The Protector of Citizens Zoran Pasalic was a guest on the "Day Live" show on N1 Television.
Let's move on to the topic of the day. Zoran Pasalic, the Protector of Citizens, will talk in the “Topic of the day” about what he established by visiting the location where Vietnamese workers stayed in Zrenjanin, which authorities violate the rights of citizens the most. Good afternoon and welcome. We had a good introduction to this conversation – we heard that a doctor is on a hunger strike and that he lists a number of things he is dissatisfied with, starting with mobbing, then deciding who will get which specialization, and then he also mentions covid and compensations. Lots of reasons, lots of dissatisfaction. Is that a reason to intervene as the Protector of Citizens?
- That is the reason why he should address us in the domain of what we can do, except for the first one, which is mobbing, for which the court is competent. As it is already known to the public, we do not have the right to control the courts or interfere in the work of the courts, he can address us for everything else. However, we cannot do that directly, but through the inspection that deals with this issue, but we would certainly monitor the work of the inspection and see what it found, and if, so to speak, the inspection findings were in line with what the gentleman said, then we would go with some recommendations. If they were not in line, then we would see if there is anything we can do to help.
Now that you say can you do something to help, of course we need to talk about the case of Vietnamese workers in Zrenjanin because it occupied the most attention in the previous days and the first question that arises is whether the authorities were late with the reaction? Have we waited too long for the first reaction and for checks?
- And what is the first reaction? I have to ask you, considering that this issue first went through the media, where it took an important place, as well as an important place among the reactions of various bodies, not only state bodies and institutions, but all others. I am thinking primarily of the associations that are called non-governmental organizations in our country, and certainly of the one who takes the most care of that, and that is the Protector of Citizens. But the Protector of Citizens works exclusively on the basis of proven facts and for that reason we have visited three times. Of those, I was present twice, today was my last visit, I don't mean in a series of events, but the last visit was one together with colleagues, where we tried to determine what has changed compared to the previous period and whether what is most important has changed, and that is that the living conditions of the workers hired by the company that deals with the execution of works, which is also a Chinese company, have changed.
For the first time on 29 October, the question of the living conditions of workers arose in the public, not Vietnamese also in connection with Linglong, but Chinese, and then we received some vague answers from the highest officials of this country who did not have time to check or wondered why we are so caring now as the television and the media, worrying about foreign workers. So, this topic is not something that has just appeared a few days ago. When did you first react? When did the labor inspection first react to such news?
- We responded immediately after receiving information about the situation of Vietnamese workers, but we also visited workers who come from China in terms of their accommodation and working conditions. What we found then was that the process of relocating all those workers to other locations had begun. The main reason was that in the first, so to speak, settlement, a large number of workers were accommodated, and the question was how good their living conditions were in terms of accommodation, personal hygiene, nutrition and everything else. Today, 4-5 days later, we were at five locations where they were relocated, with 89 workers remaining in the original accommodation. They have been there since the first day, that is, since June, when the first workers came from Vietnam, and they do not want to leave. That accommodation is about five minutes from the place where the works are being done. They go there by bike. Their answer to our question was that at the moment the number of 89 workers in these facilities absolutely suits them for the way of life they want to lead. It is certain that...
Do you believe that they answered your question freely and without fear?
- I am absolutely sure of that, because we talked to a large number of them without any presence of someone who could be conditionally called an official.
Yes, but could that official find out what they said, that they said that their conditions were bad and that they wanted to get out of there and punish them in some way for such statements, as we have heard?
- Punish who?
The Vietnamese workers.
- An official to punish Vietnamese workers? You see, everyone mostly connects this issue with the company "Linglong", which has practically nothing to do with all this, because the workers are hired by a different company that is also Chinese, which deals with all that.
Which was hired by "Linglong", right?
- Yes, but it's the same if you hired me to build you a house. You expect me to build you a house and move into it, and how I will carry out that activity, that...
Then we know those responsible. The company hired by "Linglong" to recruit workers is responsible, to bring them.
- That responsibility needs to be established.
And who do you think could be responsible?
- It can only be the company that hired them under the conditions under which it hired them, i.e., if it did not adhere to the conditions that it guaranteed them on the spot, i.e., in the country they came from; when they met in Vietnam, they were informed about where they are going, what they will do for money and what will be their salary, but they were certainly not informed about the conditions of accommodation. That is what they told us in the conversation, as far as those working conditions themselves are concerned. I repeat, they have been relocated to five locations until they join these workers who are from China and until they are accommodated in a similar way. As I said, we also visited those workers who are in container accommodation, where all the facilities that are necessary for their life are located. And what was very important for us to determine, since it was pointed out as the most important thing in the public, the question of human trafficking, was whether they have their passports with them and whether they are satisfied with accommodation and food. Not only did this contact with them give us certain answers, but it also gave rise to all the activities we undertook. As I said, we are not working on speculation but on evidentiary facts, so in these three visits, we went to both the police and the labor inspectorate, we were with them and at the new location, and we talked not only with Vietnamese workers, but also with Chinese workers, which is far easier. I have to tell you, these Vietnamese workers mostly come from rural areas and almost none of them speak any language. I read in some reports that few of them speak English. I can responsibly claim that almost none of them speak English.
And do you think they were not scared for their jobs?
- Let me just clarify.
Go ahead. We already know a lot of details.
- What is now perhaps lost in translation, either from Vietnamese to Chinese, from Chinese to Serbian, that is the only thing I can say that could be a problem.
But what is not lost in translation, I must interrupt you now, is that they lived in catastrophic conditions that are not worthy of a man, no matter where they come from, and that the state of Serbia must not allow for any worker, even if he came from some rural areas in Vietnam or anywhere else, to live in such conditions.
- I did not say that the rural environment is a condition for them to be accommodated like that, but I ask all those who say that they lived in catastrophic conditions to describe those conditions to me. I have been to them several times. In my opinion, the essence is that the conditions in which they lived were prefabricated conditions. Those are solid objects, but it refers to the rooms where personal hygiene is maintained…
Well, one water heater for 500 workers.
- Four water heaters, two broke down. That is 120 liters. Not for 500 but for 402 workers. Let's be precise when we talk about it. I know that doesn't significantly change the picture, but let's be precise.
It doesn't change it at all.
- So, the rooms in which they stayed, in which they slept. Regarding the first issue of trafficking in human beings, there are certain indicators according to which it is determined whether it is trafficking in human beings. They were asked these questions to see if there were certain elements, and then the competent prosecutor's office continues with that case, and we will see the results of their investigation. Then, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with accommodation. The main dissatisfaction was that there were too many of them in that area. Now that there are 89 of them, they think that these are the conditions that suit them.
And you saw what those rooms look like?
- Of course. I was in each of those rooms.
And how can we then think that someone is satisfied to live in such conditions?
- Well, I didn't say that they were satisfied, I said that those 89 that are there, want to stay there. And now it is normal, I said that a couple of days ago, that there are negotiations to move them from there, but they insist on that. When asked why, because there, they...
Let's just clarify something, because it's not clear to me either. As far as I know, no one remained from those unconditional barracks we are talking about?
- Not true. There are 89 people left in those barracks who do not want to move out.
All right, and?
- And the others were relocated to five locations. We visited all those five locations.
And are the conditions better now?
- These are now extremely good conditions, except for the one location where we have objections because the sanitary equipment has not been set up yet, that is, most of it has been installed, and one part is not. It is an apartment building where there are two or three of them in one room, somewhere there are fewer of them, but now the problem is how to move these 89 people out, who explain that now that they are there alone, everything suits them.
Okay. This means that practically they were just crowded there and that they didn't miss anything else, would you say so?
- No, I wouldn’t say that. I say this, that they must have lacked something, to what extent I cannot claim, because when asked what bothers them the most there, they did not complain about the conditions of accommodation, even the hygienic conditions, but complained about nutrition. That diet is...
Which is also a disastrous fact.
- The fact is, you see, that it should be viewed from all sides. You can't look at it from only one side. It's not about the amount of food, it's about, and the public needs to know this, that there are some traditional cuisines that they practice, so they were not satisfied with our food as we prepare it, nor with Chinese food.
But they were not satisfied with the quantity either. Not just with our food, the way we prepare it, but they got one egg for breakfast.
- Please don't say that, it's absolutely not true. We have determined exactly what quantities are given. The matter is in preparation and that is why now at the new location where they will be accommodated together with Chinese workers, so this is container accommodation, their main request is to bring with them their chef who would prepare food in the Vietnamese way, so to speak. So that was the point. People talk about how they had to prepare their own food. The fact is that they really prepared themselves, but the fact is also that a lot of that is a consequence of the fact that the only day off they have, and that is Sunday, they also spend preparing food, which is practically what they do the most.
And what about payments to those workers? Did you establish the truth there, were they paid or did they get one salary, as we heard from one of those workers?
- Those workers started coming in June. The last ones came a month ago. They are paid, the price of their work is between 700 and 800 dollars a month, for 26 working days. The biggest problem for them were certain, let's say, administrative obstacles regarding sending part of the earnings to Vietnam. I'll give you just one example.
Were they paid or not?
- They were paid, yes, yes.
So, for everything they did, all the months, they absolutely received their salaries?
- They were paid for all months. It's just a matter of sending their money to families in Vietnam. I will immediately make a distinction, their salary, as I said, was absolutely determined by checking the amount of the salary and talking to them, by comparing that data. Their salary is 700, as I said, $ 800 on average, if they have some overtime work, even more, if they have some absences, their daily allowance is reduced. This means not only if they are absent from work all day, but also if they are late. That is why it is very important for them to be as close as possible to the construction site, because if they have a bicycle, they do not move on foot, it takes five minutes, and another thing is if they are waiting for someone from another location to transport them, then they have to get up earlier. Now let me not go into details, but this is important. And the salary in Vietnam is on average 150 to 200 dollars, so it is important to them that they can send that money or most of it to their families.
Let's just round up this story now. What do we conclude from all that you said, that there were no problems there and that everything that was happening was normal?
- If there were no problems, they would not have moved out of that location. The first problem, as I said, was whether there was human trafficking. I will not prejudge the decision of the prosecution. In our opinion, according to the indicators of how human trafficking is determined and the description of that crime or its nature, to put it simply, it is Article 388 of the Criminal Code, you must take into account that I have been dealing with this issue since 2004, when it was called trafficking in human beings, so in my opinion, and I am speaking on behalf of the Protector of Citizens, that is, on behalf of myself, there were no elements of trafficking in human beings even under that article, that is, item 8 of that article 388, but let's not prejudge, we will wait for the decision of the prosecution and what they will determine.
So, we do not know, then?
- We do not know. Another variant is that they did not have their passports with them. The passports were, we found out when we arrived, in the building where the directorate of that business is located. They received reverses for those passports. They were explained why: because the first Vietnamese diplomatic mission is located in Romania and there is a danger of losing their passports. What would happen in that situation then? All passports were returned to them. So that information…
They were returned now, but they were not with them.
- They all have their passports with them.
But what is the most problematic for everyone are the conditions.
- Conditions, that's the third. It was determined that these conditions are not really good, primarily in terms of accommodation, and that is why they were...
Catastrophic. No heating.
- It is not true that they have no heating, it’s just that, you must take into account that people came in June, and now, when I entered those rooms, there are electric heaters there. We did not check the state of the installation, the
Ministry of Interior is in charge of that, but now we are dealing with heating, the number of beds. The conditions were bad. When you say catastrophic, then I must remind you that people often do not speak about what they have seen, the way our workers were accommodated abroad. No, it is very important. It is very important, because we have to make a gradation between good, bad, very bad and catastrophic. That's what I am asking you to do. But that problem...
We are not talking about our workers abroad now. We know that it happened a couple of years ago, we had a story about it in Slovakia.
- Well, I was there, that's why I'm talking about it.
You are talking about it, but let's focus now on this case of Vietnamese workers. Just a conclusion, what is the conclusion of that whole story? Was the intervention necessary, or the labor inspectorate…
- Not only the labor inspectorate, the Ministry of Interior, and now excuse me if I'm wrong, I'm tired, it's the part of the Ministry of Labor that deals with the protection of victims of human trafficking, they also dealt with this issue and where we are today when we think that we ended a part of the story, so it is normal that we will monitor how long they will stay in this new accommodation.
Were any laws violated in the whole story you are talking about? Labor law?
- We will see the results of the work of the labor inspection, i.e., what it will inform us. We sent them a letter today to answer certain questions. These are about work permits, the duration of it all according to domestic regulations and the thing which is very important to us, and that is what sort of labor-legal relations they have. They all have contracts for one year. So, the possibility...
That is according to our Labor Law?
- Well, they are in Serbia. They have asked us several times why the Protector of Citizens is interested in the issue. The Protector of Citizens deals with the protection of citizens of the Republic of Serbia and all persons who are on the territory of the Republic of Serbia, and that is clear to everyone.
Employees have the right to adequate earnings, safety and health at work, health care, protection of personal integrity, dignity of the person and other rights in case of illness and so on and so forth.
- There is something else. You have that which can allude to human trafficking, and that is communication with their kin in the country where they come from. But what is most important in that...
Does that communication exist?
- It does, of course. The most important thing for us was to determine first of all – whether they were told in Vietnam which country they were going to, what they would do in that country, how long they would stay, for what salary.
Some say they were told they were going to work for a German company, not a Chinese one?
- Maybe some of them said that. None of them told us that, because the basic question for us was what could be translated in some way, and that is whether they knew which country they were going to and which country they are in. This is one of the indicators of identifying victims of human trafficking. What is also important to us is the freedom of movement, whether they can get out of that space. Wires and many other things were mentioned there. They do leave the area, they usually go to buy groceries in the area, they don't go very far – and we wanted to know whether someone interfered or prevented them from doing that, whether they had inconveniences from our citizens because that happened in some cases we worked on before, and, what you said and what was most important to us, was this communication with the families they came from. To be clear, there were omissions. We were the first to identify these omissions and let me tell you, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the company that is the contractor for letting us into that area. If they had not let us into the space, the only way to come indirectly would be to hire a labor inspection to bring us into that space, because, as you know, the law does not allow the Protector of Citizens to control private companies. All the doors we wanted to open were available to us. All the people we wanted to see were available to us. All the people we needed to talk to were available to us.
Now, there is a Chinese person who is mentioned, and the manner in which he treated the journalist teams in the case...
- I met that Chinese man.
And? Why did he prevent the team?
- I know exactly.
And is it normal, what do you think, for him to stop the N1 team with his car or to stop the Deutsche Welle team from following the caravan with his violent driving?
- If he acted like that, that is...
Well, there are recordings.
- I believe you, you don't need to show me the footage at all. Then it falls into the domain of sanctioning such behavior on several grounds. Is that the recording? Well, yes, that's the gentleman.
Yes, that is the gentleman who you said was polite in communication with you. Your door was open for him.
- I can't say that he was polite in the sense that he was refined. But simply, communication was normal.
Normal, but not according to journalists. And what do you think now? Okay. This has nothing to do with this story now.
- This is a topic we can open, which is the protection of journalists when doing their job.
Let me ask you now, knowing how that manager treated the journalists. Do you believe that he has a civilized approach to those Vietnamese workers who were brought in through his company and that they have no fear at all of telling the truth in communication with you?
- I only saw this gentleman at the entrance and he never...
He did not attend the conversation?
- No, he didn’t.
But that doesn't matter.
- Again, we only work according to proven facts. Whether he is the rudest possible, whether he uses physical force, whether he treats them in some other way, I cannot claim until I see it or until it is proven to me. Now, to invent some stories, I am not inclined to do that, nor is it in the manner of the Protector of Citizens.
Of course. We will still deal with that story, of course, but since our time is running out...
- Sorry to interrupt, we will deal with it, because when we get what we asked for from these three institutions, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Labor in terms of labor inspection and the Secretariat or whatever it is called, which deals with the protection of human trafficking, we will not stop... Since these are temporary locations where they are currently located, we want to see which will be permanent locations where some of them will spend six months, some a year. Some even longer, because the contracts can be extended.
What also attracted the attention of the public was the hunger strike of Milorad Ulemek Legija and you going to talk to Legija.
- Yes, I was in conversation not only with Legija or let us call him Mr. Ulemek, since I am not friends with him to use his nickname in addressing the gentleman. When we spoke to Mr. Ulemek, there were 13 prisoners there and except for two, they all wanted to talk to us, so that planned interview lasted until late at night.
Yes, they say six hours.
- Not with him, but with everyone. The interview with him was the longest, but the others also had time to give their remarks.
What was the basis for you to react and go to that conversation?
- The address of the lawyer, not only of Mr. Ulemek, but also the lawyer representing Mr. Zvezdan Jovanovic. They complained about the conditions and treatment. As for our special point of view, it is the treatment. When I say treatment, I mean treatment by those who need to monitor some things, which may sound pointless to some, considering what crimes they are responsible for.
Forty years in prison, right, for the murder of the Prime Minister and Ivan Stambolic and the attempted murder of Vuk Draskovic. We are talking about Ulemek, Legija.
- Every two years, it is reviewed how much progress they make in resocialization and whether it is done in the way prescribed. We should address the High Court here, which has the main say in it. You know that we cannot control the courts, but I am thinking of using our little right that exists in the previous law and in this law, and that is the Act of Cooperation, to see what everything that was written is based on, I have no desire to deal with official secrets, and I hope that it will not be qualified as such. What is important to us are the conditions in prison in terms of visits, physical contacts with loved ones. What is also important is how they spend time in prison. They have two hours for the gym, they have...
Six hours out of the cell a day.
- That's right. Two hours for walking and two hours...
The right to the visit of close relatives, defense counsel, visit of other persons who are not closely related. For years now, Ulemek is entitled to four phone calls a month. The Administration for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions denied the allegations of Ulemek's defense counsel regarding that.
- What did it deny?
The allegation of Ulemek's defender that he does not have the conditions he should have, given his good behavior.
- We have to take everything into account. It bothers me terribly when someone in public says something that is not based on the law or proven facts. They are in the Special Department.
Everything is in full compliance with the law and the house rules.
- It's not about house rules. This is about what is regulated by a special law that refers to the rights of convicts who are responsible for organized crime. That's one thing. They are in those premises because they are members of certain criminal groups.
A prison with maximum protection.
- Not only with maximum protection, but with maximum restrictions.
- I will give you an example that will be clear to all viewers. You have the seventh pavilion where the perpetrators of the most serious crimes are located. These are cases of rape of children that upset the public, murders, multiple murders and so on. They have the right to more frequent telephone conversations than those in the Special Department because it is believed that those in the Special Department can communicate, thus being able to organize their own, so to speak, members of the same criminal organization in terms of further activities. And they complained about how people who are responsible for the most serious crimes have more conversations, have the opportunity to communicate better than them.
And what will you do next? What can you do as the Protector of Citizens?
- I'll tell you what I can do. First, it is important, according to me, and this will be in the recommendations, so you have an exclusive story, to better organize their time in terms of organizing some activities, in addition to these six hours, two hours of gym, two hours of walking, two hours of communication between them in those rooms in which they live together. To have some work organized for them, because they want that. So, something that would occupy their time. Then, to enable them better communication with the public in terms of the media, to determine who are those conditionally called educators, who communicate with them, who have the opportunity to determine possible changes in their behavior. These are experts. That's one part. The second part, that lawyers insist on, are changes in the law. I told the lawyers, changes to the law are okay, of course, but we must take into account whether we will be exclusive in the sense of introducing into the law something that is not in the international convention on the protection of the rights of convicted persons. We cannot go beyond that convention which we are signatories of, but we will certainly take all arguments into account.
Now I have to ask you if all legal remedies have been exhausted when it comes to Ulemek Legija?
- Legal remedies in what sense?
All legal means to get his rights, since the Protector of Citizens has been called to act?
- His lawyer told me that he did not receive an answer to some of the appeals, so he turned to us and it is normal that we, for whom this is a basic job, came to hear what he has to say, what the problem is.
Okay. In the end, I have to ask you, we will talk about it very briefly, the re-election of the Protector of Citizens is being prepared next year?
- Not the re-election, a competition is being prepared.
The competition is being prepared. Will you run?
- It is the same as asking me who I will vote for in the elections. It all depends on a number of factors.
- On my personal affinities, whether I should do this job or not.
Okay. And what do you say now at this moment?
- I'm not saying anything at the moment.
You’re not saying anything?
You haven't decided yet?
- No, but I have to tell you one thing. There is time.
We have very little time. I have to ask you something else about that.
- You have one basic thing, and that is that I have never used statements where I talk and argue a lot, without having a serious basis and serious evidence for that. Maybe it's a consequence of my deformity that I did the work I did, so I don't like reading empty treatises.
So, keep it short now.
- I did. That’s it.
What does that mean?
- It means I didn't answer the question, I will not answer you, but you will see next year, as long as we are alive and well.
Until next year, there is one more thing. Five mobbing lawsuits?
- Against me?
That's right. Your employees against you.
- I think there will be more, because...
So how does one enter the candidacy for a new mandate with that?
- Quite simply.
You are the Protector of Citizens.
- Quite simply, let these five lawsuits be proven in court that I resorted to mobbing. I will not use my right, and that is to sue those people for abuse. You have that in the law as well, called the Law on Prohibition of Harassment at Work. I will not exercise my right, but I am not sure that my colleagues who are also sued together with me will not exercise that right, so the court will make a decision and we will see who is who.
We surely will. Thank you so much for speaking for N1.