‘Like Prisoners’: Chinese Workers in Serbia Complain of Exploitation

Dozens of workers hired by China's state-controlled Zijin Mining Group Co. staged a rare show of dissent on January 14 when they protested in front of a copper mining complex in the Serbian town of Bor, majority-owned by Zijin since 2018.

Zijin played down the event, saying the workers had gathered because they wanted to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to travel home for Chinese New Year in February but that there were no plane tickets available.

Evidence obtained by BIRN, however, indeed raises serious questions concerning the conditions facing Chinese workers in Serbia and the readiness of Serbian authorities to intervene and risk hurting an increasingly important diplomatic and investment relationship with China.

In interviews via a mobile phone chat app, several Chinese workers - all of whom declined to be named for fear of the repercussions of speaking to the media - spoke of working extremely long hours, being confined to their living quarters and having to hand over their passports.

"We don't have any freedom, like we're prisoners," said one worker.

"Zijin does not treat us Chinese workers as human beings," said another. "They're worried and scared we will go out to look for journalists to expose the news that they have cheated us to come here and work."

Under the terms of a 2018 bilateral deal, Serbia's Labour Law is temporarily suspended for Chinese nationals working in Serbia, meaning the country's Labour Inspectorate has no right to review their contracts or whether they have been paid. But it can and should inspect health and safety conditions, said Mario Reljanovic, an expert on labour rights and research associate at the Institute for Comparative Law in Belgrade.

Reljanovic said allegations...

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