Vietnamese workers helping build the first Chinese car tyre factory in Europe are shivering in barracks without heat, going hungry, have no money and no help from local authorities.
Around 500 of the workers are living in harsh conditions in northern Serbia as China's Shandong Linglong Tyre Co. consutructs a huge factory.
The project, which Serbian and Chinese officials have promoted as a display of the "strategic partnership" between the two countries, has already faced scrutiny from environmentalists over potentially dangerous pollution from tyre production.
Now, it has caught the attention of human rights groups in Serbia, which have warned that the workers could be victims of human trafficking or even slavery.
"We are witnessing a breach of human rights," Serbian activist Miso Zivanov of the Zrenjaninska Akcija (Zrenjanin Action) NGO told The Associated Press outside one of the warehouses where workers were living.
"Their passports and identification documents have been taken by their Chinese employers," he said. "They have been here since May, and they received only one salary," he said.
Workers sleep on bunk beds without mattresses in barracks with no heating or warm water.
They told the AP that they have received no medical care, even when they developed COVID-19-like symptoms, being told by their managers simply to remain in their rooms.
Nguyen Van Tri, one of the workers, said nothing has been fulfilled from the job contract he signed in Vietnam including the salaries.
"We have a big problem" he said "No electric, no water and no salary."
Wearing sandals and shivering in the cold, about 100 of his fellow workers who live in the same barracks have gone on strike to protest their plight.
Some of them have been fired as a result.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday that the government will try to help the Vietnamese workers however it will not disperse investors, as it is "bloody hard work" to bring investors in Serbia.
Linglong did not respond to an AP call seeking comment but denied to Serbian media that the company is responsible for the workers, blaming their situation on subcontractors and job agencies in Vietnam.
It said the company did not employ the Vietnamese workers in the first place.
It promised to return the documents said to be taken to stamp work and residency permits.
The company denied that the Vietnamese workers were living in poor conditions and said their monthly salaries were paid in accordance with the number of working hours.
Populist-run Serbia is a key spot for China's expansion and investment policies in Europe, and Chinese companies have kept a tight lid on their projects amid reports they run afoul of the Balkan nation's anti-pollution laws and labour regulations.
Chinese banks have granted billions of euros in loans to Serbia to finance Chinese companies that build highways, railways and factories and employ their own construction workers.