Withheld wages, bad food, confiscated passports leave workers trapped in China’s Belt and Road

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When the migrant workers from Sichuan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Henan, and Hebei — China’s relatively poorer inland provinces — arrived in Algeria they soon found themselves living in sheds without air conditioning in desert heat and facing a nightmare of withheld wages, mysterious extra fees, confiscated passports, and dismal food. Many are trapped in Algeria, RFA reported.

Chinese labour lawyers say their treatment not only besmirches China’s reputation, undermining the goals of the nearly 10-year-old Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of infrastructure projects aimed at boosting Beijing’s global profile, but also constitutes human trafficking under international conventions China has signed. The BRI is seen as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature international policy, the report said.

Chinese workers signed up at job fairs to work as carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and painters at a housing project in the North African country of Algeria and were promised round-trip air fare, room and board, and better wages than they’d earned in China. They thought working for companies serving China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was a safe bet.

Following up on tips received from workers who’ve been stranded some 6,000 miles (9,200 km) from home, RFA Mandarin interviewed numerous workers employed in Algeria’s Souk Ahras Province, Chinese diplomats, labour lawyers and an executive of Shandong Jiaqiang Real Estate Co. Ltd, the eastern China-based company the laborers accuse of luring them to Algeria under false pretenses.

“When I came here through an agent, I realized the situation is not good. It is worse than in China,” said Worker A, whose name has been withheld to protect him and his family from retaliation, RFA reported.

“The pay is far from what was promised,” said a second man, identified as Worker B. “It is worse than what we earned in China. Here the monthly pay on average is 3,000 yuan ($444).”

He told RFA wages were only paid every six months, with 70 per cent paid, and the other 30 per cent withheld until the workers fulfilled their two-year contracts.

That pay arrangement meant the workers “usually have no money to live on” and had to borrow advances against their wages.

“In the process, the workers were ripped off by other costs,” added Worker A, who said the company profited by loaning money to them at an exchange rate to the local Algerian Dinar currency that was about half the actual rate, RFA reported.

Worker B said it took a strike by workers in September 2021 to get the company to pay the 70 per cent they were due in the middle of that year.

He said the workers were told by the company: “Feel free to sue. We’re not afraid. Just sue us, go back to China to sue us.”

A chief reason the workers had to borrow money was to cook their own meals because the three daily meals they were promised under their contracts was inedible.

“To say it bluntly, the food was worse than those given to pigs. Sometimes the food was just impossible to eat,” said Worker B, RFA reported.

“The food we ate was mixed with sand and gravel. The noodles were black,” added Worker B.

“Workers in many construction sites that this company operates received the same treatment. Why? The company does not want to cook the food well, because if it’s delicious, you’d eat more. By offering lousy food, you’d pay out of pocket to buy your own food and cook your own meals,” Worker A surmised, RFA reported.

Another grievance shared by the workers in Algeria who spoke to RFA in recent months was the failure to provide return airfare to China as promised.

A staffer at China’s embassy in Algiers confirmed that disgruntled workers who spoke to RFA had indeed asked for help and that the mission had helped negotiate some return plane tickets to China.

Shandong Jiaqiang Real Estate Co., Ltd. had tried to deny it had anything to do with the BRI, but RFA found that the affordable housing project was identified in as part of the BRI framework on the website of Beijing Urban Construction, a state firm, which had also built the Algeria Opera House, a 500-unit public commercial housing tract and a fiber optic cable plant.

Peng Yan — a prominent attorney in China with 30 years specialising in state-owned enterprises, private enterprises, and foreign enterprises — told RFA the workers appeared to be in the right in the dispute in Algeria, RFA reported.

“If the employer breached the contract first, then based on the circumstances, the workers have the right to terminate the contract. Since the company is the party that breached the contract, the company should bear the costs of roundtrip airfares for their returns to China,” Peng said.

Yu Ping, former director of the China Office of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, said the workers’ complaint is a serious issue that may even entail human trafficking under the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, to which China is a signatory.

For the workers caught broke and without plane tickets and passports in Algeria, however, the legal and international issues pale next to the personal cost of being in limbo and missing the weddings of their children or the funerals of elderly parents, RFA reported.

(Sanjeev Sharma can be reached at Sanjeev.s@ians.in)

20220717-113002

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