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Protests Cast Spotlight On Chinese Factories In Serbia

Dani Davis

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When Dung Nguyen left Vietnam to work abroad, the 37-year-old said he’d been assured he would be employed by a German company in Serbia, only to have his passport taken away upon arrival at a Chinese-run factory where conditions were dire.

The situation at the factory and the alleged deception used to lure employees has made headlines in Serbia after Nguyen and hundreds of other Vietnamese went on strike this week.

The strike that started on Wednesday was a rare show of defiance by labourers at a Chinese-backed enterprise in the country.

Beijing has invested billions in Serbia and neighbouring Balkan countries in recent years, hoping to expand its economic footprint in central Europe.

Serbia has been quick to cash in on China’s interest, as it seeks to court a range of investors amid the ongoing tug of war between the East and West over influence in the Balkans.

But Belgrade has repeatedly been accused of giving Chinese-owned companies a free hand in how they run their operations.

Vietnamese workers went on strike this week over conditions at a Chinese-run factory in Serbia Photo: AFP / OLIVER BUNIC

Critics from civil society, human rights groups and in the media say the government has turned a blind eye to environmental concerns and potential human rights violations.

The Vietnamese workers were employed to build a factory for the Chinese tyre company Linglong in the small northern city of Zrenjanin, considered a centrepiece of Beijing-backed investment in Serbia.

But according to Nguyen, the living and work conditions were untenable and not what he had been promised when he was recruited for the job.

“We are living as if we were in jail… all our passports were kept by the Chinese when we arrived at the airport,” Nguyen told AFP in a video message sent from inside the living quarters.

“I cannot talk more as I am afraid my saying would impact others,” he added.

Even before the strike, private security guards were posted near the workers’ dormitories next to the factory site and journalists including from AFP were prevented from entering the premises.

The strike was a rare show of defiance by labourers at a Chinese-backed enterprise in Serbia  The strike was a rare show of defiance by labourers at a Chinese-backed enterprise in Serbia  Photo: AFP / OLIVER BUNIC

Human rights organisations A11 and ASTRA published a joint report earlier this week demanding “urgent action” from Serbian authorities.

“A large number of established facts indicate the possibility that workers are victims of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation,” it said.

According to the report, the Vietnamese workers had not been provided with heating, electricity or hot water and the facilities lacked adequate infrastructure and sewerage.

“The conditions were nowhere near suitable for housing human beings,” Danilo Curcic, a human rights lawyer from A11 said during an interview with local broadcaster N1 TV.

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that some people do not keep animals in those conditions.”

Construction workers at the Zrenjanin factory had already staged two strikes within the last six months, according to A11, sparked by unpaid salaries and a lack of food.

Beijing has invested billions in Serbia and neighbouring Balkan countries in recent years, aiming to expand its economic footprint in central Europe Beijing has invested billions in Serbia and neighbouring Balkan countries in recent years, aiming to expand its economic footprint in central Europe Photo: AFP / OLIVER BUNIC

A short documentary aired by N1 this month also showed workers living in cramped conditions inside a makeshift dormitory at the site.

“It is unacceptable that an aspiring EU member state seems to tolerate this on its territory and remains silent on cases of potential forced labour in Europe,” Viola von Cramon, a member of the European Parliament for Germany, told AFP.

Linglong said that the Vietnamese workers were not officially employed by the company and had been hired by a Chinese subcontractor.

“Linglong’s only obligation to its contractors is to pay them compensation for the work performed under the contract,” the company said in a statement.

It added it was planning meetings with subcontractors to “inform them about the values the company upholds” and demanded the workers were transferred to “better accommodation”.

It did not respond to an AFP request for further clarification.

Vietnam’s foreign ministry said officials had received no reports of “violence and harassment” at the factory but said it was monitoring the situation.

In a 2019 case that cast a disturbing light on unscrupulous trafficking networks, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain after it had crossed the Channel from Europe.

Serbian leaders have batted away accusations of malfeasance at Linglong.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabic suggested the incident might have been a conspiracy targeting Chinese investment in the country, after confirming that the Vietnamese workers were being moved to more appropriate accommodation.

President Aleksandar Vucic has vastly expanded ties with Beijing since coming to power and says the two countries enjoy a “steel friendship”.

Serbia was one of the first countries in Europe to receive coronavirus vaccines from China, while Vucic kissed the Chinese flag last year after receiving medical supplies sent by Beijing early on in the pandemic.

Following this week’s headlines, the Serbian leader doubled down, saying Chinese investments would continue to be a top priority.

“What do you want, to destroy an investment worth $900 million?” Vucic said Friday.

“If the Vietnamese need to be helped, we will help. But we will not chase the investors away.”


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Kazakh President Fires Rare Criticism At Predecessor After Unrest

Dani Davis

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Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued rare criticism of his long-ruling predecessor Tuesday, and said he expected Russian-led forces to leave the troubled Central Asian country in the next 10 days.

The oil-rich country’s descent into chaos has laid bare infighting at the top of a government once dominated by Tokayev’s mentor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The older man retains the constitutional status of “Leader of the Nation” despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019.

Addressing lawmakers in a video conference broadcast live, Tokayev fired an eyebrow-raising broadside at Nazarbayev as the post-Soviet country reels from unprecedented violence that began with peaceful protests over an energy price hike.

Tokayev, 68, said Nazarbayev’s rule had created “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards”.

Dozens died in the unrest and 10,000 people have been arrested Photo: AFP / Alexandr BOGDANOV

“The time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis,” Tokayev added, noting that “very profitable companies” would be asked to pay money into a state fund.

“The current system is oriented towards major structures and is based on the principle: ‘everything for friends and laws for everyone else’,” he said.

Both Kazakhstan and Russia have framed last week’s unrest that left dozens dead and almost 10,000 people arrested as a coup attempt assisted by foreign “terrorists”, but have provided little supporting evidence.

Tokayev blamed his predecessor for creating a rich elite Tokayev blamed his predecessor for creating a rich elite Photo: SPUTNIK via AFP / Yevgeny BIYATOV

Following a request from career diplomat Tokayev, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) deployed troops to bring about order and shore up the authorities.

On Tuesday, Tokayev announced “a phased withdrawal” would begin in two days and take “no more than 10 days”.

“The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed,” he said.

The CSTO mission of more than 2,000 troops was deployed at the peak of the crisis, after armed clashes between government opponents and security forces and a looting spree trashed parts of the largest city Almaty.

The decision was a first for the CSTO, often touted by Moscow as a NATO equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia, a region with long historical ties to Russia.

Nursultan Nazarbayev retains the constitutional status of 'Leader of the Nation' Nursultan Nazarbayev retains the constitutional status of ‘Leader of the Nation’ Photo: AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM

Concern has mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to entrench its influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.

Tokayev appeared to further bolster his position by backing acting prime minister Alikhan Smailov to take on the job permanently on Tuesday — a nomination that won the unanimous support of lawmakers.

Former national security committee chief Karim Masimov — a key Nazarbayev ally viewed as perpetuating the retired president’s influence over the government — was arrested on treason charges Saturday in connection with the unrest.

Even if Nazarbayev — the son of shepherds who rose through the communist party’s ranks — is now being sidelined politically, dislodging his family’s extensive interests in Central Asia’s largest economy may take time.

In a significant move Tuesday, Tokayev announced plans to bring an end to a widely criticised private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, 41.

“This should be done by a state organisation, like in other countries,” he said of the scheme.

But middle daughter Dinara and her husband Timur Kulibayev control Halyk, the largest commercial bank, and are among the richest people in the country. Kulibayev is moreover a key player in the flagship oil sector.

Oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva’s political career, mainly in the rubber-stamp legislature, has been marked by a series of controversial statements and perceptions of an abrasive style.

The 58-year-old’s reported business interests are also rumoured to be extensive.

Leaks of offshore financial data and a High Court challenge in London have meanwhile revealed the extent of her family’s foreign property holdings — part of a trend of capital leaving that country that Nazarbayev officially discouraged while president.

Many residents of Almaty credited the CSTO as a stabilising force that had helped Tokayev gain control over the situation after spending several days inside as gunfire echoed around the city.

Roza Matayeva, a 45-year-old English teacher, got used to tuning in to her radio during the five-day internet blackout in Kazakhstan’s financial hub that ended briefly Monday morning before the city of 1.8 million went offline again at lunchtime.

News that the Moscow-led bloc had agreed to Tokayev’s request to send a detachment “brought relief and hope that the situation will be decided for the best in the near future,” she told AFP.

“I welcome cooperation with Russia. I think there is no threat to our sovereignty.”


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Here’s How Apple CEO Earned 500% More In 2021

Dani Davis

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KEY POINTS

  • Tim Cook received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021
  • The sum included $82.35 million in stock awards, a $12 million bonus tied to performance targets and a $3 million base salary
  • He reportedly earned $14.8 million in salary in 2020

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s compensation ballooned to nearly $100 million in 2021, a sixfold increase from the prior year.

The 61-year-old executive, who reportedly earned $14.8 million in 2020, received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021, according to an SEC filing published Thursday. The company’s fiscal year began in September 2020 and ran through September 2021.

Of this amount, $82.35 million came from stock awards. The sum also included a base salary of $3 million and a $12 million bonus for hitting Apple’s performance targets.

Cook also received $1.39 million in other compensation, including $712,488 in personal air travel, $630,630 in security, a $17,400 contribution to his 401(k) plan, $2,964 in life insurance premiums and $23,077 in vacation cash-out.

Despite the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, Apple reported 33% revenue growth and more than $365 billion in sales. The increase in annual sales reportedly stemmed from the strong demand over the past two years as consumers working from home splurge on upgrades. 

Cook became CEO of Apple in August 2011 after the company’s late founder Steve Jobs stepped down. Jobs died of pancreatic cancer that October.

In 2021, Apple marked the 10th anniversary of Cook’s leadership as CEO.

In September last year, Cook reportedly received 333,987 restricted stock units, in his first stock grant since 2011 as part of a long-term equity plan. He will be eligible to receive additional units in 2023.

A report by Reuters noted that Cook’s 2021 pay was 1,447 times that of the average Apple employee. 

In 2021, the median pay for employees was $68,254. In 2020, the median pay was $57,783, 256 times Cook’s salary, according to the publication. 

Cook, who has already donated tens of millions of dollars to various charities, previously stated he plans to give away most of his fortune before he dies.

Cook’s net worth was $1.5 billion as of Tuesday, according to a Forbes estimate.

Prior to being named CEO, Cook was Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide operations. At the time, he was earning $500,000 per year. When he became CEO of Apple in 2011, Cook’s salary increased to $900,000 per year. 

Between 2011 and 2020, Cook reportedly received $963.5 million in total compensation.

Apple CEO Tim Cook attends Apple’s “Ted Lasso” season two premiere event red carpet at the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, California, July 15, 2021 Photo: AFP / VALERIE MACON
 


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UN Wants $5 Bn Aid For Afghanistan In 2022

Dani Davis

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The United Nations said Tuesday it needed $5 billion in aid for Afghanistan in 2022 to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and offer the ravaged country a future after 40 years of suffering.

In its biggest-ever single-country appeal, the UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan, while a further $623 million was required to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond its borders.

The UN said 22 million people inside Afghanistan and a further 5.7 million displaced Afghans in five neighbouring countries needed vital relief this year.

“A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan,” said UN aid chief Martin Griffiths.

“Help us scale up and stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.”

Since the Taliban hardline Islamist movement seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August, the country has plunged into financial chaos, with inflation and unemployment surging.

Washington has frozen billions of dollars of the country’s assets, while aid supplies have been heavily disrupted.

Afghanistan also suffered its worst drought in decades in 2021.

Without the aid package, “there won’t be a future”, Griffiths told reporters in Geneva.

The Taliban authorities said the aid appeal for suffering Afghans was “very needed”.

“But at the same time I would like to say the need is for all this assistance approved in the past to be delivered during this harsh winter,” senior Taliban leader and the group’s designated UN representative, Suhail Shaheen, told AFP.

He said the inflow of funds would also help in the functioning of the now dilapidated banking system, adding that any cash coming into the country will help rein in the inflation.

The UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan to avert humanitarian disaster Photo: AFP / Mohd RASFAN

“The banks are not working properly so there is also a need to control the inflation and that can be controlled when dollars … hard currency come to Afghanistan,” Shaheen said.

Griffiths said the appeal, if funded, would help aid agencies ramp up the delivery of food and agriculture support, health services, malnutrition treatment, emergency shelters, access to water and sanitation, protection and education.

An estimated 4.7 million people will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2022, including 1.1 million children with severe acute malnutrition.

Griffiths said that without humanitarian aid, distress, deaths, hunger and further mass displacement would follow, “robbing the people of Afghanistan of the hope that their country will be their home and support, now and in the near term”.

However, if international donors come forward, “we will see the opportunity for an Afghanistan which may finally see the fruits of some kind of security.”

Griffiths said the security situation for humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan was probably better now than for many years, adding that the staff in the ministries in Kabul largely remained the same as before the Taliban takeover.

He said the UN Security Council’s move in December to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans, without violating international sanctions aimed at isolating the Taliban, had made the operating environment for donors and humanitarians on the ground much more comfortable.

The money will go to 160 NGOs plus UN agencies delivering aid. Some will be used to pay frontline workers such as healthcare staff — but not via the Taliban administration.

Around eight million children could miss out on their education because teachers largely have not been paid since August, Griffiths said.

UN refugees chief Filippo Grandi said the aid package’s goal was to stabilise the situation within Afghanistan, including for internally displaced people, thereby preventing a further flood of migrants fleeing across the country’s borders.

“That movement of people will be difficult to manage, in the region and beyond, because it will not stop at the region,” he said.

“If those efforts are not successful, we will have to ask for $10 billion next year, not $5 billion.”


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