Factory showed uglier face of Sino-Serbian partnership | See
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the Sino-Serbian partnership flourished in recent years – according to the National Bank of Serbia, Chinese investments in Serbia grew up to more than $ 2 billion (1.8 billion euros) over the past ten years, while publicly available data shows Chinese infrastructure loans in Serbia exceed $ 8 billion.
However, the case of the Serbian town of Zrenjanin, where the Chinese tire manufacturer Linglong builds a tire factory, tells the partnership’s darkest story: a partnership where Chinese business projects degrade environmental and labor standards, endangering the rule of law in the country receiving Chinese funding.
Investment at an environmental cost
The agreement on the construction of the plant was concluded in september 2018, when Serbian President VuÄiÄ met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum in Beijing.
It turned out that Chinese investment did not come without major incentives. Serbian government donated to Linglong 96 hectares of arable land, followed by grants of â¬ 75.8 million. However, there are other concerns as well.
In 2020, Serbian NGOs revealed that some of the construction work around the plant had been carried out without permits or environmental studies, and that violations of standard protocols had followed.
This was not the first environmental concern related to China that Zrenjanjin witnessed. In the same year, the government was forced to shut down the Chinese plastic recycling plant for environmental reasons. FeitianSuye in the village of Perlez after major environmental protests in Belgrade.
There are concerns on the fate of Carska Bara, a nature reserve near Zrenjanin, and on future carbon dioxide emissions.
Serbian government’s hesitation over workers’ rights
Labor standards told an even darker story. Serbian media reported on the fate of 500 Vietnamese workers employed in the construction of the factory. They were hired by the TEPC (China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co), a subcontractor in charge of building the factory, and lived in barracks without electricity, heat or water, and their passports were taken away.
The treatment of Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin was also similar to that of Chinese workers at RTB Bor: a Serbian copper mining complex owned by the Chinese company Zijin Mining since 2018.
As reports began to circulate, factory security tried to prevent media from accessing the site with Vietnamese workers and to prevent local activists from securing a whistleblower who reported the story to the workers. media.
These attempts failed, thanks to the efforts of activists and workers. Meanwhile, the employees were moved to more comfortable accommodation to hide from the media. Many were forced to sign a statement saying that they âwillingly and knowinglyâ agreed to work.
Serbian government stay vague on this issue, showing that it is ready to tolerate the degradation of environmental and labor standards to please Chinese investors: is part of a well tested model. The Serbian elite use Chinese capital to keep GDP and employment afloat while using it as a tool for domestic promotion.
Serbian Minister of Construction, Traffic and Infrastructure Tomislav MomiroviÄ said the workers themselves are to blame as they are well paid and can afford better housing. Prime Minister Ana BrnabiÄ linked the story to the dissatisfaction of Chinese investors.
Issues raised for the rule of law in Serbia
At the end of 2020, the authorities of the city of Zrenjanin adopted a decision to approve the environmental impact assessment study carried out by Linglong. The city authorities had said it was outside their jurisdiction a year earlier.
This prompted civil society organizations to chase the city at the Administrative Tribunal. Even before the publication of the reports on Vietnamese workers, the factory blocked The Serbian media recorded the facilities without the authorities reacting to this behavior.
To make matters worse, the Serbian weekly NIN suspects that the Chinese workers in Zrenjanin could be Chinese convicts subjected to forced labor abroad in exchange for reduced sentences. No legal evidence has been provided, but it raises questions as to whether the rule of law applies to Chinese investors.
The privileged position of Chinese investors is reflected in the way the government refrains from enforcing the law and in its passing of new laws.
In 2018, the same year that Linglong’s investment was announced, China and Serbia signed an agreement on social security, according to which Chinese employees of Chinese companies in Serbia would be exempt from pension contributions and unemployment insurance.
The deal was ratified in the Serbian parliament. Therefore, Serbian labor law Not Applicabley to Chinese workers. Still, the Serbian government has the right to inspect issues such as occupational health and safety, which it clearly does not do to avoid alienating Chinese investors.
In addition to this, the Serbian government also shaped its regulatory environment to facilitate the arrival of Chinese capital. The 2019 law on public procurement weakened previous rules on competition, access to public information and environmental protection. The 2020 âspecial procedureâ law has now allowed the government to designate urgent infrastructure projects, bypassing public procurement procedures.
During this time, Serbia experienced environmental protests in response to the government’s passage of the Referendum Law and Expropriation Law, which is seen as favoring environmentally damaging investors, including Chinese companies and a Western multinational, Rio Tinto.
While Chinese investments are attractive, they also carry risks for the local population, who have to live with inadequate standards.
Serbs will have to inhale the emissions from the Chinese factory, and there is no guarantee that Serbian workers will not know the fate of Vietnamese workers tomorrow.
The Chinese are not to blame, however. The responsibility lies with the Serbian government. If the government does not follow its own laws, there is no reason for China or anyone else to do the same.
_Vuk Vuksanovic is Senior Research Fellow at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) and Associate at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). _