Investigative story: Enslaved children

Investigative story: Enslaved children

Here is the result of a new investigative project of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism (RCIJ): two articles about the exploatation of children trough work. This phenomenon was investigated in Romania and the Republic of Moldavia, and the articles were published in "Jurnalul National" (Bucharest, Romania) and "Flux" (Chisinau, R. Moldavia).

Stefan Candea, Sorin Ozon and Vitalie Calugareanu are the authors and Mihai Vasile was the photographer. You can read the English version of the articles and see the photos on (or click direct those links: and A profitable labor market where underage children are exploited is developing in the underground, firstly because valid legislation is not applied. Among direct consequences: all these children will turn into uneducated and untrained adults, who will have to be supported by the state and the community. Most of these children will turn into delinquents to survive. STEFAN CANDEA , stefancandea@crji.orgSORIN OZON, sorinozon@crji.orgPhoto: Mihai Vasile

Tasty tomatoes in the market places, fresh pork and meatloaf, freshly baked bread – would you still feel like eating them, if you knew that all these are the products of some children' efforts who had been obliged by their parents to work since they were very young? In order for all these products, and not only them, to keep their low prices, one million Romanian children are economically active, and there are few hundred thousands among them working even against their will, while few ten thousands of them are treated as slaves. These children are growing without having access to an education or to a certain professional training. At the age when they should get involved into the community's life, they get to be a social problem.

In the village of Ceplenita , the Iasi county, at the door of the Ciorneis, several important people coming from Iasi or form Bucharest accompanied by an army of journalists showed up last year. They were all interested in one single thing: how could the parents of Gheorghita, 13 years old, and of Mihai, 12 years old, rent the two boys to some unknown people from a hundreds of kilometers away village, in the Giurgiu county.

Gheorghita was working as a swineherd at the age when he was supposed to go to school, and his parents will get the money for his work. The boy climbed up a high voltage pillar, he got electrocuted and he was brought to Bucharest in a very severe condition. Hell broke loose here, since the boy's master from Gostiu came to get back his servant. The case was taken over by the Child Protection Services and by the Police. The following weeks, all sorts of investigations and penalties were promised to be granted in similar cases of renting children, suddenly discovered in Iasi county villages. The”storm” calmed down in no time.

But six months after the scandal burst out, none of the one implicated in the case knew what the problem was. Maria Ciornei, Gheorghita's mother, believes that the only problem was the child himself. “He was naughty and bad”. “I come here from Giurgiu every spring to take children to work for me, and there are also other parents sending their children to work”, goes on a puzzled Maria Ciornei. Gheorghita's father was denied his parental rights, which doesn't mean that much to him anyway. The Ciorneis stopped knowing from Gheorghita and Mihai from the time they sent them to Giurgiu . Nothing happened to Gheorghita's parents for having trafficked their own children.

500 kilometers from Ceplenita, in the village of Gostinu , we wanted to talk to the families that had rented the two brothers. We got to Mihai's masters, the Calceas. Marin Calcea is not at home, but his wife answers us: “The one having fried himself didn't stay with us, but I am telling you he was out of his minds. His brother worked for us and he was very good and hard working. He didn't need to go to school, because he wasn't going to school in his home village.” The woman doesn't understand where she did wrong: “I didn't do anything wrong, and Police said nothing either. We paid the boy all the money. And you have to know that there are plenty of Moldavians in the village, even children. They come here to work for us since Ceausescu's time.” Vasile Tarca's wife, where Gheorghita used to work, was also puzzled headed: “We didn't do anything wrong, because we didn't take the boy by force. And who made him climb that pillar? The Devil!” The woman told us that she made declarations to all sorts of police officers, but for a few months it was quiet. Nobody called them to the station anymore and they weren't given even a fine.

Nobody was indeed called to Court, even if what the swineherds in Gostinu and Gheorghita's parents did was truly “human trafficking”.

More than that, at the beginning of February, the same swineherds from Gostinu returned to Ceplenita to take on more children for work. Three underage children accompanied them after a short search. Nobody was interested in the case, apart from the social workers of the Child Protection Department and World Vision. Due to their insisting appeals to the Giurgiu county police, the children were tracked down and brought back to Ceplenita several weeks after. But the police didn't bother to open an investigation. “If anything happened to Ciornei, it would be an example for the community. Nothing happened to him, and people use this case as a row model” believes Madalina Galben, social worker with the Ceplenita Major House.

Children for rent in any village

We wandered through the villages near Ceplenita to see if we could find that easily children for rent. We pretended to be the owners of some animal farms in Alexandria and we claimed to need children to work for us an entire season. In every village there are families well known to send their children to work. Even if April is late to look for workers, there were plenty of cases when we were offered children at least 12-13 years old. Many families regretted not to have more children for rent, because most of their children were already working for farms in Giurgiu . In Hodora, for instance, we were directed to Ion Poiana, who offered to gather more children from the village so that we wouldn't have wasted our time. "We put it all on paper, the money stay with the parents and you also pay us in advance. 700,000 per month is fine, if you feed and dress them” Ion lets us know. The discussion takes place in the front of his house, where his wife asks us to come back after a week, when returns home one of her children, 13 years of age, because she would like to rent us the kid. “We are at home almost all the time, you can phone our neighbors anytime and we can talk about it” Ion assures us. It appears that at the Poianas, as it happens with many families we talked to, children are the only one working.

“In many families living at the edge of poverty, children are the only income source” explains us Eugen Borlea, the manager of World Vision Iasi. “There can not be any issue of contracts; after all it is all about barter, which is not even complied with in the end. In many cases we dealt with, children wanted to go back to work so that they could support their families”.

Using children for different works seems like a natural thing to do, especially for the farmers. In our trip to the Moldavian counties, most of the agricultural works were done by children. We have found children looking after sheep, cattle, and swine; we have found children doing agricultural work and children doing wine-growing work. Most of them should have been in school. Many of the children we talked to didn't think they were working and they didn't have any idea about the money they were paid.

NGO's experiment solutions

There are some shy attempts to change this mentality. The International Labor Office (ILO) has developed a project together with the Ministry of Education and the “Step by Step” Association. The project aimed at getting back to school all the children used by their parents at farming. The program was developed in Galati , Vaslui and Botosani. Gabriela Ionescu, the principal of the elementary school in the village of Zorleni , near Barlad, was one of the beneficiaries of this program: “50% of the elementary students were used for farming and they abandoned school in no time. We have implicated in this program 50 children, but there was no continuity assured to the program.” Costica Sandulache is one of the children brought back to school and now he is attending the 7 th grade classes. Costica has got left only his father and another two brothers that are also in school. His family is very poor. His father won't admit he was sending his child to work: “He wasn't going to school because I had no money to buy him clothes and food. But now he is going to school and he even gets high grades. He would even get a scholarship, but he is discriminated because he is a gipsy.”

In the village of Calarasi of the Botosani county, the school's principal was no where to be found, and no one from the Major House or among the peasants remembered of such a program. We finally managed to locate the former social worker with the Major House. Liliana Anton is working as a bartender with the local tavern, because there was no more money to pay her at the Major House. She vaguely remembers the”Step by Step” program, but she is not convinced of its efficiency: “There weren't that many children to be brought back in schools and, anyway it wasn't their fault that they were working and skipped classes.”

The Matca Slaves Market

During our investigation we have come to the conclusion that even the most prosperous farms in the country use children as labor force. We have reached Matca, near Tecuci, a village well known for its vegetables green houses and its fruits farms. A very prosperous area soon to be given the name of agro-industrial park. Matca supplies the largest part of the country good quality vegetables and even exports them. The place attracts day-laborers workers from all Romania and even from Moldova . In all articles published by the local press farmers brag on their hard working, stating that Matca offers jobs for every one, young or old: “Our children play in green houses and they help us, even the 3-4 old ones have something to do” declares one of the farmers for a national newspaper. And indeed, in Matca even children work and no one seems to be bothered by this.

Hundreds of people that came in Matca in search for work gather at the village entrance at early hours in the morning. Peasants arrive by car and hire day laborers. A day laborer gets maximum ROL 200,000 per day. And he works 12 hours a day. Among the ones looking for work in the so-called “salves market” we also saw few children. “Children are not so good at farming, you have to take your time to teach them, but they are hard working and we use them for works that don't require special skills” declares a peasant. For example, cutting and tying wine. A tractor passes by in front of us and its trailer is full of workers, among them also some children. We follow the tractor and we reach a vineyard belonging to the village's farm, which is about to be privatized. At least eight children get off the trailer, all being about 13 and 14 years old. The team leader divides them into groups and they all start working. “We have been working since we were ten” brags Marin while carrying a pile of sticks, as big as him, used for tying the wine. As Marin, his fellow companions work hard all day long. They get ROL 125,000 a day, out of which the food and the transportation cost is taken. The trip is tiring, because the kids come by tractor from the village of Corni , 30 kilometers away. We also find out that these kids work based on contracts concluded with their parents who stopped coming to work and send them as replacements.

Children across the Prut

It is common for all farms in Eastern Romania to hire children from Moldova . Recently, two children were caught by the Border Police while illegally crossing the border to get to work in Vaslui county. But such arrangements can also be very well organized. For example, in Iasi , 400 Moldavian children crossed the border in only one week in September last year, while going to harvest fruits. Children from Ungheni and Sarca were attending their compulsory internship and the farms from Bucium and Sarca concluded a contract with the high schools and elementary schools the children were attending, as well as with intermediary companies in Moldova . The Labor Territorial Inspectorate fined the two farms because none of the Moldavian children had previously concluded a work contract, and all children were sent back to Moldova . “I think we have survived a sabotage, because we were doing this for years, and there was no problem at all” tells us the technical manager of the farm in Bucium, near Iasi . The manager is convinced that someone working with the competition manufactured the scandal so that Bucium remained without laborers when the crops had to be harvested.

Human Trafficking The Law No 678/2001 – “Recruiting, transporting, transferring, accommodating anyone by threats, violence or other constraint, by kidnapping, fraud or misleading, authority abuse or taking advantage of that person's impossibility to defense himself or to express will, or by offering, giving, accepting or receiving money or other profits to gain the consent of someone with authority on that person, with the purpose of exploiting somebody”. Law punishes these felonies against anyone less than 15 years of age with 5 to 15 years in prison.

Economic reasons for preferring children

They do not drink, they do not smoke, they do not create problems – they do not need documents (work contract, insurance, worksheet) – they work without pause – they consume little (food, accommodation, clothes) – they are much cheaper than qualified laborers – they do not know their rights and can not complain about being abused – there were no major repercussions on the employers who had broken the law.

Negative Consequences

Children do not benefit from education anymore – they suffer physical and psychical abuses – they are not qualified in any profession – the state does not cash taxes for the illegal work made by the children – they do not contribute to the public pension found – the state and the community will have to look after them – they will increase criminality.

Valid legal frame

The Romanian Constitution – The Family Code – Law No 678/2001 regarding the prevention and the fight against human trafficking – the Labor Code (Law No 53/2003) – the Government Ordinance No 26/1997 regarding the protection of children in difficulty – General Norms for Labor Protection, 2002 – The OIM Convention no 138 regarding the minimal age for working, 1957 – The UN Convention concerning the children rights, 1990 – the OIM Convention concerning the forbidding of the most severe forms of child labor and immediate action to be taken in order to eliminate them, 2000.

They are exploited

All children with ages under 13 – all children with ages between 13 and 14 working more than 10 hours a week – all children with ages between 15 and 17 working more than 30 hours a week – all children implicated in the most severe forms of children labor (trafficking, forced labor, prostitution and pornography, illicit activities).

The Phenomenon in figures and statistics

The National Institute for Statistics considers that at the beginning of the year only 40,000 Romanian children were exploited through severe forms of child labor, almost 20,000 of them having ages between 10 and 14. At the same time, a recently published study of UNICEF, the Labor Ministry and the International Labor Office, entitled “Child Labor in Romania ”, identified 900,000 economically active children from almost 5 million underage persons living in Romania . 300,000 children are put to work even against their will. 70,000 children are victims of some of the most severe forms of child exploitation through work, including exploitation by prostitution networks or drugs trafficking. They are constantly working under difficult, and even dangerous, conditions. Most of them are analphabets, dropping school so that they “could do their work”. Dr. Catalin Ghinarau, the initiator of the above-mentioned study, explained that the enormous difference between the figures given by the National Institute for Statistics and the ones of his own study comes from interpreting the definitions with regard to child exploitation through work.

Wensday, May 19 2004: In Moldova : $100 for a childEast of Prut, children are sold or rented as slaves, while authorities are watching passive or are even participating in this bargain.The happiest children among the ones sold in Moldova get to do farming as slaves. The less lucky ones are used for begging and prostitution. Moldavian officials approve this sort of trade, and some of them are even making money on the trafficked children. Moldova is far behind as child protection legislation is concerned, but even flagrant cases are ignored by authorities. After almost half of the active population in Moldova left the country to work in Western countries, children have become an important income source for the ones left behind to live in poverty.

Stefan Candea,

Sorin Ozon,

Vitalie Calugareanu

Photo: Mihai Vasile

Cheap labor force for the brothers across the Prut Romanian farms alongside the Eastern border with Moldova , have been getting for some time now students with the elementary schools and the high schools across the border. “They have respect for their teachers, who accompany them every time and they are well disciplined,” explains the administrator of a huge apple orchard near Iasi . We have also found out that, besides the fact that they are very cheap, the Moldavians students are also efficient: “We have harvested more than 100 tons using 70 children, in only one week. After they left, using local labor force, it took us twice that time to harvest the same quantity” goes on the same administrator. Crossing the border, we have found out that in Moldova is still compulsory for the students to do agricultural internship. School starts every year with a month of internship for all agro-industrial high schools and even polyvalent high schools. Even if, normally, students should do their internship in their area, some entrepreneurs found a modality to make some money on the children. Romanian farms concluded contracts with intermediary companies and the schools, not directly with the children. Thus, in all Moldova , schools send the children to do their agricultural internship in Romania and even in Ukraine . We went to Ungheni, at the Agro-Industrial High School , the place where children left to go working at the farm in Bucium, near Iasi . We posed as Romanian farm owners in need of students' labor force. Even if the high school went through an immense scandal last September, the management is still willing to send children to work in Romania . “You must speak to the junior manager, Andrei Grigoriu or to the manager Alexei Popovici. They kept sending to work children from the high school or from the boarder school”. When contacted by telephone, the managers agreed to make an appointment for setting up all details, but refusing to talk about the issue on the phone. We have also contacted the management of the school for children with special needs from Balti, this time as journalists. They all refused to give any details on September case, the only statement we managed to get being: “Romanians were mistreated us”, referring of course to the fines they have to pay and to the obligation to get all children off work.

We have to mention that during our trip through Moldova we have been guided several times to principals in elementary schools and high schools, when we posed as Romanian farmers looking for child labor force for Romania.

Little farmers

There isn't such a difference between Romania and Moldova , as juveniles used in agricultural works are concerned. You can see everywhere children working on field or in farms. But there are frequent cases of parents sending their children to work in farms from Moldova , Ukraine or Russia . These cases are so often met, that authorities don't even pay any more attention to them. Many of the children going to work in farms are in the end sold several times successively and they are grabbed hold of by begging and prostitution networks, especially in Russia . Moldavian children travel easily in the former soviet republics, without a passport. They have to posses the birth certificate and a notary declaration stating the agreement for the trip of one of the child's parents. The birth certificate has no photo on it, which makes it easier for several children to travel using the same birth certificate. Parents, in exchange of $100, make the notary-legalized declaration. From that moment on, the child is no longer theirs.

Tiulika – Little Fish

One of the cases we have been watching closely involves two sisters, of 12 and 13 years, Anastasia and Valentina Sapoval from Rezina. Cases as the one mentioned here happen in number of hundreds in Moldova , and the route followed by the two little girls is now routine. We have to mention that Moldavian police wasn't even interested in these cases, not until now anyway. The end of the story is even more shocking. Their mother sent Anastasia and Valentina to her brother, therefore their uncle. The latter lives in the village of Ploti , which is in Transnistria. The girls' uncle, Boris Supostat took them two weeks to work in the house for him. Afterwards he lent them to a family of gypsies living in the same village. Inga and Angela, both over 18 years old, were careful enough so that the little girls were put to work in the house. After a short time, Angela called another gypsy family in Soroca , Moldova , which sent a team to buy the sisters Anastasia and Valentina. A certain Tiulika from Soroca paid $ 200 for the two girls. He kept in his house in Soroca for a month, where the girls did some household work. Meanwhile, Tiulika's messengers went to the girls' mother, accompanied by a police officer, Vadim Luca. They asked for the birth certificates of the girls, but they didn't get but Anastasia's. Moreover, the girls' mother was taken to a notary in Soroca where she signed a delegation agreeing for an unknown person to accompany her girls abroad. Valentina says that she and her sister were taken to Ulfa, a town in Russia . Tiulika and another two men accompanied them. Two months later, Valentina managed to escape together with another Moldavian girl and she returned home. Anastasia remained in Ulfa and no one in the family knows what happened to her. Nor Valentina or her mother want to talk about what happened in the two months spent by the girl in Ulfa. Sources from the Soroca Police Department stated that Tiulika is an important mob man in the region, dealing mostly with organizing the prostitution networks for Russia .

Via Transnistria

To understand how the traffickers network functioned in the case of the two girls, we crossed the border to Transnistria and we pretended to be looking for children to work in Romania . We didn't manage to find the girls' uncle in the village of Ploti, but we talked to his son, who remembered his cousins not that gladly: “They were up to no good, especially Nastia (Anastasia). We won't even welcome her here anymore, she stole money and vodka from our parents.” We have found out by surprise that Anastasia has returned little time ago in Ploti and she is living at Inga, with the gypsy family that had sold her in the first place. In no time we found in Ploti the little girl and Inga and from the discussion we had with the latter, who had proclaimed herself “the master of Nastia”, we found out that the little girl was sold in Ulfa for prostitution. Inga kept Anastasia by her side during the discussion. Even if she is now only 13, Anastasia looks much too old. She knows exactly what documents she needs to get out of the country and where are the respective documents. Inga doesn't waste time to listen to our entire story and she offers us Anastasia: “You talk about her only with me. I am now her mother. You pay me in advance $100, and then you send me periodically her salary. I get the birth certificate for you and I accompany you to the notary for the rest of the documents.” Inga assures us that Anastasia is experienced: “She has previously worked in Soroca and in Russia , and she is a hard working girl. If she weren't so, we wouldn't keep her around. In Russia there were some problems with the documents, but we sorted that out. You just tell me when you want to take her."

We went to Soroca to discuss with the notary who had made the delegation from the mother of the two girls. The notary, Ticu Boldescu, was really surprised by the journalists' visit. He stated that he hadn't that many cases of parents coming to sign delegations as the one made by the two girls' mother. But from all the examples he gave us, it resulted that Boldescu had signed more delegations that he liked to admit: “There are many parents coming from Soldanesti, Floresti and Rezina, because they are recruited by the gypsies in Soroca. I make delegations for all of them, because it is in accordance with the law. For example, a mother come to me little time ago and she complained that her daughter would be sold after I had legalized the delegation, but I couldn't help her.” The notary also said that gypsy families come with their own children and draw up delegation that they use afterwards to traffic children from villages near Soroca. “I can't do a thing, I even have to sign the delegations and even when only one parent shows up”, concludes the notary Boldescu. Naturally, he doesn't recall the case of the two sisters and he doesn't know anyone named Tiulika. Sources from the local police told us that the two of them have extremely profitable business together, one of the profs being the immense house in construction downtown, that belongs to the notary.

Further on

We have also discovered cased when neither of the parents had been asked by the traffickers whether they agree or not on the departure of their own children. In Cahul, Southern Moldova , we have talked to Nina Psotenko, mother of two girls, both trafficked for prostitution outside Moldova , both at the age of 16. The youngest of the girls, is Elena, now 18 years old, was fooled to leave for Volvograd, in Russia . She wrote to her mother regularly, assuring her that everything was all right and that she is doing agricultural work. In fact, Elena was forced to beg dressed as a nun during the day and to prostitute during the night. The traffickers, Feraru and Nastia, are living in Ialoveni and have the same business. They forced the girls to write home that everything was fine. At some point, Elena managed to add a note in one of the letters dictated by the traffickers in which she begged her mother to get her out of the hell she was living in. The police was announced and the girl's photo was posted though the Interpol. “I was still in Volvograd when a dirty police officer came to the traffickers and showed them the picture, warning them that I was searched by the police. They bribe many police officers, including the sheriff in Volvograd, and even the priest in the town.” Further on, Elena said that the traffickers got her across the border in Russia , bribing customs staff and border policemen, that didn't even ask for her passport. The girl's mother said that the police didn't do anything else and Elena was set free only because the foundation “Save the Children” from Chisinau managed to contact the traffickers. “I have another girl that is also a prostitute in Italy . At the age of 16 she was lured into doing farming, but she ended up as a prostitute in Italy . She managed to escape and now she is making a living from harvesting olives” also told us the trusting mother of the two girls.

No reaction

Maria Ianachevic, vice-president of “Save the Children”, told us that children trafficking from Moldova to Russia and Ukraine took such a worrying proportion: “In the Ukraine , children are taken to do agricultural works. While the ones repatriated from Russia are also mentioning agricultural work, they mostly talk about begging and prostitution”. Ianachevic is mainly accusing the freedom of children to travel outside Moldova , but also the authorities' lack of reaction regarding this phenomenon: “We have a criminal code, but based on it, it is very hard to prove that a child was trafficked. Moldova has signed the Palermo Convention and the additional protocol in 2000, but it wasn't approved yet. In this protocol the notions of human trafficking, children trafficking and juvenile prostitution are very well defined. That means that we don't have an internal weapon to fight this phenomenon.” In 2003, almost 3,000 children, victims of human trafficking organizations were repatriated to Moldova . For that period of time, the police recorded only 15 felonies, as children's trafficking is concerned. We must state that none of the above-mentioned cases was the object of any investigation. Moreover, important officials from Chisinau, like the Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev and the SIS principal, Simion Rusu, stated in public that public workers are involved in the children trafficking networks. Corruption is widely spread among the public notaries, policemen, border policemen and custom staff. Ion Bejan, chief of the Department for Fighting Against Human Trafficking, declared that he can't mention exactly how many officials are involved in human trafficking networks, and neither how spread this phenomenon is. Fact is that authorities don't have this information, and they seem to be overwhelmed by the phenomenon's proportion.

A recent study issued by The Institute for Public Policies mentions at least 5,000 children trafficked every year from Moldova , only for prostitution. The study also points out the proportion taken by the phenomenon of children exploitation trough different forms of work since 1999. Meantime, authorities found someone to blame for their incompetence: “There were founded many NGO's in Moldova, which are said to fight against human trafficking, but actually, they only get money from supporters, and they aren't doing anything about it. NGO's only print some booklets, which are very expensive, but they are useless, because they don't reach villages or all Moldavian towns”, stated Ion Bejan.

Mariana Ianachevici, vice-president of “Save the Children” has a different opinion: “Last year I had a discussion with the chief of the border police, Igor Colenov, and I asked him to allow us to post some informational material on the fight against human trafficking in the airport area. He answered us that as long as the law of the state border doesn't mention anything on this issue, we won't be allowed to post anything and we won't be permitted to spread any leaflets”.

Investigation lead by CRJI (The Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism) and financed by FUJ (The Association of the Danish Investigative Journalists).