Here come the Romanians - but is leaving home really that easy?
Andrea and Gabriel left Bucharest for London to earn money to pay for their wedding. But it's not a real life
THE number of Romanians and Bulgarians due to arrive in Britain from 1 January, taking advantage of relaxed EU work regulations, has reached mythic proportions.
There will be hordes of them, we are told. Within 12 weeks, to quote Ukip leader Nigel Farage, they will be entitled to claim benefits. The very infrastructure of London and other cities is quaking.
What's the truth? No one really knows what the numbers will be. What's the likelihood? I decided to ask a young Romanian woman who understands the temptation to pack up and move to Britain.
Andrea is 30. She came to London with her boyfriend Gabriel in 2008.
When she left university in 2007 with a degree in accountancy, she hoped to become a banker in Bucharest. Unable to find such a job - "I did not have the right connections, it is all about connections in my country" – she instead got work as a cashier in a gaming casino. It wasn't a bad job, paying her nearly £400 a month.
Gabriel, a year younger than Andrea, had not been to university. He had found work with a small firm, making deliveries, doing the book-keeping. He earned a similar wage.
They were in love and knew they wanted to get married, start a family and buy their own home. They saw no prospects of achieving that in Romania. "We had money just to live, no more."
Andrea's parents' generation had been helped onto the housing ladder by the Communist state: "Ceaucescu gave you a flat when you got married. Very small, tiny, but it was a start." In the new democratic Romania, there was no such leg-up in prospect.
Gabriel had cousins who had already left for Britain under the visa-free rules introduced when Romania joined the EU in 2007. They said they would help the couple get started if they wanted to come to London to earn the money for their wedding and for the deposit on a first home.
Then, as now – and this is what changes on 1 January - if you could get a job offer, it was up to the employer to apply for a work permit and for the migrant to get an "accession worker card". Quotas meant some trades were more restricted than others: nursing and healthcare were easier because of staffing shortfalls.
In the event, Gabriel got work with a road crew, digging up the streets of north London for cable companies; Andrea, again unable to persuade a bank to give her an interview, took up house cleaning. She now earns about £400 a week – four times what she got at home. Gabriel, in a good week, does even better. Both work legitimately and pay their taxes.
Although some costs - especially rent - are higher here than in Romania, many are not. A loaf of bread costs the same in London as in Bucharest. Four times the salary therefore gives them a considerably better life even as they put aside as much as they can for the future.
They have a car - something they could not have dreamed of buying before - which they use to visit National Trust houses and royal castles. "You know, Prince Charles has many houses in Romania - in Transylvania? And Harry too - he came for his summer holiday." (This was news to me - but a quick Google check confirms Andrea's story and unearths a classic Charles line from the Daily Mail: "The genealogy shows I am descended from Vlad the Impaler, so I do have a bit of a stake in the country.")
They've also achieved the wedding they wanted back in Romania: their photos show them surrounded by family and friends, Andrea looking gorgeous in white taffeta, and Gabriel in a powder–blue suit that Elvis Presley would have been proud of.
So, apart from having to work as a cleaner rather than a banker, life is pretty good?
Andrea has been talking to me animatedly for an hour while doing the ironing at a neighbour's home when, out of the blue, she breaks down crying.
"Nothing, it's all right." It clearly isn't. "It's just… it is not a real life. It is only about making money so we can go home with the deposit to buy a place to live. I miss my family and friends - and the fresh air."
I ask if she is aware of the arguments raging over the new rules coming into effect on 1 January – no more applying for work permits, no more quotas, the full rights of an EU citizen.
Yes, she says, but she doesn't understand why it's contentious. "We only take jobs English people don't want. If an English girl wants to work as a cleaner here, in this house, I will be replaced."
Well, yes and no - the family she's working for will surely repay her loyalty? "Yes, perhaps," she smiles through her tears. "It is true that there are people who will just hire Romanians because they are hard-working."
Does she think many Romanians will come to London after 1 January? "Only the young people and only if they have connections already," she says. "You cannot just come here and live in the street and then have a job! No! It does not work like that."
What about the argument, I ask, that Romanians will exploit unemployment and other benefits?
Andrea looks genuinely baffled. "We don't want to come here NOT to work - we want to work and make money. If there was no job I would go home."
Twelve hours after our talk, The Times will report the Romanian labour minister, Mariana Campenau, saying something very similar - though she gives it a twist: it is the British, says Campenau, who exploit the welfare system, shunning jobs in favour of living on benefits. If Romanians are happy to take up those vacancies, why should they be blamed?
Andrea was far too polite to suggest such a thing. ·