The Romanian left looks for an exit from cheap labour’s trap

An election promise from Poland has unexpectedly inspired additionally Romanian workers and the left to demand decent salaries

On 10 September 2019 the main Romanian media announced that “the era of cheap labour in Poland is coming to an end.” This was a statement by the prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki himself, who promised a 78% raise of the minimal salary up to 4000 zloty or 1000 dollars by 2023. Morawiecki’s promise will be fulfilled  if his party Law and Justice wins the forthcoming parliamentary elections this autumn. Romanian media distributed this news along with a standard warning by economists that such a big increase in salaries will raise employers’ expenditures, which will negatively influence the economy.

Of course, Morawiecki’s promise is motivated by the elections and represents a hunt for votes. But it garnered huge interest in Romania. Poland has long been a model for Romania – be it because of its loyalty to the United States, its religiosity and conservatism, or simply because it, like Romania, it is the largest and most populated country in the region. But the news also spread because Poland no longer being defined as “a country of cheap labour” is an idea that resonates with Romanians. 

The promise of the Polish prime minister corresponds directly with the understanding in Romanian public space that Romania is namely “a country of cheap labour”. That is why the strikes, which erupted this year derive strength from the idea that Romania should change this condition. In May 2019 the left-leaning Parliament member Adrian Dohotaru wrote with spray paint on the Electrolux plant billboard: “Romania not a country of cheap labour”. This phrase enters deeper and deeper into people’s consciousness and became something like a password among the new left, e.g. the social democratic party “Demos”.

On 18 September 2019 “Demos” launched the site “Country of Cheap Labour”, which gathers in one place information on all the strikes which have recently taken place in Romania. There have been around 20 strikes, which have had various results. Often, even after workers have achieved concessions by their employers, the intentions for new strikes remain.

The phrase “country of cheap labour” has a disarming effect upon the adversaries of income’s raises and social welfare policies. Daniela Gabor, who is an economist with international renown and former “Demos” candidate for the European Parliament points out that the economic model in Romania is based on cheap labour. Therefore, people who yearn for development in their country speak about the need for this model be overcome.

Also on 18 September 2019 Romania made two small steps towards leaving this model behind and becoming a more social welfare state. A law, initiated by Adrian Dohotaru and two members of parliament from the Social Democratic Party – Gabi Cretu and Petre Florin Manole, stipulates that employers who don’t pay their employees’ overtime earnings will pay increased fines. According to data from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), in 2016 more than 35% of Romanian workers worked more than 40 hours a week. This puts Romania in third place in the notorious ranking of the longest work week in the EU, after the Czech Republic and Greece and above the European medium level of 23%.

Another law was also approved by Parliament, according to which children without identity cards and personal identification numbers will be able to access free medical treatment. It is estimated that there are 160,000 people without identity cards in Romania.

Exiting from the model of cheap labour will not be easy. But the mere realisation that the economy works on the basis of labour’s and Romanian talent depreciation is a step forward. When Poland announced that it will host additional American troops and discussed the construction of a military base called “Fort Trump”, Romanian analysts asked whether the same will not follow in Romania. 

Wouldn’t it be better if local interpretations both in Romania and Bulgaria start copying not only the belligerent moves by Warsaw, but also the social moves it makes? Such moves could be the rejection of the “a country of cheap labour” label, which of course should be liberated from the election hypocrisy of the ultraconservatives from the Law and Justice party.  

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