Note from LeftEast editors: This text first appeared on Antropedia. This article appeared as a reprint on Platzforma.md. It was translated into English and published here as part of a cooperation among Eastern European leftist media platforms in ELMO (Eastern European Left Media Outlet). The English version of the article is printed here in and was translated from the Romanian with the permission of Antropedia and of the author.
I met Lia on a hot summer day near the train station in Baia Mare. She was pregnant, had missing teeth, and was holding a cheerful six-year-old with a mobility impairment. Lia is a 32-year-old Roma woman who works as an upholsterer in one of Baia Mare’s factories. She is sharp-tongued, takes pride in doing her work well, and she enjoys her trade. She grew up in a children’s home. Unlike many of her co-workers, she graduated high-school. She has three children with her first partner, who died a few years ago. At the train station, she was waiting for her current partner, who has been away for three weeks with work. The older children are in foster care in a nearby village. The youngest was also in foster care, but Lia managed to get him back just a few months earlier. Lia earns minimum wage, but works very long over-hours in order to make an average of 2 300 lei [around €500] per month. She’s grateful – working overtime has allowed her to reach a certain level of income. In turn, this was enough to get her younger son back from foster care. She dreams of moving from the makeshift home she lives in, with a toilet in the backyard, to a village where she can rent a suitable place to live in and commute to work. She would then be able to bring home her older children, whom she now only gets to see on Sundays.
Just as before 1989, tens of thousands of employees are working in factories in and around Baia Mare. However, the underpinnings of the current wave of industrialization is very different from the previous one. Whereas during the socialist period most workers had a decent quality of life and social status that firmly placed them in the middle class, now most of them live in a perpetual state of precariousness, being paid either the minimum wage or slightly more than that. They struggle and continue to supplement their incomes to ensure the survival of their families.
State-owned factories built during the socialist period have been replaced by subsidiaries of transnational corporations or factories and workshops set up by local entrepreneurs. Most of them were built on greenfield sites outside the city. Least-paying jobs are in furniture, mattresses, clothing and footwear production. Aramis, the factory with the most employees – about 5 500 – is a furniture supplier to Ikea. Ikea is also the main destination for the furniture and mattresses produced by the Taparo group factories. Of the clothing and footwear workshops, most operate on a lohn basis, supplying only the labor force to international brands, from whom they receive raw materials, designs and sometimes production technology.
This begs the question – why are tens of thousands of Baia Mare workers so vulnerable and why do they live in poverty, despite the fact that they work full-time, often overtime, while the companies that sell the products of their labor are, by every standard, profitable? Moreover, how do these individuals and families survive on such low income? To answer these and other questions, we took to the field in 2021, along with a team of anthropologists. We talked to dozens of workers from several factories based in the Baia Mare area. We also talked to managers and representatives of the local administration. Below, I will focus on the situation of low-wage factories and their employees.
As anthropologists, we can examine the specific context of the labor configuration in Baia Mare factories on several levels. Ethnography provides us with insight into the details of workers’ day-to-day strategies for different aspects of life, ranging from earning enough money to support themselves to living a meaningful life. Secondly, it is significant to study the recent history of the city and the region in order to understand how this wave of industrialization took shape at the intersection of historical events, state strategies or geographical particularities. In the third place, the Baia Mare economic context is an example of economic mechanisms and power relations that are unfolding globally and can be appreciated as such. Anthropology needs to constantly interrogate and integrate the tension between particularism and universalism. On the one hand, the workers in these factories have individual biographies that can only be understood in the local and specific context shaped by their families and communities and by the social transformations that occurred during their lives. On the other hand, the mechanisms that shape these individual destinies are specific instances of phenomena that have already been happening on a global scale for many centuries. This does not imply that we can view the world as a coherent sum of local contexts with linear, intelligible and predictable historical transformations. On the contrary, social processes are marked by ruptures, fluidity, tensions and apparently different reactions to similar circumstances. Each specific phenomenon becomes intelligible at the intersection of particular histories and general processes (Kasmir and Carbonella 2008, Kasmir and Carbonella 2014, Narotzky 2018). Additionally, historically informed anthropology must take into account and strive to access both perspectives at any given time.
Young and middle-aged adults who make up the bulk of industrial employees have experienced downward class mobility compared to their parents’ generation who came of age during the socialist period. Having become employees at a time when Romania had been fully incorporated into the global neoliberalism of the early 21st century, their position as cogs in the capitalist profit-making machine was from the outset quite narrowly defined.
For locals with a secondary or lower level of education, residing in the city or nearby villages, the most likely option to get a job is at the nearby factories. This is despite the fact that wages are low, the work is often hard and access to work involves commuting. Furthermore, some of the factories work shifts on weekends, which is an added challenge for families with young children. The most vulnerable of these workers are the Roma, who also face discrimination and even fewer opportunities to find work. For other ethnic groups, in terms of working conditions and wages, factories looking for semi-skilled workers are virtually identical as employers, especially as they all provide workers with transportation to work in company owned minibuses. For minimum wage workers (1386 lei per month) base pay is so low that, despite working full-time, workers earn far less than one would require for a decent living. As such, in addition to the day job, everyone is devising strategies to supplement this income. Most often workers work extra hours and extra shifts, including graveyard or weekend shifts. In some smaller factories and workshops, the officially recorded minimum wage is supplemented with overtime off-the-books payments. However, overtime is limited. On the one hand, due to the high-effort requirements, overtime is only available to young and healthy workers. On the other hand, the level of income is unlikely to increase significantly above the threshold of 2 000 lei per month, which still is insufficient. As a result, a significant proportion of these workers have no choice but to give up their factory jobs for a couple of months each year, usually in the summer, and take up other, better-paid jobs. Some pick mushrooms, berries and herbs, or work on farms in local villages. Most go abroad to find work, often in agriculture or construction. Seasonal migration allows them to return and live with their families and earn an extra income. In other words, in order for big companies to be able to continue to produce at unrealistically low costs in Romania, Romanian workers have to relocate to work, at least temporarily, for the same companies in slightly more decent Western-European conditions. The logic of capitalism’s continued growth is based in large part on the differentiated geography of production and consumption of goods.
Industrial labor is regarded as the norm for these workers. Few of them feel that they have or will ever have better job or pay options. In these circumstances, other small differentiating factors become important. Having a good relationship with managers is important for all. How convenient the commute is also matters – this depends both on the absolute distance to the factory and on the route of the minibuses. For some employees, factory work is an opportunity for which they are grateful. This group includes those with countryside households for whom the salary is a form of supplemental income and those without qualifications or work experience, who end up working their first job later in life. These people are trapped in a structure of opportunities so limited and so rigid that access to low-paid work is seen as a privilege.
These kinds of factories are perpetually looking for new employees. Staff turnover is high. Additionally, it is expected that the number of employees will decrease during the summer months and not return to the desired levels until late autumn. Unlike factories that pay higher wages and look for higher-skilled labor, which put in a lot of effort and get better results when it comes to employee retention, the other factories have become accustomed to always recruiting and offering temporary migrants a new job as soon as they return to town. One of the main problems that factories face is securing full rosters of workers for each shift in order to meet their production quotas. That’s why the most valued workers are “disciplined” workers, whom the employer can rely on to not miss shifts, take sick leave or quit without notice. The benefits policies have continually changed over the years in response to these problems. The policies are designed to encourage employee discipline and predictability. Those who do not meet these expectations are simply not entitled to receive the extra benefits. One implication of these policies is that workers who embody this ideal of discipline can end up earning higher incomes than base pay at higher paying factories.
Although factories in the Baia Mare area produce goods for Ikea or for luxury brands of clothing, footwear or furniture, they have very little leeway when it comes to employee income. After all, the main reason why these companies want their products to be made in Romania is to keep production costs as low as possible. However, over the course of the last few years, wages in Romania have gradually increased and factories, which are having trouble finding employees, have had to push for higher salaries in order to keep producing. It’s a delicate balance, because big business always has the option of relocating to other parts of the world, where wages are even lower. Many factories and workshops that have been working under the lohn system in Romania have already shut down, while manufacturing has moved to Asia. The only advantage Romania still has is having one of the cheapest labor markets within the EU. Moving production outside the EU would involve additional costs, taxes and transport risks, especially in light of the 2020 pandemic disruptions. Next, as Romanians move to work in wealthier western countries, jobs in Romania start to be filled with workers in worse conditions than Romanians. Several Baia Mare factories have already started hiring refugees, while the number of Asian migrants heading to Romania is also on the rise.
The research leading to these results has received funding from the NO Grants 2014-2021, under Project contract no. 22/2020 – “Precarious labor and peripheral housing. The socio-economic practices of Romanian Roma in the context of changing industrial relations and uneven territorial development”.
Raluca Perneș is an anthropologist, sociologist and UX researcher. She studied at Babeș-Bolyai University, Central European University and University College London. In 2009-2010 she did ethnographic research in Ghana. Her research interests center on the themes of social inequality, the state, citizenship and legal pluralism.
Kasmir, Sharryn and August Carbonella, 2008. “Dispossession and the Anthropology of Labor”, Critique of Anthropology 28(1):5-25.
Kasmir, Sharryn and August Carbonella, 2014. “Blood and Fire: Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor”, New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Narotzky, Susana. 2018. “Rethinking the Concept of Labor”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 24(1):29‐43.