Women for Women

Working women in CEE: she for he.

Planet 50-50 is nothing but a promise for 90% of the women in Central and Eastern Europe (C.E.E.). Whilst giving time to this aim of the international community to become something more than a hope, women from Romania, Hungary and Poland are doing what they know best: providing for their families. What do they get in return? Blame, humiliations, beatings, rape, instability and a continuous struggle for financial security on a 90-10 ratio.

„I was in San Nicandro Garganico a month ago replacing a Romanian girl and there’s an agency there. They want 300 euros fee for one person. I’ve already talked to one Italian owner of a hotel, cause he only wants me to pay a 100 euro fee before leaving and the next 200 euros I can pay him when I get my first salary… Why would I pay you 500 euros for nothing?? … Oo, how old I am, I’m 45, why you asking? In the last 10 years I’ve worked all over Italy, better than younger girls and now you asking me how old I am?? You saying you saw my Facebook photo? Why do you care about this? I might be 45 but I’m more efficient than a young girl. I like to work for my money. We’re working there as slaves there, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for cleaning rooms in a hotel and now you’re saying that age does matter? That for (earning) 1200 euros a month it’s compulsory for me to have lean, long legs, be a blonde, have an academic degree, with perfect English skills, are you kidding me?? We’re working as slaves there and all you care for is my age?? (…) Burglars!”, murmurs while looking away on a Regio train heading to Dej, a small town in the North-Western part of Romania.

Lorena (not her real name) is 45, married for 24 and spent her last 10 years working abroad, mainly in Italy. She is one of the more than 600.000 Romanian women who chose to get a job abroad in the last 15 years.

„I’ve sacrificed myself all my life. This is what I know, after more than 20 years of marriage and two kids: I didn’t leave because I had the best conditions at home. My husband kept on telling me that I didn’t do much in life, after changing my job to come and live in Dej – I’m from Bistrita (a larger city than Dej, about 100 km distance) – I worked as a vendor and I gained 10 million lei (200 euros a month). My husband doesn’t like working although he has more degrees than I do. I’m a simple woman, you know? Anyways, I have two boys and I have to raise them. One is at the university and has his needs and the other one is in highschool. They have their needs – like Nike shoes, good food on the table and somebody has to provide for them. Even now my husband is saying that I didn’t do anything, that I am nobody, but I will show him he’s not right: I’m an honest person, I didn’t sleep with anybody else, I didn’t find myself a rich Italian lover. No. All I’m doing is working. To be honest, is the exact same thing that I’ve done at home: cleaning, washing, ironing, making breakfasts and the bed, serving everyone, but unless like home, here I get paid for all of my work!”she says.

Indeed, women still do the majority of the unpaid housework and care in the E.U. This is why Lorena likes working and earning her own money outside the household. And she chose good:

„I’ve always chosen to work in the Norther part of Italy, because it’s more developed and salaries are higher; that’s where the money is, close to the Swiss border and Saint Moritz”.

She’s expressing dissatisfaction towards the tough working conditions that nobody cares about and the high expectations the intermediary agents have for Romanian women who accept a job abroad.

„We’re slaves, I’m telling you. Last time we were 20 women in a room in the basement, no windows. We didn’t have one day off, only 1 hour break in which we could barely take a shower and eat. We were everybody on top of each other. Some of the colleagues stealing, the others sleeping… And now they’re asking me how come I am not a young blonde since I’ve been applying for the job?? Come on, this is a joke… Last time Rai 1 came in Puglia where I worked because human trafficking, drugs and mafia. We stayed at the same hotel and we had no idea. They had to pay me 3000 euros for three months working as a cleaning person there and they gave me 0 lei, do you get that?? 0 lei!! They robbed everybody and the Police is one on one with them. That’s why I am always asking for the working conditions, the room, how many are we, what’s the schedule, and I never go without having my contract! I’ve seen a lot in life and I am the only one who I can depend upon. My boys need me and I don’t have any time to waste!”, explains.

By wasting time she gently refers to the human trafficking problem that Romanian women are facing in the Southern part of Italy. According to the latest report on human trafficking of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in C.E.E. countries, 54% of the victims are women. 65% of them are used as sex workers. As the official report underlines, the C.E.E. countries represent a very important link in the global flow of human trafficking, making  the regional overwiews more shocking: 23% of the women are trafficked for forced labour and 0.1% for organ removal.

Usually, the train takes about 75 minutes to get from Cluj to Dej and during the conversation with Lorena another concern gets no answer. In her view is okay to work and provide for your family, but at what cost? Does it worth the sacrifice? Is it safe? Ms. Magdalena (not her real name), 57, wonders what is happening with one of her goddaughters who got a job in Italy, but never returned.

„She used to go to work in Italy. She had been there mostly during summers, when it’s the season. She said she enjoyed it very much, but she wanted to stop at one point, and she decided that after modernizing the house in Floresti (a neighbourhood in the metropolitan area of Cluj-Napoca) she will stop looking for a job abroad. Imagine that it was her last summer there, she just made a phone call, talked to her husband, said she has had enough of her life in Cluj and she explicitly asked not to be disturbed again. She didn’t have any argument with her husband, nothing. It all came all of a sudden. Her husband said `Okay` and that was it. Nobody saw her after that. Her telephone is shut off… It’s been two years already… My husband told her husband to go and see with his own eyes if she’s okay, but no. He refused and that’s that”, explains Ms. Magdalena, headed to Beclean to take care of her father-in-law.

She is working as a cleaning person in one of the hotels in Cluj and now, because she has two days off, has some free time and has promised her son, who is working in Spain, she will look after his granddad. The woman agrees with everything Lorena is saying and keeps on reminding us the calvary of Romanian women in Sicily, that the Guardian wrote about.

The Romanian authorities, the only ones who can give an answer to all of these questions, are tilting their heads and enjoy visiting Southern Italy in spring as representatives of the Ministry for the Romanians Everywhere (yes, this is the actual name of the ministry). After the Guardian’s article, Ms. Pastarnac, the Minister herself, signed another memorandum of understanding with the Italian counterparts to create a rescue center for human trafficking victims in the peninsula. Meanwhile, the Romanian Police „will arduously work for improving the cooperation with its Italian colleagues”. After all, something has been done, a crisis cell has been created!

600 kilometers away, in the beautiful Budapest, Juliska, 54, is cleaning houses. She has to work because she is the only bread winner in the household. She’s from Zalau, Romania, and usually goes to Budapest 4 times a year: before each holliday and whenever she needs money. Juliska  earns 10.000 HUF (around 30 euros) per day. A female friend is helping her out and making recommendations.

„She stays at my place, she doesn’t have to pay for anything. I am helping her because I am a woman and I know how hard it is to earn decent money and she is in a safe environment”, confesses Juliska’s friend, a 61 year old woman from Budapest.

The Hungarian lady who is helping Juliska is recently retired, but with a pension of 100.000 HUF (around 300 euros) she needs to work extra as a physical therapist to help one of her sons, Robert (not his real name), who is unemployed at 27. He tried to work in the United Kingdom, but doesn’t speak English so it’s been „really difficult for him to get a job there”, his mom explains.

„I’ve accepted him and his girlfriend here, to live with me before leaving, because they didn’t have (money) to pay for anything. In London everything changed. He had to provide for himself – he went there without his girlfriend – he had to pay the accommodation, for eating, for transportation, for his cell phone… I helped him for half a year, I sent him every month like 500 euros, which there in pounds is nothing, but for me here was much money. He spent it all, found no job and came back home, empty-handed. I sold a house and I bought him a new one close to Budapest, in the place where he wanted to, but he doesn’t like it anymore, cause  he has to work to put the house in order… So now I still have to provide for him…”, underlines, arguing that her son’s situation is due to his poor education.

According to official data, Hungarian women managed to retain a more favorable position in the academic field than men, but the C.E.E. country struggles to find its balance outside the university:  Hungary has one of the lowest number of women representatives in the European Union. Hungary is one of the three countries in the E.U. which has only male representatives in the Government. According to Eurostat, has one of the largest gender pay gaps among managers, and has one of the lowest employment rates by education level in the E.U, 7.7%  less than the European average.

The problem, for all of the C.E.E. countries, goes even further than that and ethnicity plays an important role in the dichotomy: gypsy women are mistreated, neglected, discriminated against and often denied their right to health services.

The reproductive rights of women in the C.E.E. region is still a battlefield. For a woman growing up in the Communist era, this is still outrageous. During the ’60s Ceausescu issued a national policy directive aimed at women who were denied their reproductive rights and were forced to deliver babies for the country. Now, in Poland old times are back and women are facing the impossibility of deciding over their own health! This reminds me of  the case of Alicja Tysiąc, a Polish woman forced to bear a pregnancy even though her health was in danger. Suffering from severe myopia she was denied the right to decide over her own health and opt for an abortion. Today she is permanently disabled, due to the pregnancy, yet she won a case in the European Court of Human Rights against Poland. Why is this happening?

„It is a deep Conservative and Catholic society. I remember a case of a friend, she’s been raped and she didn’t tell this to the parents. She got pregnant at a young age and she had to cross the border to Germany to have the procedure (abortion). It’s outrageous! And now it might get worse!”, an outraged Polish woman said.

Women worldwide rallied against the Polish Government in October 2016 and set the limit for future questionable health policies: Women’s bodies are not public property! In my experience, unfortunately, I foresee many more breaches in women’s rights. For now, for European women like Lorena, Magdalena and Juliska He for She is nothing but a nice slogan, while she for he is a reality! Empowering women depends exclusively on other women stepping up.


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