In the latest allegations of mistreatment of workers hired by Chinese companies overseas, workers in Laos have claimed that they are yet to receive any payment for the work done in 2015. These workers were hired by a Chinese company to build homes for villagers displaced by the construction of a China-backed dam. China’s dam developer, Namtha 1 Power Company, had entrusted the work to build 11 resettlement villages in the Nalae district of Luang Namtha province to two subcontractors – the Sengphet Company and the Soakxay Company. Besides these workers, the displaced villagers have also paid a heavy price for this Chinese project. Many of those who lost their land, crops and other property are yet to be adequately compensated, as per media reports.
This is not the only case of Laos workers being exploited by Chinese companies. Just weeks before China’s bullet train project in Laos was to be thrown open for the public, over a hundred workers who built this high-speed railway, which connects China with Laos, say they have not been paid for two months. The matter came to light when a foreman cut power to the project to force the companies to pay his workers. In this case as well, compensation to the villagers displaced by the project has been delayed, irking the locals. This is in direct violation of a Lao law, put into effect in 2016, as per which people who lose their property to development projects must be compensated to the extent that their lifestyle was, or better, before the project started. Disputes between Chinese companies and their hired local workers have become a constant theme in such China-backed projects. The companies claim many workers are not serious, often don’t finish the assigned tasks and as such cannot be paid until all the work is completed. “They don’t work hard. Some fall asleep on the job, some others are high on meth, and some steal. The employers cut off their wages and sometimes call the police on them,” a Lao supervisor working for a Chinese subcontractor said.
The workers, on the other hand, claim that they were promised pay at the end of each month and many have run out of money to buy even food. Meanwhile, a labour law expert said the workers will have to continue their fight for payment and legally have the option of suing these Chinese companies in court. However, they need to have proper contracts clearly stating all the terms and conditions of employment. Otherwise, it will be an uphill task to make these companies accountable. The 260-mile railway connects Luang Namtha province on the Lao-China border to the capital Vientiane. The $5.9 billion projects is a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Expected to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods in Laos and boost socioeconomic development, the project is almost finished.
It is to be noted here that China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner. It is this unbalanced equation that China is exploiting, and not just in Laos. Take the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where presently an electric vehicle revolution is under way. Walking towards a “decarbonized future”, the country has become a hotbed of human rights violations, thanks to Chinese mining companies. The country has rich deposits of cobalt, which is used in electric vehicle batteries. In fact, last year, nearly 70% of the world’s cobalt came from Congo. With electric vehicle business set to explode – global sales are projected to go up from 3.3 million in 2021 to 66 million in 2040 – the country is sitting on a proverbial gold mine. But, large scale industrial mines, mostly controlled by Chinese companies, produce most of this cobalt. For instance, the industrial mine called Tenke Fungurume Mine is 80% owned by the company China Molybdenum. It is indeed worrisome that international brands such as Tesla, Volkswagen, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes-Benz are affiliated with this particular mine. As per media reports, frequent beatings are nothing new to Congolese workers at these mines, who face severe racial discrimination, among other things.
Similar reports have been coming in from other parts of the world where China is a major investor, for example Serbia. The first Chinese car tire factory in Europe, Shandong Linglong Tire Co., is based in this harsh, cold desert, and Vietnamese workers have been hired to set up this huge facility. Journalists who visited the site report that despite the punishing cold, these workers live in barracks without heat or hot water and are not allowed to have any money on their person. After developing COVID-19 like symptoms, they received absolutely no medical care. Not only that, their Chinese employers have taken their passports. With local authorities turning a blind eye to the plight of these workers, they are stuck with no means to escape their terrible conditions.
The project, touted as a display of strategic partnership between the two countries, has had its fair share of controversies. Environmentalists have already been slamming it for causing pollution and now the reports of human rights violations at the site further taint its name. Many human rights groups in Serbia have warned that the company may be involved in heinous crimes like human trafficking and slavery. Serbian activist Miso Zivanov told media, “Vietnamese (workers) are working in terrible conditions. Their passports and identification documents have been taken by their Chinese employers. They have been here since May, and have received only one salary. They are trying to get back to Vietnam but first need to get back their documents.”
The tire company, as expected, has denied all allegations, pinning all responsibility on local subcontractors or job agencies in Vietnam. The spokesperson said the salary was paid according to the working hours and the passports will be returned soon. In its bid to expand its reach in Europe, China has chosen Serbia as a key hub. The Asian giant has been making huge investments in the Balkan nation. Chinese companies in Serbia operate under stringent secrecy and often violate the country’s labour and anti-pollution laws.
Chinese banks have given billions of dollars in loans to Serbia, which then puts this money in Chinese companies only for building highways, railways and factories and employing locals in all these projects. The poor working conditions reported at the car factory are not the first time that these companies have come under the scanner for workers rights violations. Human rights groups have earlier reported such violations at a copper mine in eastern Serbia, again being operated by a Chinese company. Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said that a labour inspector has been sent to the Linglong construction site to investigate the allegations. But it being a populist country, Vucic was quite blunt about what would happen next. “What do they want? Do they want us to destroy a 900 million-dollar investment?” he asked. Clearly, with its financial might, the ‘Middle Kingdom’ is making a mockery of workers’ rights all over the world and might even get away with it.