A number of workers engaged on the construction of a Chinese tire processing factory Linglong in Zrenjanin are living in extremely poor accommodation. This is an understated description of what the public learned in an N1 TV coverage that shed some light on the living conditions in abandoned warehouses housing roughly 750 foreign workers.
“There are 500 of us here, and there is only enough hot water for five people. It’s the same in the other bathroom”, said a worker from Vietnam.
He and another 500 of his compatriots make up the largest group of foreign workers in Zrenjanin. Faced with poor living conditions, some of them would like to return to their homeland. However, according to their words, the agency that helped them come to Serbia cut off contact with them and the Chinese employer confiscated their passports.
Commenting on the N1 coverage, labour law expert Mario Reljanović told N1 that it was a “characteristic act of human trafficking”.
“They were recruited thanks to their financial deprivation. Their documents have been confiscated, so they have no choice but to stay where they are. The question of whether or not they agreed to that and how much they are being paid is irrelevant at this point. You will have to ask the prosecutor, but it seems to me that this is a textbook case of human trafficking”, said Reljanović.
VOICE journalist Ivana Gordić, who was the first to testify about the conditions in which these workers live, told N1 that they are already complaining that they are very cold.
“They are all barefoot and wear plastic slippers. They walk on spilled faeces in those slippers. They are frozen half to death and have never seen snow in their lives. I don’t know what will happen in a month or two when the real winter starts”, says journalist Ivana Gordić.
In addition to the lack of heating and hot water, the workers also complain about the lack of basic infrastructure – there are no household appliances, cabinets, etc. Another big problem is the polluted drinking water, an issue Zrenjanin is notorious for.
Several associations filed a complaint against potential human trafficking in the case of workers working on the construction of the Linglong factory
Immediately after the media notified the public about the extremely poor conditions in which foreign workers working on the construction of the Linglong factory in Zrenjanin were accommodated, representatives of the A11 – Initiative for Economic and Social Rights and ASTRA – Action against Trafficking in Human Beings visited the workers in Linglong in order to get a better view of with their socioeconomic position and possible problems related to their employment status.
“Based on our contact with the workers, we came to the conclusion that, in addition to having their labour rights seriously violated, their health and life threatened by the working and housing conditions, a large number of established facts indicate the possibility that workers are also victims of trafficking in human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation”, reads the associations’ statement of these.
Representatives of the aforementioned associations found out that about 500 workers from Vietnam came to Serbia during March, April and May, and that their arrival was organized by agencies from Vietnam, who asked between 2,200 to 4,000 US dollars in advance for their services (transportation, obtaining visas and accommodation) from the workers. The workers borrowed money to pay the agencies.
According to the associations’ sources, the workers in Zrenjanin were hired through China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction, which is performing works on the factory in Zrenjanin for Linglong.
The workers told the associations’ representatives that they work in nine hours shifts and that they have one lunch break that lasts an hour. The employer does not provide all needed means and equipment for personal protection at work, and deducts the costs for a part of the work equipment (boots, gloves, work suit) from workers’ salaries.
“Workers are obliged to work 26 days a month, and if for any reason they fail to do so, and they work for at least a day less, they are denied salary for the entire month. Also, if they are late to work, they get fined, by losing a daily wage “, A11 and Astra have learned.
During the visit, the representatives of A11 and Astra were convinced of the poor hygienic and infrastructural conditions reported by the media.
“There are bunk beds in the overcrowded rooms, and there are only two toilets in the building for the stated number of workers (500 persons). The beds do not have mattresses, but planks covered with a thin quilt. There is no adequate infrastructure and sewerage, so the feces is spilled about ten meters from the barracks, which is extremely unsafe for the health of the workers” states the associations’ statement.
There is no heating and not enough electricity and drinking water, there is no hot water, workers wash their clothes by hand with cold water and then dry them on ropes where they store other things as there are no closets.
Overcrowded accommodation with poor hygienic conditions is also a threat due to COVID-19. The associations’ representatives state that the workers wanted to be vaccinated, but the company’s authorities told them that it was “complicated and that they will not be able to” get vaccinated.
“They weren’t informed that they could receive the vaccine freely. When someone falls ill, he is isolates in an improvised hospital room where he stays until he recovers, without paid compensation. Several of the workers with symptoms of COVID-19 covered the costs of testing in a private clinic to which the employer referred them, as well as the costs of necessary medicines”, the association’s report says.
Due to poor living and working conditions, the workers went on strike twice, once due to lack of food, and the second time to protest unpaid wages.
The Sloga union condemns such treatment of workers and appeals for the workers to be helped
The “Sloga” United Trade Unions of Serbia issued a statement in which they refer to the conditions in which the Vietnamese and Chinese workers live as a “horror story” and appeal to the authorities to help these people.
“In the name of professionalism, the Constitution and the laws of the state of Serbia, we call on the Serbian Ministry of the Interior – Administration for Foreigners and the competent Police Administration in Zrenjanin to immediately control the workers’ and residence permits and conditions of all workers engaged in building a tire processing factory in Zrenjanin. Otherwise, they will be complicit in the murkiest possible trafficking in human beings and labour exploitation, due to which Serbia could face serious problems in the future “, stated the vice president of “Sloga”, Pavle Heđeši.
He reminded the public that every individual in Serbian territory is guaranteed human rights and freedoms, as well as that “the confiscation of passports from Vietnamese workers violated their right to freedom of movement and residence, which has serious legal consequences”.
“We have serious concerns that a hesitance of the state and its institutions to react and protect these workers would, should it happen, give reason for serious suspicion of organized human trafficking and possible involvement of the political elite in it, especially since more and more business arrangements are being made with Chinese investors”, states the vice president of “Sloga”, Pavle Heđeši,
Growing dissatisfaction with Linglong
Construction of the Linglong factory in Zrenjanin was agreed during a visit of the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić, to China in 2018. The construction started the following year, and the whole process has been followed by controversies and dissatisfaction, primarily on the part of the local population, but also on the part of the workers engaged in the construction of the “largest factory in Serbia”.
As we wrote earlier, the state of Serbia donated 96 hectares of arable land to Linglong (including I and II class agricultural land worth 11.9 million euros), and, in addition, provided financial assistance worth 75.8 million to the company. The state also granted construction permits for “auxiliary facilities”, which helped the investor avoid submitting the obligatory environmental impact assessment for the plant itself. Citizens and various organizations filed 215 complaints, but all of them were rejected.
Linglong is one of the world’s top five tire manufacturers. When China made plans to reduce the domestic environmental impact, the company began relocating its production to other countries whose laws are less restrictive in terms of harmful effects, relocating the pollution together with production.
Allegations about poor working and housing conditions of workers hired by this company reached the Serbian public on a few previous occasions, followed by allegations that the workers are being threatened with physical punishment and kept under surveillance.
Translation: Iskra Krstić
This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Nov 15, 2021.