They are trembling in the barracks without heat, they are starving and have no money. They say their passports have been taken by their Chinese employer and they are now stuck in Serbia without the help of local authorities.
These are Vietnamese workers helping to build the first Chinese car tire factory in Europe. The Associated Press visited a construction site in northern Serbia where about 500 workers are living in harsh conditions as China’s Shandong Linglong Tire Company sets up a massive facility.
The project, which Serbian and Chinese officials tout as a demonstration of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, has faced scrutiny from environmentalists over potentially hazardous contamination from tire production.
Now, it has attracted the attention of human rights groups in Serbia, who have warned that workers could be victims of human trafficking or even slavery.
“We are seeing human rights violations because Vietnamese” [workers] Working in dire conditions,” Miso Zivanov, a Serbian activist from Zarejninska Axija [Zrenjanin Action] The non-governmental organization told The Associated Press the one-story warehouses where workers are staying.
“Their passports and identity documents have been taken by their Chinese employers,” he said. “They’ve been here since May, and they’ve only got one salary [payment], They are trying to go back to Vietnam but first they have to get their documents back.”
Workers sleep on cots in barracks without mattresses and without hot or hot water. He told the AP that he had not received any medical care even though he developed COVID-19-like symptoms, being asked by his managers to simply stay in his room.
One of the workers, Nguyen Van Tri, said that the job contract he signed in Vietnam before starting the long trip to Serbia has accomplished nothing.
“Nothing good has happened since we got here,” he said. “Everything is different from the documents we signed in Vietnam. Life is bad, food, medicine, water … everything is bad.”
Wearing sandals and shivering in the cold, he said that around 100 of his comrades who live in the same barracks have gone on strike to protest their plight and some of them have been fired because of it.
Linglong did not respond to an AP call seeking comment but denied to Serbian media that the company was responsible for the workers, blaming their position on sub-contractors and job agencies in Vietnam. It said the company did not employ Vietnamese workers in the first place. It promised to return documents it said were taken to stamp work and residence permits.
The company denied that Vietnamese workers were living in poor conditions and said that their monthly wages were paid according to the number of hours worked.
Populist-driven Serbia is a key destination for China’s expansion and investment policies in Europe, and Chinese companies have kept a tight lid on their projects amid reports they violate the Balkan nation’s anti-pollution laws and labor regulations.
Chinese banks have given Serbia billions of dollars in loans to finance Chinese companies that build highways, railways and factories and employ their own construction workers. This is not the first time rights groups have pointed to possible violations of workers’ rights, including Chinese miners, at a copper mine in eastern Serbia.
After days of silence, Serbian officials spoke out against “inhumane” conditions at the construction site, but were quick to downplay Chinese responsibility for the workers’ plight.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said she would “not rule out that the attack against the Linglong factory” was organized in Serbia “by those against Chinese investment” – referring to persistent criticism from the West that Chinese projects are not transparent, are ecologically questionable and are designed by Beijing to spread its political influence in Europe.
“Initially it was the atmosphere. Now they forgot it and they focused on the workers there. After tomorrow something else will happen,” he said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Friday that a Serbian labor inspector has been dispatched to the Linglong construction site, but was blunt on the expected outcome of the final findings.
“What do they want? Do they want us to destroy the $900 million investment?” Vucic asked.