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Exploitation Across Borders
Indian migrant workers fight for their right to get paid in Serbia
Indian migrant workers have been targeted to work at mega construction projects in EU-candidate state Serbia. A group of workers is not willing to give up fighting for their salary, despite the legal loopholes that a company registered in America has used to contract them for work in Serbia.
When Boobalan Dhanapal, 41, arrived in Serbia in July 2019, he was eager to work and send money back home. He was joined by fellow construction workers from Chennai, a coastal city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Boobalan, who has a degree in civil engineering, was recruited to work as a construction foreman for a monthly salary of Є 440 (approx. 38,500 Indian rupees), inclusive of food and housing. At the time, it sounded like a good deal.
These included the Surčin-Obrenovac motorway, the viaduct in Chortanovci, and apartments for military personnel in Kraljevo. Their contracts, however, weren’t signed with GP Nikolić but its parent company, Idea Capital LLC, registered in Miami, Florida. This detail would go on to play a key role in the workers’ struggles and the Serbian government’s response. Notably, both companies are linked to the same person, Nina Nikolić.
All Work and No Pay
Once in Serbia, the Indian workers say they had to deal with irregular or non-payment of salaries, which ranged from around Є 320 to Є 500, in addition to what they describe as poor working and living conditions. Boobalan, who worked in Belgrade and then in Kraljevo, says his issues with getting paid began in March 2020, and that he is still awaiting four months’ worth of wages.
Boobalan adds his pay in Chennai is 35,000 Indian rupees (approx. Є 400) per month but that in his interview with Nikolic he was told the pay he was being hired at would be increased by Є 200 in three months. He says that never happened either.
Mukhtar Ahamad, on the other hand, says he stopped receiving his salary of Є 320 from the third month onwards, and that Idea Capital owes him four months’ worth of salaries. Despite the employer’s assertions that they would get paid, workers say the payments never arrived.
Ponkumar Ponnuswamy, president of Tamizhaga Kattida Thozhilalargal Mathiya Sangam (TKTMS), a Tamil Nadu-based construction workers’ trade union, states that on average GP Nikolić owes each aggrieved worker anywhere between Є 1100 and Є 2200. “Taken as a whole, it is a very large sum of money,” he says.
Labor Shortages? Enter Migrant Workers
With citizens increasingly choosing to emigrate in search of better opportunities, countries in the Balkans are facing a demographic crisis. Goran Rodić, vice-president of Serbia’s Chamber of Construction Industry, has stated in the past that Serbia is grappling with a serious shortage of skilled and unskilled workers. At the same time, the Serbian government has been steadily acquiring funding for new infrastructure projects that are in need of a workforce.
Jasmin Redzepović from the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), a global federation of trade unions, notes workers from the Balkans are increasingly emigrating to the European Union, Western Asia and Russia. At the same time, countries such as Turkey, China and Azerbaijan have been obtaining contracts for projects and bringing their own workforce to Serbia.
Big deals between countries, raw deal for workers
Over the past decade, China has become increasingly invested in the Western Balkans through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Among other sites, the Indian migrants were engaged on the Surčin-Obrenovac section (A2 motorway) of the ambitious Corridor 11 project set to link Belgrade and Bar, Montenegro. The contractor for the Surčin-Obrenovac motorway, of which 85 percent is financed by loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank, is the China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC). GP Nikolić is one of several subcontractors.
In 2018, the Serbian government signed a bilateral deal with China waiving the application of Serbian labor law for Chinese nationals working in Serbia. In recent times, reports of the exploitation of Chinese and Turkish construction workers in Serbia have been brought forth by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Radio Free Europe respectively.
“We worked every day, did not have a single day off”
The process of emigration for migrant workers from India is a long and hard one, even before they board a flight. To secure the job in Serbia, Mukhtar Ahamad, a worker from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, says he shelled out the equivalent of approx. Є 680 in recruiting fees to an unregistered agency, ‘Shakti Tread Test Centre’, run by Muktinath Yadav. Yadav did not respond to Unbias the News’ calls or messages to confirm.
When they arrived in Serbia, the Indian workers found that their accommodations consisted of prefabricated containers, with four people cramped in a small room. “We didn’t get proper food, and the rooms were very small,” says Boobalan. “It was very difficult to stay in that cramped place. Human rights organizations visited, even took videos.” In addition to unsanitary living conditions, workers and union members state that there was minimal or no heating in the lodgings.
A report by the BWI, which has been directly involved in this case, notes the migrants worked for 10-12 hours a day and six days a week on average. Boobalan states the maximum he worked was eighteen hours a day, from 6 AM until midnight. “We worked every day, did not have a single day off,” he says, adding that when payment issues eventually arose, the company “put it off saying, ‘yes you’ll get it soon, you’ll get it soon’, and that continued for four months”.
Jasmin Redzepović from BWI describes how his organization learned about the Indian workers at the end of 2019. It was when a member of a Serbian road workers’ trade union noticed a group of foreigners working on the Surčin-Obrenovac road construction project and notified his union. Eventually, ASTRA, a Serbian organization dealing with cases of trafficking and labor exploitation, got involved.
Much power, little accountability
At their office in Belgrade, Srna Ignjatović of ASTRA explains the employer had also confiscated the passports of the group working in Surčin, until the workers took it upon themselves to complain to the police. ASTRA members also visited the accommodation facilities and found the living conditions were abysmal. “It was so cramped and dirty,” she recalls.
Following the intervention of labor unions, ASTRA, and Indian government officials, the first group of workers from Surčin was repatriated to India in January and February 2020. According to Ponkumar, around 50-70 others, including Boobalan, stayed behind. When asked why they chose to stay, Boobalan explains that unlike the group working in Surčin, they were still receiving their salaries at this point. However, their troubles with getting paid began soon afterward, compounded by the harsh realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Boobalan recounts the ways in which he and his fellow workers tried to get their voices heard. “[The company] didn’t understand our financial distress. They just didn’t respond to us properly,” he says. “We went on strike—sat in our rooms for five days. Then I went to the Kraljevo mayor’s office, and complained at the police station.”
“Finally, we staged a hunger strike in front of the mayor’s office. That’s when the Indian Embassy called and told us to end our strike, and that they will settle the issue.” The workers asked to be paid and sent home. Eventually, they were repatriated in August-September 2020, but without their pending wages.
In a response to the BBC in August 2020, GP Nikolić’s owner Nina Nikolić claimed that there were no issues with the lodgings, that the workers themselves terminated their contracts in March, and that the company does not owe them any money. Nikolić also stated that, despite this, the company was still taking care of their health insurance. However, Boobalan and BWI members note that a worker who had sustained a leg injury neither had access to the healthcare system nor received any support from the employer. “The road union called the health workers’ union, and they got one of their members to treat the worker”, says BWI’s Redzepović.
A January 2020 report by Serbian publication Danas quoted Nikolić as saying that only the November salary was delayed since “our business partners owed us money”, and that the company purchased the workers’ flight tickets and paid them 5000 Serbian dinars each (approx. Є 42) for travel expenses. Nikolić did not respond to calls and multiple email inquiries about the allegations against her company.
Contractual violations and legal loopholes
GP Nikolić, the Serbian company the Indian migrants were working for, is a subsidiary of Idea Capital LLC, registered in Miami, Florida, with a branch in Kraljevo. Based on documents available through the Florida Department of State website, Nikolić founded Idea Capital in 2013. She is also the owner of GP Nikolić, a family-owned business founded in 1991 by the late Dragan Nikolić.
Despite working for GP Nikolić, it was with Idea Capital that the workers had signed contracts. They were brought to Serbia by means of a technical cooperation drafted between Nikolić’s two companies.
Citing this as a reason, the Labor Inspectorate declared that as the contracts were signed with a company registered in Miami, the case falls under the responsibility of the relevant authorities and regulations there. Article 2 of Serbia’s Labor Law, however, stipulates all employees working on Serbian territory are protected by the country’s labor laws.
The Labor Inspection office in Belgrade did not respond to Unbias the News’ queries. But their statement was widely circulated in Serbian media at the time, including in a report by the BBC. Unbias the News also tried contacting the US embassy in Belgrade but had not received a response at the time of this article’s publication.
“This opinion of labor inspectors is not in accordance with our laws. It was issued under political pressure because most companies that use foreign workers illegally are in a contractual relationship with the state,” says labor law expert Mario Reljanović. His statement is echoed by ASTRA’s Srna Ignjatović, who warns that the case sets a dangerous precedent.
BWI’s Redzepović says this case could serve as a template for other companies to exploit workers.
“Members of our union assessed the employment contract, and they determined that this contract is not in line with Serbian labor law,” says Redzepović. For starters, only some of the workers had been issued with work permits.
Mario Reljanović says that employers who bring foreign workers to Serbia often obtain work permits for only a portion of the workers. “The procedure for obtaining work permits is long and employers avoid carrying it out in order to save time and money,” he says. Following an inspection in late 2019, the Labor Inspectorate filed misdemeanor charges against GP Nikolić relating to the lack of work permits.
Meager fines against company, heavy penalties on workers
Ignjatović believes the fine doesn’t affect the company much. “The sum of the fine is way below the financial benefit they obtained by exploiting so many workers, and for such a long period of time,” she says. Reljanović explains that while the labor inspection may initiate misdemeanor proceedings or ban the employer from using workers who lack permits, “employers rarely obey such a ban”. There are too few labor inspectors to keep track of all violations of the law, he adds, and misdemeanor proceedings often become statute-barred, i.e., legally unenforceable because too much time has passed, without the imposition of any penalty.
Idea Capital’s contract also listed draconian penalties that were in clear violation of labor laws. “The fine for missing one day of work was Є 50 [and not Є 20 as the list above mentions],” says Boobalan despite the fact that the average worker earned even less than that for an entire 10-hour workday. Being late to work would cost you Є 10, whereas the fine for organizing an “illegal” strike and participating in one was Є 500 and Є 50 respectively.
In the Danas report, Nikolić stated that the company did not end up charging any penalties. However, a monthly salary list that was first published by the Serbian outlet Istinomer in January 2020 indicates that penalties were imposed on over a third of the workers on the list.
Reljanović does not necessarily think that the same fraudulent scheme, which was condemned by a large section of the professional public and trade unions, will be used again, but believes that the Serbian government will resort to other tactics.
False promises, broken agreements
During the process of repatriation in August 2020, a number of workers signed agreements with the employer, brokered by the Indian embassy. Unbias the News has viewed the agreement. Jasmin Redzepović of BWI says that the company agreed to provide a small sum of money (“too small”), a Covid-19 test, and a flight ticket back to the workers’ homes. In exchange, the workers gave up all claims against the company.
In reality, many of the workers did not receive the full amount ($ 400) stated in the agreement. Boobalan says some received no money at all: “Apart from around ten people, the rest didn’t even get a single dollar. Since then, we haven’t heard from [Nikolić].” The flight tickets provided by the employer only took them to Delhi, still a long way from home for many. “So, an agreement was signed, but even those terms weren’t fulfilled by the company,” says Redzepović. “Then this agreement can no longer be valid.”
Despite widespread media coverage of the case in Serbia at the time, the only consequence GP Nikolić had to bear appears to be the misdemeanor charges. “There are probably various corruption connections in those deals which, however, have never been proven,” says Mario Reljanović. In early 2021, Marera Property Management acquired GP Nikolić.
Repeated patterns of exploitation
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, there is a new call, dated July 2021, for workers needed in Serbia. Conditions of the job include 10-hour workdays, six days a week, plus overtime. When asked about the identity of the company looking to hire workers, the agency that advertised the job, Rainbow Consultant, declined to say who it was.
If the case of the Indian workers in Serbia has demonstrated anything, it is that this is not an isolated incident concerning just one company. As recently as July 2021, reports of labor exploitation in an Aptiv factory in Leskovac, Serbia, came to light.
For the workers, the experience has had very real consequences.
During the Zoom call, an official from BWI’s Delhi office asks Boobalan what kind of compensation he hopes for should the case ever go to court. The response, in Hindi, is swift: “Salary dilwane ka hai. Bas.” We want our salaries, that’s all.
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