A new home: A glimpse into the life of Romanians in the UK
Romanians make up the second-highest number of EU nationals in the UK, but for many of them the adaptation process is difficult. Guest writer Stefan Paiu looks into how Brexit has changed the Romanians’ perspectives on their future in the UK.
After working in Romania, Spain and Ireland for over fifteen years, Violeta finally found her dream job as a carer in the UK. Many might be put off by the long hours and hard labour, but “it’s a job that not only I like, but I do from my heart. A tribute to my partner since he suffered from cancer and I looked after him. He fed my love of working in a care home until his last moment”, says Violeta.
After losing her partner, now her priority is to bring her children, mother and sister into the UK to settle down with her. “I think of moving to Italy sometimes, as it’s something unknown for me. For now, though, I want to bring my family here”. Even as the value of the Euro approaches that of the Pound, you still cannot find the equivalent of a UK salary in Italy or Spain, let alone Romania. “Right now, half of that salary goes back home to them”, added Violeta. A very common narrative among Romanian immigrants, who started leaving their country after 2007, when Romania joined the EU.
In 2014, the UK lifted labour restrictions imposed on Romanians, and, although in fewer numbers than predicted by the media, they did migrate to Britain. In 2017, Romanians overtook both the Irish and Indian population, reaching second place as the highest foreign population in the UK, just under the Poles. The latest official data shows that over 1.08 million Romanians have applied to settle in the UK after Brexit. That’s more than the population of Liverpool.
These immigration trends are a hot topic among researchers from both countries, as they have significant economic, as well as political implications. “Romanian immigration needs to be put into context. It is a trend that grew in popularity after the Revolution, in 1989, and as of now, it is one of the most impactful migrations that has ever happened in Europe. Between three and four million people have left Romania since 2007, choosing to live and work in another country. It’s a huge boost to any labour market; therefore, it’s of interest to know what this outflow produced”, explains Dr. Monica Roman, economics professor at the University of Bucharest.
“Lately, high-skilled migration, especially to the UK, also started to grow, especially in IT and health care. Still, overall, Romanian immigrants are medium to low qualified. They are the most vulnerable on the labour market, but economically driven nonetheless”, adds Dr. Roman.
Most Romanian immigrants cover jobs such as fruit pickers, construction workers, or, like Violeta, care assistants. She says: “You cannot work too much because you easily get burnt out. It’s a tough job. We are keyworkers, even now during the pandemic. They need us. If we stay at home, who takes care of the residents? When I come home, I am exhausted, but mentally, not physically”. Violeta is now 38 and fits the general profile of the Romanian immigrant described by Dr. Roman: “a young person, under 40, very balanced in terms of gender; one that can work”.
Still, low-skilled work does not mean the work is easy. Robert Whiting, 28, works daily around Eastern Europeans, in the Aldi Regional Distribution Centre of Cardiff, Wales. A very demanding job, where you normally finish the workday around 2 AM. “You need to keep up the pace, as other people are trying to pick up from the same areas as you”, he tells me, adding “Once you’ve been working for a few weeks, you will be given a pick rate, which basically states how many items you should be picking in an hour, and therefore it can be demanding”. Robert also thinks that EU citizens should be given the right to work in the UK, “just like anyone else willing to work, to get by, and have a life.”
He has also worked with Romanians in construction, and noticed a shared concern around how Brexit would influence their lives: “A lot of them have been worried about what is going to happen, as it has taken a few years to come to an agreement.”
For almost two decades now, the UK has experienced a series of inflows and outflows in Eastern and Central European migration. As the migrants were coming and going, the media changed its way of treating the subject, mainly depending on the ruling party. The first wave started in 2004, when several countries joined the EU. Among them all, Polish and Lithuanians make up the highest populations of immigrants still present in Britain. In 2004 the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo created the stereotype of the "Polish plumber", or the skilled, affordable Eastern European labourer. It was a topic that did not get much negative media attention, but helped the UK recover quickly through the 2008 recession.
Rob McNeil is one of the founders of the Migration Observatory, a project that provides data on migration and migrants in the UK. He specialises in migration and the media. Back in 2012, McNeil was asked about what the media narrative might be in 2013. “The only thing anyone’s going to be talking about, is January 1, 2014 and all the Romanians and Bulgarians turning up.” Over the period of two years, the amount of British national newspapers talking about migration quadrupled. "That fed into an existing highly Euro-sceptic narrative, arguably supplying ammunition for the Euro-sceptic win in the Brexit referendum", he adds.
Now times have changed again, and many factors, including a point-based immigration system, influence a counter movement, one where low-skilled workers are leaving Britain. The Migration Observatory shows a striking decrease in migration in the past few years among the EU2 citizens (Romanians and Bulgarians), as well as an all-time second highest emigration rate.
COVID added to the impacts of Brexit, affecting migration, and forcing many Romanians to return home. Romanian governments wanted to incentivise their people to return home, especially considering the average immigrant is young and able to work. “The minimum wage [in Romania] was recently altered for the construction sector. Where it is normally RON 2,200 (GBP 400), in construction, the starting salary is RON 3,000 (GBP 540). There are also exemptions on taxes in the IT sector, to encourage people to stay in Romania. Those are economic measures that should stop this outflow and inspire a return migration”, explains Dr. Roman.
The UK was an exciting prospect for Romanians, until Brexit. However, it is not only the restrictions that make Britain less attractive. Dr. Dragos Radu, an economics lecturer at King’s College London, thinks social factors are also important in the decision-making process: “Culturally, the UK is always problematic for Romanians. It’s hard for someone who doesn’t get here from an early age, to feel integrated. This makes Romanians hang between two worlds: feeling like strangers back home, and being strangers over here.”
While Violeta is working hard to buy a house and bring her family to the UK, Răzvan Cruceanu, Robert’s colleague at Aldi, has a different story: “If you want to integrate into a society, the healthiest way is to adapt to the rules of that society. We, Romanians, are used to another way of living.” Răzvan came to Cardiff in 2016 with “a pair of jeans, a jacket, two hoodies and GBP 3,000”. He started his adventure by googling ‘family-friendly’ towns in the UK. Now, he and his family live in Wales and they all love Cardiff. “Brits aren’t willing to spend their spare time working more hours. They don’t seem bothered that others are doing the jobs they don’t want to do”, he adds.
For some Romanians, living in the UK might mean sacrificing their sense of identity in the process of adopting new customs, but a post-Brexit Britain looks better than the prospects waiting for them at home.
By Stefan Paiu, Guest Writer
Stefan has had a rather radical career change in recent years, shifting from computer science to journalism. His goal is to bring out people's stories, with a focus on social injustice, environmental protection and sports.
(Opening photo: Miss you message in Romanian displayed in London's Canary Wharf / Photo source: Dreamstime.com)