ZRENJANIN, Serbia – Seeking to escape the squalor of northern Vietnam, the 43-year-old farmer worked for years on construction sites in Kuwait and Uzbekistan before being offered a ticket to what he was given said to be “the promised land” – Europe, and a job with a good salary.
“I wanted to go out west to change my life,” the farmer, father of three, recalled in an interview who asked that his name not be used to avoid reprisals from his employer.
His life has certainly changed: it has become much worse.
The work turned out to be in Serbia, one of Europe’s poorest countries, with a Chinese company whose gigantic tire factory currently under construction in the northern town of Zrenjanin has become a symbol of the chasm between the promise alluring investment from China and sometimes sad reality on the ground.
Touted as China’s biggest industrial investment in Europe, Ling Long Tire’s $900 million plant is now drawing criticism from a Serbian government that opponents accuse of unquestioning submission to China. Workers and activists say issues such as human trafficking, prison working conditions and environmental abuse are rampant.
About 400 Vietnamese work in Zrenjanin, along with hundreds of other Chinese, who receive higher wages and better living conditions, according to local workers and union activists. The former farmer from Vietnam described his working conditions in Serbia as “miserable and dangerous” and said he was housed in a dilapidated shack crowded with other Vietnamese workers and bullied by Chinese supervisors.
The Ling Long Tire project took shape in September 2018 during meetings in Beijing between the populist Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader.
Xi, who considered Serbia China’s most reliable European friend at a time when other nations are hounding his country, hailed the Balkan nation as a “good, honest friend and good partner”.
Mr Vucic predicted that the tire factory, which plans to produce more than 130 million tires a year in Zrenjanin, and other planned ventures would make Serbia “the port for Chinese investment throughout the region”.
Serbia says Chinese investment helped it achieve economic growth of more than 7% last year, one of the highest in Europe.
But fury over working conditions has set back Serbia’s efforts for years to join the European Union, whose view of China has become increasingly yellowish. The European Parliament last month asked for an investigation on the treatment of Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin and expressed alarm “at China’s growing influence in Serbia and the Western Balkans”.
It also compounded what has become Mr Vucic’s biggest political headache: public anger over environmental damage, largely blamed on the government’s desire to revive the economy at any cost. Tens of thousands of people gathered late last year for weeks of street protests across Serbia against the development of a lithium mine project by British-Australian company Rio Tinto. The protests forced a rare retreat by the government, which on January 20 canceled the licenses for the project.
Chinese businesses in Serbia, which include a smoldering steel mill near Belgrade, the capital, and a copper mine and smelter in the southern town of Bor, have helped stoke that anger. Despite Beijing’s praise in pro-government Serbian media, it has made China synonymous in the minds of many Serbs with environmental degradation.
But unlike Rio Tinto, highly vulnerable due to its links with Australia, a country widely reviled in Serbia after the recent expulsion of tennis star Novak Djokovic, Chinese companies have enjoyed Mr Vucic’s unwavering support as indispensable to job creation and economic growth. growth.
But Marina Tepic, a leader of the main opposition party, said in an interview that the tire factory would “offer a few jobs for Serbs but kill many more with its pollution”.
Strong support from the leaders of Serbia and China, she added, put the project largely out of reach of government regulators and allowed construction workers there – deprived for a time. of their passports, housed in unsanitary conditions and fearing reprisals – of being detained. “modern slavery”.
The government denies shielding the Chinese project from scrutiny, with Construction Minister Tomislav Momirovic saying during a recent visit to Zrenjanin that the Chinese factory was the most closely watched construction site in Serbia. Officials say the Vietnamese workers have all got their passports back and are now free to leave if they wish.
A few workers fled. But for most of them, leaving would mean breaking their contracts and leaving their family members in Vietnam in the hands of labor brokers and loan sharks who paid for their trip to Serbia, the workers say.
A statement from Ling Long Tire quoted in Serbian media said the company was “committed to fully respecting and adopting a humane and dignified approach to all employees”. Still, he pointed out that none of the construction workers are employees and work for subcontractors. Ling Long said he asked contractors to provide better housing. The tire maker did not immediately respond to requests for comment at its headquarters in China.
The Serbian government, which gave Ling Long Tire 240 acres of farmland for free for its factory and promised $85 million in state subsidies, said the factory would eventually generate 1,200 jobs. He declared the company a “project of national significance”, a classification that critics see as a measure to protect the company from environmental inspectors and others.
“They behave as if the Chinese factory is a military site,” said Ivan Zivkov, a member of a network of activist groups in Zrenjanin who lobbied authorities, mostly unsuccessfully, to they disclose information about the plant and its likely impact on the environment.
Zoran Dedic, a pensioner from Zrenjanin who attended a recent public meeting organized by Mr Zivkov, said he did not oppose foreign investment. But he said he was alarmed that so much information about the Chinese tire factory, especially future pollution levels, had not been made public and that Ling Long, while donating money to send local children to the soccer camp, had not engaged in serious discussions with the locals.
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“We don’t know anything about what’s going on there,” he said.
Marija Andjelkovic, director of Astra, an independent group in Belgrade that monitors and lobbies against human trafficking, said she visited the construction site late last year and found Vietnamese workers sleeping in slums without heating or drinking water. “It was like a prison camp,” she said.
Labor contracts signed by Vietnamese workers with China Energy Engineering Group, a Ling Long subcontractor overseeing the construction, commit each worker not to engage in union activities and to “refrain from anything that might damage its reputation or the reputation” of the Chinese company.
Even more restrictive are the conditions set by recruitment agencies in Vietnam. One agency, Song Hy Gia Lai International, demanded that all workers traveling to Europe sign a document pledging never to strike or demonstrate.
The document appears to have been copied and pasted from agreements originally drafted for workers recruited in Vietnam to work in the Middle East: it warns that workers traveling to Serbia risk having their hands cut off if they are flying.
Danilo Curkic, program director for A11, a research group in Belgrade, said contracts signed by Vietnamese workers were “far from anything legal under Serbian law” and left them in indentured servitude. . “It is impossible that the Serbian state authorities did not know what was going on,” he said.
A Vietnamese worker who spoke to a Serbian TV channel in November about what he described as inhumane living conditions has been questioned by Serbian police – and released after signing a statement saying he had no complaint to make. Another who spoke to Serbian media was fired.
“It’s all part of the bullying process,” Curkic said.
Vietnamese workers who agreed to be interviewed by The Times through an interpreter said they had lived for months in squalid barrack-like shelters previously used by a local farm to raise pigs and chickens.
The former farmer from northern Vietnam said conditions had improved somewhat in recent weeks. Many workers now live in a two-story concrete block surrounded by a metal fence and guarded by Serbian security guards who bar entry to outsiders.
One resident, a 40-year-old Vietnamese construction worker who requested anonymity, said he shared a small room with seven other people and their kitchen was crawling with rats. Salaries of around $900 a month, more than he could earn in Vietnam, were often paid late and reduced for days not worked due to illness or bad weather, he said.
He previously worked for different Chinese companies for 15 years in 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 contributed reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam.