ZRENYANIN, Serbia. They shiver in the barracks without heat, they are starving, they have no money. They say their Chinese employer took their passports and that they are now stuck in a bleak plain in Serbia without the help of local authorities.
These are Vietnamese workers helping to build the first Chinese car tire plant in Europe. The Associated Press visited a construction site in northern Serbia, where about 500 workers live in harsh conditions, when the Chinese company Shandong Linglong Tire Co. builds a huge factory.
The project, which Serbian and Chinese officials advertise as a demonstration of a “strategic partnership” between the two countries, has already been criticized by environmentalists for the potentially dangerous pollution from tire manufacturing.
It has now attracted the attention of human rights groups in Serbia, who have warned that workers may become victims of human trafficking or even slavery.
“We are witnessing human rights violations because Vietnamese [workers] working in appalling conditions, ”Serbian activist Miso Zhivanov of the non-governmental organization Zrenjaninska Aktsiya (Zrenjaninskoe Action) told The Associated Press in dismal one-story warehouses where workers live.
“Their passports and IDs were taken by their Chinese employers,” he said. “They have been here since May and have received only one salary. They are trying to return to Vietnam, but first they need to get their documents back. ”
Workers sleep in bunk beds without mattresses in barracks without heating or warm water. They told the AP that they did not receive medical attention even when they developed symptoms similar to COVID-19, and their supervisors told them to just stay in their rooms.
Nguyen Van Tri, one of the workers, said that nothing was fulfilled from the labor contract he signed in Vietnam before embarking on the long journey to Serbia.
“There has been nothing good since we came here,” he said. “Everything is different from the documents that we signed in Vietnam. Life is bad; food, medicine, water … everything is bad. “
Wearing sandals and shivering from the cold, he said that about 100 of his colleagues living in the same barracks had gone on strike to protest their plight, and that some of them had been fired because of it.
Linglong did not respond to AP’s call asking for comment, but denied to Serbian media that the company was responsible for the workers, blaming subcontractors and employment agencies in Vietnam for their situation. It stated that the company did not employ Vietnamese workers at all. He promised to return the documents, which, he said, were taken for printing work and residence permits.
The company denied that Vietnamese workers were living in poor conditions and reported that their monthly wages were paid according to the number of hours they worked.
Serbia, ruled by populists, is a key location for China’s expansion and investment policies in Europe, and Chinese companies keep their projects under tight control amid reports that they violate the Balkan country’s anti-pollution laws and labor standards.
Chinese banks have provided Serbia with 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 that human rights groups have pointed to possible violations of the rights of workers, including Chinese miners, in a copper mine in eastern Serbia.
After several days of silence, Serb officials spoke out against the “inhuman” conditions at the construction site, but were quick to downplay China’s responsibility for the plight of workers.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said she “does not rule out that the attack on the Linglong factory” was organized by “opponents of Chinese investments” in Serbia, bearing in mind the frequent criticism from the West that Chinese projects there are opaque and environmentally dubious. , and designed by Beijing to spread its political influence in Europe.
“In the beginning it was the environment. Now they forgot about it and focused on the workers there. There will be something else after tomorrow, ”she said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday that a Serbian labor inspector was sent to a construction site in Linglong, but did not categorically state the expected outcome of the possible findings.
“What do they want? Do they want us to destroy the $ 900 million investment?” Vucic asked.