In August 2020, a group of around forty Indian construction workers staged a hunger strike in Kraljevo, Serbia, demanding to be paid. In addition to not receiving months’ worth of wages from their employer, they had been working 10 hours-12 hours a day without proper food or access to healthcare and were living in cramped, unhygienic quarters during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The migrant workers from across India first arrived in Serbia in mid-2019. According to the Building and Wood Workers’ International, a global union federation, around 150 Indians were employed across the Balkan country for the construction of the Corridor 11 project.

In a Zoom interview, two of the workers recounted how their troubles with getting paid had begun soon after arrival. When their situation did not improve, the first group was repatriated to India in January and February 2020. The rest, including those protesting in Kraljevo, were repatriated by September 2020.

Much of the Indian government’s efforts have been focused on Gulf countries, where, based on data from the International Labour Organization, around 90 lakh Indians live and work. However, the Building and Wood Workers’ International warns that Europe is fast becoming a hub for the exploitation and trafficking of third-country nationals. In Serbia, other reports of exploitation of migrant groups from China and Turkey have recently come to light.

When he heard about the stranded Indian workers, Ramachandra Khuntia, chair of the Building and Wood Workers’ International Indian Affiliates Council and a former MP, contacted the external affairs ministry and the Indian embassy in Belgrade multiple times.

What followed was a cross-border initiative involving labour unions, the Indian government, and Serbian anti-trafficking organisation ASTRA. “We were finally able to bring the workers back home. But ‘til today, they have yet to receive their wages from the employer,” said Khuntia.

“The payment of arrear wages is usually dealt with by the labour department in the host country, but the matter can be pursued through the Indian embassy,” explained Khuntia, adding that despite assurances from the Indian government and the Indian embassy in Serbia, the payments seem nowhere in sight.

Much of the Indian government’s efforts have been focused on Gulf countries, where, based on data from the International Labour Organization, around 90 lakh Indians live and work. Photo credit: Karim Jaafar/AFP

Job loss

Wage theft – the illegal practice of denying workers the money that they are rightfully owed – has dramatically increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to the non- or incomplete payment of wages, employees have to deal with job loss, non-payment of termination benefits, poor working conditions, and hurried repatriation without the chance to register their grievances.

Ponkumar Ponnuswamy, president of TKTMS, a construction workers’ union in Tamil Nadu that was directly involved in the process of repatriating the stranded workers, says that each of the workers is owed anywhere between the equivalent of $1,300 and $2,600 by the aforementioned company, depending on how long they were in Serbia.

For the workers who were put through this trying ordeal, their unpaid wages represent a substantial amount of money that would have otherwise gone towards debt repayments, medical treatments and basic subsistence.

“I think it is a huge loss not only at the individual level but also at the country level,” said S Irudaya Rajan, an expert on Indian migration and member of the Kerala government’s Covid-19 expert committee.

Migrant workers constitute an integral part of the global economy, with their remittances adding up to over three times the amount of international aid and foreign direct investment combined. India, the world’s largest source of international migrants, received $82 billion in remittances in 2019 according to World Bank data, a sum that has helped keep millions out of poverty.

“Covid-19 has become a great opportunity for exploitation,” said Rajan, who is currently heading a study on counter-migration from the Gulf to assess wage theft.

But according to him, migrant workers’ troubles begin in their country of origin, not abroad. “It is a new form of slavery that begins before they even leave the country in the form of recruiting fees,” he said. “Recruiting agents and others involved are selling dreams to migrant workers.”

The Indian government requires recruiting agents to register themselves with the Protector General of Emigrants. Despite this, many illegal agents continue operating across the country. Photo credit: Yamuna Matheswaran/ Author provided

What’s India doing?

In theory, the central government offers various resources for those who emigrate for work: registration portals, insurance schemes, awareness programs and helplines. They also provide a list of registered recruiting agents across the country.

But the reality of emigration is far more complex, even confusing. For instance, it would be safe to assume that only a fraction of the recruiting agents operating in India are registered with the external affairs ministry.

A 2018 investigation by the Migrant Forum in Asia, with the support of the International Labour Organization, found that in the state of Punjab alone the number of unregistered agents ran into several thousands, despite the 2014 Punjab Travel Professionals Regulation Act requiring mandatory registration of all consultants, agents and advisors involved in sending people abroad.

Unscrupulous agents make emigrants more vulnerable to exploitation by charging illegal fees and pushing unfair contracts. Some workers arrive in a foreign country only to learn that the job they were recruited for does not exist, says Rajan. Others end up without appropriate visas or permits and are never registered in the system.

The external affairs ministry limits the service fees registered recruiting agents can charge their clients, which caps at Rs 20,000. But Rajeev Sharma, Regional Policy Officer at Building and Wood Workers’ International’s South Asia office, says that many of the workers have paid far more depending on the state they hailed from.

“Workers from Punjab, for instance, paid up to Rs 1,00,000 to Rs 1,50,000 to the agent,” he said. “We don’t know how they managed to fund their journey, they may have run into debt – so it is not just the salary, so many other issues are involved.” When asked about this practice, one of the agencies involved – an unregistered “Shakti Tread Test Centre” run by Muktinath Yadav in Deoria, Uttar Pradesh – gave no response.

Indian missions abroad are tasked with ensuring the welfare of overseas Indian nationals. However, the migrant workers and union members say that the Indian embassy in Serbia failed to even register their grievances properly. The Embassy of India in Belgrade did not respond to requests for comment.

In response to an inquiry about grievance redressal mechanisms for repatriated migrant workers, the Ministry of External Affairs’ Protector General of Emigrants instead pointed to the Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra, a general helpline.

“Grievance portals address a lot of topics, including pre-departure issues. However, there needs to be a specific focus on wage theft, particularly during Covid-19,” said Rajan. He stressed the importance of collective bargaining by various governments in South Asia and proper grievance registration by Indian embassies in order to pursue the necessary legal steps.

Recognising the lack of global mechanisms to address wage theft, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor stated during a panel discussion last year that an escrow fund could be set up, with employers depositing six months’ worth of wages in order to protect workers against non-payment.

Awareness building needed

In the case of the Indian migrant workers in Serbia, it was labour unions that initially came to their rescue, following through until they had arrived safely back to their respective homes. When asked if there is enough awareness among migrants themselves about their rights and the resources available to them, Rajan said: “Absolutely not, and I think that is where we are failing.”

“Migration has three cycles,” he explained. “The first – pre-migration cycle – happens in our country and steps to protect migrant workers need to start here.”

Rajan said believed that the government should make pre-departure orientation programs, including skills training, mandatory. “Most workers do not even know the currency of the host country. They know, in rupees, how much they expect to make and in how much time.”

Khuntia, of the Building and Wood Workers’ International Indian Affiliates Council, highlighted the utter importance of signing bilateral agreements with host countries regarding wages, healthcare, and social security so that those emigrating can feel secure. “And if anything were to happen, by virtue of this bilateral agreement, the Indian government can negotiate with the host country and provide relief to the workers,” he concluded.

“If everybody were cheated, there would be no migration,” said Rajan. But to raise awareness among prospective migrants, it is important to share not only success stories but also those of struggles. It is not about “how many people we send”, but about how well-informed our migrant workers are when they are deployed abroad, he said.

Yamuna Matheswaran is an independent journalist and visual artist from India whose work has appeared on The Hindu, Atlas Obscura, and New Internationalist. She holds an MA in International Studies from the University of Denver.

This article first appeared in Asia Democracy Chronicles.