released by the National Confederation of Unions Cartel ALFA, the company has refused to negotiate with the strikers, and instead threatened to liquidate the factory: “Even though they have an obligation to continue negotiations until a solution for the employees is reached, the leadership of Electroaparataj has refused to negotiate from the onset of this labor dispute, replacing dialogue with threats to dissolving the company and denigrations of our union.”

Valahia Sindicat continues their strike for a living wage. Source: Demos Romania Facebook

Workers from many industries gathered in solidarity with the strikers on May 30. “We must fight,” said a union leader with Valahia Sindicat. “We have become modern-day slaves… Other countries [in the West] give 60% to the workers and 40% to Capital. In Romania, this equation is more than inverse.”

It is clear a fight is necessary to win any concessions. On the other side of the country, hundreds of workers at the Swedish multinational company Electrolux in Satu Mare went on strike for more than 2 months before winning a 2 lei (USD 47¢) per hour wage increase. They faced a similar pattern of attacks and threats from management throughout the entire strike.

Electrolux workers win salary increase after 2-month strike

Swedish-owned Electrolux generated a profit of $271 million last year as their workers struggled to make ends meet. One Electrolux worker described the hopelessness he feels as he struggles to provide for his family and their medical needs: “I wake up at 2 a.m. in the morning and I can’t fall back asleep. I have a wife who is sick and needs monthly treatments. I have two children, and my son has a serious health condition and needs to be under permanent medical control. I feel like I am going crazy. I work 12-14 hours per day but I can’t get by! I have to endure the humiliation of asking for help from other people, who have their own struggles.”

“If this problem isn’t resolved I will need to leave the country to find work somewhere else,” he added. “Unfortunately in Romania, workers can no longer survive by their own work.”

During the two months of the strike, Electrolux was completely inflexible. The company suspended dialogue with the workers and treated them with arrogance. They even filed a lawsuit in court, claiming that the strike was illegal. Electrolux hoped that the workers would despair and give up the demands for better pay, but the workers persevered in their struggle and won.

Together with Cartel ALFA, the workers from Satu Mare organized a caravan to the Swedish embassy in the Bucharest to call international attention to their exploitation. Along the way they stopped at many different cities, holding press conferences and actions in front of stores which sell Electrolux products.

Workers from Electrolux hold a press conference in a mall that sells Electrolux products on April 23. Source: Cartel ALFA Facebook

“[T]his practice of Electrolux is visible at many other multinational companies in Romania,” said one worker. “They collude amongst themselves to maintain very low wages for us workers, so that we are permanently dependent on them.”

‘The workers have chosen to fight’

As another explained in front of the Swedish embassy, the people of Sweden “need to understand where their wealth and prosperity comes from. They need to understand that someone pays for that wealth. They need to see how children here effectively die from hunger. People have no heat, no electricity. They can’t even afford hot water. Let them see.”

Many groups and community members attended the embassy protest in solidarity. Source: Demos Romania Facebook

“We cannot encourage the enslavement of Romania”, a union leader said. “Romanians need to be treated as European citizens, with needs, with rights, with families they support. They deserve respect… Romania refuses to be a space for slavery to represent the relations of work.”

As in the U.S., the struggles of Romanian workers today echo the struggles for better working conditions of 100 years ago. The restoration of capitalism promised wealth and so-called freedom for the country, yet today Romania is the 2nd-poorest country in the European Union. Romania’s economy and natural resources have been completely opened to foreign capital for exploitation. There are now even U.S. military bases in the countryside and in its principal ports. Capitalism only offers continued immiseration for workers.

As Valahia Sindicat explained: “Absent social dialogue or equally sharing in a company’s financial resources, the only chance Romanian workers have to improve their lives is to either leave the country, or to fight for their rights and a better life.

“The workers have chosen to fight.”

Solidarity with the striking workers of Electroaparataj!

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