Some 500 workers from Vietnam in the Chinese Ling Long tire factory in northern Serbia, came to the town of Zrenjanin during March, April and May this year, and the transport was organised by agencies from Vietnam, who requested an advance for their services (transportation, obtaining visas and accommodation) from 2,200 to 4,000 US dollars per worker, which they borrowed to pay, the Initiative for Economic and Social Rights, A11 and Anti-Trafficking Action, ASTRA, organisations said on Tuesday.
They added that the workers were hired by China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. LTD, branch, Belgrade.
According to available information, the Chinese Linglong International Europe d.o.o. Zrenjanin company hired the contractor China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction to recruit workers through a dozen agencies from Vietnam. None of the workers who signed the contract said they were given a start date and were paid „on-hand“, the organisations said.
They added the work took place in shifts that lasted nine hours, with a one-hour lunch break.
The employer did not provide the use of equipment for personal protection at work and deducted from the salary of workers the costs for part of the work equipment (boots, gloves, work suit). Every ten days, workers receive protective gloves, and if they were damaged earlier, workers cover the costs of new ones.
According to the organisations’ statement, the employees had to work 26 days a month, and if for any reason they did not for a single day, they would not be paid for the entire month. Also, if they are late for work, they don’t get a daily wage.
After arriving in Serbia, the workers had to hand over their passports to the employer because they were told that was the practice for foreigners. Their passports were not returned by Monday.
Later in the day, Ivana Gordic of the Vojvodina’s Investigative Centre, tried to visit Ling Long’s warehouses with the state RTS TV but were met with the local private security otherwise not present at the site.
A Chinese with an interpreter told them they could not film, asking if they were from N1.
He showed the N1 English version of Monday’s news, denying it and saying all was untrue.
The Chinese who refused to say in what capacity he talked to the crew threatened with a lawsuit if his face or the premises were filmed and said the workers had far better conditions.
When he learned it was an RTS crew, he gave them a statement and showed photos of warm clothes, vaccination, some contracts…
Gordic said the whole thing was highly unpleasant and that the Chinese talked to someone on the phone. Then, a black BMW jeep with two more Chinese and an interpreter appeared.
One of the Chinese filmed the event the whole time, while the other asked for press passes and told the journalists not to film, saying they had a bad experience with the media.
Although some workers were convinced they had a residence and work permit, no one could confirm that, nor did they receive a printed copy of the license, A11 and ASTRA said.
When they came to Serbia, they were housed in barracks that did not have adequate living conditions. There are bunk beds in the overcrowded rooms, and there are only two toilets for 500 people. The beds do not have mattresses but planks covered with a thin quilt, which the N1 crew filmed.
There is no adequate infrastructure and sewerage, so faeces are spilled about ten meters from the barracks, which is highly unhealthy, the statement said.
It adds the barracks are without heating, electricity and drinking water, there is no hot water for showering and clothes are washed by hand, with cold water, and dried on existing ropes where they store other things because they do not have closets.
The statement says that workers’ health is endangered from the perspective of the ubiquitous COVID-19 pandemic. They wanted to get vaccinated, but when they contacted the authorities from the company, they were told that it was complicated and that they would not be able to.
They have not been informed that they can receive the vaccine without any conditions. When someone falls ill, they are isolated in an improvised hospital room until the recovery, without compensation.
Several of them, with COVID-19 symptoms, covered the costs of testing in a private clinic, which the employer referred them to, as well as the prices of necessary medicines.
Due to other health problems, the workers also did not receive adequate health care but were forced to treat themselves, A11 and ASTRA added
In such poor living and working conditions, the workers have gone on strike twice so far, the first time because they did not have enough food and the second time because of wages being late for two months.
A11 and ASTRA pay special attention to workers’ safety, considering that a strong smell of gas is felt at the place of the workers’ residence and that the accommodation is covered with unsecured gas bottles.
The workers testified that half of them would like to return home to Vietnam, but they could not because their passports were taken away and because they had not been paid all the agreed salaries.
Some are afraid of deportation because in that case, they will not be able to settle the debts they made to start working in Serbia.
It is added that all that were indicators of human trafficking, which include, among other things, recruitment and misleading about working and living conditions, the promise of legal work and decent wages, a complex and utterly unregulated system of sending foreign workers, many agencies and private companies, questionable contracts and manner of engagement. The workers do not speak the local language and do not have personal documents, making their communication and movements limited.
Earlier on Tuesday, A11 tweeted that the access to Vietnamese workers in the Chinese Ling Long factory in Serbia was denied after private security came to the site and that “black jeeps“ and unknown persons who refused to identify anyone to talk to the workers.
„There is a fear that people will be prevented from contacting institutions and organisations that can provide them with assistance and that they will be additionally isolated and potentially punished because they talked about working and accommodation conditions,“ A11 said.
It added that an urgent reaction by the authorities, the return of passports, assurances that people were allowed to move freely and talk to the institutions and organisations with which they wanted to speak were a must.
„We repeat, their removal from inhumane conditions and securing them a dignified accommodation must be the priority of Serbia’s institutions,” A11 tweet said.
This association, together with the Action against human trafficking (ASTRA) organisation, visited Vietnamese workers in the tire factory in the northern town of Zrenjanin immediately after the N1 broadcast and said, „their labour rights were seriously violated, their health and potentially life,” was endangered.”
Those two organisations sent an official report to the respective institutions warning about potential human trafficking for labour exploitation, requesting their reaction.