New York, Apr. 30, 2021 – Since the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrant workers stranded overseas have been unable to return home. In response, China Labor Watch started investigating the situation in July 2020. The data in this report are mainly from our correspondence via instant messaging services, phone calls and emails with nearly 100 Chinese workers in eight Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Online citizen reporters and Chinese volunteers in host countries who are concerned about the rights of Chinese workers abroad were also consulted.
We conducted in-depth interviews with 22 Chinese workers who worked or currently work on various BRI projects located in Indonesia, Algeria, Singapore, Jordan, Pakistan, Serbia and other countries. Among the workers we interviewed, we found widespread rights infringements involving: passport detention, restrictions on freedom of movement, excessive work hours up to 12 hours a day and 7 days a week, zero holiday allowance, unpaid wages, issuance of illegal visas, deceptive recruitment and false promises, isolation from the local community, intimidation and threats, high penalties for quitting, lack of sufficient medical treatment, poor living and working conditions, insufficient labor protection and safety equipments, no reasonable complaint channels or grievance mechanism, restricted freedom of speech, and harsh punishment of workers who protest.
The UN defines trafficking in persons “as the recruitment, transportation, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of coercion, abduction, deception or abuse of power or of vulnerability, for the purpose of exploitation.” The International Labor Organization (ILO)’s indicators of labor trafficking include coercive or deceptive recruitment, abusive or dangerous working and living conditions, and employers who restrict freedom of movement, confiscate identity documents, withhold wages, and force overtime. Our investigation has found multiple indicators in different Belt and Road countries and projects that can prove the widespread existence of systematic forced labor among overseas Chinese workers. When some workers collectively went to the embassies and consulates for help, they were either ignored or accused of violent protest.
In 2013, China proposed BRI as a geopolitical and geoeconomic remapping. While using China’s wealth and technology to create new markets for Chinese companies, the BRI has also exported China’s low human rights economic development model that exploits its own migrant workers at the bottom of society. Many Chinese workers working on BRI projects are forced to live in isolation with passports detained by Chinese employers, and are constantly threatened and intimidated with debt and deportation. They do not have legal work visas, transportation, or medical care. Even if they identify themselves as victims of human trafficking and forced labor, it is very unlikely for their situation to improve.
They were promised a job with good pay to support their families back in China. Upon arriving in the host countries, however, Chinese employers confiscated their passports, and told them that if they wanted to leave early, they had to pay a penalty for breach of contract, which is often equivalent to several months’ worth of their salary. Many workers who do not obtain a work visa are afraid of speaking out about the labor rights abuses they suffered. Even workers who obtain a work visa usually cannot change employers freely, and rarely have any rights to organize unions or strikes. Their basic human rights have been severely violated, but because they are abroad, it is difficult to seek protection under Chinese law, and the Chinese companies that force these workers to work often get away with it.
While millions of Chinese citizens with valid passports were stranded overseas at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government introduced the strictest travel restrictions in the world – the so-called “Five-One” policy and the “circuit breaker” mechanism to limit the number of international flights coming into China. Such policies have caused airfares to skyrocket with very limited flights available to China. Overseas Chinese workers in BRI stranded abroad have been suffering from endless lockdowns, job loss, poverty, and little hope of returning home. Many of them cannot pass both the Covid-19 nucleic acid PCR test and Covid-19 IgM antibody test that Chinese government requires. Chinese companies also frequently use the excuse of the lack of new laborers from China to stop them from returning home. In our research, we have found that some workers were permanently disabled from untreated work-related injuries due to restriction of movement and lack of medical care, and many workers suffered disproportionate losses to covid-19 when their workplaces and dormitories became coronavirus hotbeds.
China Labor Watch believes that the Chinese government has an inescapable responsibility for safeguarding the basic rights and interests of these workers. It is inhumane and unacceptable to ignore the tragic situation of these Chinese workers whose passports are seized and forced to stay abroad without the hope of returning home.
We call on the Chinese government to strengthen the protection of Chinese overseas workers’ consulate protection, increase the number of flights back to China from countries and regions where a significant number of Chinese laborers are stranded overseas, and provide charter flights for Chinese laborers. China Labor Watch also advocates for a victim-centered prevention, protection and compensation mechanism for human trafficking victims, including laborers who are forced to work within China and abroad.