The ordeal of Indian migrant workers from the Tamil Nadu State came to an end when the first group of six migrant workers reached their home State on 2 February 2020 after a 35-hour journey by train from New Delhi, the capital of India. They had come to New Delhi from Serbia. Another group of five workers arrived back in the state on 5 February.
These workers were employed by a U.S. Company, Idea Capital LLC and its Serbian subsidiary GP Nikolić, Kraljevo at Surcin (Silosi), Belgrade in Serbia. More than 150 workers from across India were employed by the Company in the construction of Corridor 11, a section of the Surčin-Obrenovac road construction project.
Corridor 11 is a major construction project and is part of the massive New Silk Road initiative of the Chinese government. It is 85 per cent financed by a loan from the Chinese Export-Import Bank. The other 15 per cent comes from the Government of Serbia. The overall contractor is the China Communications Construction Company Ltd.
Most of the migrant workers from Tamil Nadu State travelled to Serbia in May 2019 to escape irregular employment and poor conditions in their home State. Upon landing in Serbia, reality was different from their expectations. From the beginning, they had problems with the timely payment of wages and with working conditions. However, they continued in the hope that work would become normal as the project progressed.
When wage delays and poor working and living conditions continued and became too much for them to handle, the migrant workers, despite threats of termination from the Company, approached BWI’s Serbian affiliate, the Serbian Road Workers Trade Union and BWI’s partner organization, ASTRA Anti-Trafficking NGO, for assistance. The two organisations worked tirelessly, along with two BWI Indian Affiliates - TKTMS and INBCW. These efforts finally brought results – return to their homeland.
The Company provided return tickets to New Delhi and 70 Euros to each worker. From New Delhi to their native origin - a journey of more than 2500 kilometres, responsibility was assumed by the TKTMS to organise their trip. Concerning pending wages (ranging from 1400 to 1600 Euros), the workers provided power of attorney to a lawyer to file a legal case against the company.
Upon arrival in Tamil Nadu State, the migrant workers told their story. In addition to battling extreme climatic conditions, the workers mentioned that they were not paid their salaries for over two months and that their passports were confiscated by the company. When the workers complained, the company resorted to pressure tactics such as stopping water supply to the workers; thereby, curtailing water for their basic needs of drinking, bathing and toilet purposes.
The workers went on strike and formally stopped work from 8 January 2020 and also filed a complaint to the police. After the intervention of the police, the company returned workers’ passports that were in their custody. However, nothing was done about their unpaid wages.
The first group of workers related their experiences at a Press Conference on 4 February in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu State organised by the leadership of TKTMS. Ponkumar, the President of TKTMS, expressed gratitude for the cross-border solidarity.
He stated, “On behalf of the TKTMS and also families of migrant workers, we thank the BWI, Serbian Road Workers Trade Union along with ASTRA for the collective efforts to ensure the safe return of Tamil workers and for accepting to handle the legal battle in Serbia for unpaid wages.”