Stranded in Mali: Relieved, say workers on their return to Jharkhand

Weeks after their distress calls, the first batch of seven Indian workers out of the 33 who were stranded in Mali without their earnings and their passports returned to the country on Saturday.

After landing at the Ranchi airport, they kissed the ground in relief. Their ordeal was over.

The issue first came to the Jharkhand government’s attention in January as the workers appealed Indian authorities for help on social media. They said it was their last hope as their employer did not pay them for months and their contractor, who recruited them for the job in the west African nation, allegedly vanished with their passports.

State labour minister Satyanand Bhokta found out about their case last month and alerted Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who directed the state’s migrant cell to confirm their identities. Three weeks later, with the help of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the diplomatic outreach, seven of the workers returned to their homes in Hazaribagh and Giridh districts.

Officials said the others will return in a phased manner.

Santosh Mahato, 26, is one of them. He told The Indian Express he went to Mali in January 2021 to work as a “fitter” (technician) with a power transmission company

“We had gone last January through a local contractor, and we were promised around Rs 27,000 per month but we were not paid the same amount. Some were not paid for six months and some were paid Rs 27,000 for three months of work… We wanted our money, but the contractor vanished with our passports. We did not know what to do. On social media, we cried for help and we are so relieved to get back home.” Mahato said from his home in Hazaribagh.

On January 16, the issue came to the notice of state labour minister Satyanand Bhokta, who escalated the matter to Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren. The CM then directed the state’s Migrant Cell to get involved.

The Migrant Control Room’s head Johnson Topno said that they started the process of verification and contacted the family members of the workers. “Everyone was in panic and we calmed them down, got all the details of the workers,” he said.

Once the details were verified, Jharkhand labour commissioner A Muthukumar wrote to the Indian Embassy in Mali on January 17, saying: “It is to submit that 33 workers belonging to district Hazaribagh and Giridih have sent messages through social media that they are stranded in Mali . They have not been paid salaries from the last three months by the Company Kalpataru Power Transmission Limited. They have requested to get back to India. Kindly look into the matter and help in expediting their return to India as early as possible.”

Two days later, Mali officials and the Indian Embassy held a meeting along with the company employees and an agreement was signed, according to the Jharkhand Migrant Control Room official.

In the agreement, the company said it will facilitate the return of the Indian workers – employed in Bougouni and Hermenkoro for a power transmission line project in Mali — and guarantee two months’ salary for each of the 33.

“…Accordingly, general workers will receive Rs USD 650 for two months…and the salary will be transferred within five days of the agreement…The employer will provide air tickets to Ranchi,” read the agreement signed in the presence of Indian embassy officials V Vijay Pandey (second secretary) and Rakesh Kumar Diwakar (assistant consular officer).

Topno said:“The entire machinery then became active and the Centre and the state coordinated with Mali officials. The process is also a result of The Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative (SRMI) initiative recently launched by the Jharkhand government.”

In December, CM Soren launched the SRMI initiative and flagged concerns of workers who face problems not just in India but abroad too. CM Soren had said: “How do we work for workers who go outside the country,” he had asked.

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