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Vanishing Foreign Workers Leave Albania’s Short-Staffed Businesses Frustrated

Importing foreign workers from poor countries sounds like a quick fix for Albania’s labour shortage – but many of them soon disappear to the West.

In the last week of August last year, as the tourist season neared its end in the Albanian coastal town of Durres, two young women from Nepal, Lulu and Tutu, arrived to start working as cleaning ladies in a hotel in the Shkembi i Kavajes area, some six kilometres down the coast from the city centre.

As the hotel owner prepared for the new season after the winter lull, without notice, Lulu and Tutu just disappeared.

“During the last two months I saw them speaking a lot on the phone and keeping more of their monthly salaries for themselves,” Ismet Kryeziu, owner of the hotel, told BIRN.

“They were hardworking and never complained or raised any grievances,” he added.

Lulu and Tutu left the hotel at the dead of night, leaving behind their passports along with their employment contract. Kryeziu notified the police, but they were unable to find out where they went.

Albanian businesses regularly employ foreign workers from countries that are poorer than Albania, which is still a developing country with a yearly GPD per capita of just 6,000 euros and a monthly average salary of some 450 euros.

Albania’s GPD is just a third of the average European Union member states. However, countries such Bangladesh or Nepal are far poorer than Albania.

“They [the workers] use Albania as jumping point to go to Europe,” one of the waiters, an Albanian, told BIRN at Kryeziu’s hotel.

Keeping the travel documents of migrant workers under lock and key, as in this case, is a controversial practice.

Oil-rich Middle Eastern countries have a reputation for this, and it has been criticized as a violation of workers’ human rights, exploiting the poverty and desperation of some of the poorest populations in the world.

Albania’s tourism sector is in dire need of cheap unqualified labour, as Albanians, although poor themselves and with a high level of unemployment, prefer to emigrate elsewhere in Europe instead.

During the last several years, some employers have attempted to resolve the problem by importing foreign workers.

But the process is not cheap. Bosses have to pay the travel costs for long-distance flights and provide food and shelter for the migrants.

Some of them have told BIRN that they have effectively lost money when these migrants left without notice for richer Western European countries, where even the minimum salaries are as much as four time higher than those on offer in Albania.

Many employers now are thinking over whether this idea of foreign workers really works.

Working in sweatshops

Statistics from the Durres Directorate of Border and Migration shows that the number of foreign workers in the region is growing, albeit from a very low level.

Last year, some 860 foreigners applied for work permits here. About half of them came from Asia and Africa, from countries such as Nepal, Bangladeshi, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Egypt.

The rest are mostly self-employed entrepreneurs from Italy or other European countries. They come for higher-end jobs.

During the first three months of this year, some 312 emigrants requested working permits. About 205 of them were from Asia and Egypt.

However, those coming are too few to cover the labour shortage in the seasonal but profitable tourism industry in Albania.

A poor country, Albania has over the last three decades also developed a garment industry for export, using cheap and up till now, plentiful labour for the fashion industry, mainly in Italy.

These businesses are now also seeking more workers, as the local population ages and as youngsters seek jobs elsewhere.

Edvin Prençe, head of ProEksport Albania, a lobbying group, told BIRN the local garment industry needs some 20,000 workers to fill their orders.

“Currently there are only some 250 foreigners, 90 per cent of whom are from Nepal and the rest are from the Philippines,” he told BIRN. He believes the number of foreigners will grow in future.

“They leave their countries due to very poor working conditions and that makes us very open to hire them,” he said.

A landlocked country in the Himalayas, Nepal has a yearly GDP per capita of just 1,200 US dollars, according to the World Bank. That is five times lower than Albania, which is the fourth poorest country in Europe, behind Ukraine, Kosovo and Moldova.

Prençe says the garment industry, in which most employees receive a minimum wage of some 360 euros per month, prefers women workers, as they are less likely to leave.

He said that, from his experience, the foreign women who come to work in Albania often have many children back home who need financial support.

Donato Sabato, an Italian entrepreneur who owns a shoe factory in Durres, told BIRN he is happy with the foreign workers. He took a first group of them this January, both men and women, from Nepal.

Donato, who has lived in Albania since 2004, says the Nepalese workers are paid the same wages as the Albanian ones, and they also receive food and shelter. But he is happy because they never miss a working day and do not lose time chatting with each other.

“The good thing is that they never fail to come to work,” he said. “They are hardworking and able to improve the work that they do every day,” he added.

Sabato says his factory needs 100 more such workers. He blames visa liberalization, which has given Albanians the opportunity to travel to EU countries without visas since 2010, as the reason why workers are missing here. “People are leaving the country every day,” he said.

Kornia, a Nepalese worker at Donato’s factory, told BIRN she had never heard about Albania before her arrival in January, and she had had no opportunity as yet to get out of her dormitory to see the country.

“First, I had to find out where this country is, and if I like this place,” she said. She pointed to the mild Mediterranean climate as a plus point. “Work here is good and the conditions are fair,” Kornia said.

She sends the whole salary she earns back home, to her parents and a brother.

“I worked back in Nepal but I was unhappy there with the small salary,” she explained.

Another worker said chance had brought him to Albania, without elaborating further.

Durres and Tirana are two of the few Albania counties where, over the last three decades, tens of thousands of Albanians came in search of a better life from poorer areas in the north and south.

The population of Tirana has grown more than threefold from 200,000 since 1990, when Albanians lived under an internal passport system under which they had no right to move from the countryside to a town, or from one town to another. The population of Durres has also grown greatly.

But over the last few years, there are signs that emigration is luring away the younger generation of Albanians that landed on the outskirts of Tirana and Durres three decades ago.

They typically came from the poorer north, where women supplied the majority of the workforce for the shoe and clothing sweatshops.

Intermediaries in the job market say the days are gone when businesses could hire people in dire need, who would work hard to pay for a new home, usually illegally built. Now the garment industry, hotels and agriculture are unable to find cheap workers

Tourism operators say it doesn’t work for them

While shoe and clothing factories see foreign workers as a solution, albeit a more costly one than hiring locals, tourist operators with whom BIRN spoke said they doubt this will work out for them.

Elidon Habilaj, a job market intermediary, believes that more than 3,000 workers will come from Nepal this year to Albania, through three companies that facilitate the process.

He believes the cases of migrant workers leaving Albania should be analysed to find out why they are quitting.

“We have to see whether they left due to exploitation, low pay or overwork or sexual harassment,” he said.

As an intermediary, his job is also to mediate between employers and employees.

But many among entrepreneurs in tourism, however, are not convinced. They have had mixed results from the experience of foreign workers so far.

For some of them, having a worker who suddenly leaves before the start of the high season is costly, while language barriers make its almost impossible for the sector to use foreign workers in most jobs, such as waiters or desk officers.

Sokol Hoxha told BIRN he is not in a hurry to seek foreign workers and believes there is no substitute for locals. For him, this is not the first time that he has tried employing foreigners.

“Our sector is specific, the work here needs much care in order to not let the quality down,” he said.

“This has been attempted this before, some seven or eight years ago, when young cookers or waiters came from Serbia. It didn’t go well then,” Hoxha added.

He says he will try now harder to keep local employees happy instead. “I have no prejudices against foreigners, this is just my experience,” he said.

But Blerim Norja, a manager at a hotel, told BIRN that despite the difficulties, many of his colleagues are still testing foreign workers. “It is an option to resolve the problem,” he said.

Source: Balkan Insight