A series of investigations by trade union magazine Fagbladet 3F has uncovered the systematic exploitation and squalid living conditions of Romanian cleaners in northern Zealand.
According to the magazine, four Romanians were recently employed by Denmark’s second-largest cleaning company, Forenede Service, to clean two daycare institutions and a public school in Rudersdal Council. They worked long hours for a period of six weeks without receiving any pay, and as a result had no money for rent or food, and were reduced to eating trash out of rubbish bins.
“We were told that we would get our money and that we shouldn’t complain to anyone,” 37-year-old Daniela Burcea told Fagbladet 3F. “But we didn’t get anything, and I ended up on the streets with my children and all my luggage.”
Not until the Romanian workers – Burcea, her sister, and two males – went to the cleaning company’s headquarters in Søborg last month accompanied by journalists from the magazine, did they receive any form of payment for their work.
Michael Krogh, an executive of Forenede Service, admitted to Fagbladet 3F that the company had made a mistake in not paying the Romanians but disputed the workers’ claims that they had worked as many as 12 hours at a stretch. He couldn’t, however, account for how many hours they had actually worked. Forenede Service then wrote four paychecks on the spot, failing to account for the hours worked or the pay rate, for a pay period described as spanning “December 7-December 7” (the day of the visit to company headquarters). The Romanians received payments ranging from 3,900-12,000 kroner.
Krogh said that the company hadn’t previously made payments because the workers didn’t have the proper papers in order.
“I was caught in a dilemma. Either I needed to admit that I had illegal workers or I needed to wait to pay them until their papers were in order,” he told Fagbladet 3F, adding that the company would provide documentation that tax had been paid on the workers’ pay – documentation that he has repeatedly failed to provide.
The treatment of the four Romanian workers appears to be anything but an anomaly.
In June 2011, Helsingør police found six hungry and broke Romanians living in squalid conditions in a basement flat. According to the Romanian family, they had been held against their will by cleaning firm JD Rengøring, which is owned by Jimmy Nika. Nika for years served as a subcontractor to Forenede Service and had arranged the Romanians’ travel to Denmark by bus on 23 May 2011.
“[Nika] offered us coffee and said to us: ‘If you try to do anything, escape or go to the police, you will not make it back to Romania alive. I’ll break your legs,’” 38-year-old Natalia Stoica told Fagbladet 3F of their first meeting with Nika.
The Stoica family cleaned schools and daycare institutions in northern Zealand at the promise of a salary of €500 a month. Instead, they received nothing.
“Not an [øre],” 49-year-old Vasile Stoica said.
The family said they resorted to eating food they found in the garbage of the places they cleaned.
The family was placed in their Helsingør flat through arrangements made by Nika. There, they had no running water, no electricity and were overrun by rats. The apartment was shared by as many as eight Romanians at a time. When their family in Romania caught wind of their condition, they contacted the Romanian Embassy, which in turn contacted police to tell them that the Romanians were being held against their will. After being discovered by police, the family then borrowed money from the embassy for a bus ticket back to Romania.
Once again, this family’s experience appears to point to a larger system at work.
Fagbladet 3F spoke with over 20 Romanians who were hired by Forenede Service or subcontractors of the company, including many who were hired by Nika. All received similar promises and treatment. Many received less than the promised €500 monthly salary, and some received no payment at all. Some of the workers reported having their ID papers stolen.
According to Trine Mygind Korsby, a University of Copenhagen researcher who specialises in human trafficking, the treatment of the Romanians points to human trafficking.
“There have been some serious situations where, among other things, they have been stripped of their ID papers, been threatened and worked unreasonable hours,” Korsby told Fagbladet 3F. “These are some of the indicators of human trafficking.”
The same Helsingør basement flat, which is owned by the Nika family, has been housing Romanian cleaners brought to Denmark by Jimmy Nika since as early as January 2010. Many told Fagbladet 3F about its squalid conditions.
“We were 10 people and there was only one toilet. It was a catastrophe,” said 44-year-old Traian Butuc.
“We lived five people to a room. We lived downstairs because they wouldn’t let us go upstairs,” 23-year-old Vasile Müller said. “It was so cold that we had to sleep with five to six layers of clothes and our shoes on.”
For his part, Nika denied the conditions were as bad as contended by the June 2011 police report, which said the basement was filled with rat excrement and a strong smell of human waste.
“It could very well be that there is a little rat shit here and there,” Nika told Fagbladet 3F, denying that there was any human excrement. “This is a 3.2 million kroner house that is under renovation. I don’t want anyone shitting on my floor.”
Despite Nika’s long relationship as a subcontractor of Forenede Service, apparently feeding the company a steady flow of cheap Romanian labour, Forenede Service denied to Fagbladet 3F any responsibility for the living conditions.
“Forenede doesn’t have anything at all to do with the Romanians’ living conditions or with anyone else who has lived in a basement,” Peer Krogh, the company’s managing director, told Fagbladet 3F.
See a video on the treatment of the Romanians here (in Danish/Romanian)