Conned, exploited, trapped: Romania’s new flock of Asian delivery riders

The jobs and conditions that await Sri Lankans barely resemble the opportunities offered to them by shady agents.

Thousands of Sri Lankans work in Romania, among them many delivery riders [Lola Garcia Ajofrin/Al Jazeera]

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Bucharest, Romania – For six months, Douglas* worked hard at a Bucharest restaurant, cooking more than 200 hamburgers a day in the kitchen.

But like many other foreign workers in Romania, he took on a second job delivering takeaway food by motorcycle to supplement his income.

On Sundays, his day off from the restaurant, he wakes up at 7.30am in a room provided by his employer.

It is crammed, to say the least. Fourteen Sri Lankan men sleep in seven bunk beds, “like in a hospital”, he jokes.

Their jackets and towels hang on the edge of the beds. Douglas’s spacious green square backpack, with the words Bolt Food, sits on the floor.

He eats rice and lentils for breakfast before getting on his motorcycle for a seven-hour shift, to deliver sushi and pizza to famished customers.

Between 2pm and 9pm, he delivers about 14 orders.

Afterwards, he eats dinner – rice again, this time with chicken.

“The most difficult thing for me is to get used to the idea because I didn’t come for this. But I can do it. I can try for a good salary,” he said.

Each week, he makes about 120 Romanian lei ($26) profit as a rider. He pays 250 lei ($54) to rent the motorcycle and 30 lei ($6.50) for petrol.

He arrived from Kandy, a lush plateau of tea plantations and Buddhist temples in the heart of Sri Lanka. He had spotted a job offer online last November, to work as a housekeeper in a European Union country. Accommodation and meals would be provided, the advertisement said.

The opportunity could see his dreams achieved, he thought. His 12-year-old son – a cricket enthusiast – could eventually study in the United Kingdom after all.

He had tried working abroad before, in Dubai, “but it was very expensive”, he said.

To secure the European job and work permit, Douglas took on a loan to pay about 3,000 euros ($3,200) to a recruitment agency.

A year later, sitting in a café in central Bucharest, he looks over the WhatsApp conversations he had with the agent, a Sri Lankan man.

“Things were not as they had told me,” he said.

When he arrived in Romania, the job and salary were different from what was initially offered.

He had been promised 800 euros ($864) for a housekeeping job, not 500 euros ($540) to flip burgers.

“I’m trapped. I can’t go back because I have to pay [off] the loan but earning so little, I don’t know how I’m going to pay it either,” he said with a tired smile.

Sri Lanka drivers in Romania
Delivery riders, who often hail from Asia, work relentlessly across Romanian cities [Lola Garcia Ajofrin/Al Jazeera]

Ali*, a robust 27-year-old who emigrated with his brother from Colombo in late July, rides for up to 15 hours a day.

The siblings had worked as mechanics back home, but “the salary was nothing”, Ali said.

Their father knew a Sri Lankan expatriate in Romania, who found them cleaning jobs in Bucharest, but soon after they arrived, their work permits were cancelled.

While they get to grips with a new round of paperwork, they deliver food by bike.

Food delivery is a booming business in Romania.

Tazz, a Romanian enterprise, and international companies such as Glovo, Bolt Food, FoodPanda and Takeaway compete for hungry fingertips in the country’s large cities.

According to Glovo, which has 3,000 delivery riders nationally, a rider can earn about 23 lei per hour ($5).

Meanwhile, the number of Sri Lankans travelling abroad for work is on the rise.

According to Sri Lanka’s labour and foreign employment ministry, more than 300,000 emigrated in 2022. Between January and September this year, more than 200,000 left.

Sri Lankans have left the island for a number of reasons – due to security fears after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result of political and economic crises.

The people behind the 100,000 quota

Douglas, Ali and several others Al Jazeera interviewed for this story are just some of the people who make up the quota the Romanian government set in 2023, of 100,000 work permits for non-EU workers, a number that will rise to 140,000 in 2024, to alleviate employment gaps.

According to The Economist, the Eastern European nation is changing from a country of “emigrants to one of immigrants”.

Most of Romania’s foreign workforce, excluding Europeans, are Nepalis. Sri Lankans make up the second largest non-EU expatriate force, with 15,807 people.

“​​It is only in the past year or so that we started to see migrants from Southeast Asia delivering food in the streets of Bucharest,” said Maria-Luiza Apostolescu, a researcher in public policy. “Initially you could see them in the kitchen, in the background.”

She said some arrive on a student visa and deliver food part-time, while for others, it’s a second job.

But she warned that there are no NGOs supporting “economic migrants”, partly because of a lack of funds.

“It is [also] hard for Romanians to understand that other people are coming here to have a better life. We are [usually] the ones who emigrate.”

‘You must assure decent conditions for foreigners’

At the immigration office in Bucharest, an official shouts to the crowd, which has formed into various queues.

“If you don’t have an online appointment, get out of the room!”

Many waiting are young Asian men. There are also some families.

“A significant number of vacant jobs were registered between January and August 2023,” said a spokesperson of the Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Solidarity, citing positions such as couriers, builders, secretaries, kitchen helpers and security guards.

“This quota looks very good on paper but if you can’t find Romanian workers, you must assure decent conditions for foreigners,” said Radu Stochita, a Romanian journalist who has investigated the plight of Nepali workers.

Like Sri Lankans, many of those from Nepal pay exorbitant sums to recruitment agencies, take on loans and end up doing jobs that bear little resemblance to the ones they were offered.

“In some cases, they don’t even work for the company that appears in the contract,” Stochita said. “The question is, Who gets this money?”

When questioned by Al Jazeera about these substantial fees, a Labour Ministry spokesperson said the state does not impose payments on foreign workers beyond regular work permit fees or taxes

“The thousands of euros paid by workers represent external costs associated with recruitment firms and agencies,” they said.

Sri Lanka
Thousands of Asian riders cater to Romanian customers as a new gig economy emerges [Lola Garcia Ajofrin/Al Jazeera]

A Sri Lankan from Kaluatara, who paid about 3,500 euros ($3,780) to come to work in a kitchen in Bucharest, said he feels like he had been duped.

“Sometimes I feel this is just a scam done by the employer and the job agency,” he said. “We don’t know about the working conditions before coming here, so in our head we feel it is worth spending that much money and we think that we can pay off the debt within a year.”

Manil*, a 32-year-old chef who got in touch with a recruitment agency after watching their advertisement on TV, said: “They asked me to cut onions and vegetables in a video, and they hired me. All of us have paid too much to come here.”

When he and five other Sri Lankans arrived at the hotel in Brasov, where they were supposed to work as chefs, “it was not normal”, he said ominously.

His boss would sexually abuse the workers, he said.

“On the nights we refused to go to his room, he punished us,” Manil said. “What to do?”

He left the job but does not wish to report it to the police.

“They are too afraid to report it,” said Loredana Urzica-Mirea, the head of eLiberare, an organisation aimed at combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Romania.

eLiberare has mediated a case involving Sri Lankans working in “terrible” conditions at a meat factory, she said, but the employer denied any wrongdoing.

“The new law does not make it any easier for them to change jobs,” she added.

In 2022, an emergency measure widely understood to be aimed at protecting employers means foreign workers have to stick with a contract for at least a year. They also have to receive written permission from an employer if they want to change jobs.

Disenchanted, Manil said he plans to get to Italy in the hope that working conditions, and pay, are better there.

“It’s the only option we have left,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera