Old conflicts surfaced at the village council as people of Ditrău / Gyergyóditró debated the conflict surrounding the employment of two bakers from Sri Lanka.

Police wearing high visibility vests were standing in front of the Kőrösi Csoma Sándor Culture House of Ditrău on Saturday morning. There’s great turmoil around the building located in the village centre. People are standing in great numbers on the corridors or in the yard, listening to the debate on the loud speakers, and the room inside is packed with people.

The tension in the room is almost palpable, while Elemér Puskás, the Mayor of the village, starts talking in a trembling voice, struggling with his tears, in front of a dozen cameras.

This small village community has found itself in the centre of a nation-wide scandal, and it is unclear where this meeting is going to take the heated debate on immigrant workers.

The stakes are high: the outcome may influence the judgment of not merely the people of Ditrău, but also of the Sekler region as a whole, and indirectly of the entire Hungarian community of Transylvania.

What’s more, the ombudsman and the police both started their own investigation because of the statements made in this debate so far, and it is not the least unimportant whether this meeting is going to make the situation of the suspects even more serious.

Initially, the National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) was ready to take action, the agency’s president Csaba Asztalos informed Átlátszó Erdély that the complaints were forwarded to Harghita County Police and will only return to the Council if no criminal prosecution is to follow.

Madhouse on Facebook

The story in a nutshell: a local business, a bakery employing 90 people (Ditrói Pékség) had to employ two qualified bakers from Sri Lanka after not finding any trained workforce locally.

The two bakers legally employed with work permits, Don Prasanna Piumal, 22, and Amarashinga Archchilage Mahinda, 49, arrived to Ditrău on 15 January, and began work immediately.

Soon, the entire village found out about the bakers, and a closed Facebook group called We want a migrant-free Ditrău” emerged, where hundreds of threatening, hateful, racist comments were spilling in an anti-immigrant rage for days on end, with apparently no one moderating.

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Catholic chaplain is the leader of the protesters

Because of the threats, the bakery was forced to move the two bakers first to a nearby village, Lăzarea, and later to a flat in the closest town, Gheorgheni. Last Wednesday, during the regular monthly council meeting, 150-200 protesters appeared in front of the Council House. Mayor Elemér Puskás promised them to announce a separate village council to discuss the case of the bakers.

The leader of the protesters was the Catholic chaplain, Károly Bíró. According to people of Ditrău, at the end of the Sunday mass he drew attention to what risks the “strangers” may bring. The chaplain warned the population to turn to the mayor and ask for a solution to this issue.

Press reports claimed that it was also the chaplain who held an ardent speech before the Wednesday council meeting about the fate of the Sekler people and the injustice it had to endure in time. The protesters walked from the Catholic church to the Culture House, where the meeting took place.

The retired Archbishop of Alba Iulia, György Jakubinyi, condemned the events from Ditrău, and especially the chaplain’s role in them on an unusually harsh tone: “Károly Bíró, chaplain of Ditrău, has got himself in the centre of conflict which exceeds his competence, and his position does not agree with the position of our Church.”

An unexpectedly constructive debate

With these preliminaries, it is no wonder that the journalists arriving to Ditrău anticipated a hot-spirited meeting swarming with racist and hateful comments.

However, the debate turned out to be unexpectedly moderate and constructive, the speakers gave a balanced and nuanced image of the problems that the community was facing. After the Facebook madhouse, this seemed like some syndicate meeting.

It surfaced that the comments triggered by the arrival of the migrant bakers were actually fuelled by a much deeper conflict between Csaba Köllő, the owner of the business behind the bakery, the AMG Eco Corporate SRL, and the locals employed by him.

The villagers claim that it wouldn’t be a problem for the bakery’s owner to find local qualified personnel, but he refuses to pay honest wages and respect his employees. The fluctuation is enormous therefore: the business which employs 90 persons has issued and terminated some 3 thousand work contracts in the past years. At present, 18 locals of Ditrău are employed at the bakery.

The workers are employed with ridiculously low wages, for less hours than their actual working hours per day, and they are overworked. Regulations regarding overtime and time off are not respected, and in many cases the workers are humiliated.

Working conditions are now being investigated by the county’s labour inspectorate. Based on the public data of the company, the business and finances newspaper Ziarul Financiar estimates that the 90 employees work for minimum wage. The company’s staff expenses in 2018 for 83 employees were a total of 1.95 million RON, which, by the calculations of the Ziarul Financiar, meant a monthly gross pay of 1958 RON, and net pay of 1194 RON.

As the video above suggests, the locals consider that a reasonable net pay should amount to at least 1500 RON (315 EUR). Company data shows that the business’ yearly turnover increased by 11% in 2018 compared to the previous year, and reached 11.7 million RON (2.4 million EUR). The company reported a profit of 3% for 2018, which equals 375 thousand RON (74 thousand EUR).

The Harghita County Labor Inspectorate fined the Ditrău Bakery for 10 thousand RON (2,000 EUR) because of the irregularities found during the inspection on Monday.

It is important to understand that this is a small community where everybody is a personal acquaintance of the business owner, the conflict turned childhood friends or close relatives against each other, not to mention that very many locals have been employed in the bakery at various points in the past.

The migrant workers were the final straw

An important addition to the issue is that the Ditrău Bakery’s employment practice is prevalent all over the Sekler region. Many businesses refuse to pay fair wages, as the participants pointed out, and this is a serious cause for the emigration of young and qualified work force.

Given these preliminaries, the locals perceived the employment of the strangers as a slap in the face. The community takes the owner’s gesture as a message: do not even hope to get a better pay, if you don’t like this system, we can always have foreign workers take your place.

It has been repeatedly said that the two Sri Lankans are not seen as a threat. But if other business owners see that this is a viable solution, they might apply it and that may lead to a massive immigration of workers to Ditrău and the Sekler region, and the locals may be left with no other choice but to go and find work abroad if they want to support their families.

The locals attending the meeting said it was an insult that Csaba Köllő did not appear, and did not personally address the criticisms brought against him. Instead, he sent a letter in which he informed the people on the position of his company, apologizing for not consulting the community before employing the two migrant workers.

He also made an offer: if he could employ five local bakers in the near future, he would give up his intention to bring in other guest workers. He also reported that the two Sri Lankans will be relocated to the pastry workshop, where they will have nothing to do with bread making.

On this account, the National Council for Combating Discrimination promised an investigation which wasn’t carried out eventually because the owner withdrew his offer to relocate the two strangers.

This is all due to the anti-migration propaganda

One of the reasons why the anti-migrant rage started on the Facebook in the first place was, in high probability, that the majority of the inhabitants of the Sekler region live in a Hungarian media space. The news on public mass media and pro-governmental media in Hungary hardly contain anything else than threats with illegal migration and the alleged crimes committed by immigrants. All these can enforce the prejudices existing in the community and legitimate this racist, judgmental and exclusive discourse.

The Hungarian governmental rhetoric about refugees and illegal immigrants, and the narrative represented by the pro-governmental media was remarkably prevalent in the Facebook group where the scandal broke out. Although the meeting attendees were more restrained in the presence of the journalists, it was still visible that the anti-migrant comments were always met with cheers and approval.

As a result, because of the fact that the public media of Hungary broadcasts such a simplified image about complex social processes, this community can also only formulate the very real problem they have to face in such simplifying terms, although the problem is much more complex. Part of it is the widespread business strategy of exploiting the workers and keeping the wages very low, resulting in emigration, the ageing of the population, and the appearance of migrant workers representing the strangers in the community.

The bakery maintains its position

After the meeting on Saturday, there are no signs that the conflict would alleviate. The Ditrău Bakery wrote on their Facebook page that their offer is no longer valid, the bakers will not be relocated to the pastry workshop, and they still want to employ guest workers.

The announcement suggests that they continue to think that the main reason of the conflict is the locals’ prejudices, and not the company’s policies.

A further complication in the matter is that the Embassy of Sri Lanka contacted the bakers because they are worried for the personal safety of their citizens. This way the conflict may become international, and the bakers – who have been protected so far by their employer – are now aware of the threats regarding their position.

At this point, the question is how the bakers can cope with this conflict in which they have found themselves without having anything to do with it.

Video created by: Zsuzsanna Fodor (cameraman), Zsombor Csont (editor), Zoltán Sipos (reporter)

English translation: Emese Czintos

Opening image: Catholic chaplain Károly Bíró at the village meeting. Photo: Zoltán Sipos