ZRENJANIN, Serbia – Looking for a way out of poverty in Northern Vietnam, the 43-year-old farmer worked for years on construction sites in Kuwait and Uzbekistan before being invited to the place where he was assigned. is the “promised land” – Europe, and a job with a good salary.
“I wanted to go to the West to change my life,” the farmer, a father of three who asked not to use his name to avoid being bullied, recounted in an interview.
His life has definitely changed: It’s gotten much worse.
The job turned out to be in Serbia, one of Europe’s poorest countries, with a Chinese company whose huge tire factory is now under construction in the northern city of Zrenjanin, becoming It has become a symbol of the gulf between China’s lucrative investment promise and sometimes grim reality on the ground.
Billed as China’s largest industrial investment in Europe, the $900 million Ling Long Tire factory has now become a magnet of criticism for the Serbian government, who are accused of is no question for China. Workers and activists say problems such as human trafficking, prison-like working conditions and environmental abuse are common problems.
According to local workers and labor activists, around 400 Vietnamese work in Zrenjanin, along with hundreds of Chinese, who have higher wages and better living conditions. The former Vietnamese farmer described his working conditions in Serbia as “wretched and dangerous”, and said he was confined in a squalid tent, crammed with other Vietnamese workers and subjected to abuse. Bullying Chinese foreman.
The Ling Long Tire project first took shape in September 2018 during meetings in Beijing between the populist president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and Xi Jinping, China’s leader.
Mr. Xi, who saw Serbia as China’s most trusted European friend at a time when other countries were disgusted with his country, praised the Balkan nation as “a good, honest friend and a good friend.” good partner”.
Vucic predicts that the tire factory, which plans to produce more than 130 million tires a year in Zrenjanin, and other joint ventures planned will make Serbia a “harbor for investments.” Chinese investment in the whole region”.
Serbia says Chinese investment helped it achieve economic growth of more than 7% last year, one of the highest in Europe.
But worries about working conditions have stymied Serbia’s years-long effort to join the European Union, whose views on China have worsened. European Parliament last month request an investigation treatment of Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin and warned of “the growing influence of China in Serbia and throughout the Western Balkans.”
It also exacerbated what has become Vucic’s biggest political headache: public anger over the damage to the environment that is believed to be the cause of the government’s push to boost the economy at all costs. price. At the end of last year, tens of thousands of people gathered for weeks of street protests across Serbia against the development of a lithium mining project by Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto. Protests forced a rare government retreat, which on 20 January canceled the permit for the project.
Chinese joint ventures in Serbia, including a smoke-blasted steel structure near Belgrade, the capital, and a copper mines and smelters south of the town of Bor, helped to rekindle this anger. Despite praising Beijing in the pro-Serbian government media, they have made China synonymous with environmental degradation in the minds of many Serbs.
But unlike Rio Tinto, which is vulnerable because of its links to Australia, a country widely opposed in Serbia following the recent expulsion of tennis star Novak Djokovic, Chinese companies have received Vucic’s solid support because it is indispensable in creating jobs and the economy. evolution.
But Marina Tepic, a leader of the main opposition party, said in an interview that the tire factory would “provide a few jobs for the Serbs but would kill more people due to the pollution of the road”. it”.
Strong support from the leaders of both Serbia and China, she added, has put the project largely off limits to government regulators and allowed construction workers there – had their passports taken away for a while, kept in uncleanness and feared reprisals – to stay. “Modern Slavery.”
The government denies protecting the Chinese project from scrutiny, with the Minister of Construction, Tomislav Momirovic, claiming during a recent visit to Zrenjanin that the Chinese factory is the site of construction supervised. most closely followed by Serbia. Officials say the Vietnamese workers have all had their passports returned and are now free to leave if they wish.
Some workers have fled. But for most of them, leaving meant breaking their contract and leaving family members in Vietnam to resort to labor brokers and loan sharks who paid for them. they went to Serbia, the workers said.
A statement from Ling Long Tire quoted in Serbian media said the company was “committed to full respect and to a humane and dignified approach to all employees.” However, it emphasized that none of the construction workers were employees, and worked for subcontractors. Ling Long said they have asked contractors to provide better accommodation. The tire company did not immediately respond to requests for comment at its China headquarters.
The Serbian government, which has given Ling Long Tire 240 acres of farmland free of charge and pledged $85 million in subsidies to the state, says the plant will eventually create 1,200 jobs. It declared the venture a “project of national importance,” a classification that critics see as a move to protect the joint venture from environmental and other inspectors.
“They behave as if the Chinese factory is a military site,” said Ivan Zivkov, a member of the network of activist groups in Zrenjanin, who pressed the authorities, with little success. disclose information about the plant and its impact on the environment.
Zoran Dedic, a Zrenjanin retiree who attended a recent public meeting chaired by Mr. Zivkov, said he is not opposed to foreign investment. However, he expressed concern that too much information about the Chinese tire factory, especially the future pollution level, has not been made public, and Ling Long, while donating money to send local children to football camps, did not engage in serious discussion with the people.
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“We had no idea what was going on there,” he said.
Marija Andjelkovic, head of Astra, an independent group in Belgrade that monitors and campaigns against human trafficking, said she visited a construction site late last year and found Vietnamese workers sleeping in vans. hoe without heater or clean water. “It was like a prison camp,” she said.
Labor contracts signed by Vietnamese workers with China Energy Engineering Corporation, a Ling Long subcontractor overseeing the construction, commit each worker not to join union activities and “do not work” anything that discredits itself or the reputation” of the Chinese company.
Further restrictions are the terms set by recruitment agencies in Vietnam. An agency, Song Hy Gia Lai International, requires all workers traveling to Europe to sign a document pledging never to strike or protest.
The document appears to be copied and pasted from the original agreements drawn up for workers recruited in Vietnam to work in the Middle East: It warns that workers arriving in Serbia are at risk of being cut off their hands if they steal.
Danilo Curkic, program director of A11, a research group in Belgrade, said the contracts that Vietnamese workers sign are “far from anything legal under Serbian law” and subject them to slavery scene. “It’s impossible that the Serbian state authorities don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
A Vietnamese worker who spoke to a Serbian television station in November about what he described as inhumane living conditions was questioned by Serbian police – and released after signing a statement asserting determined that he had no complaints. Another spoke to a Serbian media outlet that was fired.
“This is all part of the intimidation process,” Mr. Curkic said.
Vietnamese workers who agreed to be interviewed by The Times through an interpreter said they had lived for months in squalid tents formerly used by a local farm to raise pigs and chickens.
A former farmer in northern Vietnam said conditions have improved somewhat in recent weeks. Many of the workers currently live in a two-story concrete block surrounded by metal fences and monitored by Serbian security guards that bar outsiders from entering.
One resident, a 40-year-old Vietnamese construction worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said he shared a small room with seven other people and their kitchen was full of rats. His salary is about $900 a month, more than he can earn in Vietnam, he said, and is often delayed and slashed during days off work because of illness or inclement weather.
Previously, he had worked for various Chinese companies for 15 years in South Korea, Kuwait, Malaysia and Taiwan, but said he had never endured such bad conditions as at the Ling Long Tire construction site. in Serbia.
“It’s like hell on earth here,” he said.
Vo Kieu Bao Uyen Reporting contributions from Hanoi, Vietnam.