A group of Indian migrant workers is not willing to give up fighting for their salary, despite the legal loopholes that a US-registered company used to hire them on contract to 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.
In 2019, over 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 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.
Photo via Boobalan Dhanapal. Hunger strike of Indian migrant workers in front of the Kraljevo mayor’s office
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. “My family faced a lot of troubles when they didn’t receive the money,” he says via Zoom, speaking in Tamil. “It was a struggle to even pay my children’s school fees.”
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.
Obtaining construction permits, too, became significantly easier as a result of the seven-year USAID Business Enabling Project. Serbia is currently the second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment among transition economies, after Russia.
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.
“And then you have companies from Serbia, Croatia and other Balkan countries that are hiring workers through some agencies for daughter companies,” he says. “So we have a variety of instances where Indian, even Nepalese and Filipino workers—not [just] workers from Romania or neighbouring countries—are entering [the region],” says Jasmin Redzepović, Building and Wood Workers’ International.
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% 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 labour 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.
“There is no political will in Serbia to solve the problem with foreign workers in favour of those workers—on the contrary, foreign labour markets are seen as an ideal source of cheap and completely unprotected labour,” says Mario Reljanović, a research associate at the Institute for Comparative Law in Belgrade.
Worked daily without 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.
Job advert from Shakti Tread Test Centre, an unregistered agency in Uttar Pradesh recruiting workers for Idea Capital. Originally published in news site Istinomer.
When they arrived in Serbia, the Indian workers found that their accommodations consisted of prefabricated containers, with four people crammed 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.
Since most migrants hailed from warm places in India, like Chennai, they were ill-prepared for sub-zero Serbian winters and paid out-of-pocket for proper winter clothing.
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 labour 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.
“Every month they had to fight for their salary,” says Ponkumar from TKTMS. Eventually, the workers went on strike to demand payment, and “the company cut off the electricity and water facility. They were not able to use toilet also,” he adds.
Following the intervention of labour 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 afterwards, 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.”
Letter from Boobalan Dhanapal to Kraljevo Police
“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.
Photo provided by Boobalan Dhanapal
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.
“This was the major problem in the case of the Indian workers in Serbia because their contract was with a so-called US-based company,” says Jasmin Redzepović from BWI.
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 labour 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 labour 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 labour law expert Mario Reljanović. His statement is echoed by ASTRA’s Srna Ignjatović, who warns that the case sets a dangerous precedent.
“The Serbian government provided a dangerous waiver to the company Nikolić and practically waived the application of Serbian labour law on its territory.”
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 labour 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 misdemeanour 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 labour inspection may initiate misdemeanour proceedings or ban the employer from using workers who lack permits, “employers rarely obey such a ban”. There are too few labour inspectors to keep track of all violations of the law, he adds, and misdemeanour proceedings often become statute-barred, i.e., legally unenforceable because too much time has passed, without the imposition of any penalty.
Contract with list of penalties, originally published in Istinomer.
Idea Capital’s contract also listed draconian penalties that were in clear violation of labour 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.
“According to my sources, [there are plans] to adopt a law that will allow foreign nationals from countries for which Serbia does not have a visa regime, including India, Turkey [and] China, to work without a permit for a period of six months within one calendar year. [This] will enable the legalization of labour exploitation of both domestic and foreign workers to an extent that has not been seen so far,” says Mario Reljanović, Labor Law Expert.
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 misdemeanour 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.
“My wife required a medical operation to remove gall bladder stones,” Boobalan reveals. “I told the employer about it and urgently requested my salary. She didn’t care. My wife had to sell her jewellery to get the operation done.” He pauses, then adds, “Serbian people are helpful, they really helped us — it’s this employer who is the problem.”
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.
Edited by Ankita Anand
The story was first published in Unbias the News. The original story can be accessed here.