Access Blocked to Vietnamese Workers Allegedly Exploited in Serbia: NGOs

17. November 2021.13:51
Serbian NGOs claim they have been denied access to workers from Vietnam who were brought to the country to build a factory for a Chinese company and are allegedly labouring and living in grim conditions.

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A house in Zrenjanin where Vietnamese workers live in poor conditions, according to NGOs, November 2021. Photo: A11/Sara Nikolic

A11, an NGO dealing with violations of workers’ rights, said that private security men arrived at the construction site for a factory for Chinese tyre manufacturer Shandong Linglong Tire in the city of Zrenjanin on Tuesday and began blocking access to Vietnamese workers who have been the focus of exploitation allegations this week.

“Access to the Vietnamese workers has been prevented, private security has appeared, black jeeps and a lot of unknown people who do not want to introduce themselves and are preventing access to and conversation with the workers,” A11 said in a statement on Twitter.

Around 500 workers from Vietnam who were hired to work on the construction of the factory are living and working in conditions that could endanger their health and lives, A11 and a Serbian anti-trafficking NGO, ASTRA, have claimed.

The Vietnamese workers’ labour rights are being seriously violated and there are indications that they could be the victims of trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation, the NGOs have alleged.

ASTRA told BIRN that the NGOs have informed the authorities about their concerns but have received no response so far.

“We sent our report to numerous institutions, but we have no update on the outcome. The only thing we know is that the police went there [to the construction site] yesterday for an inspection,” Tina Piskulidis from ASTRA told BIRN.

“For now we are collecting food and clothes for the workers because they lack all of that,” she said.

The two NGOs have visited the construction site in Zrenjanin, a city in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, where the Vietnamese workers are building a factory for the Shandong Linglong Tire company from China, which has been subsidised by the Serbian state and publicly praised by officials.

According to the NGOs’ report, the Vietnamese workers are sleeping in cramped dormitories, only have two toilets for 500 people, and lack clean and warm water.

They also have a lack of food, causing some of them to hunt small animals nearby. Their working hours are often longer then allowed under the law, their salaries are often late, and when they are paid, it is in cash, according to the NGOs.

Their employer does not provide personal protection equipment and deducts the costs of some of their working equipment from their salaries, the NGOs further allege.

“They are recruited by a Vietnamese agency for the benefit of the Chinese company with a Serbian branch, and those contracts are for 12 months. Those contracts are in English, but only one of them knows English, so they did not even know what they are signing,” said Piskulidis.

She said that many facts indicate that they could be victims of human trafficking.

“Their passports have been taken from them, none of them has a working permit document, and they have restrictions on their movement and communications,” she said.

She added that there is no date on their contracts to indicate when their employment started, “and they cannot go home by plane because they do not have enough money”.

BIRN contacted Shandong Linglong Tire for comment on Tuesday but the company did not respond by the time of publication.

The workers are officially hired by China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. Ltd, registered in Belgrade, Serbia. The company was hired by the Chinese company Shandong Linglong Tire for the construction site of the car tyre factory in Zrenjanin.

The Vietnamese intermediaries who brought the workers to Serbia are so far unknown.

The Serbian government has been heavily promoting the project, despite critics accusing it of illegality, labour exploitation and potentially harming the environment as the tyre industry is known for pollution.

In 2019, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic attended a ceremony at which the foundation stone for the factory was laid, and said that “history is being written” for Zrenjanin, the surrounding Banat county and Serbia.

The Chinese owners received 95 hectares of land free of charge whose value was estimated at 7.6 million euros.

They will also receive 75 million euros in subsidies from the budget for the employment of at least 1,200 workers by the end of 2024, according to a decision by the Commission for the Control of State Aid.

A BIRN investigation in January 2021, ‘Like Prisoners’: Chinese Workers in Serbia Complain of Exploitation’, cited evidence that Chinese workers at the Zijin Mining Group Co. in Bor, a town in eastern Serbia, were working in poor conditions.

The evidence raised serious questions about the conditions facing Chinese workers in Serbia and the readiness of the Serbian authorities to intervene and risk damaging an increasingly important diplomatic and investment relationship with China.

Saša Dragojlo

This post is also available in: Bosnian