BELGRADE -- Strict new rules enforced at a Chinese-operated mine in eastern Serbia have sparked controversy and pushback in the Balkan country over concerns that the company is violating local labor laws.
According to an internal document from the Chinese firm Jinshan Construction leaked to Serbian media in mid-August, workers at the site are expected to begin each shift by lining up in formation for inspection by their managers and to greet their supervisors in unison.
Employees of Jinshan Construction -- which manages a large copper mine near the eastern town of Majdanpek -- spoke to RFE/RL's Balkan Service and added that these preshift meetings sometimes consist of workers being reprimanded publicly for small infractions and then asked to recite company safety rules.
According to the company document, employees are then told to take a "safety oath," in which they vow to follow company regulations to the best of their ability. Workers at the mine, however, told RFE/RL that only Chinese staff participate in taking the public pledge.
"We're told to form three lines [to start each shift], it's like the army," a Serbian worker at Jinshan Construction's operation in Majdanpek told RFE/RL under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from his employer.
News of the stringent rules at the mine has since sparked a backlash in Serbia, with labor groups and unions saying such conditions could be in violation of local laws, such as forcing employees to take an oath and work under hostile conditions. In response to the public pushback, Serbia's Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Policy Ministry launched an inspection of Jinshan Construction in August, RFE/RL reported.
The controversy has also exposed a growing fissure in Serbia between local and Chinese work cultures and a growing public perception that the country's authorities are turning a blind eye to unlawful labor practices by Chinese firms, which are becoming increasingly vital to the national economy.
"All these rules are to keep you in line and get you to think like [the Chinese managers]. You're expected to follow all rules unconditionally. It feels like brainwashing," another Serbian employee at Jinshan Construction told RFE/RL, who said that not participating in these meetings brought the risk of reduced pay or even being fired.
'Testing The Waters'
Such sensitivities are particularly relevant when it comes to Serbia's mining sector.
Jinshan Construction is a subcontractor that operates the mine on behalf of the Chinese mining giant Zijin, which took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor in 2018 and has since opened copper and gold mines across eastern Serbia.
Neither Jinshan Construction nor Zijin responded to RFE/RL's requests for comment, but the companies maintain that they follow local labor practices and uphold high standards for their operations in the country.
Serbia under President Aleksandar Vucic has enthusiastically welcomed Zijin and other Chinese firms into the country, despite some companies having poor international track records when it comes to labor practices and flouting environmental regulations.
While Vucic and other Serbian politicians have praised Zijin and others for helping to keep Serbia's embattled manufacturing base afloat, the companies have since become ensnared in new scandals in recent years over environmental degradation, withheld wages for Serbs, and mistreating Chinese and foreign workers brought to work in the country.
Mario Reljanovic, president of the Center for Dignified Work, a Serbian NGO that lobbies for greater labor protections, said in a public letter that the latest controversy illustrated that Zijin and its subsidiary Jinshan Construction clearly feel comfortable running operations in Serbia according to their best interests, whether it is in accordance with the law or not.
"It seems that [these companies] have no sense of cultural differences," Reljanovic told the Serbian newspaper Danas. "They [operate] as if they were not in Serbia but still in China, which is our country's own fault."
According to figures published in August following the document's leak to Serbian media, Jinshan Construction employs 414 Serbs and 158 Chinese.
Zijin has acknowledged the rules outlined in the document but said that they are not applied at the mining sites that it operates in Serbia. "The rules only apply to the employees of the subcontractor company Jinshan Construction," Zijin said in an August 14 press release.
Goran Antic, president of the Independent Labor Union of the Majdanpek Copper Mine, told RFE/RL that a similar document had circulated among workers employed directly by Zijin, but the mining giant ultimately decided not to apply them.
"It was deemed not in accordance with our legislation and that it is not appropriate because we are neither a police nor a military formation," Antic said.
Antic said it was unclear why Jinshan Construction chose to enforce these rules when the larger Zijin decided not to, but he said it was common for the company and its subsidiaries to try "testing the waters" when it comes to applying potentially controversial policies and gauging the reaction from unions.
In the case of Zijin, Antic said the backlash from the miners' union was swift when the document was first floated and the company ultimately passed on the policy.
In response to the public reaction to Jinshan Construction's new rules for employees, the Serbian Labor, Employment, Veteran, and Social Policy Ministry launched an inspection and said the company did not appear to have violated the law.
The ministry told RFE/RL that the deputy director of the company explained to its inspector each of the rules outlined in the document that employees were expected to follow. According to Jinshan Construction, the measures concerned "health and safety of its employees" and "raising employee awareness."
In response to its employees being forced to recite an oath -- as outlined in the leaked document -- Jinshan Construction told the ministry that this only applied to its Chinese employees working at the mine, not Serbian citizens. The ministry said its inspections into the company were still ongoing.
Such explanations from Jinshan Construction and Zijin are unlikely to satisfy labor activists in Serbia, who remain critical of both companies' practices in the country.
Both companies have faced controversies in recent years, especially concerning the treatment of Chinese and other non-Serbian staff.
In 2021, Chinese workers employed by Jinshan Construction told RFE/RL they faced restrictions on their movement and endured threats from managers if they went public about the poor work and living conditions they faced in eastern Serbia, including insufficient sanitation and heating at work camps, along with poor-quality food. Several Chinese workers also said their managers said they were forbidden from having any contact with the local Serbian community.
Jinshan Construction denied these claims when they were reported.
China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that advocates for the rights of Chinese workers, told RFE/RL it had received information over the years about a steady stream of labor violations against Chinese workers in Serbia, including the "revocation of passports, nonpayment of wages and overtime, and restrictions on freedom of movement."
Another labor controversy unfolded in 2021 involving the Chinese company Linglong, which is building a nearly $1 billion tire factory in Serbia, and poor living conditions for Vietnamese workers brought to help finish the project's construction.
As documented through testimony from workers and images shared with local and international media at the time, some 500 Vietnamese laborers were housed in makeshift barracks near the construction site without electricity, hot water, or adequate access to food. Many of the workers also had their passports taken away by their managers after entering Serbia.
International human rights groups said the practices amounted to exploitation and, in some cases, human trafficking.
Following the media storm, the Vietnamese workers were transferred to a new location with better living conditions and several laborers told RFE/RL at the time their passports were returned to them by their employer.