Aaron Halegua is a practicing lawyer and consultant, and a research fellow at New York University School of Law’s US-Asia Law Institute. Jerome A. Cohen is faculty director of the US-Asia Law Institute.
World leaders will soon gather in Beijing for the second forum on China’s Belt and Road Initiative — the $1 trillion plan involving China’s bilateral agreements with more than 100 countries to enhance “connectivity” by building infrastructure projects and deepening economic ties. In the run-up to the event, many critics have highlighted the projects’ negative impacts on host countries, such as debt traps, land seizures, corruption and environmental degradation. Some have pointed out the difficulties of establishing fair methods for resolving the many disputes that are arising between China and its new partners. A few have criticized the failure of certain projects to create adequate jobs for locals.
But one group of victims is often overlooked: the Chinese workers dispatched overseas to build these projects. If discussed at all, these migrant workers are generally demonized as the infantry “invading” the host country and “stealing” local jobs. In reality, they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, sometimes even more so than their local co-workers.
The International Labor Organization reports that there are 14.2 million people in forced-labor situations worldwide and that indebted migrant workers are particularly vulnerable. Overseas Chinese workers are no exception.
The recent federal criminal conviction of a Chinese construction firm executive for subjecting workers in New York to forced labor is a case in point. According to trial testimony, prior to leaving China, the workers signed contracts promising to not interact with locals, to not leave their residence without permission and to return to China after completing their multi-year assignment — at which point the bulk of their salary would be paid. Each worker was required to post a security deposit of more than $20,000 to guarantee his compliance. Once in New York, workers’ passports were seized and they were required to work long hours and live in unsafe conditions. Fear of losing their security deposit and not collecting their earned wages essentially handcuffed them from escaping this exploitation.
This case is not unique. Official statistics reported there were nearly 1 million overseas Chinese workers in 2018 (excluding the large number of undocumented Chinese migrants), and researchers studying Chinese projects in places such as Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands have found abhorrent labor conditions for foreign workers.
Incurring significant debts to pay large recruitment fees based on inaccurate job information is quite common. Federal authorities found that each of 2,400 migrant workers hired by Chinese firms to build a casino in Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, paid recruiters, on average, $6,000 in fees, and that they were cheated out of millions of dollars in wages.
In Belarus, hundreds of Chinese workers were unpaid for three months after working “like slaves.” Chinese companies failed to pay proper wages, provide protective equipment and conduct safety training in the Bahamas, Ethiopia and Vietnam, respectively. A Chinese construction worker in Israel recently died on the job. And, for those employees working for smaller Chinese subcontractors, labor conditions can be even worse.
Deep in debt, without passports, and lacking access to transportation and independent advice, Chinese workers are often left to endure these conditions without recourse. Those lacking proper visas are subject to quick deportation and are thus even more vulnerable. Language barriers make effective complaining to the host government difficult, and the Chinese embassy or consulate may be hours away. Those workers who are courageous enough to protest their maltreatment have been beaten by their employers or arrested and deported by local authorities.
So why should China care? Aside from a duty to protect its citizens, these conditions frustrate China’s broader objectives for the Belt and Road Initiative, such as building “win-win” projects, “people-to-people” connections and soft power. If Chinese executives are eventually jailed and projects stalled, companies and lenders will lose money. Employing flocks of often illegal Chinese migrants housed in Chinese enclaves fuels resentment amongst locals, while subjecting its citizens to abusive and unsafe work conditions inevitably hurts China’s image. Rampant immigration and labor violations have already caused officials in some jurisdictions to question lax visa policies that previously welcomed Chinese.
To its credit, China has acknowledged these problems, issuing policies and regulations that prohibit the collection of recruitment fees or security deposits, ban the hiring of workers on tourist visas and instruct companies to safeguard labor rights. But policies and regulatory standards are usually vague and not legally binding, and the legal provisions in place are routinely violated.
China should announce plans to address this issue at this month’s forum. The policies governing overseas conduct by Chinese firms — particularly those regulating subcontracting — should be translated into detailed, binding domestic laws with real penalties that are rigorously enforced. China’s banks should require projects they fund to adhere to and report on fair labor standards and practices. Complaint mechanisms must be established, and workers taught how to access them. Chinese embassies and consulates should assist in monitoring labor conditions. And China should demonstrate its commitment to labor rights by finally ratifying the International Labor Organization’s conventions on forced labor.
If China hopes to persuade host countries that it respects the rights and interests of their citizens, the best place to start is by showing how seriously it takes the welfare of its own.