When worker recruitment agencies in Vietnam lured hundreds of young men to Serbia this spring, they promised them favorable contracts to help build a German airplane factory. But when the Vietnamese workers arrived in the Southeast Europe country, they quickly learned they’d actually be toiling on a construction site for a Chinese tire company and living in deplorable conditions, according to a Serbian nongovernmental organization.
In violation of Serbian law and international labor conventions, the Vietnamese workers, most from Nghe An Province in North Central Vietnam, had to surrender their passports and work 26 days a month, according to the A 11 - Initiative for Economic and Social Rights. The workers were forced to stay in overcrowded rooms with hard planks for mattresses and only two toilets for 500 men, and were not provided electricity, drinking water or heat in a region where temperatures dropped to 5 or 10 degrees Celsius in recent months, according to the A 11 Initiative.
“These conditions are not European conditions, so we were shocked,” Milica Marinković, senior policy adviser with the A 11 Initiative who visited the work site Nov. 14, said in an interview with Vietcetera on Tuesday.
The Belgrade-based nonprofit, which promotes and protects the labor rights of vulnerable and marginalised groups, along with an anti-trafficking NGO, filed complaints in November with several Serbian law enforcement and government agencies asking them to address “potential human trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation” at the site.
Each year, tens of thousands of Vietnamese men and women, mostly young and from rural areas, gamble on taking low-skilled jobs abroad, lured by promises of fortunes to be made.
In many cases, their hard work on construction sites, in factories and in homes as domestic workers pays off. The half million Vietnamese migrant workers in foreign countries sent a whopping $13 billion-plus home through remittances in 2017, according to the United Nations International Labour Organization.
But sometimes those dreams of riches turn into nightmares. The complaints from the Vietnamese workers in Serbia and another case of alleged migrant exploitation in Saudi Arabia last month — which resulted in the death of a teen-aged migrant worker— have turned a spotlight on the darker side of labor abroad. They also illustrate the need for increased protections of migrant workers, including a new law, which is to take effect in Vietnam in January, that bans the exorbitant fees workers pay to migrant recruitment agencies.
From March to May this year, migrant labor agencies in Vietnam recruited some 500 Vietnamese workers to Serbia, demanding payment of $2,200 to $4,000 per worker in advance for services including visas and flights, according to the A 11 Initiative. They were housed in an overcrowded and unsanitary camp close to the construction site and many wound up with diarrhea and headaches, without sick time, because they were not told that the tap water was unsafe and weren’t provided bottled water, said Marinković of the A 11 Initiative.
The Vietnamese migrants are helping to build the Linglong Tire factory, a high-profile, $1 billion project that will be the first Chinese tire plant in Europe. The workers were hired under a contract with a Chinese subcontractor with a branch in Belgrade, using a dozen recruitment agencies in Vietnam, which were not named in the A 11 Initiative report. Linglong didn’t respond to an email requesting comment, and the subcontractor, China Energy Engineering Group Tianjin Electric Power Construction Co. LTD, couldn’t be reached.
“Due to poor living and working conditions, the workers have gone on strike twice so far, the first time because they do not have enough food, and the second time because of unpaid wages, due to the fact that their salary was two months late,” the A 11 Initiative report said.
After the conditions in the camp made headlines in Europe, most of the workers were moved to another camp that was built for Chinese workers, Marinković said, adding that “the conditions are mostly better because they have water and heating there.” Many of the Vietnamese workers had their passports returned and received their $700 monthly pay. But Marinković said they had to surrender their passports again and are being kept at the camp under private security that takes them directly to and from the work site.
In response to the reports, some Members of the European Parliament denounced what they called “modern slavery” in Serbia and called for immediate action from Serbian authorities.
Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded on its Twitter account that state officials reacted “urgently” to the media reports about the factory and that “the facts had little to do with the image created in the ordered and coordinated political propaganda attack on Serbia."
For many years, most of Vietnam’s migrant workers have been drawn to Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand. In recent years, workers have been increasingly recruited to Europe, North African and the Middle East, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Vietnam’s law to strengthen protections for migrant workers arose partly from the fact that laborers “who pay high recruitment fees and related costs are more vulnerable to labour exploitation, including forced labour and human trafficking,” according to the ILO.
The law in Vietnam will remove brokerage commissions paid by migrant workers to recruitment agencies, and prohibit service charges against migrant workers who use public, non-profit entities to migrate abroad.
According to ILO, the law prohibits discrimination and forced labour and “permits workers who are subjected to, or threatened with, maltreatment, sexual harassment or forced labour to unilaterally terminate their employment contracts without financial penalty.” Recruitment agencies may have their licence revoked if they use deceitful advertising or other means to lure workers into trafficking or forced labour “or other forms of exploitation.”
“When workers are indebted by high migration costs, they may be less able to leave employment when they are abused, exploited or forced to work. Removing brokerage commission from the costs permitted to be paid by migrant workers goes part way to addressing this risk,” said the ILO’s regional labor migration specialist, Nilim Baruah, in a statement earlier this year.
The ILO office in Vietnam said it couldn’t provide anyone to comment on the recent cases of alleged exploitation in Serbia and Saudi Arabia. Vietnam’s ministries of labor and foreign affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In Saudi Arabia, the United Nations said its human rights experts documented that women and girls recruited in Vietnam “found themselves sexually abused, beaten and subjected to torture and other cruel treatment by employers.” The UN’s November 4 report said that “often the women were denied food and medical treatment, not paid at all, or paid less than stipulated in their contracts.”
Over the past decade numerous research papers and news reports have documented exploitation of foreign workers in the oil-rich Gulf country including human trafficking and forced confinement. Earlier this year, the kingdom ratified the United Nations’ Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, committing to combat forced labor in all its forms, including human trafficking.
The UN report said that 205 women, many believed to be victims of trafficking, were repatriated from Saudi Arabia to Vietnam in September and October.
The UN experts said they had received “truly alarming allegations” that some companies in Vietnam recruited girls as domestic workers and forged their age on identity documents to hide the fact they were children.
“They cited the case of one 15-year-old Vietnamese girl who became ill because of beatings inflicted by her employer, who also denied her food and medical treatment,” the report said. “She arranged to return home but died before she could board her flight back to Vietnam. Because her documents had been forged by the labour recruitment agency, her family has not yet been able to get her body returned home.”
The UN experts urged governments in Vietnam and Saudi Arabia to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses of migrant women and girls.
“We further remind Vietnam and Saudi Arabia of their international legal obligations to cooperate in order to combat trafficking in persons, including in criminal justice investigations...and assistance to victims of trafficking,” the report said.