European Parliament denounces Chinese influence, ‘modern slavery’ in Serbia

The showers used by the Vietnamese workers working for the Linglong tyre factory in the Serbian city of Zrenjanin. [A-1 'Initiative for economic and social rights']

EU lawmakers on Thursday (16 December) discussed “modern slavery” in Serbia, notably the reports about forced labour in the Chinese Linglong tyre factory in the city of Zrenjanin. A resolution denouncing Chinese influence was passed, with the support of all major political groups.

The resolution, passed with 586 votes in favour and 53 against, expresses concern over China’s growing influence in Serbia and across the Western Balkans.

It expresses concern over working conditions in the Linglong tyre factory and calls on the Serbian authorities “to investigate the case carefully and ensure respect for fundamental human rights in the factory”.

China has invested billions in Serbia in recent years, hoping to expand its economic footprint in the Western Balkans.

But Belgrade has repeatedly been accused of giving Chinese-owned companies a free hand in how they run their operations.

Last November a report by A-11 ‘Initiative for economic and social rights’, a Serbian NGO, flagged that around 500 workers from Vietnam arrived in Zrenjanin in March, April and May this year.

They reported poor working conditions, including lack of labour rights and respect for local employment laws, something the Serbian government denounced as nothing more than a personal attack on the country.

The workers were brought from Vietnam via an agency that charged workers between $2,200 and $4,000 for their services, including transportation, visas and accommodation. The workers were then allegedly hired by China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. LTD, with an agreement not including start date and “cash in hand” payments.

Serbian leaders have batted away accusations of malfeasance at Linglong.

Last month a group of MEPs called for “immediate action to end modern slavery in Serbia”, an effort which quickly gathered broad support in the European Parliament.

The developments coincided with mass protests in Serbia against a mining project by Rio Tinto  and new legislation on expropriation and referendums, as well as outrage following a decision by the European Commission to open a new cluster in the accession negotiations with Serbia.

MEP Viola von Ramon-Taubadel (Greens, Germany), stated that instead of opening the new accession chapter, the EU should support pro-democracy voices in Serbia and show them that the EU is not ready to compromise on its standards.

MEP Tonino Picula (S&D, Croatia), said it was a “shame that we have to speak about slave labour and human trafficking in a country aspiring to join the EU”.

According to Picula, it is “an irony” that the decision to open a ‘Green Cluster’ of accession talks with Serbia coincided with mass protests against the government’s legislative proposal, “which would dangerously endanger the environment and damage the health of citizens”.

The Resolution denounces the deterioration of media freedom and the increase in abusive language, intimidation and even hate speech towards members of the parliamentary opposition, independent intellectuals, NGOs, journalists and civil society.

The glorification of war criminals in Serbia was another issue raised by MEPs.

“Another source of concern for us is the mural of the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić in Belgrade, which the authorities have so far been unwilling to have permanently removed”, Picula said.

According to reports, a mural in Belgrade glorifying war criminal Ratko Mladić is guarded by young men in hoodies and cleaned up every time it is defaced – and no one in authority seems to have the will or courage to remove it.

Many see the it as a symbolic moment in defining what sort of image Serbia wants to project to the world after the conflicts of the 1990s.

Serbia's police detain activist throwing eggs at war criminal mural

The Serbian police late on Tuesday (9 November) briefly detained a local opposition activist after she threw eggs at a downtown Belgrade wall painting of Ratko Mladić, a convicted war criminal and the wartime commander of Bosnian Serbs.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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