Sporting yellow safety helmets, about 30 men are busy at work on a construction site south of Bucharest, exchanging a few words in Vietnamese.

Faced with a growing labor shortage that threatens their economies, Romania and Hungary are courting Asian workers, going against Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

“My friend, my friend,” a Romanian worker says to his Vietnamese colleague in English at the Bucharest construction site, trying to break the language barrier.

Very little bridges the gap between the two cultures. On cigarette breaks, the Vietnamese use a PVC pipe for an improvised puff, while for lunch a Vietnamese chef prepares several dishes for his compatriots to eat in a dining hall.

District mayor Daniel Baluta says the city was forced to recruit far beyond EU borders.

“We had money to renovate dozens of public housing units, but not the necessary manpower,” he tells AFP.

‘Container city’

In neighbouring Hungary, the government has been quietly opening up the market to foreign workers.

This year it is issuing 75,000 permits, mainly for workers from Ukraine but also some from Vietnam, China and India, up sharply from 13,000 in 2015.

“It is impossible to realise a large-scale project without foreign workers,” Eva Toth, a representative of the chemical industry trade union, tells AFP, adding that Hungarian workers should be paid more and have better work conditions to entice them to stay.

In construction alone, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 additional workers are needed, according to Gyula Pallagi, head of the sector’s union.

At one industrial site – a new polyol factory owned by Hungarian oil and gas giant MOL about 160 kilometres (100 miles) northeast of Budapest – a so-called “container city” has been built to house up to 2,500 foreign workers.

Romania issued more than 11,000 work permits in the first half of the year, already more than the 10,500 granted for the whole of 2018 to fill the shortage left by four million of its own citizens emigrating north to look for better paying jobs.

Vietnamese, Moldovans and Sri Lankans are most numerous. Many are hired by recruitment companies that specialize in Asian laborers, whose number has exploded.

“At first we were solicited for small projects, but for the past three years the demand for workers for large projects has increased significantly,” Corina Constantin, director of recruiter Multi Professional Solutions, tells AFP.

According to a 2018 study by US-based ManpowerGroup, four out of five Romanian employers have difficulties in filling posts.

With a total workforce of 5.1 million, the country – one of the poorest in Europe –is an estimated 300,000 workers short, according to industry groups.

“All sectors are affected but things are particularly bad in industries, where there are strict deadlines and contracts to be respected throughout the year,” Christian Parvan, vice-president of the Association of Entrepreneurs, tells AFP.

‘Abusive behaviour’

Parvan says foreign workers get “treated well,” and their employers try to integrate them in the conservative EU member state, which unlike many other European countries has not seen a surge of nationalist sentiment.

Baluta, the Bucharest district mayor, says 500-odd Vietnamese employed in construction in his district receive the equivalent of 900 euros ($1,000) net per month, one third higher than the average salary in Romania.

But trade unionist Dumitru Costin criticizes what he describes as “abusive behaviour” by many employers, adding that the Asian workforce “is much, much cheaper than the local one.”.

He says labour inspectors cannot check whether the “minimum standards” of conditions for workers are respected because it is impossible to communicate directly with the employees.

“When they have travelled thousands of miles to find a job, it is obvious that they will obey without flinching and work unpaid overtime for fear of being sent back to their country,” says Costin, who heads SNB, one of the country’s main trade union confederations.

Across the border in Hungary, trade unionists make the same accusations.

Employers “exploit the language barriers by faking even their working papers,” says Pallagi, the head of the construction workers’ union.

Zoltan Laszlo, head of the Metallurgical Trade Union, says Hungarian employees likewise are under pressure from their bosses who tell them they are “easily replaceable” by Ukrainians, Mongolians or Vietnamese.

Peter Murphy reported from Budapest.

– AFP