Silent Victims of Labor Trafficking: China’s Belt and Road workers stranded overseas amid Covid-19 pandemic

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Left: Workers’ signatures and fingerprints on a group petition letter for returning home

Middle: A worker injured his back at work receiving no medical attention, walking with a bucket to support himself

Right: A worker lost an eye after a work-related accident with no medical treatment


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, Europe, 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.

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.

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.

1. Overview of Labor Trafficking and Forced Labor in China’s Belt and Road Initiative

1.1 Definitions

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that violates the human rights of trafficked persons. The internationally accepted definition of human trafficking refers to the process of placing and maintaining women, children, and men in exploitation. Human trafficking is not just a commercial transaction, but can be divided into three common stages: recruitment, transportation, and exploitation. Human traffickers can use many methods to force or trick victims into being trafficked. Victims may be harbored and moved by public or private means of transportation and are eventually forced into labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, organ harvesting, etc. without the option to “just walk away”.

Human trafficking is a crime that has existed since ancient times. However, it was not until the 19th century that the modern concept of human trafficking began to enter the public dialogue of the international community. In the early 20th century, some countries began to formulate laws and international conventions against human trafficking. In 2000, the current internationally recognized definition of human trafficking was legally broadened in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Globalization has increased the flow of labor and goods across national borders dramatically. Traffickers use fraudulent means to move workers from their country of origin to other countries, directly controlling these workers or putting them under control of an employer, exploiting them and profiting from it. Driven by huge profits, this crime is difficult to eradicate. According to estimates by the International Labor Organization, 25 million people are still trapped in forced labor globally.

According to the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol, it does not matter whether the trafficked persons consent, as long as the process results in deception, fraud, coercion or violence against the trafficked persons for exploitation. Under Article 3, the Protocol defines “trafficking in persons” as:

“[…] the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. Human trafficking may include sex trafficking, forced labor, forced begging, forced marriage, sale of children, and organ trafficking […]”

Although women and children are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, men, especially young and middle-aged low-skill laborers from developing countries living in poverty, still face a high risk of becoming victims of forced labor.

After victims are trafficked to their final destination, the most important feature of forced labor is the use of force or coercion. The International Labor Organization defines forced labor or compulsory labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”

Hence if a person cannot leave nonconsensual work due to punishment or threats of punishment,  they are in forced labor. The punishment here can refer to detention or physical punishment, or other forms of threat or abuse that can effectively prevent workers from leaving, such as detaining workers’ passport or other identity documents to prevent them from moving freely, failing to pay workers’ wages, threatening to report workers to immigration agencies for deportation, etc.

1.2 The Belt and Road Initiative and violation of Chinese overseas workers’ rights

Although Chinese media and scholars have long been concerned about protecting the rights of Chinese overseas migrant workers, some Chinese overseas workers have faced persistent problems such as passport confiscation, debt bondage, restrictions on freedom of movement and wage theft. These are all strong forced labor risk indicators, and our researchers found out that workers usually contacted Chinese embassy and consulates in the host country when they encountered labor violations, but the Chinese embassy and consulates, while knowing these issues, do not have the corresponding staff and funding to monitor and pursue these violations of overseas workers’ fundamental interests and rights.

In 2013, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative as a geopolitical and geoeconomic remapping. The ‘Belt’ refers to a land corridor that runs through China, passing through Central Asia and extending to Eastern Europe. The ‘Road’ refers to a maritime network between ports in China, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This ambitious plan proposed by China for global development has now covered more than two-thirds of the world’s countries, mainly developing countries in geopolitically sensitive regions. China intends to consolidate Beijing’s global influence through large-scale infrastructure construction, energy and natural resource development, transportation, industrial construction, investment and other trade activities in these countries.

While using China’s wealth and technology to create new markets for Chinese companies, the BRI has also exported China’s economic development model of exploiting its own workers at the bottom of society. Many Chinese workers working on BRI projects are forced to live in isolation with passports detained by their employer, 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 them to get out of the plight. In particular, many countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, where many emerging projects of the BRI are located, do not have comprehensive anti-trafficking laws and policies due to historical, cultural, and colonial factors. The host countries often lack an effective criminal justice system preventing human trafficking and forced labor crimes. Resources are also insufficient to provide victims with personal safety protection, legal assistance, temporary shelters and medical services.

At the same time, China lacks specific legislation to protect Chinese laborers abroad. China’s Labor Law and Labor Contract Law have no effect abroad, so it is difficult to protect workers overseas. After the reform of Chinese government institutions in 2008, the government function protecting the rights and interests of overseas workers was transferred from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security to the Ministry of Commerce, but the main responsibility of the Ministry of Commerce is about economy and trade, not labor protection. China does not have a government agency specifically dedicated to the protection and management of overseas workers’ protection, and Chinese embassies and consulates have not set up an agency specifically responsible for overseas labor affairs.

China lacks sufficient and effective data on human trafficking. Also, according to the 1997 Criminal Law, only women and children can be legally recognized as trafficking victims. The abduction of adult men and their exploitation does not constitute the crime of human trafficking. As a result, China’s Criminal Law only convicts and punishes those who traffic adult men into forced labor if the victims are found with intentional injury or in illegal detention. However, without the intervention of criminal law enforcement officials in China and the country where the labor is located, it is nearly impossible for Chinese overseas workers to collect evidence and file lawsuits. We found that if workers are found trying to collect evidence such as photos and videos, or even talk to other workers about labor rights violations, they will be warned by their employers.

These factors mean that the rights and interests of Chinese adult male workers – who may have been trafficked to work in countries where the BRI projects are located – cannot be effectively protected. Usually neither the host country nor China (the country of origin) has a strong enough criminal justice system to investigate, prosecute and convict the perpetrators. Furthermore, there is no victim-centered prevention, protection, or compensation mechanism.

In order to understand the real living and working conditions of Chinese overseas workers and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on them, China Labor Watch has conducted this research project. We found that with China’s economy increasingly under pressure, the slowing down of the construction sector and fewer jobs being available near home, many Chinese workers from poor rural areas hope to find higher-paying jobs overseas to support their families. However, they often find themselves stuck in the ongoing exploitation by recruiters, subcontractors, and employers both in China and the host countries. Almost all overseas workers are compelled to pay large recruitment fees or security deposits, and forced to sign illegal contracts restricting their rights. Because they are often put on tourist visas and face the threat of deportation or losing their jobs by their employers, 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. When these workers who traveled tens of thousands miles away from home to work in a foreign land encounter abuses such as withholding wages, detaining passports, forced overtime work, and limiting access to healthcare, their ability to look for social protection and fight for their rights are severely constrained. Additionally, China’s strict air travel restrictions and the skyrocketing flight prices during the pandemic have made the journey home for these overseas workers extremely difficult.

Article 12, paragraph 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) signed by the Chinese government in 1998 states that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” But when 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. Many overseas Chinese workers are stranded abroad, especially in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and have been suffering from endless lockdowns, job loss, poverty, and little hope of returning home. In recent months, articles, photos, and comments on Chinese social media (such as WeChat) sharing the plight of overseas Chinese workers are often quickly censored, leading the outside world to have little understanding of their dire situation.

1.3 Methodology

China Labor Watch carried out research for this report between August 2020 and April 2021. The data in this report are mainly derived from nearly 100 Chinese workers in 8 BRI countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africaother online citizen reporters and Chinese volunteers in host countries who are concerned about the rights of Chinese workers abroad.

We conducted in-depth interviews via instant messaging softwares, phone calls and emails with 22 Chinese workers who worked or currently work on various BRI projects located in Indonesia, Algeria, Singapore, Jordan, Pakistan, Serbia and other countries, and found that the following infringements are widespread: passport detention, restrictions on freedom of movement, excessive overtime, no holidays, unpaid wages, workers being forced to work with illegal visas, deceptive recruitment and false promises, isolation from the local community, intimidation and threats, high penalties if workers want to leave their jobs early, lack of 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 lead protests.

We analyzed documents including labor contracts, workers’ complaints, collective petitions, personal letters calling for help, internal corporate documents, statements from Chinese embassies and consulates, and work records of volunteer groups. We also analyzed media news reports, academic articles, international law and Chinese laws and policies, and China’s state reports on Chinese overseas workers.

We used the snowball sampling method to find most of our interviewees. This method is especially suitable for those who are difficult to reach. In order to protect the privacy of participants, we have replaced the interviewees’ names with numbers and concealed their identifiable information. Almost all interviewees were fearful of complaining about their situation because they were concerned about reprisals from their employers, such as being turned over to local authorities for jail time or deportation, physical and mental abuses, wage deductions, fines, or not being permitted to go home.

1.4 Forced labor

ILO indicators of forced labor

What China Labor Watch found 


Abuse of vulnerability

Among the workers we interviewed, the least educated ones had only elementary school education. These workers had difficulty writing and did not know how to defend their rights when abused. They did not understand the language of the host country or English, could not communicate or seek help, and were not permitted to leave the work site. These workers were mainly employed by labor supply agencies or subcontractors and relied entirely on the employer to provide accommodation and meals. When the employer told them that due to the high price of air tickets, they were not allowed to return to China, they had no other choice than to stay and continue working.

#1 – #22


Almost all of the workers we interviewed were deceptively recruited from China to work abroad. For example, the wages and labor protection equipment promised by employers were not fulfilled. Labor supply agencies would also promise to apply for legal work visas for the workers, but only when the workers arrived, they realized that they were put on tourist or business visas that made them illegally employed. However, they were too afraid to ask the local police for help due to concerns of being deported.

When a worker’s labor contract is up – if there is one – the short-term tourist or business visa would have already expired, so the worker often needs to pay a customs fine before they are permitted to leave the country.

#1 – #22

Restriction of movement

The workers we interviewed in Singapore were all arranged to live in group dormitories where the BRI infrastructure projects are located. Gates of the work site were guarded by security guards. Workers were not allowed to go out without the permission and escort of management and translators. 

#1,  #2, #7, #10 & #15 -#20


Many of the BRI projects are located in remote areas or in newly-built industrial parks owned or occupied by Chinese companies. Besides, workers have to work long hours without holidays. Their days are spent between dormitories and construction sites. Most workers use WeChat on mobile phones to stay in touch with their families. Otherwise, there is no opportunity to contact the outside world. 

#1 – #22

Physical violence

We have found that in some Chinese steel and mining companies, workers are frequently detained and beaten by the company’s security guards due to disobedience, attempting to strike, or other disputes with management. In a WeChat group of Chinese steel workers in Indonesia, someone posted a video of a worker being repeatedly reprimanded and slapped until the uniform was covered with blood from his nose. Then other members of the group commented that a factory’s translator was the one who beat them. 

#15, #17 & #18

Intimidation and threats

Intimidation and threats are common for controlling Chinese workers in forced labor at some BRI projects. The most commonly used threats include deportation, reprisal after returning home, high fines and penalties. It is also common to force workers to sign a waiver of rights to sue the employer and to force workers to delete evidence of labor rights violations on their phones. In a WeChat group of a large Chinese steel company in Indonesia, after a worker fell from height while working, another worker in the group asked, “Did someone fall during the installation of steel structures today? How is he?” A manager from the company immediately tagged him in the WeChat group and questioned which subcontractor he belonged to, trying to identify the potential troublemaker.

#17 & #18

Retention of identity documents

The passports of all the workers we interviewed were confiscated while working abroad. Generally, upon arrival at the work destination, their passports were taken away right after getting off the plane. Sometimes when a worker desperately wanted to return to China in an emergency, such as the death of their family members or personal injuries, it was not an option because they were not in possession of their passports.

#1 – #22

Withholding of wages

Most workers interviewed by China Labor Watch said they had problems receiving salaries from their employers. There are consistent late payments of salaries and unexplained deductions.

A worker who went to Jordan worked in the desert for five months but only received his salary for the first six days. In Algeria, when an installation project of a subcontracting company was close to completion in 2019, two workers were left behind for maintenance and installation. They could not refuse the arrangement because their employer threatened them with six months of salary that had not yet been paid. They did not get paid until October 2020 due to the resignation of the former manager, which is equivalent to 16 months of wages in arrears, and the workers had to borrow money for food. 

The better situation among the workers we interviewed was when the wages were paid two months after being delayed, that is, in the first two months of work, they were only provided with food and dormitory, and the first month’s salary was paid in the third month. The worse situation would be when the salary was paid once every six months or more, not in full, sometimes only in half.

#2, #7, #9, #10, #16, #20 & #21 

Debt bondage

We found that in addition to paying a recruitment fee ranging from thousands to tens of thousands yuan (approximately US$155-1,550+), Chinese workers who go abroad for work are also told by their employers that they must repay a debt if they decide to return to China once they arrive abroad (employers usually call it a penalty). If a worker is unable to repay the debt, he will not be allowed to return to China, and must work for the employer for a few months without compensation. A worker who used to work in Algeria but is now in Angola said that he was forced to pay a penalty of 17,000 yuan (approximately US$2,630) before being permitted to leave Algeria. 

Another worker who has already returned to China said that he was forced to work in Algeria for five months. He should have earned a total salary of more than 26,000 yuan (approximately US$4,030), but after the employer deducted the penalty for his early return to China, he only got 1,800 yuan (approximately US$280).

Another worker who returned from Saudi Arabia said that he was forced to work for six months without receiving a penny. This kind of penalty for early return is a debt trap set by employers and the amount is usually between five and six months of a worker’s wage. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the price of air tickets from most countries where the BRI projects are located to China has increased up to ten times, and is even higher when some flights are suspended with only charter flights available. Many employers refused to pay for the promised round-trip international air tickets for workers, imposing an extra debt as high as 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (approximately US$3,100 to US$4,650) on workers. If workers cannot bear the debt, they cannot return to China and are forced to continue working abroad.

#1, #16, #19 & #20

Abusive working and living conditions

The workers we interviewed reported that there was often little labor protection on work sites and the safety was also very poor. One worker we contacted was paralyzed after he was hit on the waist by a hammer that fell from a height. Another worker’s eye was injured due to the lack of proper protective equipment, and another worker was injured after falling on the construction site. After some workers were injured at work, they could not get treatment in time due to poor medical services at the project site. Some workers asked to return to China for treatment and were not allowed. As a result, untreated work injuries gradually worsened and even caused permanent disability. 

In November 2020, a worker at Tsingshan Steel’s plant in Indonesia’s Weda Bay Industrial Park was killed by a ladle truck at work. In a video provided by a coworker, the on-site management staff can be heard calling the video shooter to stop immediately and leave the scene.

#6, #11, #12, #16 & #17

Excessive overtime

The workers we interviewed reported that their employers used various excuses to extend their working hours. The worst case is 12 hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, with no off days. The promise of working hours was completely different. In addition to excessive working hours, there is also an issue of forced extension of the contract. During the pandemic, many workers’ labor contracts expired, but their employers told them that due to the pandemic, replacement workers from China would not be able to arrive in time, hence they must continue to work and cannot return to China.

#8, #9, 10, #16, #20 & #21








































#1 – #22




#1 – #22



#1 – #2、#7 – #10、#15 – #20



#1 – #22













#2、#7、#9、#10、#16、#20 & #21














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