East-to-West Migration Remaking Europe
Latvian's Journey to Ireland for Work Reflects New Dynamic of Enlarged E.U.

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 28, 2005

RIGA, Latvia -- The Aurora Hotel, Room 307. Toilet in the hall, shower downstairs. Cracks in the walls and sweat in the air. Janis Neulans sits on a creaky little bed, talking about the work and weather in Ireland.

"They have warm winters," he says in Russian, his powder-blue eyes sparkling at the thought.

Neulans has never heard of Galway or Guinness. In his little home town -- a snowy village of eight people way out east on Latvia's Russian border -- he learned truck-driving, not Yeats. He doesn't know what the Irish minimum wage is, but he dreams of it.

"I have to leave Latvia," he says. "There are no possibilities here. We have nothing."

His last job was sandblasting the hulls of huge freighters in a Riga dry dock, enduring icy winds off the Baltic Sea for $50 a week. So at 39, never married, with nothing to lose, Neulans sits in the lonely dullness of the Aurora Hotel with a black nylon athletic bag at his feet. He has packed one pair of pants, a shirt, a pair of no-name sneakers, three packets of instant mashed potatoes and eight cans of processed meat.

It's late October. He has a $190 plane ticket for the next night on airBaltic's midnight flight from Riga to Dublin. It will be the first plane ride of his life, a simple three-hour hop but a journey that illustrates a historic flow of people that is changing the face of Europe.

Since Latvia and nine other countries joined the European Union in May 2004, almost 450,000 people, most of them from the poorest fringes of the formerly communist east, have legally migrated west to the job-rich economies of Ireland, Britain and Sweden. Germany, France and other longtime E.U. members have kept the doors closed for now but promise to open them in coming years to satisfy the bloc's principle that citizens of all member states share the right to move to any other.

Perhaps nowhere is this feeling stronger than in Ireland, a country of 4 million people with one of Europe's fastest-growing economies and memories of how the world took in destitute Irish migrants in generations past. About 150,000 new workers -- mostly Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians -- have registered with the Irish government in the past 18 months, statistics show, although officials say that some may have already been there.

Citizens of E.U. countries do not need Irish visas or work permits, and there are no restrictions on how long they can stay or what work they can do. They are generally eligible for government health care and other services. There is no special system for them to seek citizenship.

From Dublin to Donegal, it is now difficult to find a construction site, factory, hotel or pub where some of the workers are not speaking Polish, Russian, Latvian or Lithuanian. They are changing the country's ethnic character. Multi-language newspapers cater to the job-seekers. Banks have hired tellers who speak their languages. East European grocery stores sell meats and cheeses from home, and phone companies post flyers in Internet cafes listing cheap calls to Warsaw, Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn.

Immigration, of course, also brings social friction and occasional violence. In Ireland, as in other once-homogenous European societies, people are struggling to accommodate newcomers with different cultures, languages and religions, and make room in already strained welfare and school systems.

But many here see the movement of workers as pure opportunity, for themselves and for the immigrants.

"Our young Irish don't want to do these jobs anymore," said Alfie Lambert, who runs a fast-growing business in County Wexford, in southeastern Ireland, that makes door frames for the booming Irish building trade.

Lambert said only two of his 40 factory employees were Irish, and about half were Latvian. "Out of 10 Latvians, you'd have 10 good workers," he said. Lambert hired a Latvian woman to help him recruit more by placing ads in newspapers in Riga. Latvia, with 2.2 million people and a 10 percent jobless rate, has responded eagerly, sending 14,000 workers to Ireland in the past 18 months.

"We can't live without the Latvians," Lambert said. "We can't grow without them."

No Time to Bargain

It's a bitter cold Riga morning when Neulans steps out of the Aurora Hotel, his black cowboy boots clicking sharply on the wet concrete sidewalk. He has a floppy mop of blond hair, a blond mustache and a gap in his smile where a couple of teeth are missing. A thick-shouldered country boy and former Soviet army soldier, he speaks only when necessary. He agreed to let a Washington Post reporter accompany him on his quest to Ireland.

He climbs into his car, a pea-green 1984 Volvo with a leaky roof, and pulls into midday traffic in Riga, a beautiful old riverfront city of cobblestones and red-tiled roofs and the tall onion spires of Russian Orthodox churches. Now, as an E.U. capital, it also has foreign biotech and information technology firms giving jobs to better-educated Latvians.

But not Neulans, whose schooling focused on operation of heavy machinery. He drives by the vast shipyard where he used to scrape rust. He talks about his home village, Asishova, a tiny clutch of houses in the distant countryside. His mother is in the hospital with eye problems. His father died long ago. His two brothers, one of whom lost a leg to diabetes, tend a few pigs and cows.

His life's savings have dipped below $250. So he steers toward a used car dealership, where he hopes to get $350 for his car. A bored-looking salesman in a baseball cap smushes out a cigarette, kicks the Volvo's tires and looks under the hood.

"I couldn't drive this any farther than the nearest junkyard," he says. He offers $170. Neulans takes it. There's no time to bargain.

"When I come back from Ireland, I'll buy a brand-new Volvo," he says.

House of Immigrants

It's snowing when Neulans arrives at the Riga airport the next night. He is traveling with a new acquaintance, Vladimir Novikov, who called ahead to a Latvian friend in Dublin who might meet them at the airport. Or he might not. Beyond that, Neulans has no strategy.

The gate area for airBaltic Flight 661 is filled with a few businessmen in suits, a couple of families with small children and a lot of young job-seekers. Neulans shuffles down the jetway to the waiting 737. "What's it like when we take off?" he asks, settling into his aisle seat.

His eyes widen on takeoff; he smiles at the smoothness. He turns down the $5 sandwiches and soft drinks on the passing cart. Eventually he falls asleep, but wakes in time to see the lights of Dublin glowing out the windows.

The Latvian contact, Oleg Ribakov, 38, who works as a truck driver, does show up. It's 2:30 in the morning when he meets Neulans and Novikov by the baggage carousel. He drives them to a four-bedroom house shared by 10 new immigrants, mostly Latvians. The tidy brick townhouse is in the western Dublin suburb of Lucan, a numbing sprawl of nearly identical new housing developments -- dull prose in a city of poetry, the back office of Ireland's economic boom.

Ribakov shows them to their room upstairs. It has two mattresses and no sheets or pillows, but it's clean and warm. Neulans's blue eyes are ringed with red. He's asleep in minutes.

He's up by 8 a.m. and chats with the other Latvians in the house as they head to jobs as drivers and construction workers. No one knows of any job openings.

Tatjana Belova, a cheerful Latvian woman who arrived three months ago, hands him a copy of the Dublin Infocenter newspaper, which is filled with want ads in Russian, Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian: Driver. Mechanic. Carpenter. Halal butcher.

Neulans sits on a torn green leather couch in the living room and scribbles numbers. He'll settle for anything decent. Belova helps the two newcomers write their own ad: "Latvian men, 39 and 47, willing to work construction jobs. Urgent." She punches the ad into her cell phone and texts it to the newspaper.

There's a knock at the door. The Russian-speaking property manager wants the first week's rent, about $78 per person. Neulans hands over the cash.

They walk half an hour to Lidl, the closest grocery store. Neulans looks quizzically at free-range eggs and sunscreen. He thumbs a pack of chicken. Too expensive. He buys a loaf of bread, some cheddar cheese and a bottle of diet cola.

Neulans wants a cigarette but can't afford them until he finds work. "If you don't have a job, you don't have any fun," he says.

'Sorry, No Jobs'

Over the next week, Neulans makes dozens of calls answering want ads. He walks endlessly through industrial parks knocking on doors. He goes to a private employment agency, but it demands a fee of $1,100. He keeps trying on his own but everywhere he goes, employers want his curriculum vitae, or CV -- his rsum. So he tries to write one: "I some speak English. I very want work at you."

He shows it to Belova. She frowns, then helps him write one that describes him as "accurate, reliable, hard-working." Neulans wants it typed up to impress the document-happy Irish, so he hops onto a double-decker 25A bus for the 45-minute ride into the city center. He gazes out at the River Liffey as the bus rolls past the Guinness brewery and onto O'Connell Street, the heart of Dublin.

At the Access Internet Cafe, a clerk named Michael Martin types up Neulans's rsum and, without being asked, spruces up the English and embellishes a bit -- Neulans is now "enthusiastic" and a "team player."

"The Irish have been all over the world looking for work," Martin says. "We know what it's like."

Neulans needs 100 copies. But at 30 cents each, he buys only 10.

He had a cheese sandwich and tea for breakfast. He will have instant mashed potatoes and bread for dinner. Lunch is out of the question.

He walks into a government employment agency with a row of touch-screen computers listing hundreds of jobs, from farm laborer to an opening for a Santa Claus at a local mall. Neulans taps and tries to work out the English, slowly and phonetically. He locates a notice for a warehouse worker's job, which says to call a man named Jason. He picks up the office's free phone and dials.

"Can I talk Jason?" he says. "I call you about job . . . Sorry? CV? I you now to send, yes? Yes? . . . Thank you."

A cheery clerk takes his rsum and faxes it to the number in the ad. She says she's sure he'll get a job.

"Your words in God's ear," he tells her in Russian, quoting an old proverb.

Neulans and Novikov walk to the Station Road Business Park, a collection of new-looking warehouses with forklifts buzzing about. They start knocking on doors. Three Polish men are doing the same thing just ahead of them.

"Sorry, no jobs," says a man in a food warehouse stacked high with drums of olive oil.

"We've nothing at the moment," says a sympathetic woman in a rope factory.

Over and over. It's getting dark.

A Long Day Milking Cows

On Neulans's 11th day in Ireland, a job broker shows up at the Lucan house. Neulans later recounts that the broker says he has a farm laborer's job for him. Nice 8-to-5 deal out in Kinnegad in County West Meath, 40 miles west of Dublin. Neulans packs his bag and gets in the broker's car, and hours later he realizes he's been stung by a darker aspect of Europe's new immigration: an underworld that knows there's good money to be made preying on immigrants.

The middleman demands $500 for finding the job. Neulans is down to his last $8, so he agrees to pay the fee out of his future wages.

Neulans says he started work at 5:30 a.m. and didn't finish until after 8 p.m. He milked cows all day with a half-hour break. The farmer yelled endlessly at him and two other immigrant workers. "It's like slavery," Neulans says.

But while he is there, he gets a phone call. It is the Latvian recruiter who works for Alfie Lambert at the door-frame factory. Neulans had seen an ad for the company in a newspaper in Latvia and applied before he left for Ireland. Now she says there's an unexpected opening. Neulans says the call is like the song of an angel.

"It's a big relief," he recalls thinking. "I can get out of here."

Neulans begs the farmer for some pay; he gives him half of what he's owed. After sunset, Neulans walks an hour down pitch-black country roads until he comes to a town. He takes a late-night bus back to Dublin, hops another bus and by noon the next day he's sitting in front of Lambert's desk.

Lambert hires Neulans, who has one thought racing around his head: "In a week, I'll have a paycheck."

Latvian Wage Times 3

Two weeks after arriving in Ireland, Neulans stands along the back wall of a vast, brightly lit factory filled with the screeching of industrial saws and drills and the sweet smell of fresh-cut lumber. He works at an enormous drill press, wearing a new blue canvas jacket with "Quick Fit Frames & Doors" on the back, blue work pants, steel-toed work boots and safety goggles.

He mans Station 16, where he takes a seven-foot piece of door jamb from a pile, drills two quick holes, lays in a piece of brass hardware, screws it down, checks the piece for flaws, then stacks it behind him, ready for Station 17. He will do this hundreds of times a day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., earning the Irish minimum wage, about $9.20 an hour -- more than three times what he earned in Latvia. He can work Saturdays if he wants extra money. In a year, Lambert says, his wages will be upped to $12 an hour.

At 6 p.m., Neulans shuts down his machine, brushes the sawdust off his clothes and walks across an empty lot to a three-bedroom mobile home. It has a tiny kitchen, no TV, no radio, no books. Lambert has given him use of the place in exchange for keeping an eye on the factory at night.

Neulans sits on a beige couch in the otherwise empty living room. He is unshaven, exhausted, satisfied. "I think I'm going to work here a long time," he says. Someday he hopes to have enough money saved to buy some calves. He wants to raise them on a little piece of land in the Latvian village where he was born.

"It's where my heart is," he says.

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