When Victor Spirescu landed at Luton Airport on New Year’s Day 2014, he had no idea of the media scrum that awaited him. As the first Romanian worker to land in Britain after immigration controls were relaxed, he has been grilled by Keith Vaz, confronted by Nigel Farage and is now, in his own words, “a little celebrity”. A year later, he has a steady job, earns good money and has no plans to return home. Yet.
We meet in a café near Old Street in east London, close to Victor’s work. This part of the capital is known as Silicon Roundabout; the hub of the nation’s internet industry. But Spirescu is here for building sites, rather than websites. He works as a duct fitter on one of the numerous apartment blocks being thrown up for student accommodation.
He has washed cars, installed double glazing and laboured on building sites, but his current role is his most lucrative yet. The contractors pay him £50 to install the ducting in one flat, and along with his mate, Florian, he can get through up to seven a day. He says he makes around £2,500 a month, which is about £400 more than the average British worker, six times more than the average Romanian and, as he gleefully points out, about double what the President of Romania earns.
“I don’t come here to cheat the system,” he says. “I come here to make money. I have a lot of possibilities to win a lot of money here and send it home to my country, to make a beautiful life for the rest of my life. I want to stay a little bit, maybe another three years, and after that I live in Romania, like a king.”
Home is a shared house in the outer reaches of east London, by the M25, which costs him around £550 per month. He sends around £1,000 a month home to Romania (“If I keep it here, I spend it”) and has about £10,000 saved so far. “I put the money on a charge card and then I send it to my mum in Bucharest,” he grins. “She doesn’t know the Pin number.” He wants to amass around £60,000 before he thinks about going back.
Despite grave warnings about migrants from Romania and Bulgaria flooding into Britain, the number arriving here during 2014 was around 47,000, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Spirescu is adamant that people like him are a blessing, rather than a hindrance. “London, without immigrants, it doesn’t function. England without immigrants won’t have this economy, because we contribute and help the economy to grow.”
He is less enamoured with British workers. “You don’t see any English guys on the site, as ground workers. It’s tough, it’s dirty. When English guys say we come here to steal their jobs, we don’t. We take the crumbs from the table. We don’t take the cherry on the cake. What kind of job do we find? We find the jobs the English don’t want to do.” Why don’t they want to do them? “They prefer to stay at home on benefits.” Why? “Because it’s easy. They pay your rent, give you a house. When you work, it’s hard.”
Spirescu says he wants nothing from the benefits system, and is saving to pay his tax bill.
“I want to make sure I pay all my taxes,” he smiles. “I could steal, I could do things wrong. But I care about the image of my country. I don’t want to make it easy for them to say bad things about me or my country.”
Has anybody said bad things to him since he got here? “Only Nigel Farage.” He has met the Ukip leader twice, in television studios. What do you think of him? “He has a problem with immigrants. Does he have any idea how hard it is to leave your country because you don’t have any possibility of making a good life?”
He says he has received many calls from Romanians back home, asking his advice. What does he say? “Stay at home. I tell them it’s very, very hard to come here and to start – you can’t get the paperwork.” To get a job you need a national insurance number, to get a national insurance number you need a proof of address, to get a house you really need a job, and therein lies the circular problem.
How did he do it? “A guy helped me, he put me on the gas bill. With that bill I go to the bank and [set up] an account. After that I get a statement and a national insurance number.” He says that the only reason he’s succeeded in Britain is because of that media scrum one year ago. He came with £40 in his pocket, but Sky News gave him £500 for an interview. “I become a little celebrity and I have some privilege. I found a job, people helped me.”
The Romanians Are Coming airs on Tuesday 17th February on Channel 4 at 9pm