Nov 29, 2022 - World

Report: Chinese workers overseas trapped in state-backed projects

Photo illustration of a worker underneath a train with a row of sharp triangles looming above.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Wang Guansen/Xinhua via Getty Images

The Chinese government and international labor laws have failed to protect Chinese laborers working in state-backed infrastructure projects overseas, according to a new report.

Why it matters: Overseas workers can be caught in a no man's land between China's labor laws and those of host countries, putting thousands of workers at risk of exploitation.

What's happening: Chinese laborers working on Chinese state-funded infrastructure projects abroad may be subject to deceptive job ads, passport retention, wage withholding, physical violence and lack of contracts, according to the report by U.S.-based nonprofit China Labor Watch.

  • Such experiences indicate forced labor, according to the UN's International Labor Organization. The agency declined to comment for this story.
  • The China Labor Watch report focused on China's Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects across Eurasia and other parts of the world. Most BRI projects are supported with capital through the Chinese government.
  • In July, the U.S. State Department documented forced overtime, physical violence and contract irregularities among workers on BRI projects, calling these abuses "forced labor." The U.S. called on all BRI-participating countries to closely scrutinize the working conditions in related projects.

By the numbers: There were nearly 1 million overseas Chinese workers at the end of 2019, but their numbers dropped to less than 600,000 at the end of last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Chinese government data.

  • Yes, but: Many undocumented Chinese workers aren't included in these statistics, according to the report.

What they're saying: "The Chinese government bears the primary responsibility for the forced labor and abuses among its overseas workers," Li Qiang, founder and executive director of China Labor Watch, told Axios, adding a goal of the report is to influence China's labor policies.

  • "Beijing seems to have shifted the blame to individual companies, but it's very important to note that these BRI projects are backed by the state," he added.

The other side: Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Beijing encourages Chinese enterprises to invest and cooperate overseas based on international rules and local laws.

  • "We oppose groundless accusations and urge relevant parties to stop making up excuses to smear the Belt and Road Initiative," he said.

Details: China Labor Watch contacted more than 2,000 workers in eight BRI countries for this report, including Algeria, Serbia and Indonesia.

  • In a survey of more than 300 Chinese workers employed at several companies in Indonesia, the group found a clear pattern of labor abuse. About half of the workers reported no income at the time, and nearly 60% of them were working illegally on business, tourist or investment visas, the report said. The Indonesian Ministry of Manpower didn't respond to requests for comment.
  • Many workers told China Labor Watch that they tried to file complaints with the Chinese consulates in their host countries, but they were told to negotiate with employers themselves, the report noted.
  • Chinese workers at a copper mine in Serbia told local media BIRN last year they worked 12 hours per day and were otherwise confined to their living quarters. They also said they were forced to hand over their passports.

Between the lines: The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the plight of many Chinese workers overseas, the report said.

  • For example, employers took advantage of prohibitively expensive airfares to return home to keep workers past the contract end date.

How it works: A major factor for abuse is outsourcing, the report said. Much like infrastructure projects in China, almost all BRI projects are subcontracted, which ultimately puts the responsibility for worker conditions on individual foremen.

  • "These firms should not be permitted to simply outsource the exploitation of the workforce and then plead ignorance," Aaron Halegua, a New York-based lawyer and an expert on labor rights and human trafficking, told Axios.
  • The report emphasized that each host country has its own laws and policies regarding foreign workers, and conditions for Chinese workers vary from place to place.
  • But even in countries with strong legal protection for foreign workers, such as Serbia, bilateral agreements with China that suspend domestic labor laws for Chinese workers and lax enforcement of protective policies can still expose them to abuse.

What’s next: The report made several policy recommendations to improve Chinese workers' conditions in BRI-related projects.

  • It recommended China ratify several international labor treaties, including the Migration for Employment Convention and the Migrant Workers Convention.
  • It called on the U.S. to pause or prohibit the import of goods provided by companies suspected of using forced labor or human trafficking as part of the BRI.
  • It urged Chinese authorities to take steps to prevent labor trafficking, such as implementing special departure screening procedures for Chinese workers and imposing stricter regulations on labor dispatch companies.
  • It also advised BRI host countries to create accessible channels for Chinese workers to file complaints, regularly inspect worksite conditions, and eliminate penalties on victims of human trafficking for breaching immigration laws.
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