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Making it on 1,000 euros in the EU

  • 2013-05-15
  • By Ilze Powell

HOME SWEET HOME: Many have left the motherland Latvia, and this only serves to strengthen their love of home.

CELLE - It’s been nine years since Latvia became a member of the European Union, the event that opened the local people’s vision to a broader horizon and plenty of new opportunities. As a citizen who left shortly before the big date arrived, I still remember the mixed opinions and concerns that many expressed regarding the nation’s wellbeing, generally uncertain, whether such a move would bring only good in the future.
Almost a decade has passed since Latvians have been traveling and migrating freely across Europe. What has it brought? And what are their possibilities today?

As England was one of the first countries to welcome the newly joined European neighbors, it earned itself the status as a popular favorite. I think by now every resident of Riga knows at least one person who is living in the UK. The majority, of course, tried and are still attempting to make it in London – the crown of the queen’s land. There are areas, bars, Web sites and groups of friendly ex-pats offering help and useful information for anyone new to the scene. In fact, it has become so regular that it is doable even for those un-proficient in a foreign tongue. But is the hassle still paying off?

Despite various success stories, and having lived there last year myself, I must say that the majority are not doing as well as they had intended upon their arrival. And many would admit, over a pitcher of draft beer, that they miss their friends but feel reluctant about moving back, not having achieved anything better than what they had back home.
At the moment the minimum wage is 6.19 pounds per hour and, unfortunately, it is also the most frequently earned money per hour. Most honest and easily accessible full-time jobs will pay that, but the accommodation in a big city like London can swallow up most of it, leaving the leftovers for transportation to work, food and utilities. Not much life left for the worker after that. The good thing about big cities in the UK is that they’re full of young and motivated people who can often inspire better than your paycheck. During my stay there I found myself frequently surrounded by many interesting personalities telling their unique stories about why and how they’ve come to London. I also met several friends living in towns an hour away from the capital, and they were seemingly better off, losing less money to bare survival. However, this scenario can sometimes involve waking up at 5 a.m. to get the early train to work, or feeling lonely with only your workmates for friends.

In September 2009 I moved to Italy to explore the backdrop of the popular landscape and food. I can’t say I was dying to live there, but my destiny had put it in my path and seeing Latvia so beat under the heavy whip of the world economic recession, I thought of it as a wise decision. To be honest, upon my arrival I didn’t speak one word of the local language and had never been to the country before. Therefore, I didn’t have any of the extras I might have had if I’d chosen the UK or Ireland for my destination.

Luckily, I found work using only my English and throughout my moving across the country remained working for several British companies. The catch is always the pay day, as Italians often don’t see the deadlines as anything official. I’ve heard tales about not seeing that well-earned check at all. The second funny part about employment in the old world is the taxes – how much and when you are paying them. I worked in four different places – Turin, Casale Monferrato, Rome and Bologna – and my hourly rate (gross) was always the same, but I never got the same money for the same hours. Being the leader of bureaucracy, Italian employment law is saturated with various ways to ‘pay’ the taxes and hire people. If you are an immigrant, most of them will shove a Contratto a Progetto in your face, claiming it to be the best option for both parties. As long as you haven’t earned more than 5,000 euros that year and have declared yourself a resident (sometimes simple, sometimes seemingly impossible procedure at your local Comune) it is one of the best ways to work in Italy. Again, this contract (with the same exact law across the country) means different things to different companies.

Some accountants will deduct 20 percent, some 30 percent of your income. Interestingly, most of my employers somehow managed to file my forms with 15 percent and less. In Rome, for example, I was continuously receiving the entire gross amount in my bank account, providing me with more dolce far niente for the same money I would make in Turin. I guess sometimes you can benefit from such a complicated system, and even a language-less Latvian girl can do quite well in the pasta land.

I’ve been exploring the ups and downs of the system in Germany since early this year and have to say that I am surprised there aren’t more Latvians who’ve moved here during the challenging post-crisis years. The most common ways any immigrant can benefit from this organization-loving nation are doing freelance work or the so-called 400-basis (or 450-basis, starting 2013) jobs.

Being a freelancer in Germany can mean just about anything these days. Many employers will inquire about your ‘freelance’ status even during the interview. It seems to be one of the easiest forms for them and definitely the fastest way to get to actual cash for any foreigner, for Germans are known for their uber-scrutinizing and lengthy hiring process. As a freelancer all you have to do is provide your next boss with a bank account and a certificate of residence in Germany. He or she wouldn’t even know where you were born, as the passport isn’t a requirement.

The part-time gigs, or the so-called 400-basis jobs, are really ways, not jobs, to work for more than one person, not paying any taxes and still earning 1,000 euros or more, depending on your availability. It doesn’t mean that you have to work as a janitor or cleaning lady, or even wash someone’s laundry – although these happen to be among the most commonly taken jobs for immigrants from Eastern Europe. It is a well-recognized form of employment that supports the poorer parts of society by boosting their net income. Today there are millions of Germans earning their money through these contracts, so whether you are a Latvian or not, this is a very wise way to get started for those who had Deutsch as their second language in school.

Having lived in three EU countries and New York, I can honestly say that any willing enough immigrant can make a thousand euros and live on it, and sometimes live very well, figuring out the local benefits and ways around things. The question is no longer about the money or ability to pay for things.

It’s been a long time since independence and Latvia has prospered beautifully into a popular tourist destination and a hometown most seek out during every national holiday. Maybe it was never about the money – many people would technically do similarly well back home. Maybe Latvians are simply a nation of “Spriditis.” And, maybe coming from the bunch around the same puddle, we will always be people who wish to explore bits of the big world, while valuing the highest our little, dear motherland Latvia.