Around 500 migrant workers from Vietnam are being exploited at a Chinese-run company in Serbia, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported last week.
The rundown: The workers, who were hired to construct a tire factory in Zrenjanin, a city in the northern province of Vojvodina, are allegedly doing so under conditions that could endanger their lives, according to the NGOs. When work is over, they reportedly go to cramped dormitories, where they allegedly face even more issues such as lack of food, water and clothes.
- The allegations come from A11, which advocates workers’ rights, and ASTRA, which fights against human trafficking. Both NGOs reported being denied access to the workers in their attempts to contact them.
- The workers are officially hired by the China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. Ltd., which is registered in Belgrade. The company, in turn, was hired by Shandong Linglong Tire, a Chinese tire manufacturer which has been subsidized by the Serbian government.
- The workers, whose passports have also allegedly been taken, were recruited for 12-month contracts by Vietnamese employment agency Song Hy Gia Lai Company Ltd., which demanded $2,200 to $4,000 from each applicant in exchange for their services. However, their contracts were written in English, which only one of the workers understands, ASTRA’s Tina Piskulidis told the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).
- Under the contract, each worker is required to work nine hours a day for 26 days a month. This means they work 234 hours a month, which violates provisions under Serbia’s Labor Law. Anyone who misses at least one day of work will not be paid for an entire month. Failure to work on time also results in a denial of daily wage.
- According to the NGOs, no personal protective equipment is provided to the workers, while costs of some of their work equipment are even docked from their salaries. To make matters worse, these payments often come late.
- The lack of food has forced some of the workers to hunt nearby animals, according to BIRN. In addition to hunger and the lack of clean water, they live in overcrowded rooms with only two toilets available for all 500 of them.
- The workers also reportedly asked for COVID-19 vaccines, but their employer declined, saying the process was complicated. Anyone who falls ill is instead isolated in a makeshift hospital room until they recover.
What involved parties are saying: Linglong Tire has denied legal violations and claimed that the workers’ passports were only taken for document processing. Meanwhile, Serbian leaders — including President Aleksandar Vucic — slammed the allegations as an attack on Serbia and China’s burgeoning ties.
- Serbia, which is currently under a populist administration, has bolstered bilateral relations with China by allowing Chinese investments and essentially becoming a European link to Beijing’s expansion projects. China, in turn, has granted billions of dollars in loans to Serbia to finance Chinese companies involved in such projects, AP News reported.
- In a statement, Linglong Tire said the passports were taken to process temporary residence, work permit and vaccination preparation papers. “The passports must be returned to the workers as soon as all the necessary permits are collected. At any given moment, if there is a need, everyone can come for their passport. There is no talk of having someone’s passport confiscated,” the company told BIRN.
- Linglong Tire denied that the workers had poor living and working conditions and insisted that their salaries, corresponding to the number of hours worked, are paid on time. Still, the company reportedly blamed the situation on subcontractors and employment agencies in Vietnam.
- Serbian officials have spoken against the workers’ conditions but downplayed Chinese responsibility. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, for one, said she would not rule out that the attack against Linglong Tire came from “those against Chinese investments” in the country, according to AP News. President Vucic, who announced the deployment of a labor official at the construction site, asked, “What do they want? Do they want us to destroy a $900 million investment?”
- Several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have called for action to end the ongoing “modern slavery” in Serbia. In a statement, they said they were “appalled” by the reports and urged Serbian authorities to “immediately react to these blatant abuses of workers’ rights and human dignity.”
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