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Chinese-Owned Mine Changes Life for Locals in Serbia

Slavisa Sordjan’s job at the copper mine tailings storage site might demand unusual toughness, but this hardworking 44-year-old father of five and his extended family consider his recent appointment at a prosperous Chinese mining company a once-in-a-decade life-changing opportunity, which they are all willing to hold on to.

Sordjan’s life has always been a struggle. He could have had a secure job at the copper mining and smelting complex RTB Bor, a state enterprise on whose scholarship he earned a degree in metallurgy at a local technical school, like many in his generation. But he chose a different path.

Sordjan explains that back in the mid-1990s, the local mining industry started to deteriorate under the changing political and economic circumstances, resulting in the dismissal of employees from RTB Bor.

“Two thousand workers were dismissed first, there were more dismissals than admissions. We lost the opportunity to work, not only me, but my whole generation, who had even higher education and couldn’t find a job,” he recalled.

“I mostly worked in the village, helping whoever needed help. I joined construction teams, operated chainsaws in the forests, waitered at weddings … I did not shy away from work as I needed an income,” he said.

“We barely survived,” Sordjan’s wife Sandra recalled. “Back then, we lived from day to day on social benefits.”

For Sordjan, and for his peers in the Bor district, the decline in the heavy industry meant a lost chance of living a decent life.

Serbia’s eventual reindustrialization required a massive inflow of foreign direct investments and greenfield projects started to mushroom across the country. Encouraged by Serbia’s active participation in China’s Belt and Road and other initiatives aimed at reviving economic ties with Central and East Europe, Chinese companies started to invest in the country.

A landmark moment in the China-Serbia comprehensive strategic partnership was the arrival of the Zijin Mining Group, which became a major shareholder of RTB Bor in December 2018. Zijin’s aim was to turn RTB Bor into a high-tech, green mining company.

In just a few years, Zijin invested 1.7 billion U.S. dollars in the Serbian company and built new and advanced production facilities.

Zijin also built Cukaru Peki, an entirely new copper and gold mine that set new standards for environment-friendly mining in Europe.

Next, Zijin started to hire droves of locals — Sordjan included.

Driven by its socially responsible mission of “Mining for a Better Society,” Zijin gave preference to workers with large families. Sordjan was soon hired, and today he enjoys a job that is safe and secure.

“A lot has changed since he got the job. We have everything we need, we have better conditions, a better life,” wife Sandra commented. She, too, plans to apply for a job at the mine, and she said she expected their children to follow their parents’ suit.

“Have things changed?” Sordjan said. “They sure have. Recently, I bought a car. I can now afford that.”

As they are now permanently employed, the Sordjans plan to expand their home in Slatina village to provide more room for their kids.

According to Wen Hongzhi, director of the mine general manager’s office, Zijin aims to look after its local employees by helping them afford the cost of tuition, housing and everyday essentials.

“The income suffices — I’m not complaining — for shoes, for school, for books, although now we don’t pay for books because Zijin helps a lot, so thanks to them,” Sordjan said.