When Dung Nguyen left Vietnam to work abroad, the 37-year-old said he had been assured he would be employed by a German company in Serbia, only to have his passport taken away upon arrival at a Chinese-run factory where conditions were dire.
The situation at the factory and the alleged deception used to lure employees has made headlines in Serbia after Nguyen and hundreds of other Vietnamese went on strike this week.
The strike that started on Wednesday was a rare show of defiance by laborers at a Chinese-backed enterprise in the country.
Beijing has invested billions in Serbia and neighboring Balkan countries in the past few years, hoping to expand its economic footprint in central Europe.
Serbia has been quick to cash in on China’s interest, as it seeks to court a range of investors amid the ongoing tug-of-war between the East and West over influence in the Balkans.
However, Belgrade has repeatedly been accused of giving Chinese-owned companies a free hand in how they run their operations.
Critics from civil society, human rights groups and in the media say the government has turned a blind eye to environmental concerns and potential human rights violations.
The Vietnamese workers were employed to build a factory for the Chinese tire company Linglong in the small northern city of Zrenjanin, considered a centerpiece of Beijing-backed investment in Serbia.
However, according to Nguyen, the living and work conditions were untenable and not what he had been promised when he was recruited for the job.
“We are living as if we were in jail ... all our passports were kept by the Chinese when we arrived at the airport,” Nguyen told reporters in a video message sent from inside the living quarters.
“I cannot talk more, as I am afraid my saying would impact others,” he added.
Human rights organizations A11 and ASTRA published a joint report earlier this week demanding “urgent action” from Serbian authorities.
“A large number of established facts indicate the possibility that workers are victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation,” it said.
According to the report, the Vietnamese workers had not been provided with heating, electricity or hot water and the facilities lacked adequate infrastructure and sewerage.
“The conditions were nowhere near suitable for housing human beings,” Danilo Curcic, a human rights lawyer from A11, said during an interview with local broadcaster N1 TV. “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that some people do not keep animals in those conditions.”
Construction workers at the Zrenjanin factory had already staged two strikes within the past six months, according to A11, sparked by unpaid salaries and a lack of food.
A short documentary aired by N1 this month also showed workers living in cramped conditions inside a makeshift dormitory at the site.
“It is unacceptable that an aspiring EU member state seems to tolerate this on its territory and remains silent on cases of potential forced labor in Europe,” Viola von Cramon, a member of the European Parliament for Germany, told reporters.
Linglong said that the Vietnamese workers were not officially employed by the company and had been hired by a Chinese subcontractor.
“Linglong’s only obligation to its contractors is to pay them compensation for the work performed under the contract,” the company said in a statement.
It did not respond to a request for further clarification.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said officials had received no reports of “violence and harassment” at the factory, but said it was monitoring the situation.
Serbian leaders have batted away accusations of malfeasance at Linglong.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic suggested that the incident might have been a conspiracy targeting Chinese investment in the country, after confirming that the Vietnamese workers were being moved to more appropriate accommodation.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has vastly expanded ties with Beijing since coming to power and has said the two countries enjoy a “steel friendship.”
Serbia was one of the first countries in Europe to receive COVID-19 vaccines from China, while Vucic kissed the Chinese flag last year after receiving medical supplies sent by Beijing early on in the pandemic.
Following this week’s headlines, the Serbian leader doubled down, saying Chinese investments would continue to be a top priority.
“What do you want, to destroy an investment worth US$900 million?” Vucic said on Friday. “If the Vietnamese need to be helped, we will help, but we will not chase the investors away.”
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