Indian migrant workers fight for their right to be paid in SerbiaGlobal Voices
This article was originally written by Yamuna Matheswaran, edited by Ankita Anand and published in Release the news. An edited version is republished in two parts by Global Voices under a content sharing agreement.
Indian migrant workers have been targeted to work on construction megaprojects in EU candidate state Serbia. A group of workers are not ready to give up the fight for their wages, despite the loopholes that a company registered in the United States has used to hire them for work in Serbia.
When Boobalan Dhanapal, 41, arrived in Serbia in July 2019, he was eager to work and send money home. He was joined by other construction workers from Chennai, a coastal city in the state of Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Boobalan, a civil engineering graduate, was recruited to work as a construction foreman for a monthly salary of 440 euros (around INR 38,500), including food and accommodation. At the time, it sounded like a good deal.
In 2019, more than 150 men from various Indian states began working for GP Nikolić, a Serbian construction company, on a number of infrastructure projects across the Balkan country.
These included the Surčin-Obrenovac highway, the Chortanovci viaduct and apartments for military personnel in Kraljevo. Their contracts, however, were not signed with GP Nikolić but his parent company, Idea Capital LLC, registered in Miami, Florida. This detail would play a key role in the workers’ struggles and the Serbian government’s response. Notably, the two companies are linked to the same person, Nina Nikolić.
All the work and no pay
Once in Serbia, Indian workers say they had to deal with irregular or unpaid wages, which ranged from around 320-500 UR (363-567 USD), in addition to what they called poor working conditions and life. . Boobalan, who worked in Belgrade and then in Kraljevo, says his pay issues started in March 2020 and he’s still waiting for four months’ pay.
“My family ran into a lot of problems when they didn’t receive the money,” he said via Zoom, speaking in Tamil. “It was a struggle to pay even my children’s school fees. “
Boobalan adds that his salary in Chennai is 35,000 INR (around 400 EUR / 454 USD) per month, but during his interview with Nikolic, he was told that the salary he was hired at would be increased by 200 EUR (227 USD) in three months. But that never happened.
Mukhtar Ahamad, meanwhile, claims to have stopped receiving his salary of 320 euros (363 USD) from the third month and that Idea Capital owes him four months of salary arrears. Despite the employer’s claims they would be paid, the workers say the payments never arrived.
Ponkumar Ponnuswamy, chairman of Tamizhaga Kattida Thozhilalargal Mathiya Sangam (TKTMS), a construction workers union based in Tamil Nadu, says that on average GP Nikolić owes each injured worker between 1,100 EUR (1,47) and 2,200 EUR (2495 USD). “Overall it’s a really big amount of money,” he says.
Labor shortage? Enter migrant workers
As citizens increasingly choose to migrate in search of better opportunities, the Balkan countries face a demographic crisis. Goran Rodić, Vice-President of the Serbian Chamber of Construction Industry, declared in the past that Serbia struggles with a severe shortage of skilled and unskilled workers. At the same time, the Serbian government has continued to acquire funding for new infrastructure projects that need manpower.
Obtaining building permits also became much easier thanks to USAID’s seven-year Business Assistance Project. Serbia is currently the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment among the transition economies, after Russia.
Jasmin Redzepović from International Building and Woodworkers (IBB), a global federation of trade unions, notes that workers from the Balkans are increasingly migrating to the European Union, West Asia and Russia. At the same time, countries like Turkey, China and Azerbaijan have been awarded contracts for projects and brought their own workforce to Serbia.
“And then you have companies from Serbia, Croatia and other Balkan countries that hire workers through certain agencies for subsidiaries,” he says. “So we have a variety of cases where Indian workers, even Nepalese and Filipinos, not [just] workers from Romania or neighboring countries – enter [the region]. “
– Jasmin Redzepović, International Building and Woodworkers
Big deals between countries, gross deal for workers
Over the past decade, China has increasingly invested in the Western Balkans through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Among other sites, Indian migrants were engaged on the Surcin-Obrenovac section (A2 motorway) of the ambitious Corridor 11 project which will link Belgrade and Bar, Montenegro. The contractor for the Surčin-Obrenovac highway, 85 percent of which is financed by loans from the China Import-Export Bank, is the China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC). GP Nikolić is one of the many subcontractors.
In 2018, the Serbian government signed a bilateral agreement with China waiving the application of Serbian labor law for Chinese nationals working in Serbia. In recent times, reports on the exploitation of Chinese and Turkish construction workers in Serbia have been highlighted by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and Radio Free Europe respectively.
“There is no political will in Serbia to solve the problem of foreign workers in favor of these workers. On the contrary, foreign labor markets are seen as an ideal source of cheap and completely unprotected labor, ”says Mario Reljanović, associate researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law in Belgrade.