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Indian workers in Armenia claim abuse from job agencies

Luise Glum | Hayk Makiyan both in Yerevan
February 27, 2024

Recruitment agencies in India promise well paying jobs in Armenia. But when workers arrive, they say conditions are far worse than what they expected.

An Indian migrant worker looks away from the camera
Indian migrant workers say conditions in Armenia are not what they were promisedImage: Saro Baghdasaryan

When Ishan Kumar came to Armenia from southern India early last year, he thought he was coming for a better life.

Kumar, who spoke with DW using a pseudonym, said a friend living abroad introduced him to the idea of moving․

"He said I'd earn a lot of money there, about $1,000 dollars per month. He said it's a European country."

Kumar's friend organized the trip through an agent in Armenia, and paid more than 650,000 Armenian drams (€1,500/$1,600) for an e-visa, the flight and the provision of a job at a delivery company.

There was no agreement other than a WhatsApp chat, but Kumar decided to go.

His new home for the next six months was the Cherry Hotel, located some thirty minutes from downtown Yerevan, the Armenian capital. The hotel provides lodging for many Indian workers in Yerevan, who sleep in cramped rooms, Kumar said.

Kumar soon started working for the delivery service. But the job conditions were not what he had expected.

"They said for one order we would receive 1,900 drams at peak times and 1,400 drams at other times of the day. But when I came here, I realized that it is all a scam. That they were only giving us 1,300 and 900 drams."

But Kumar said he worked hard from morning until midnight. In the end, his first salary was close to what he had expected, the equivalent of around $940.

However, Kumar claims he could only save a small part of that money.

He had to pay for room and board in a space shared with 10 people. He also had to pay to rent the scooter used for the delivery service. Kumar said he had not been informed about these costs before he left for Armenia. "After I paid all that, I had only 50,000 drams to send home."

The entrance of a small hotel with scooters parked
The Cherry Hotel is home for many Indian migrant workers in YerevanImage: Saro Baghdasaryan

What draws Indian workers to Armenia?

Indians are the second largest group of foreign citizens in Armenia after Russians. According to Armenia's economy ministry, 20,000 to 30,000 Indians currently live in the country.

Some 2,600 of them are students – Indians have been coming to Armenia to get higher education since Soviet times.

In 2017, the Armenian government decided to change the law to make it easier for Indian citizens to get an entry visa. Since then, their number has increased. Last year, 3,200 Indians were granted a work visa, compared to 530 the year before and 55 in 2021.

However, many workers told DW that like Kumar, they were promised a high salary and were convinced into paying large sums to agents to move to Armenia.

Some said they spent even more money than Kumar – up to $3,500. Others claimed they weren't provided with any work after arrival, or didn't receive the salary they had agreed to. At the same time, they had to pay high prices for bunk beds in crowded rooms.

Most workers originated from India's southern Kerala region. People from Kerala started migrating in large numbers in the 1970s, said S. Irudaya Rajan, head of the International Institute of Migration and Development in Kerala.

"The main factors then were poverty and unemployment," he told. Today, they are mostly "aspirational migrants" from the middle class who strive for a higher standard of living elsewhere.

Rajan said there are many job agencies in Kerala. "Migration is hope. The recruitment agencies are selling people dreams," he said, adding that the industry is rife with fraud and that migrants are abused and endure bad living conditions in many host countries.

"I know hundreds of cases where people were being cheated," he said. "Often, after migration, their life is much worse than before."

From bad to worse

Kumar's experience soon went from bad to worse after he had a scooter accident in the icy streets of Yerevan. After the accident, he wanted to change jobs, but was unemployed for several months. He couldn't afford the rent at the Cherry Hotel, so he had to go into debt with his agents.

Later, several jobs were arranged for Kumar, but they were all short-term. His agents charged him a commission and withheld his wages to pay room and board.

He wanted to leave the Cherry Hotel, but being in a foreign country, he didn't know where to go. "That is why all of us are staying there like this," he said.

Bunk beds full of clothes and suitcases
The workers live in cramped quartersImage: Saro Baghdasaryan

Some of his companions eventually found work on their own and Kumar wanted to join.

But then there was another problem. Kumar said the agents were holding his passport. He claimed he had to lie to get it back.

"I said I want to go to India, I want to get a ticket, give me the passport." Kumar said he doubts the agents would have returned the passport otherwise.

Several other Indian men who stayed at Cherry told DW their passports were taken.

One worker said he complained to the Indian embassy in Yerevan. DW contacted the embassy. While Consul Aditya Pandey was open for a background talk, the embassy didn't respond to DW's request for a statement on the allegations.

Recruitment company promised 'amazing salary and benefits'

Kumar's agent, Raihan Sainelabudeen, was once an "aspiration migrant" from Kerala who came to Armenia to study medicine. Sainelabudeen's current business partner is Anna Petakchyan, and a company called "Find Your Progress LLC" is registered under Petakchyan's name at the Cherry Hotel address.

The company operates an additional office in Kollam, Kerala. The company's ads claim they provide "amazing salary and benefits" and a highly attractive "compensation package" that "ensures that employees are rewarded for their hard work and dedication."

However, the Indian workers who used the company said they were exploited and abused.

Yerevan-based labor and migration attorney Ara Ghazaryan told DW that the motivation behind recruitment of workers is crucial to determining malfeasance by recruitment agents.

 "If the purpose is not to give a normal and safe employment environment, but to exploit, then it's already a crime," he said.

Employing a migrant who doesn't have immigration status or a work permit is a crime. The same goes for violating labor rights, he added.

Migrant workers, Ghazaryan notes, shouldn't be paid in cash, they should have a valid employment contract and place of work, normal working hours, annual leave, sick leave, weekends off. "And of course, no ill treatment or threats," he said.

Withholding passports is one of the initial indicators of trafficking and exploitation, Ghazaryan added.

"By holding the passport, they control the movement and the life of the migrant," he said. Generally, only government agencies are allowed to hold on to a person's passport. "The passport is property. No one can keep it."

The Armenian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs told DW they delt with 14 cases of Indian labor migrants as possible trafficking victims in 2023.

To date, none of them have been acknowledged as trafficking, but violations of labor relations and fraud were found. In some cases, passports were taken by employers, but not by force, the ministry said. They were given to the employer for processing work permit papers.

However, Ghazaryan said that providing the original passport isn't needed during the permit process. A simple copy is sufficient.

"If they claim otherwise, it's a lie. It means a crime is ongoing," he said.

India: Skilled workers are making a career at home

What do recruiters say?

Petakchyan and Sainelabudeen told DW that all workers pay them $1,500 in advance, which covers airfare, job placement and the first month of food and lodging.

Apparently, some of the conditions have changed since Kumar arrived. Petakchyan confirmed that at the time, food and rent were not free, adding that workers were informed about this before their arrival.

In addition, all workers sign contracts now, Petakchyan said. However, a document seen by a DW reporter in a binder full of contracts,did not include the salary or the agent's signature.

Petakchyan claimed the recruitment agency is working with some of the biggest companies in Armenia, including hotels, restaurants and gas stations. They don't want to register Indian citizens, she said, and that's why "Find Your Progress” hires the workers and provides services.

According to Petakchyan, that is the reason why salaries are not transferred directly to the workers. "We pay them exactly the salary they are receiving," she insisted.

Petakchyan said 40 workers live in the basement rooms of the hotel.

"I don't say it's perfect, but it's the minimal that Indian people need," she said.

Three migrant workers
Some workers say their passports were taken by recruitersImage: Saro Baghdasaryan

During the conversation, three men said they didn't receive their wages and accused Sainelabudeen and Petakchyan of holding on to their passports.

Sainelabudeen disputed this. "You have some proof?"

Petakchyan confirmed that they take worker's passports to file residency applications. "After that we return the passport," she said.

It is hard to say who is telling the truth. In any case, it is clear some of the men were without their passports. 

When DW talked to Kumar one month after first meeting, he was unemployed. The manager of a factory said Kumar had to leave because health problems impacted his performance. Kumar said he had to ask his family in India for money. He hopes he can soon start working as a taxi driver.

Kumar would like to return to India, but that's not an option for him now. He needs money for the plane ticket. And most importantly, he had to borrow a large sum to come to Armenia in the first place and must pay it back.

"After all that, I will go to India," said Kumar. But for now, he is stuck.

The article was published in collaboration with Hetq, an online newspaper in Yerevan.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn