MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Serbia: Thousands demand government action to stop mining pollution

Published by MAC on 2021-04-15
Source: Eurasiareview.com, Reuters

China-owned copper mine halted over environmental breaches.

Serbia has ordered China’s Zijin Mining to halt work at the country’s only copper mine and to complete a waste water treatment plant after it failed to comply with environmental standards. Zijin became Serbia’s strategic partner in the RTB Bor copper complex pledging to invest $1.26 billion in return for a 63% stake lat year.

Meanwhile, several thousand people blocked traffic in front of the Serbian parliament in a protest against lack of government action to prevent water, land and air pollution by industries such as the mining sector. Protesters, who came to Belgrade from all over Serbia, held banners reading “Cut corruption and crime not forests,” and “Young people are leaving because they cannot breathe”.

See also:

2020-12-04 Discontent over Rio Tinto’s jadarite mine grow louder in Serbia
2020-10-13 Serbia: Criminal charges filed against Zijin for pollution
2012-10-08 Serbians Unite Against Nickel Extraction

Serbia halts China-owned mine over environmental breaches

Reuters https://www.reuters.com/article/us-serbia-mining-china/serbia-halts-china-owned-mine-over-environmental-breaches-idUSKBN2C111G

April 14, 2021

Serbia has ordered China’s Zijin Mining Group to halt work at a shaft at the country’s only copper mine and to complete a waste water treatment plant after it failed to comply with environmental standards, the mining and energy minister said on Wednesday.

Zijin became Serbia’s strategic partner in the RTB Bor copper complex which includes the Jama mine, pledging to invest $1.26 billion in return for a 63% stake.

Minister Zorana Mihajlovic said authorities in late March ordered Zijin’s Serbia-based unit to halt work on its Jama copper mining shaft.

“The state has ... responded to the complaints of citizens living in the vicinity of the Jama mine,” Mihajlovic said in a statement.

In a statement later on Wednesday, Zijin’s unit in Serbia said it had halted construction of ventilation shafts for the Jama mine located in the town of Bor, as ordered by authorities, after residents complained about noise levels.

“The exploitation of copper in the Jama mine is ongoing, deep under ground,” it said.

Mihajlovic said the Zijin unit had also been ordered to urgently complete a waste water treatment plant and stop polluting the River Pek, a tributary of the Danube.

“They have until April 30 to eliminate all irregularities,” she said.

China has invested billions of euros in Serbia, mostly in the form of soft loans to finance highway and energy projects.

Last week, Zijin’s unit in Serbia said it plans to invest $408 million in 2021 to overhaul, expand and improve environmental standards at its mines and a smelter at the Bor complex.

In its 2019 report, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution watchdog said Serbia was Europe’s most polluted country.

Last Saturday thousands rallied in the capital Belgrade to protest against a lack of government action to prevent pollution mainly caused by industry and mining.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Daria Sito-Sucic and Mark Potter


Thousands protest in Belgrade, demand government action to stop pollution

Reuters https://www.reuters.com/article/us-serbia-ecology-protests-idUSKBN2BX0C9

APRIL 10, 2021

Several thousand people blocked traffic in front of the Serbian parliament on Saturday in a protest against lack of government action to prevent water, land and air pollution by industries such as the mining sector.

Protesters, who came to Belgrade from all over Serbia, held banners reading “Cut corruption and crime not forests,” and “Young people are leaving because they cannot breathe”.

In recent years Serbia has started selling its mining resources to foreign companies, despite opposition by local residents who had warned that increased ore exploration could cause greater pollution.

The former Yugoslav republic, which in the 1990s went through a decade of wars and economic crisis, has lacked resources to tackle pollution. As it seeks to join the European Union, Serbia will need billions of euros of investment to meet the bloc’s environmental standards.

Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the protest leaders, told the crowd that investors were all welcome in the country, but added, “But you cannot poison our children.”

“None of the people who have power care about anything else but money, they don’t care about ecology,” one protester, who gave his name only as Marjan and who had driven from the town of Jagodina, 140 kilometres (90 miles) from Belgrade, told Reuters.

Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Frances Kerry


Violation of Chinese workers’ rights in Serbia

https://environmentsee.eu/violation-of-chinese-workers-rights-in-serbia/

2 February 2021

Dozens of workers hired by China’s state-controlled Zijin Mining Group Co. staged a rare show of dissent on January 14 when they protested in front of a copper mining complex in the Serbian town of Bor, majority-owned by Zijin since 2018. Zijin played down the event, saying the workers had gathered because they wanted to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to travel home for Chinese New Year in February but that there were no plane tickets available.

Chinese workers at a Chinese-run copper mine in Serbia have told BIRN of serious apparent violations of their rights, including restrictions on their movements, 12-hour workdays and having to hand over their passports. Evidence obtained by BIRN, however, indeed raises serious questions concerning the conditions facing Chinese workers in Serbia and the readiness of Serbian authorities to intervene and risk hurting an increasingly important diplomatic and investment relationship with China. In interviews via a mobile phone chat app, several Chinese workers – all of whom declined to be named for fear of the repercussions of speaking to the media – spoke of working extremely long hours, being confined to their living quarters and having to hand over their passports.

“We don’t have any freedom, like we’re prisoners,” said one worker.

“Zijin does not treat us Chinese workers as human beings,” said another. “They’re worried and scared we will go out to look for journalists to expose the news that they have cheated us to come here and work.”

Under the terms of a 2018 bilateral deal, Serbia’s Labour Law is temporarily suspended for Chinese nationals working in Serbia, meaning the country’s Labour Inspectorate has no right to review their contracts or whether they have been paid. But it can and should inspect health and safety conditions, said Mario Reljanovic, an expert on labour rights and research associate at the Institute for Comparative Law in Belgrade.

Reljanovic said allegations regarding freedom of movement and the confiscation of passports were a matter for the police.

“Not only can the described treatment of workers be characterised as a crime of trafficking in human beings, but it is quite certain that the labour law treatment offered to them implies a complete lack of awareness of international labour standards and a complete lack of care for their health and lives,” he said.

“From the worker statements and the videos I saw, we can say that Serbian institutions definitely need to check what is going on there,” Reljanovic told BIRN. “I hope they will do their job freely without political and business interests prevailing.”

Serbian anti-trafficking NGO ASTRA warned the case potentially involved “trafficking of human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation,” a growing problem in Serbia.

“They are completely unprotected, exploited for work, endangered due to the presence of the coronavirus on a construction site and in accommodation, in a foreign country whose language they do not speak, they are not in possession of their personal documentation at all times and their movement is restricted,” the NGO told BIRN in a written response.

Neither Zijin nor Serbia’s Labour Ministry responded to requests for comment on this story.

Blank contracts, passports confiscated

The readiness of Chinese companies to snap up indebted state-run enterprises in Serbia has helped relieve pressure on the Balkan country’s coffers, but analysts say it comes at a price in terms of transparency, environmental standards, labour rights and growing Chinese political leverage.

Zijin entered Serbia in 2018, paying $350 million to recapitalise RTB Bor and pledging to invest $1.26 billion over the following six years in return for a 63 per cent stake. It later took over a project to exploit the Cukaru Peki deposit. Due to open this year, Serbia’s government says the project is of vital importance to the country’s economy, but Chinese workers at the site are paying a high price.

Video obtained by BIRN from inside their accommodation shows rooms of roughly 10 square metres packed with bunk beds for 10 people. Workers BIRN spoke to complained of working 84-hour weeks, of wages arriving late, their movements restricted and inadequate work clothing. Perhaps most worryingly, some workers said they had signed blank contracts and handed over their passports.

“We’re not really aware what’s in the contracts,” said an employee.

“The paper is empty when they let us sign. What’s written in the blank space after signing no one really knows. They just demand that we work.”

“We’re not allowed to go outside, not even in front of the gates of our settlement. You need to sneak out if you want to buy something and if they catch you they charge you 30,000 dinars [232 euros].”

He also accused “the boss” of brushing off requests by workers to be allowed to return to China.

“The company took away our passports and threatens us that we will have to foot the cost of the return plane ticket if we want to go home,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, plane tickets are very expensive, so many have to just stick it out.”

In its response to local media reports about the January 14 protest, Zijin denied that those it hires are banned from leaving their living quarters when not working or made to work long hours. It also defended the quality of accommodation, saying, “Workers’ dormitories are equipped exclusively with new furniture, installations and devices.”

Sidestepping Serbian law

Over the past several years thousands of Chinese workers have passed through Serbia, an important station on Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to facilitate the transport of Chinese goods to European markets. But little is known about the terms of their employment or the conditions in which they live and work. Critics say bilateral agreements between the two countries, a way of fast-tracking Chinese investment, have circumvented Serbian law in a range of areas.

In September 2018, Serbia adopted the Law on Confirmation of Agreement on Social Security with China, making only Chinese labour law applicable to Chinese migrant workers in Serbia for the first five years of their stay. This means that Serbia’s labour law, and the standards it sets in terms of labour rights, is suspended in the case of Chinese nationals, limiting the jurisdiction of the Labour Inspectorate to investigate.

Chinese nationals account for almost 30 per cent of the total number of foreign workers in Serbia, at 3,148 in 2019. Reljanovic, the labour rights expert, said the bilateral agreements cannot “exclude the right of the state to intervene in case of serious violations of the law.” The 2018 agreement was signed ostensibly to regulate issues of double taxation, social security and similar matters, but in practice it was having “devastating results,” he told BIRN. If the allegations being made are true, he said, it represents a violation of “not only the right to work and a safe working environment, but also the right to human dignity.”

The workers BIRN spoke to said they are not in possession of the contracts they signed because the company took them from them. One, who said he had arrived in Serbia in March 2020, said he worked 12 hours a day.

“If we add time spent leaving and returning from work, we need 14 hours every day,” he said.

“We can’t get enough rest, we don’t have individual freedoms… the salaries don’t arrive on time and we still often have situations where we are financially punished without adequate reason.”

“They never even provided us with things to protect us at work; we don’t have adequate clothes for work… some people’s feet freeze and they have no choice but to spend their own money on equipment.”

‘Shocking fate’

The January protest occurred after dozens of workers tested positive for COVID-19, triggering concern among others over the health precautions and hygiene standards in their living quarters. Many have since been relocated to a Chinese-owned hotel on the outskirts of the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The doors of the hotel were locked and window blinds drawn when a BIRN reporter visited.

A Chinese man peered out of a window but refused to speak. An official within Serbia’s Labour Inspectorate, who declined to be named, told BIRN that when the workers staged the protest, Zijin’s local management told inspectors by phone that due to the pandemic an inspection of the site would not be possible. The official said that of 900 workers hired by Zijin’s local construction company in Serbia, Jinshan, around 400 still do not have official permits to work.

Reljanovic said Serbia’s public prosecutor should act, “as the interstate agreement does not grant – nor can it grant in any regular circumstances – amnesty from criminal liability.”

“It seems that the competent authorities and institutions in Serbia do not mind formally taking cover behind it and averting their eyes from the shocking fate of Chinese workers.”

 

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