Zrenjanin [Serbia], January 23 (ANI): Touted as China's biggest industrial investment in Europe, the USD 900 million Ling Long Tire factory is now a magnet of criticism for a Serbian government that opponents accuse of no-questions-asked subservience to China.
Andrew Higgins, who was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting, writing in The New York Times (NYT) said that workers and activists face problems like human trafficking, prison-like working conditions and environmental abuse are endemic.
Poor conditions for Vietnamese workers building a USD 900 million tire factory underscore a chasm between the promise of investment from China and grim realities on the ground.
About 400 Vietnamese work in Zrenjanin, along with hundreds more Chinese, who get higher salaries and better living conditions, according to the workers and local labour activists.
Meanwhile, a former farmer from Vietnam described his work conditions in Serbia as "miserable and dangerous," and said he was housed in a decrepit shack crammed with other Vietnamese workers and bullied by Chinese supervisors, reported Higgins.
The Ling Long Tire project first took shape in September 2018 during meetings in Beijing between Serbia's populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, and Xi Jinping, China's leader.
Xi, who has looked to Serbia as China's most dependable European friend at a time when other nations are souring on his country, praised the Balkan nation as a "good, honest friend and good partner," reported NYT.
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 investments throughout the region."But the furore over working conditions has set back Serbia's years-long effort to join the European Union, whose view of China has become increasingly jaundiced, said Higgins.
The European Parliament last month demanded an investigation into the treatment of Vietnamese labourers in Zrenjanin and voiced alarm "over China's increasing influence in Serbia and across the Western Balkans".
It has also aggravated what has become Vucic's biggest political headache: public anger over damage to the environment widely blamed on the government's drive to juice the economy at all costs.
Chinese ventures in Serbia, which include smoke-belching steelworks near Belgrade, the capital, and a copper mine and smelter in the southern town of Bor, have helped stoke this anger, reported NYT.
Despite gushing praise of Beijing in the pro-government Serbian media, they have made China synonymous in the minds of many Serbs with environmental degradation.
A few of the workers have fled. But for most of them, leaving would mean breaking their contracts and leaving family members in Vietnam in hock to labour brokers and loan sharks who paid their way to Serbia, the workers said, said Higgins.
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.
Moreover, labour contracts signed by Vietnamese workers with China Energy Engineering Group, a Ling Long subcontractor overseeing construction, commit each worker not to engage in trade union activities, and to "refrain from anything that would detract from his reputation or the reputation" of the Chinese company.
Even more restrictive are the terms set by recruitment agencies in Vietnam. One agency, Song Hy Gia Lai International, demanded that all workers going to Europe sign a document pledging never to go on strike or protest.
The document appears to have been copied and pasted from agreements originally drafted for labourers recruited in Vietnam for work in the Middle East: It warns that workers going to Serbia risk having their hands cut off if they steal, reported NYT.
One Vietnamese worker who spoke to a Serbian TV station in November about what he described as inhumane living conditions was taken in for questioning by the Serbian police -- and released after signing a statement asserting that he had no complaints. Another who spoke to a Serbian media outlet was fired. (ANI)