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Across borders, without wages

Behind the Scenes of "Exploitation Across Borders" Indian migrant workers fight for their right to get paid in Serbia."

During the Covid crisis in India, a haunting image that caught media attention was that of Indian workers migrating on foot from big cities to their villages, walking for hundreds of miles with their families and belongings, risking their lives, having already lost their livelihoods. The search of workers for employment takes them not just to big cities but also across their national borders. Even before the pandemic hit, the unemployment rate was at a four-decade high in India.

Added to this is the lack of protection for workers’ rights in the unorganised sector. All this put together pushes many in the Indian workforce to foreign lands, where they become easy targets for exploitation. We found a glaring example of this violation of rights in our latest story by Yamuna Matheswaran, on Indian workers employed in the construction sector in Serbia.

When someone is already in a vulnerable position, it is tough to first understand and then challenge legalities. It is even harder when you are employed in one country but the company that hired you is registered in another country, as happens in this story.

Whose laws apply? Which court can you appeal to? What is the responsibility of your own government towards you?

Not withstanding these roadblocks, the workers this report talks about fought for justice through complaints and strikes. Their struggle also helped in their repatriation to home countries, though they are still demanding outstanding payments.

Violation of workers’ rights – including poor and hazardous working/living conditions and meager payments – is not limited to Indian workers. In Serbia itself there were reports of Chinese and Turkish workers’ being ill treated. Globally 24.9 million people are in forced labour, of which 16 million are in the private sector, including construction. As we see the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, an even higher number of people rendered homeless and finding themselves as forced migrants would be vulnerable to exploitation and modern slavery.

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