We marked the European Day against Human Trafficking, October 18, by presenting the findings of the report on human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation of workers from Vietnam engaged in the construction of the Linglong tire factory − WOULD YOU REALLY BUY THIS? The mass case of trafficking in human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation in Serbia: Reinventing Slavery in the 21st century. The report was presented at Media Center Belgrade in the presence of representatives of the media, civil sector, and embassies, and was broadcast live through social networks and the Media Center website.
Speakers at the event were:
- Ivana Gordić Perc, VOICE journalist,
- Mario Reljanović, president of the association Center for Dignified Work and research associate at the Institute of Labor Law from Belgrade,
- Jasmina Krunić, ASTRA Head of Policy and Learning.
The event will be moderated by: Tatjana Aleksić, N1 television journalist.
Report WOULD YOU REALLY BUY THIS? Reinventing Slavery in the 21st century was created in the period from December 2021 to June 2022. The report includes a detailed review of human trafficking indicators/indicators with sources (UN, ILO, Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking), a legal analysis of the contracts signed by the workers of the LingLong factory, an overview of the activities that ASTRA undertook by appealing to domestic institutions, with an overview of their reactions, i.e. the lack of reaction, and an analysis of the domestic institutional framework that is important for referral mechanisms, including the competences of individual institutions and the activities that have taken or failed to take concerning this case. All facts, events and communications mentioned in this report are supported by sources in the form of links, documents, photos, videos, screenshots, etc.
All speakers spoke from the perspective of their expertise and report’s contributions or based on personal experiences from the scene.
The event is part of the recently started information and prevention campaign on human trafficking − HOW CLOSE ARE YOU? The campaign is dedicated to one of its increasingly present forms of THB – human trafficking for labour exploitation. The campaign will last from September to the end of 2022, and it is a part of the project “A Place For Space To Fight Human Trafficking” and is supported by the European Union and the Swedish Foundation Kvinna till Kvinna.
You can watch the video of the event HERE.
The full report you can download HERE!
SUMMARY of the main findings OF THE REPORT
ASTRA has been working in the prevention and suppression of human trafficking for more than twenty years, and exactly ten years have passed since the first projects and the conference dedicated to the prevention of labour exploitation (a relatively unknown trend at the time). During that period, the circumstances, methods and characteristics of cases of human trafficking are constantly changing, and labour migration is increasingly intense. In contrast, human and labour rights are increasingly unprotected and are violated more and more recklessly and cruelly.
The case of Vietnamese workers engaged in the construction of the Linglong tire factory in Zrenjanin came to the attention of the Serbian and international public in early November 2021 after an article published by the Vojvodina Research and Analytical Center VOICE. A group of NGOs conducted a field visit shortly after the first media reports, and these organizations produced a joint Initial Report in which all state actors are held accountable. In the following seven months (November 2021 – June 2022), ASTRA implemented numerous activities to help workers and encourage competent institutions to react. During the more than ten months that the case has been in the public eye, the state of Serbia has not shown a clear intention to implement its legislative framework in this case nor to provide adequate protection and support to potential victims of human trafficking. The largest number of reactions, if we exclude those from Serbian CSOs, activists, the academic community and independent media, came from abroad – from international actors, organizations and bodies. Some of the key reactions to which we believe the action of ASTRA contributed are • Adoption of the European Parliament resolution on forced labour in the Linglong factory and environmental protests in Serbia (December 2021); • Publication of a Joint statement of UN experts (January 2022) expressing their deep concern because of the alleged trafficking of Vietnamese migrant workers to Serbia; and • Adoption of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding Observations concerning human trafficking, improving the position and respecting the rights of victims, as well as the specific case of potential trafficking of Vietnamese migrants for labour exploitation in the construction of the Linglong tire factory.
This report should serve as a source of valuable data and information for further action in all processes concerning the protection and support of workers from Vietnam, which are following the national legislative framework of the Republic of Serbia, as well as international standards and conventions. With this report, ASTRA wishes to contribute to • Respecting the human and labour rights of workers from abroad on the territory of Serbia, • Improving the National referral mechanism for victims of human trafficking, and • Increased the responsibility of state institutions. All facts, events and communications mentioned in this report are supported by sources in the form of links, documents, photos, videos, screenshots, etc.
Inspiration for work, or the so-called guiding lights as we call them in this report, gave us: 1. The verdict of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Zoletic and Others v. Azerbaijan – 20116/12, delivered in October 2021, in favour of 33 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who were recruited in 2009 and taken to Azerbaijan, where they were subjected to forced labour. The court ruled that the respondent State failed to comply with its procedural obligation to institute and conduct an effective investigation of the applicant’s claims concerning the alleged forced labour and human trafficking. The case of labour exploitation of Vietnamese workers has many similar elements and an almost identical modus operandi to the SerbAz case, for which ASTRA also produced a detailed report that was used and cited in the ECtHR judgment itself; 2. EU Parlament resolution to ban products made with forced labour was adopted on June 9, 2022. It intends to use it when drafting new EU regulations regarding products produced or transported through forced labour, with the recommendation that such products be banned. It is planned that the new, announced legislative instrument will effectively prohibit the entry of products produced by forced labour into the EU market. ASTRA hopes such increased political, strategic and operational attention will eventually impact Serbia.
We must mention that the work and later reporting on this case presented ASTRA with numerous challenges. These are just some of the obstacles that ASTRA faced in attending to help the workers: a large number of potentially exploited workers; lack of reliable translators in Serbia; significant cultural differences; (un)informed workers about the country of destination; the intensity of workers’ intimidation, fear for their own lives and the lives of family members; depression and loss of hope, limited freedom of movement and opportunities for workers to make unsupervised contact with anyone outside the factory and accommodation. All those factors also contributed to the fact that the report does not contain the names, positions or degree of responsibility of the persons involved in this case as potential perpetrators.
But, the REPORT CONTAINS:
- A section entitled Prelude of the case – an overview of all the activities, reactions and warnings issued by local CSOs, activists and media, even before the case became widely known, which all started more than two years before November 2021;
- A section named The case of Vietnamese workers – In details, which also contains a summary of international and national indicators/indicators of labour exploitation;
- A Detailed elaboration on Indicators of labour exploitation, using three groups of indicators (ILO, UNODC and Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking);
- Chronological Overview: THE MAP of the major actions, reactions, reports and other key events related to the case, including official correspondence between ASTRA and 17 competent institutions;
- Comparative overview of the Serbian National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for the victims of trafficking in human beings – What the NRM was supposed to do following the legislative framework compared to the actual reaction;
- Section Lessons Unlearned about at least three similar cases that preceded this one, from which the competent authorities could learn;
- The section contains further information on trends in the fight against human trafficking in Serbia, emphasizing labour exploitation.
DETAILS of the REPORT and individual sections
PRELUDE OF THE CASE
Year 2019: The Development Agency of Serbia announced that the automobile tire factory “Shandong Linglong” construction officially began on March 30, 2019. According to the company’s president, “Linglong” will employ 1,200 workers in Serbia and invest 990 million dollars. The company applied for state aid and received a 75.8 million euro grant (approved by the Ministry of Economy) and 95ha of land owned by the City of Zrenjanin without market fees, with an estimated value of 7.6 million euros (approved by the Republic Directorate for Property ).
Year 2020: On June 5, 2020, the Serbian State Aid Control Commission notified the Decision that state aid was granted to the company Linglong International Europe, d.o.o. Zrenjanin in accordance with the rules for granting state aid.
Year 2021: In March 2021, the non-governmental organization RERI – Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute – published an article about the extensive state aid granted by Serbia to the Linglong company, explaining why such subsidies are not by Serbian laws and that such irresponsible use of state money leads to large losses for the citizens of the Republic of Serbia, and all in favour of the private interests of foreign investors.
During 2021 (March-July), an unknown number of workers from Vietnam (estimated at between 600 and 1,200) began to arrive in Serbia. They were brought here through Vietnamese agencies without a previously signed employment contract or a contract with any Chinese company.
In the fall, journalists from independent investigative media go to the construction site (VOICE). The title of the article The Hopelessness of the Invisibles triggered significant interest in the domestic and international media and the NGO sector. Appalled by the terrible housing of the workers and the lack of primary conditions – food, water, clothing, heating – activists and NGOs are organizing the collection of aid they are trying to deliver to the workers. Further research reveals that the workers have limited freedom of movement, do not have their passports, work hours are longer than allowed, work without proper protective equipment, and managers from China abuse Vietnamese workers. NGOs dealing with the fight against human trafficking and human and labour rights prepare and send the first official report to Serbian authorities (November 2021).
THE CASE OF VIETNAMESE WORKERS IN SERBIA – IN DETAILS
This section describes the case’s circumstances in detail (how the workers arrived in Serbia, working conditions, accommodation, freedom of movement, etc.). It also includes a summary of indicators of trafficking of adult persons for labour exploitation (international and domestic – International Labor Organization, UNODC, the Serbian Center for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking in Human Beings) that ASTRA assessed as occurring in this case.
From March to July 2021, a total of 500 workers arrived in Serbia, according to information from the Labor Inspectorate (this information was sent to ASTRA in May 2022). Several Vietnamese agencies hired workers to work for China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction (TEPC). The ad related to the production of aircraft parts in Serbia. The workers were promised a salary of 775 euros and decent working and housing conditions, which all sounded significantly better than the average salary in Vietnam. Agencies arranged the transport of the workers from Vietnam. The agencies charged in advance the workers between US$2,200 and US$4,000 for their services (transportation, obtaining visas and accommodation). Workers mostly borrowed money, which put them in debt slavery.
Upon arrival in Serbia, the Chinese company Linglong International Europe Ltd. Zrenjanin hired the contractor China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction for the construction of the Linglong tire factory. None of the workers who signed the contract was given a start date, and their wages were paid in cash, based on their statements. The workers had to sign at least five (5) types of contracts – each of them contained clauses that were not in accordance with international standards and the Serbian legislative framework. Based on the contract ASTRA managed to obtain, it can be confirmed that the workers were informed that they would work in a country (Serbia) where strict Sharia law is in force. The contracts signed by the workers prohibit them from organizing a strike as a form of protest or struggle for rights. Some of the workers authenticated their contracts with a fingerprint (red colour) instead of a signature, which may mean that some workers were illiterate.
Living and working conditions in the factory were health and life-threatening. Workers were obliged to work 26 days a month, and if they did not fulfil this for any reason and had even one day less, they were not paid for the whole month. Also, if they do not arrive at work on time, they are punished by not paying their wages for that day. Upon arrival in Serbia, the workers had to hand over their passports to the employer. Some workers were convinced they had a residence and work permits, but no one could confirm this information with certainty, nor did they receive a printed copy of any of these permits. Their freedom of movement was limited. In their original accommodation, they had bunk beds in overcrowded dormitories and only two toilets in a building for 500 workers. The beds had no mattresses; only a blanket draped over wooden boards; there was no adequate infrastructure for sewage, heating, electricity, drinking water, and hot water for personal hygiene. If workers fall ill (from COVID-19 or some other disease), they would be isolated in an improvised hospital room. At the time of the public reviling of the case, they were not vaccinated against covid, although they wanted to be.
The workers testified that about half of them want to return to Vietnam, but they can’t because they don’t have their passports with them, and they haven’t been paid all the agreed wages. Some of the workers were particularly afraid of deportation, because in that case they would not be able to pay off the debts they incurred in order to start working in Serbia.
LEGAL ANALYSIS OF THE CONTRACTS
Several irregularities are evident in the contracts, which indicate labour exploitation and the contracting of working conditions that are not by the Labor Law of the Republic of Serbia and other relevant regulations. For example. The first of these contracts, which practically contracts forced labour, defines a penalty of about 2,000 euros for employees who “run away” (stop working) from the company during their employment in Serbia. This amount is guaranteed by a family member of the worker in Vietnam, and the amount should be paid within six days. It is undoubtedly a means of intimidation and a tool used to ensure the obedience of workers during their engagement, regardless of the working conditions they encounter, i.e. which await them upon arrival in Serbia.
All other contracts are bizarre as the first one. The general impression is that all the analyzed statements, or agreements, which the workers had to sign with the agencies in Vietnam before coming to Serbia, were made with the intention to limit their guaranteed rights at work illegally and concerning work. If these clauses or provisions are observed, it can be concluded that they are divided into three groups: false information, negotiating unlawful working conditions, and the imposition of disproportionate costs on workers.
DETAILED ELABORATION ON INDICATORS OF THE LABOUR EXPLOITATIONS
This section presents a comprehensive overview of significant international and national human trafficking and labour exploitation indicators, combined with specific ASTRA findings and a list of sources for verifying these findings.
ASTRA assessed that out of a total of 67 ILO indicators of trafficking in adults for the purpose of labour exploitation, at least 42 indicators were fulfilled; out of a total of 36 UNODC General Indicators of Human Trafficking, at least 28 indicators were fulfilled; Out of a total of 36 Indicators of UNODC labour exploitation, ASTRA assessed that at least 16 indicators were fulfilled; Finally, ASTRA assessed that out of a total of 104 indicators of the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking, at least 47 indicators were fulfilled.
ASTRA’s ACTION TOWARD INSTITUTIONS – ACCOUNTABILITY APPEALS
In this section, we provide a chronological account of ASTRA’s official correspondence with the relevant state institutions, along with crucial significant events, activities, reactions, etc., in the case of Vietnamese workers, from mid-November 2021 to mid-June 2022 (7 months).
Proceeding following the Serbian National Referral Mechanism for the victims of trafficking in human beings, as well as in line with the Standard Operative Procedure for the victims of trafficking in human beings, ASTRA has submitted 49 official letters/reports/appeals to 16 different state institutions mandated and obliged to enforce the laws in this case. To date, ASTRA received only 22 official responses (45%) from 7 institutions (44%).
Several important institutions dealing with protection against human trafficking have either never responded to ASTRA’s appeals, reports and inquiries or have never implemented activities following their obligations. The Office for the Coordination of Activities in the Fight against Human Trafficking or the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking – there were no formal interviews to determine the circumstances and investigate allegations of labour exploitation. On December 2, 2021, the Center informed ASTRA about one site visit. However, six months later – there were no further activities or concrete results. As for other institutions, the Labor Inspectorate declared itself not mandated for the facts listed in the reports submitted by ASTRA. The Protector of Citizens overstepped his authority by making statements to the public in which he claimed that there was no human trafficking (although the only institution authorized to do so is the Center for the Protection of Victims of Human Trafficking determines something like this). Most of the official responses received were from the local police department of the City of Zrenjanin, which informed ASTRA that they had received instructions from the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Zrenjanin to initiate an investigation and collect evidence based on the report submitted by ASTRA. Each application, complaint, appeal or event listed in this section is accompanied by a link to publicly available sources or is filed in ASTRA’s records and can be obtained upon request.
Serbian National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for the victims of trafficking in human beings; What the NRM was supposed to do compared to the actual reaction
The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a collaborative framework through which state actors fulfil their obligations to protect and promote the human rights of human trafficking victims while coordinating their efforts in strategic partnership with civil society. This section clarified the components and prescribed functioning of the NRM and provides a comparative analysis of What the NRM was supposed to do compared to the actual reaction – A roadmap to nowhere. All allegations can be verified and documented.
LESSONS NOT LEARNED – SIMILAR CASES FROM THE PAST
The case of labour exploitation of Vietnamese workers has many similar elements and an almost identical modus operandi to the SerbAz case. ASTRA produced a detailed report for the SerbAz case, which was cited in the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, Zoletić and others v. Azerbaijan – 20116/12. The SerbAz case is also disturbingly similar to the case of labour exploitation of a large group of Indian workers, also previously reported. The case occurred during 2019-2020 and is currently pending in court (during 2020 and 2021). Unfortunately, the reactions of the competent authorities in Serbia regarding these three cases (SerbAz, Indian workers, and Vietnamese workers) are also similar to the reactions of the Azerbaijani authorities in the case of SerbAz. They amount to a denial of responsibility.