A State of Emergency Decree was issued in Romania on the 16th of March and prolonged for one month on the 16th of April as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Decree suspended a series of human rights and activated the country’s derogation from the European Convention of Human Rights.
Part I. People living on the dispossessed margins
We heard on the news that someone desperate because of isolation wanted to commit suicide and threw herself down from a balcony. Last night, at 10.30 pm there was a fire on Cantonului Street. A desperate man set fire to his barrack.
We are told that human rights are universal. Including social and economic rights. But not all of us actually have these rights. Now, in the state of emergency, human rights are suspended. But many people never did have them. They have been deprived of these rights all their lives. Their children grow up and learn to cope with lacking these rights. Without the right to a decent income and life, or the right to a proper home, or the right to health and living in a healthy environment, or the right to go to a school where you are supported to learn, or even the right to be buried as is appropriate. Without the right to be respected as a person, as a human being. These people suffer most from Covid-19 and from the economic crisis today. They suffer most from the state of emergency. From military and police control. From fines. From stigma. Children in these families suffer the most from the trauma they feel when the area where they live is filled with gendarmes and police. From the violence that penetrates the body and soul. From permanent humiliation.
People from Cantonului street, in the city of Cluj, are in a situation like this. People cast out there from the beautiful city for over 20 years. Isolated. Separated from the rest of the world. Blockaded by the city’s housing policies, but also by their financial situation. Because City Hall does not build social housing and applies unfair allocation criteria. Given the fact that the people of Cluj are afraid that someone from there will come too close to them. Given that with the salaries paid for their work in the domain of sanitation and street cleaning, they cannot afford to pay private rent in the city. During the epidemic, during the state of emergency, people are feeling more and more that when they are told to “stay home”, they are in fact told to: stay there in your poverty, we do not want to see you, we do not want to hear your complaints. Stay home in fear. Go out for work with fear. Go out into a sunny day with fear. Go and clean our city every day with fear. Living in fear. Dying invisible. Systemic violence keeps them in a condition of helplessness. The violence of yesterday, today becomes terror. Do we expect people to endure this quietly and resentfully? Do they have to burn so we can see them?
In a 4×4 square meter room with 6-7 people, it is very, very difficult to stay inside all day long. Now that the schools are closed, children cannot stay in those small rooms all day. They must move, they must run. Lucky are those who work. Because many of us are working in sanitation and street cleaning companies. You know us, we are the ones who pick up your trash from your homes and hospitals. You know us, we sweep your street. You know us, we are sent to gather the garbage left in the forests. We are the dangerous ones. “Gypsies,” Roma. You’re afraid of us. Are you afraid of those who make your city clean?
Lucky are our men and women, as I said, they leave their homes. Because they can’t work from home, you know. We don’t have the luxury of getting bored in the house. And no one among us would even want to stop working. We have no savings. Because one has no way to make savings from the small incomes we have and with which we barely survive from one month to another.
There is no running water in our barracks. We have no toilet inside. There is no bathroom. We have to go out for everything. If someone wants to wash in the house, all the others must go out. When the woman or the man cooks where all the rest of our lives is spent, you can imagine that the others feel the need to get a little air. We need light. Our barracks are quite dark. We read that it is allowed to go out for a walk during this state of emergency, but not to move more than 300 meters away from your home. We respect this rule when we leave the house. But not only the insides of the barracks are very crowded here. The colony is also crowded outside. There are about 170 barracks on the street, side by side, lying on a strip about 500 meters long and about 30-35 meters wide. Imagine a total perimeter of about 1000 meters, or a total area of about 12,000 square meters. When people go out, the space between houses and the street is filled. You can see how many persons live there. Adults and children. About 800 people. It is not possible to be isolated from one another. Neither inside the house. Nor outside.
Last Sunday the weather was beautiful. We saw pictures on Facebook. People went for a walk on the bank of the Someș river. To fresh air. In light. Our area here is far from being beautiful. Across the road, there is a cement factory. Cantonului Street, now called Dezmirului Street, is traveled by many cars all day. Small cars, but also trucks. They come here to ACI, to load the trucks. Or they come this way to reach the bypass road of Cluj. Or they go to the Dezmir market. Even tanks pass down the street, to go to the military unit near the Selgros store. Beyond the barracks, on the decommissioned railway, tanks were pulled over when the army was getting prepared for the December 1st national holiday. In the area, you can see the garbage mountains of the Salprest and RADP landfills. You can realize, it is not at all nice to go out and walk or play on Cantonului Street. Among the barracks. Or on the street. In the noise, in traffic, in the dust, in the smell of garbage. Or to go after water, or to go to the nearest store. It’s really no fun. Think about it, that’s always the case with us. Few people, and rarely, allow themselves to go with their families and children to the parks in the city. Now, with these restrictions, it happens even more rarely. People have no paper to write their statements, needed when they live home. They do not have a computer and a printer to print this form. And some do not even know to write.
Last Sunday the weather was beautiful. The sun is also shining for us sometimes. People went outside, certainly more people than on a rainy day. The drones were out there. They see us from above. We probably look like an anthill. Public danger. The gendarmes came around 8 o’clock in the evening. There were two big cars and a small gendarmerie car. And two small police cars. And an ambulance. The gendarmes scared the children, even some adults as well. They sprayed tear gas and shouted at us to stay in the house. We all felt like criminals.
But even before the epidemic, the gendarmerie and the police came very often into our community. Something bad happened in the town, they were looking for a criminal or a robber? They came to us. There were times when we woke up at six in the morning with them knocking on our doors. They came to search for us. They entered from barrack to barrack and asked everyone to present their identity documents. And they didn’t tell us what they were looking for, why they were asking for our IDs, why they were forcibly entering our homes. Sometimes we woke up with figures painted on our barracks. They gathered us here so they could control us better. We are taken into their evidence. We are watched. Controlled. Suspected. Punished. Because we exist.
In the state of emergency, human rights were suspended. In the case of the people on Cantonului Street they have been suspended for a long time.
Do we have to burn for you to notice us?, video on the participation of members of Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW! on a City Council meeting, November 2017,
Part II. People doing stigmatized and underpaid jobs
You see them at any time of day or night. The men hired by the Rosal or Brantner-Veres sanitation companies, like chargers and drivers on company cars. The women and men doing seasonal work in urban green spaces. The women sweeping the streets and sidewalks on ordinary days, or gathering garbage left behind by the hundreds or thousands of people who enjoyed the famous Cluj festivals in parks or other public spaces.
While enjoying the cleanliness of the city, did you hear anyone talking in a stigmatizing way about the “garbage pickers”? Did you tell them then how important their work was to the whole city? Have you ever wondered what salaries they have and how they can provide adequate housing with that amount in the very expensive Cluj? Do you know that many of the sanitation workers live in Pata Rât, close to the landfills? There are hundreds of families without water and indoor toilets there. How does one wash her or himself when they get home? How do you isolate yourself from other family members? How to protect them under these conditions? Have you ever thought about how many diseases they can get because of these jobs? And because of the toxic environment in which they live? Did you ever wonder at what age they die? Have you ever heard of someone talking about the need to recognize their work through a proper salary and adequate housing? Or about the need to treat them with respect? Like your equals. Like humans.
Often you hear the statements of the local and county officials about how they will solve the garbage crisis in Cluj. How they will ensure selective collection; how they will close or open up waste dumps in Pata Rât; how they have been preparing for ten years to open the integrated waste management center; how they are waiting for the final approval to deliver the ecologization of the old landfill. They promised that the cost of the sanitation services will not increase. However, they got more expensive. While the wages of the workers remained at the level of the minimum wage in the economy. From one month to the next, this low salary may become a little bit higher due to bonuses for overtime hours or for work done during the night or on public holidays. But the so-called “shame allowance” for special work conditions provided by the 1990 law was cut off during the austerity measures. No one thought of giving them back. In 2016, after the new RADP garbage dump in Pata Rât started hiring workers for waste sorting, we saw a work contract, where this work was classified as labor done in normal conditions. While, for example, in 2019, the employees of the City Hall of Cluj-Napoca received an increase of 15% because they supposedly work in dangerous and injurious working conditions.
Since we are in a state of emergency, many drivers and chargers have been sent home by the sanitation companies. Nevertheless, they did not declare that their activity was reduced, and did not request state support to keep into technical unemployment their employees into technical unemployment. In the meantime, all the bosses have remained, all still taking their big salaries as before. While the workers’ wages are lower than before. Their overtime is not paid. People were doing 32 extra hours a month before, and these were paid. The law says that overtime pay should be at least 75% higher than normal business hours, and even higher if the company wishes. Now, companies pay workers only 16 extra hours maximum. Some people do not receive this money at all. Bosses prefer to tell people to take free days for these extra hours. They are increasingly arrogant with their employees. They tell them that if they don’t like how it is, they should not come to work anymore.
With the closing of hotels and pensions left without customers, with the closure of malls, restaurants but also of companies whose employees work from home, indeed, the activity of the sanitation companies has been restricted. But workers still go out daily to collect waste from households, small shops, and hospitals. They are exposed directly, daily, to the danger of infection. Both at the spots from where they pick up the garbage, and on the ramp, where they deposit it.
About two weeks ago, workers were given a set of protection materials, including gloves, a simple mask, and a bottle of medicinal alcohol. They had to sign for them. Employers probably use this paper to show that they protect them. But this is not protection. The government has imposed restrictions on going out, and they are necessary, indeed. But so far it has not been thought of the sanitation workers, what conditions they have, how they can or cannot meet them. Make restrictions, but give people the opportunities to be able to respect them and to defend themselves. Announce the measures that would be required for each company to take, but make sure the companies comply with them. And guarantee employees’ right to denounce the abuses they are subjected to. And in case they report them, the state should protect them from the revenge of the employers.
For many people, labor rights as socio-economic rights have long been suspended, or have never been effectively enforced. Decent pay or special protection against toxic conditions is something that is completely lacking for sanitation workers. Together with the right to form a union through which to impose and defend their interests towards the employers. Changing the Labor Code and the Social Dialogue Act in 2011 meant putting more and more obstacles in the way of establishing a trade union and, in general, free association was strongly restricted under the austerity government, which took many measures that disadvantaged the workers.
What would you do, if you worked in the sanitation industry, at least 8 hours daily, but often overtime, sometimes at night, often on weekends, and – as a result of these extra efforts – you receive in your hand just a little more than the minimum wage. Let’s say 1800 lei (about €370). What would you do if, after providing yourself and your family with food, medicines, clothes, and other necessities, you could not pay 1500 lei for private rent in Cluj? Would you strike if you had no money set aside, when surely you could not make economies on this salary?
The poorer and more insecure the economic situation of sanitation workers, the more vulnerable they become to the employers’ abuses. The fear of being laid off from work was high even before the epidemic, and now it has grown even stronger. People know how important their work is, and they think from time to time to strike, but at the end, many step back because they have a family to feed. After all, they have no savings to live off if they do not receive a salary during the strike. Maybe they also give up because they think that they will have no supporters among the inhabitants of Cluj, who will rush, maybe, to blame the strikers because they are left with trash. The public authorities will also probably direct people’s upset towards the “garbage pickers.” Anyway, with or without a strike, they feel treated like garbage. Cast out to the city margins, despite their very important work for the city, as disposable elements thrown in the proximity of the toxic wastelands. Let them di intoxicated at work and at home.
We are told that human rights are universal rights. They also include social and economic rights, including labor and housing rights. However, in a society built on inequalities, in which the profits of the few are made from the exploitation of the many, the human rights system functions as a promise to the individual who emerges victorious from the competition for resources, a competition whose rules are made by certain people to the detriment of others. You are rich, you can have these rights. You’re poor, you’re told you don’t deserve them. How can you actually make use of these rights if your starting points are so unequal compared to others? How can you make a decent income, if the economic regime allows your employer to pay you a low salary to keep more as profit for himself? How can you have a decent home, if the economic regime allows the real estate developers to extract profits from your pockets 3-4 times higher than the amount invested? For example, to sell you for 2000 euros a square meter whose production cost them 500 euros, that is, for example, to make out of 30,000 euros an amount of 120,000. On your account. On the account of your labor. Stealing from the already low income that your employer gave you after retaining his profit. After your labor-power has already been exploited at your job.
Sanitation company workers were never granted the social and economic rights to which they would be entitled, not even those defined in the current Romanian laws, which are otherwise very restrictive in this area. In their case, the laws did not turn into effective social justice. The dispossession of these rights means that society is organized in such a way that people are forced to live in economic conditions that make it impossible for them to benefit from universal human rights. Sanitation workers are part of society, but they are integrated into it adversely: without the symbolic and financial recognition of the value of their labor, and even more, by being inferiorized and stigmatized or racialized as persons who are performing this work. In what regards their housing rights: they are completely deprived of this right by the capitalist economy driven by chasing for profit, but also by the urban development policy, which is limited to supporting the real estate development that produces and transacts very expensive homes on the market, impossible to pay for from the minimum income.
“All the workers, and now I think of the workers from our colony, from Cantonului street and from all the colonies in Pata Rât, should have a general strike, to make all the gentlemen see what it means when they do not have this labor force that does for them the ugliest and heaviest and poorly paid jobs in the city, in sanitation companies, in street cleaning, in restaurants, in constructions, on the landfill and at several units of waste collection and recycling. Through such a general strike, we should ask to be given adequate social housing in the city.”
(Leontina Lingurar, 2017, http://artapolitica.ro/2017/07/01/gazeta-de-arta-politica-nr-17- work-and-unions /)
Video of the street action:
 The ghettoized area of Pata Rât from the city of Cluj is one of the cases that illustrates the making and persistence of impoverished areas at the margins of Romanian cities and of how social class formation, spatial marginalization and racialization intersect at the peripheries of global capitalism. If interested in the academic analysis of these processes, please look for the book: Racialized Labour in Romania: Spaces of Marginality at the Periphery of Global Capitalism (edited by Vincze, E., Petrovici, N., Rat, C. and Picker, G. Palgrave, 2018).
Enikő Vincze and Maria Stoica are members of the movement Căși sociale ACUM!/ Social housing NOW! from Cluj-Napoca, Romania.