WOTD: Hamal

A couple of years ago, back when I was still getting my bearings on Moldova, I kept being dumbstruck by how many employment offers were posted everywhere. Yes, a few were for lucru legal in Europa (legal work in Europe), but the vast majority were for local businesses. I couldn’t help but wonder – if Moldova was so poor, why were so many businesses desperate to hire people?

The answer to that question is a little bit complicated. But what I also noticed was that easily the most common job that was being posted everywhere was for the position of hamal. In Romania, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of such a job, so I had to ask my wife what it meant.

It turns out the answer is quite interesting, as it says a lot both about Moldovan history and the current state of the economy.

A Job With 50 Names

Depending on your age and where you learned English, here are just some of the ways to translate the job of hamal:

  • Navvy
  • Lumper
  • Stevedore
  • Mover
  • Dockhand
  • Carny
  • Porter
  • Skycap
  • Labourer
  • Roadie
  • Manual laborer
  • Carrier
  • Redcap
  • Longshoreman
  • Jack
  • Walloper

I could go into the precise difference between all of the above, but I won’t :)

In essence, a hamal is simply a guy who carries, shifts, loads, unloads, or otherwise moves stuff using only his own muscles. It comes from a Turkish word that ultimately stems from Arabic. The picture attached to this article is of an Armenian “hamal” working in Istanbul during a previous century, and it’s certainly illustrative of what the position possibly entails even today in Moldova.

Simply put, here in Chisinau, there is a ton of stuff being shifted around by hand. Too poor for more modern solutions like forklifts and too crowded for old-school solutions like horses and wagons, Moldova is reliant on a vast army of guys to haul, unload, load, and move stuff around. Some of it is inside of warehouses (especially for posted jobs like I was seeing in 2014) but a lot of it is outdoors, in all weathers.

I’ve spent many long moments in the piata centrala in Chisinau trying to estimate the gross tonnage of goods being transported in and out of there by hand on an hourly basis and gave up (back in Cluj I once similarly tried to calculate the total weight in kilograms of the stuff being transported by women in their purses during a 24-hour period and gave that up too as it was clearly an enormous sum).

The total metric weight of what is being moved by hamali in Chisinau is truly a staggering figure, and practically none of it is assisted by any kind of animal or mechanical power. I’ve counted upwards of 100 people a minute streaming past me at the main entrance of the market, and the vast majority of them are carrying something either in or out. The customers haul their loot out using the traditional crappy plastic “carrier” bag method (which pulls out your shoulders) while the hamali bring it in by leaning into enormous wheeled carts piled high with everything you could ever imagine.

Depending on the age, mother tongue, and personality of the hamal, they all have a unique cry that they shout to make people get out of their way. In the Romanian I learned back in Cluj, the standard would be “la o parte” but here I’ve heard plenty of other variants, including “Ferim, ferim!” and one guy who just emits a piercing whistle.

Hamali are also busy doing work elsewhere. For instance, if you move (from one home to another), you can hire hamali to load all your stuff on the truck/van. And when we needed a sofa lifted up to the second floor of our house, yes, of course, we needed a team of hamali. Need trash cleared away from a building site? Call hamali. Want to quickly set up a bunch of stuff for a show, wedding, or special event? Call some hamali. Need something loaded or unloaded? Hamali are your guys. And yes, they’re always guys, and they often handle very heavy stuff.

I’ve honestly never lived in a country where so many people were being paid to move things around via muscle power alone. In more “advanced” countries, almost nothing is ever shifted more than a meter or two using just muscle power. And yet, from the number of job postings around here for hamal, it’s pretty obvious that it’s one of the top jobs here in Moldova.

In fact, here’s my completely unofficial list of the most common jobs in Chisinau, in order of popularity:

  1. Hamal (always male)
  2. Sweeper (either sex)
  3. Cashier (always female)
  4. Salesclerk (always female)
  5. Security (always male)

Sweeper = a topic for a full article later, but I’ve discussed it before.

Cashier = both the person ringing you up at the shop as well as the lady in the private cubbyhole who is the only one authorized to handle money. For instance, if you buy a vacuum cleaner, HDMI cable, insurance policy, or jewelry, you have to first pay the cashier and then give the receipt to the person selling you the item before you can leave with the stuff.

Salesclerk = sometimes called vanzatoara and sometimes realizator, this means either one employee of many working together in a store OR a single person working alone (and doing everything) in a booth/mini store/kiosk.

Security = about 90% of the time, this involves wearing a leather jacket and standing around doing nothing. Mostly, this job is about preventing your employees from stealing rather than customers. Otherwise, it might involve carrying a truncheon, wearing a black, quasi-police uniform, and/or occasionally packing a pistol in a Velcro side holster.


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