Friday, October 31, 2008

No fix for Romania's labour shortage

Since Romania joined the European Union in 2007 more than two million people have left to earn higher wages in wealthier European countries. One of the hardest hit industries is construction. Humphrey Hawksley has been to Bucharest to discover the depth of the skills gap.

The voice of Piero Francisci rose above the clatter of drilling on the floor of the construction site far below.

Carved deep into the ground of a Bucharest suburb was the vast foundation chamber of what should eventually become a high-rise office block.

It should also have been crawling with about 100 construction workers.

Instead, there was just a cluster of men carving out the elevator shaft which, at present, looked like a prehistoric insect, with twisted brown metal girders rising out of grey half-built concrete cones.

"Has anybody actually sat down and worked out how many people are needed to build the infrastructure of this country?" asked Mr Francisci, gesticulating in frustration.

"It needs motorways, bridges, airports, railways, and look at this."

'Luckless task'

Mr Francisci is an Italian businessman with plans to build houses and office blocks throughout Romania - if he can find anyone to do it.

His guest at the building site was Adriana Eftime, the head of a building trade federation.

Her luckless task is to try to persuade the government to issue entry permits to foreigners on the grounds that hundreds of thousands of Romanian construction workers have left the country for better wages elsewhere in Europe.

Government officials say privately that they do not want to flood Romania with foreign workers because it may lead to race problems

So far she is failing.

"I asked them just for 60,000," she explained, "but they wouldn't have it. They said they'd look maybe at 10,000."

"Well, all I can say," said Mr Francisci, "is that if things keep going this way, we'll have to close down."

He took us down a rickety wooden ladder to the floor.

We walked across to where the work was going on and he introduced us to Rajinder Singh Bansal, a carpenter from Delhi - one of half a dozen Indians who had been allowed in.

But Rajinder said he might have to leave when his permit runs out and go back to a job in India that paid a fraction of his current wage.

Mr Francisci had lists of applicants from India, Vietnam and the Philippines whom he wanted to sponsor, but the government was not letting him.

"It's the European Union," he complained.

"Without papers, without money, without any job, anyone can just leave for Italy, France, Germany and we are left with no-one because no-one wants to come from those rich countries to work here.

"So we need to bring them in from the poorer countries, and we're not allowed to."

Mass exodus

Romania's conundrum lies at the heart of how a developing country, with much of its infrastructure broken down, should modernise.

China, for example, routinely building airports, rail links and motorways, has a vast workforce of its own to call upon.

Dubai, that glittering economic engine of the Gulf, imports so many workers that they make up more than 80% of the population.

Romania, it seems, does not quite know what to do.

Since joining the European Union in 2007, more than two million people - or 10% of the whole population - have left for richer parts of Europe.

Meanwhile, just about everything needs fixing.

You do not have to go far to see dirt tracks and donkey carts.

Three million buildings need to be renovated to make them secure against earthquakes. The ring-road carrying huge articulated trucks is no wider than a two lane country road in places.

There are only about 200 miles of motorway and half of that was built during communist times, just as the massive palatial parliament complex - apparently the biggest government building in the world - was put up in just a few years under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

But those were Cold War days and he had no problems in getting builders.

Government officials say privately that they do not want to flood Romania with foreign workers because it may lead to race problems.

The public position is that they want to attract back those workers who have left.

Flood risk

But it is not only the modernisation of a nation that is suffering.

Vlad Radu, an engineer, asked me up to his family's Bucharest apartment in the early evening - just as the washing machine was beginning a cycle.

After a few minutes, white foam bubbled out of the drain in the bathroom, seeping across the floor like a creature in a horror movie.

Every time the washing machine is on, either Vlad or Claudia, his wife, has to keep watch to ensure the apartment does not flood.

"Back in the old days," said Vlad, "we would just call the building maintenance department and someone would fix it.

"But this problem has been with us now for three years. We've tried everything."

So as the financial crisis brings unemployment, for European Union citizens at least there are vacancies in Romania - for plumbers, of course, and jobs for some half a million construction workers.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 30 October, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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