About 400 Vietnamese workers live in a “miserable and dangerous” working environment in Zrenjanin, Serbia. In an interview with New York Times, some workers said they had been dwelling for months in filthy barrack-like huts previously used by a local farm to raise pigs and poultry.

These Vietnamese laborers have been constructing China’s Ling Long Tire factory project in Serbia, which has been at the center of criticism. Human trafficking, prison-like labor conditions, and environmental abuse, according to activists, are all too common. In addition, environmentalists are concerned about the ecological damage from tire production. 

A 43-year-old worker told the New York Times he wanted to change his life, so he left construction sites in Kuwait and Uzbekistan to go to “the promised land”—Europe. However, his life worsened when he later found himself in Serbia, one of Europe’s poorest countries.

Workers previously told the Associated Press that they had to sleep in barracks with no heating or hot water on bunk beds without mattresses. Marija Andjelkovic, the director of Astra, a Belgrade-based non-profit that monitors campaigns against human trafficking, visited the construction site last year. She described it as “a prison camp.”

One of the residents, a 40-year-old Vietnamese construction worker who asked to remain anonymous, said he shared a cramped room with seven other people and that their kitchen was rat-infested.

According to the 43-year-old worker, the living conditions have improved recently. Many workers now live in a two-story concrete building encircled by a metal fence and guarded by Serbian security officers who prevent anybody from entering.

Serbian activist Miso Zivanov from the nongovernmental organization Zrenjanin Action said during the six months working from May to November 2021, these workers only received one month’s salary. The 40-year-old worker said that though they received higher wages than in Vietnam, payments often came late. In addition, they were reduced for non-working days due to illness or poor weather.

He said, “It’s like hell on Earth here.”

Severe working conditions and mistreatment at the tire factory caught human rights activists’ attention last year. In November 2021, Voice of America posted an article saying Chinese employers had confiscated Vietnamese workers’ passports and identification. In the New York Times’s latest report on Jan. 22, Serbian authorities said Vietnamese workers had been given their passports back and were now free to go if they wanted.

Though a few have fled, many workers said quitting would mean violating their contracts and leaving their families in Vietnam in debt to the labor brokers and loan sharks who financed their trip to Serbia.

A worker named Nguyen Van Tri told the AP last year, “Since we arrived here, nothing is good. Everything is different from documents we signed in Vietnam. Life is bad, food, medicine, water … everything is bad.”

A Belgrade-based research group A11’s program director, Danilo Curkic, said contracts signed by Vietnamese laborers were far from anything acceptable under Serbian law and left them in slavery.

According to their contracts with a Ling Long subcontractor overseeing construction, workers must not participate in any trade union activities and avoid doing anything that could harm the Chinese company’s reputation.

The New York Times reported that one Vietnamese recruiting agency required all workers to sign a paper promising never to strike or protest.

Serbia police once questioned a worker who told a Serbian TV station about the inhumane living conditions. The police only released him after he signed a statement stating he had no concerns. In another case, a worker was fired after speaking to Serbian media.

Curkic said, “This is all part of the process of intimidation.”

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