Low wages and long weeks: Modern slavery

For extremely low wages, several of the men worked ten hours a day, six days a week. Many were in debt due to loans that brought them to Europe – all of them lacked work permits. Here are the workers' stories.

An overview of how guest workers have traveled from India and southern Europe to Northvolt in Skellefteå.

An overview of how guest workers have traveled from India and southern Europe to Northvolt in Skellefteå.

Foto: Illustration/Melissa Niemann

Skellefteå2023-08-29 15:10

Many of the men worked six days a week, ten hours a day for very low wages. Many were in debt from loans that brought them to Europe. None had work permits. Here are the workers' stories.

A total of twelve people, seven Indians and five Serbs, worked illegally at the Northvolt site. Their stories come to light through documents, on-site police interviews, and interrogations by the border police. 

They tell of unscrupulous employers who shifted them between various countries and accommodation. They describe working long hours each week for low wages - in one case as little as 13,000 kronor a month - and going into debt to pay for their trip to Europe. It is an example of "modern slavery," says Pierre Pettersson, ombudsman at Byggnads Västerbotten.

– I consider this to be modern slavery. These are individuals who are completely at the mercy of companies. They do not have the means to change their situation. They're probably in debt, and even if they want to go home, they can't afford a ticket back to their home country. They are serfs.

Pierre Pettersson at the Building Workers' Union in Västerbotten refers to the workers' situation as modern slavery. "They are serfs."

A common thread among the Indian workers is that they had paid an agency in India for job placements in Hungary. All seven of them used the same agency, one of the Indians said. Information indicates that the payment was 200,000 rupees (20,000 Swedish kronor) each to come to Europe, and several report borrowing money to make the trip.

In Hungary, the Indian workers receive residence permits. They all describe substandard living conditions, poor food and low wages. They are paid 2.9-4.9 euros per hour for their work and live in what they call work camps.

While working at Northvolt, the Indians are employed by two different companies, but both are part of the same corporate group in Slovakia. The workers did not know each other before, but got to know each other through their work in Europe.

It is the Slovak company that decides where the Indians will work.

The five men from Serbia worked for the same company, a Croatian company subcontracted by Northvolt. They state that they were supposed to work for Northvolt from November 9 to December 31, 2021.

They live with their families in Serbia, have Serbian passports and receive their mail there. They travel to Croatia only for work purposes.

Although the workers have residence permits in Croatia, their presence is not considered permanent enough to give them the right to work in Sweden.

The Serbian men make very similar statements during interrogations and interviews with the police. All five had the right to stay in Sweden, but did not have the right to work here.

All twelve were deported from Sweden. The Indians wanted to be deported to Hungary or Slovakia to continue working and earning money for their families - and to repay the loans they had taken out to come to Europe.

The Serbs were deported to Croatia.

44-year-old man, from India:

The man left his family in India. He first worked in Hungary. He then moved to Slovakia and finally to Sweden. When interviewed, he said that he didn't know how long he would stay in the country; it was an intermediary manager who brought him to Skellefteå. He shares accommodation with other workers; according to the man, there are eight people in one room.

The man mentions that he has received an advance of 100 euros for food, which the company will deduct from his salary. He expects to receive a maximum of 1,200 euros per month and usually works 8-10 hours per day. The working hours vary according to the amount of work available; sometimes it's four hours, sometimes ten, the man says.

29-year-old man, from India:

The man, who works as a welder, tells us that he was first employed by a company in Hungary and then moved to a company in Slovakia. He first works in Belgium and then moves to Skellefteå.

He reveals that he works ten hours a day from Monday to Friday and six hours on Saturdays, earning around 2,000 euros a month. He lives with several other people, and according to the man, it's the company that pays for his accommodation.

40-year-old man, from India:

The man arrives at Northvolt on November 22, 2021, and is employed by a subcontractor from Slovakia that he first contacted in Hungary. The company allegedly told him that he could work in Sweden and that they would take care of everything.

In his interview with the police, the man said that he would work from Monday to Friday from 07:00 to 18:00, and that Saturdays might be included. He was promised 10 euros per hour as a welder, and almost everything he earns is sent back to his family in India.

40-year-old man, from India:

He works as a plumber for a second-tier subcontractor. The man worked in Hungary before coming to Skellefteå in September 2021. He says that he works ten hours a day, Monday to Friday, from 07:00 to 18:00, with a one-hour break. The remuneration is 8 euros per hour, according to the man.

He sends his salary to his family in India.

44-year-old man, from India:

He says that he works with plumbing and that he borrowed money to get to Hungary, where he worked before being hired by the Slovakian subcontractor.

Then he was asked to work at Northvolt, for a subcontractor of a subcontractor.

It's August when he arrives in Skellefteå, and he says he works Monday to Friday from 07:00 to 18:00 for 8 euros an hour. His last monthly salary was 1,080 euros. He sends the money to his family in India.

During the interrogation, he tells the police that he needs to continue working in Europe to pay back the loan.

53-year-old man, from India:

He works for five months in Hungary and then five months in Slovakia before coming to Northvolt on November 21, 2021. He traveled from the Czech Republic to Germany, Denmark and finally Sweden. A friend recommended the Slovakian company.

He is a welder and works six days a week from 07:00 to 18:00 for 10 euros an hour.

47-year-old man, from India:

He comes from India to Hungary in January 2021. He then moves and works for the Slovak subcontractor in the third tier for three months, and according to him, he is supposed to work in Europe until March 2022. He arrives in Skellefteå on September 20th.

At Northvolt he works with piping and earns 8 or 10 euros per hour, depending on the job, he says. The working hours are from 07:00 to 18:00.

He sends the money he earns to his family in India.

43-year-old man, from Serbia:

After working for three years for a subcontractor in Croatia, he was contacted about the opportunity to work in Skellefteå, says the man.

He comes to Northvolt and works from 07:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday, assembling ventilation pipes. He says he gets about 3,000 euros a month from the company.

He lives with others in a house outside Boliden, sharing rooms in pairs.

45-year-old man, from Serbia:

When he is hired by the subcontractor in October 2021, he will be asked to go to a place of work and start to work. It turns out to be Northvolt, where he is employed as a pipe constructor and fitter.

The working hours at Northvolt are from 07:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. The man estimates that he earns about 2,000 euros a month.

Northvolt Ett in Skellefteå.
Northvolt Ett in Skellefteå.
Northvolt response

Northvolt's communications manager Anders Thor said:

"Regardless of the outcome of this legal review, we will of course continue to push forward with the work to improve our operations. We have seen progress recently, not least by reducing the number of subcontractors, but unfortunately bad actors are always finding new ways to enter construction sites, which means we must constantly develop new methods to control and keep them out.