Brief description of the case
From March to July 2021, a total of 500 workers came to Serbia according to the information received from Labour Inspectorate (the information was sent in May 2022, almost a year later). The workers were recruited to work for China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction (TEPC), through several Vietnamese agencies (Sông Hỷ Gia Lai Company, Bảo Sơn Company (note: “Công ty” means Company), Kaizen Joint Stock Company, CEC Career and Education Consultancy Company, Lạc International Cooperation and Investment Joint Stock Company, Hồ Thanh International Manpower Supply and Service Joint Stock Company, Sum Việt Nam). The majority of these workers learned about the job offer through acquaintances, while some workers found the offer online. However, the job advertisement referred to the production of aircraft parts in Serbia, not tires. The workers were told that the company was Chinese, but that the management was German. The workers were promised a salary in the amount of EUR 775, decent work and accommodation conditions, all of which, when compared to the average salary in Vietnam, was substantially better. The transport of the workers was organized by agencies from Vietnam, who had charged the workers 2,200 to 4,000 US dollars in advance for their services (transportation, obtaining visas and accommodation). Workers mostly borrowed money from their family members, loan sharks, agencies, and they were conditioned to stay in employment for a year, otherwise their debts would increase significantly (debt bondage). For this reason, most workers were reluctant to return home, despite the poor conditions in the factory. At the time, the Vietnamese agencies were allowed to charge clients for the service. The workers were hired under a contract with China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. LTD, branch in Belgrade. The Chinese company Linglong International Europe ltd. Zrenjanin had hired the contractor China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction at its car tire factory construction site in Zrenjanin, and the said company has been recruiting workers to work in Serbia through a dozen agencies from Vietnam. The Vietnamese workers were employees of the Chinese company China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. Ltd. and sent by written order to work in a local branch in Belgrade (therefore, this is a movement of workers within a foreign company). None of the workers who signed the contract was given a start date, and based on their statements, the salaries were paid to them in cash.
The workers had to sign at least five (5) types of contracts – all five containing articles that are not in accordance to the international standards, and also Serbian legal framework. From the contracts analysed, it can be confirmed that the workers were instructed that they are coming to work to the country (Serbia) with strong Sharīʿah laws. It can also be noted that some of the workers signed their contracts with the fingerprint (in red), instead of the signature, which can mean that some of the workers were illiterate. This would make the workers even more susceptible to the deception.
The work took place in shifts lasting 9 hours each, with a single lunch break lasting one hour. The employer did not provide the use of all the means and equipment necessary for the personal protection at work, and deducted the costs of a part of the work equipment (boots, gloves, work suit) from the salary. Every 10 days, workers received work gloves, and if they had been damaged earlier, the workers had to cover the costs of obtaining new ones themselves.
Workers were obliged to work 26 days per month, and if for any reason they did not fulfil this, and they had even a day less, they were not paid for the entire month. Also, in case they did not come to work on time, they were fined by being denied the daily wage. Upon their arrival to Serbia, the workers had to hand over their passports to the employer, as they were told that this was the practice when for foreign citizens. In December 2021 they received their documents back (case getting into public). Although some of the workers were convinced that they had a residence permit and a work permit, no one could confirm this information with certainty, nor did they receive a printed copy of any of the permits. Freedom of movement for the workers is very limited. They can only move to their workplace and back to the accommodation facilities, always under the supervision of the management and private security. When they arrived to Serbia, the workers were housed in barracks that did not have adequate conditions for living or short term stays. There were bunk beds in the overcrowded rooms, and only two toilets in the building for the stated number of workers (500). The beds did not have mattresses, but rather thin quilts covering some wooden planks. At the initial accommodation site, there were no adequate infrastructure or sewerage, with faeces being spilled out about ten meters from the barracks, thus making the conditions extremely unsafe for the health of the workers. In addition, the workers were not provided with heating, electricity, or drinking water, there were no hot water for showering and clothes were hand washed in cold water and dried on the ropes where they hung their other clothes also, as they had no closets.
The workers testified that approximately half of them wanted to return home to Vietnam, but they could not because they were not in possession of their passports, and had not been paid all the agreed salaries. They claimed they had to wait for the employer to purchase their tickets. Some of the workers were particularly afraid of deportation, because, in that case, they would have not been able to settle the debts they had made in order to start working in Serbia.