Vietnamese Staff at Chinese language Manufacturing facility in Serbia Cry for Assist

In barracks without heating they tremble, starve and have no money. They say their passports were confiscated by their Chinese employer and they are now stuck in Serbia without any help from local authorities.

These are the Vietnamese workers who are helping build the first Chinese car tire factory in Europe. The Associated Press visited the construction site in northern Serbia, where around 500 workers are living in harsh conditions, while China’s Shandong Linglong Tire Co. is building the huge facility.

The project, touted by Serbian and Chinese officials as an expression of the “strategic partnership” between the two countries, has been scrutinized by environmentalists for potentially dangerous pollution from tire production.

Now it has caught the attention of human rights groups in Serbia who warned that workers could become victims of human trafficking or even slavery.

Vietnamese workers who are helping to build the first Chinese car tire factory in Europe stand in front of a barracks near the northern Serbian city of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, November 18, 2021.

“We are witnessing a violation of human rights because of the Vietnamese [workers] work under terrible conditions, “said Serbian activist Miso Zivanov from Zrenjaninska Akcija. [Zrenjanin Action] a non-governmental organization told The Associated Press in the drab one-story warehouses where the workers live.

“Your Chinese employers took their passports and identification documents with them,” he said. “You have been here since May and only got one salary [payment]. They are trying to return to Vietnam but have to get their documents back first. ”

Workers sleep on bunk beds without mattresses in barracks without heating or hot water. They told the AP that they did not receive medical care even after they developed COVID-19-like symptoms and were simply told by their managers to stay in their rooms.

One of the workers, Nguyen Van Tri, said the employment contract he signed in Vietnam had not been fulfilled prior to the long trip to Serbia.

“Nothing’s been good since we got here,” he said. “Everything is different from the documents we signed in Vietnam. Life is bad, food, medicine, water … everything is bad. “

Vietnamese workers helping to build the first Chinese car tire factory in Europe ride bicycles past security guards near the northern Serbian town of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, on November 18, 2021.

Vietnamese workers helping to build the first Chinese car tire factory in Europe ride bicycles past security guards near the northern Serbian town of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, on November 18, 2021.

He wore sandals and was shivering from the cold. About 100 of his colleagues who live in the same barracks went on strike to protest their plight and some of them were dismissed as a result.

Linglong did not respond to a call from AP to comment, but denied to Serbian media that the company was responsible for the workers and blamed subcontractors and employment agencies in Vietnam for their situation. It was said that the company did not hire the Vietnamese workers in the first place. It promised to return the documents that were supposedly used to stamp work and residence permits.

The company denied that the Vietnamese workers lived in poor conditions, saying that their monthly salaries were paid according to the number of hours they worked.

Populist-led Serbia is an important place for China’s expansion and investment policies in Europe, and Chinese companies have kept their projects tightly under control amid reports of violating the Balkan nation’s environmental protection laws and labor regulations.

Chinese banks have lent billions in loans to Serbia to fund Chinese companies that build highways, railways, factories and employ their own construction workers. This is not the first time human rights groups have pointed out possible violations of workers’ rights, including that of Chinese miners at a copper mine in eastern Serbia.

Construction site of Europe's first Chinese car tire factory near the northern Serbian city of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, November 18, 2021.

Construction site of Europe’s first Chinese car tire factory near the northern Serbian city of Zrenjanin, 50 kilometers north of Belgrade, November 18, 2021.

After days of silence, Serbian officials spoke out against “inhuman” conditions on the construction site, but quickly downplayed Chinese responsibility for the plight of the workers.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said she “would not rule out the attack on the Linglong factory” being organized by “those against Chinese investments” in Serbia, referring to the frequent criticism from the West that Chinese projects there are not transparent and ecologically questionable and were designed by Beijing to spread its political influence in Europe.

“In the beginning it was the environment. Now they have forgotten that and have focused on the workers there. After tomorrow there will be something else,” she said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Friday that a Serbian labor inspector had been posted to the Linglong construction site but was blunt about the expected results of the eventual results.

“What do you want? Do you want us to destroy a $ 900 million investment?” asked Vucic.

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