Pawns and Queens

April 19, 2005

The Herald Society
Tuesday April 19, 2005


As Romania and Bulgaria come into the EU fold, Ruth Hedges talks to the women seizing the chance to head west

It’s Friday night in Suceava, north Romania. Irina is set for a big one. She is 18 and in her crucial last year at high school.

Competition for university places is fierce, aspirations are high and private tuition for those who can afford it increasingly common. But that can all wait for one more weekend. She’s just putting on her final touches of make-up when a car horn sounds. It’s time to go. We run down five flights of the unlit stairway. At the bottom a car waits with classmates Alexandra, Resvan and Alexandrei and we pick up one more friend before moving on to pizzeria Chagall’s.

This is Romania’s new generation. They were aged three or four during the revolution of 1989 when Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship was overthrown in a bloody fight. When Romania’s accession to the EU is signed and confirmed on April 25 their country will join in 2007 and Irina and her friends will just be finishing university.

It is likely that some of them will want to work abroad, and even more likely that it’ll be the women among them that do. But only for a while.

Two major changes are occurring in patterns of migration in eastern and central European countries: young people are choosing to go on a temporary basis, and it is increasingly women making the journeys.

The shift has become referred to as the feminisation of migration, and it’s happening at the two ends of the labour market. A UN report published last October, Women and International Migration, says: “Female migrants are increasingly part of worker flows, moving on their own.” The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) describes the change as one of the most significant trends in recent years.

After dancing at Suceava’s new club to Euro house music, Irina and I talk about travelling and working abroad. “I hope to go to Bucharest University to study Economical Science in English. I don’t want to just work in an office with papers and numbers. I like to be dynamic.”

Certainly the younger generation is increasingly confident. The expectation that Romania will join the EU along with Bulgaria in 2007 is a psychological boost that is more significant at the moment for its motivating effect than its potential real benefits.

Expectations are high, thanks to the 24 hour multi-station TV which has been a constant part of these young people’s lives. Under Ceausescu two hours of state propaganda a night was the only TV.

Now it’s different. “On the TV you see powerful women, independent women,” Irina says. “I don’t think men actually enjoy it. They don’t agree with women being equal. They say: ‘Why should women be in politics?’” Western countries appreciate intellectual work, she says.

Such attitudes are an important reason that a high proportion of educated women are seeking employment or further education in the west. Twenty-six year-old Raluca Voinea from Bucharest was the first Eastern European student to be accepted onto the Masters course in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College in London.

“Women are often more ambitious because it’s quite a macho society,” she says. “If they’ve been to western Europe or America, they feel they’ll be taken more seriously,” she says. She was not satisfied with the postgraduate opportunities in her home country. “The knowledge was too theoretical, old and inappropriate,” she says.

A study published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has warned that many new EU countries risk a brain drain in which they will lose their talented ambitious young women and men to the west.

Raluca says she does not want to forsake her home country forever. “I hope to bring this knowledge back to Romania. We have to somehow be competitive and start acting as if we are on the same planet.”

There are more reasons to return home now. The kind of experience that women such as Raluca are seeking is not that of a traditional permanent economic migrant. Their motivation is much more diverse.

Another IOM report argues: “These migrants wish to improve their living conditions, not only economically but also socially, culturally, politically, spiritually and sexually.” They could be talking about a British 18-year-old off to Australia.

Klara Lakoma is one such person. She is 20 and has come over to work and study in Edinburgh from the Czech Republic, one of the EU accession countries of May last year. She had spent time before as an au pair in England, but is now able to work and study freely under EU law.

“I wanted a gap year before university because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study and I wanted longer to think. Now I’m pretty sure I want to study journalism,” she says.

Klara is working full time in a bar while studying English at Stevenson’s College and preparing for a university entrance exam. “I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. A copy of Albert Camus’ The Outsider rests on the table we’re sitting at.

It’s unlikely that Klara will be able to study full-time here because of the costs, but she is encouraged to try for what she sees as a better further education system says her attitudes are shared by Polish students on her English language course.

“I think it’s quite hard because when you study at a Czech uni you have five years of study and it’s all theoretical,” she says. “You do nothing practical so when you’ve finished no one wants to employ you.” British study is much more practical in its delivery and its application, she says.

Klara was the only one from her high school to go abroad but says that will change. “I’m very happy about what I did, and I think it will become more common. Until last year we didn’t have any chance to do anything other than be au pairs. Now people can travel anywhere and work anywhere.”

Women and girls are better able to find casual work than men, Karla says. “Even if you’re working as bar staff they often want a girl or nice woman.

There are jobs which we can do without good English – what can men do? They can work as a building, but that doesn’t give you the opportunity of learning English.” It’s different for her. “I’m chatting all day. I love it.”

But the picture for some eastern European women is not so rosy. It is quite possible that some of Irina’s teachers will spend the summer picking strawberries in Spain.

With a monthly salary of €100, the equivalent of £70, Romanian teachers can make three times as much there – a situation which Spanish farmers have seized on with enthusiasm.

Advertisements for the work go into newspapers early in the summer and daily queues appear at Bucharest’s bus stops. Women, it is assumed will be less likely to unionise, will take lower salaries and rarely want to stay permanently.

Care work is also a major source of employment for women from poorer European countries. Christa Wichterich, author of The Globalized Woman and based in Bonn, Germany, says that her country has developed a clever rotation system.

“Families take a woman from an Eastern European country to care for an elderly relative for three months – the length of a green card – and then their cousin comes or a friend – it rotates around the village or the neighbourhood.”

Irina brings this up during our conversation. “There are people that go and work just to take care of old people in other countries. You study a lot just to go and take care of an old lady because she has lots of money – I really don’t like this,” she says.

Dr Hubert Krieger, author of Migration Trends in an Enlarged Europe, says: ‘We face a massive crisis of care personnel in western countries and there is a huge demand to fill the gap.

“There are jobs there for the women and not for men. Previously the man – the head of household – would be migrating and sending money back home and the mother would stay home and run the household.”

So it is not simply a case that a power shift is going on in the new EU from men to women. Labour markets are increasingly dependent on part-time, temporary workers, and 83% of part time workers in the EU are women.

“These women are facing a lot of exploitation so I wouldn’t say it’s empowering them. They are lacking basic human rights and they are in fear, sometimes maybe even for their lives,” Krieger says.

This point is particularly real in the area of sex trafficking. An estimated 1500 women and girls are brought to the UK every year from eastern Europe and the Balkans, sold by families in extreme poverty or lured under false pretences by mafia gangs.

Any degree of independence contrasts with huge potential vulnerability, and despite often becoming the major breadwinner of the family, respect and equality isn’t guaranteed on return.

The UN report is more optimistic, stating that exposure to different gender relations in host cultures can “enhance migrant women’s autonomy and empowerment.”

On the other hand young, ambitious women are seizing the opportunities the west has to offer.

But for the pawns not the queens of the new global economy freedom does not mean power or liberation. Casual, informal labour is unregulated and unprotected and the implications are for a dangerously insecure workforce.

But change is gradually coming. Pan-European organisations are beginning programmes to educate potential migrants about what rights they are entitled to in their host country; while the new mobile workforce is starting to push for protection itself through organisations such as Respect, a campaigning European network of migrant domestic workers.

Irina knows her worth; Raluca has made it to the Royal College in London; Karla is enjoying six months working and studying in Edinburgh. Women are on the move and a great number know exactly where they’re going.


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