The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pasalic was a guest on the "News" show on Tanjug Television.
The situation with Vietnamese workers in the "Linglong" factory in Zrenjanin was the main topic in the media. Several non-governmental and humanitarian organizations have filed charges for labor exploitation and potential human trafficking. It states that about 500 workers live in overcrowded barracks and inhumane conditions. The inspection of the Ministry of Labor reacted to that and conducted an extraordinary supervision. The public in Serbia was disturbed by the recordings about the inhumane conditions in which the workers from Vietnam lived, engaged in the construction of the Chinese factory in Zrenjanin, and the allegations about their position were checked, together with the police, by the Protector of Citizens, who is my guest tonight. What has the control shown, what the situation really is and were the rights of those workers endangered, are just some of the questions for Zoran Pasalic. Mr. Pasalic, thank you for speaking for Tanjug Television. You also visited Vietnamese workers today. What did you find on the spot?
- We have visited Vietnamese workers three times so far, both in the previous accommodation that the public learned about the way it did, together with the details of their stay in the Republic of Serbia, and in the new locations where they were accommodated, while in the old location, another 89 workers remained who do not want to relocate. These are workers who came back in June and who claim that they are used to it, that now, in these conditions when there are not as many of them, and there were not more than 200 of them working in that part, that the situation suits them now. Negotiations with them are now in progress to make them leave that accommodation and move them to a new location. There are a total of five locations where they are located and we visited all five. And what is very important to us is that we talked to those who wanted to talk, and mostly everyone did, and they told us their impressions of both the previous accommodation and the new accommodation.
What was your impression when you first entered those barracks that were controversial and when you saw everything that we could also see?
- My impression is that it is not adequate accommodation, in the sense that there were too many people there. They did not complain about the conditions in which they live. The only thing they complained about was the diet, not because it is stated in many media that the diet is bad, but because of the way food is prepared. What the Chinese chefs prepared for them was absolutely not in accordance with their tradition and customs, so they asked for their chefs. They got them and they are now preparing food for them the way they are used to in their country.
As for the work permits, you said that they have in principle all the papers, but it remains to check those work permits. Do all workers who are in Zrenjanin have them?
- This is a very important question, thank you for that. The first thing we checked was, due to the allegations that there was human trafficking, whether there were elements from Article 388 of the Criminal Code that deal with human trafficking. What is important to us and what we talked to them about was whether in their country they were explained where they were going, what job they would do, what their salary would be, under what conditions they would work in terms of accommodation and food, and what would they do if they wanted to return to their country, under which conditions they would be able to do so. All their contracts are for 12 months, some have been here since June, some came here a month ago. The bottom line is that these conditions really aren’t, as I read in some statements, catastrophic. They were not good because there were a large number of workers, so they were relocated to other locations.
And what were the conditions they agreed to?
- Regarding those conditions, they are now at the five locations where they were relocated and they are satisfied with those conditions. Certainly, what is very important to say is that some cultural differences that exist between both Vietnamese and the Chinese must always be taken into account, and certainly between the Chinese, the Vietnamese and us as well. Our way of life is not their way of life and that should be respected.
Can this be said for what we could see, in the sense that they practically, several of them, slept almost on one bed and did not even have a bathroom and the like. Can this be attributed to those cultural…
- It is not true that they slept like that. No, several of them did not sleep in one bed, each had their own bed. The number of beds in one room is absolutely not what we are used to and that is what made the biggest problem because a large number of them slept in rooms where it is not a tradition for so many people to live in one place, according to some of our standards. But that was not the basis of their complaint. As for the sanitary facilities, i.e., the bathroom and…
- …hot water. The fact is that there were four 20-liter water heaters there, two of which broke down in the meantime, which was inadequate for so many workers. That is why they were relocated. But the reason for their relocation was not their accommodation or a complaint about it, but because in the passages between those, I would not call them barracks but masonry buildings, there were gas bottles and buckets, or barrels of oil, which was really a potential danger to their health and life. For that reason, the Ministry of Interior reacted and that was removed immediately, and later the relocation began. I will not say that those conditions were good, but I also cannot say that they were absolutely dissatisfied with those conditions. When asked if they are satisfied with what they receive for their work, i.e., salaries, they told me that they are satisfied and that there is only one problem of a technical nature, and that is that due to some administrative and technical moments, they cannot send that money to their families in Vietnam.
So, your impression is, in essence, that the public of Serbia was more horrified than it is realistically scary to them.
- I can absolutely claim that, just as I do not want to prejudge the decision of the Higher Prosecutor's Office from Zrenjanin that it is about human trafficking, but we worked, since we were on the spot three times, we worked on indicators that determine human trafficking. I really cannot claim that there was trafficking in human beings in the sense prescribed by the Criminal Code, Article 388.
Is it true that their colleague, who essentially initiated this media uprising, so to speak, was fired as a whistleblower?
- I really do not know that. I know that out of the total number of workers, which is 402, a certain number tried to leave the Republic of Serbia, but not to return to Vietnam, but to continue the route to Western Europe.
And, what happened to them?
- Some were returned, I think some of them left.
When we look at the reports we had in the media, on the one hand we have pictures of them eating on the floor, no conditions for bathing and the like, which horrified the public, and on the other hand we have a story in which they are in the factory, they say for the national media that they are well, that they are satisfied, that they receive a regular salary, and somehow this topic has divided the public in Serbia a lot. What do you see as the cause?
- What is always the cause is that one observes the absolute extremes, one or the other extreme, one does not look at the essence of what they are in. The problem is that the essence is not seen. The Protector of Citizens as an institution, since I have been at its head, has been working exclusively on proven facts. We went there three times, we talked, we went to check with the MoI, we went to check with other inspections, we saw where they lived, where they live now, what they eat, we talked to them, I repeat, and heard their story. What was very important in my work that I did before, if you can't understand everything or they don't translate it well enough for you, you have those concludent actions where people show their satisfaction and dissatisfaction. I really did not notice that any of them were neither resigned nor dissatisfied, especially since there was also the issue of their relationship with the inhabitants of Zrenjanin and its surroundings, whether they had any inconveniences from them, whether they were treated in a way that would not be appropriate, and they had no complaints about that. They have the opportunity to go to the city, they use it, they are completely free in their free time. The story of the wire in which they are, this story absolutely does not stand. And again, in order to give a clear picture in some way, the conditions are really not good, not only from our aspect, but also from their aspect, and that is why they were moved to other five locations.
And tell us in the end, what are the plans regarding these workers, but also whether this will be a lesson for some future problems that could arise with workers who may not have good conditions, and work in Serbia?
- They will be moved to where the Chinese workers are, in the so-called container accommodation. And we visited that, we also talked to Chinese workers and I repeat, that is not the basic problem. Their main problem is that they demand that some of their traditions, behavior, mentality be respected, which may not be in line with our habits, but they should really be given the right to that. And it was very important for us to check the possibility of their communication with their relatives in Vietnam, which was made possible for them. Because when asked how they use their free time, they told me and my colleagues that they either go to buy food or watch TV shows that interest them, which are related to Vietnamese television, but that they are most often in communication with their countrymen via Instagram, Facebook.
But should this serve us as a lesson?
- A lesson in what?
Well, to check maybe for some other workers or future ones who come, in what conditions they work.
- It is always checked.
But in this case, it was not.
- It was, otherwise they would have stayed there.
It was checked when they announced that they had a problem.
- It was checked when, for the first time, I repeat, there was a danger that something would happen around those rooms, in those passages, where some dangerous substances that could cause a problem were dumped.
Thank you for the interview, we hope there will be no more cases like this.