Interview: Chinese workers held by armed guard, denied wages, forced into overtime

By Kai Di for RFA Mandarin
Interview: Chinese workers held by armed guard, denied wages, forced into overtime Zhang Qiang has been working as a courier since being deported back to China.
Zhang Qiang

In 2021, Chinese migrant worker Zhang Qiang signed on to a Belt and Road project in Indonesia, drawn by what he believed would be higher wages than he could make at home. 

Happily married for nine years, with two daughters, Zhang promised his youngest that he would buy her a princess-style bed for her bedroom with the extra money, then left his hometown of Anyang city, in the central province of Henan to take the job.

“At that time, I had just put a down payment on a home in China, and taken out a mortgage,” Zhang, 32, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), an online news service affiliated with BenarNews. “My youngest told me when we were settled in the new place that she wanted a princess bed.”

“I told her ‘yes’. I said I would definitely get her one when I have earned this money overseas,” he said.

“[I told her] I was introduced by a friend, and was going to Indonesia to work for six months at 500 yuan (U.S. $72) a day. That after working... I can come back to China.”

Zhang signed up for the job with Rongcheng Environmental Protection, alongside more than 20 other workers recruited at the same time, but the company said the contract-signing would have to wait, citing COVID-19 restrictions in Nanjing at the time, and the lack of access to a printer.

“They found an excuse after I got to Nanjing for why we couldn’t sign the contract ... then, after a week of quarantine, we flew out to Indonesia,” he said.

The reality was far from what he had been promised.

On arrival in Indonesia, Zhang’s passport was taken from him, and he was pressured to sign a contract for lower wages than advertised, locking him in for a longer period than had been promised.

“As soon as we got off the plane, they arranged for us to take a COVID-19 test, and then they had us throw our passports into a box,” Zhang said.

Zhang’s group was taken to work on the Delong Industrial Park project in Sulawesi, part of a Chinese-invested nickel-mining project under the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

“They had told us before we left that we’d be working nine hours a day,” he said. “Once we got there, that became nine-and-a-half hours, as well as overtime in the evenings.”

“They would dock your wages if you refused to do overtime.”

Once inside the migrant workers’ camp, Zhang also found that escape was no easy matter, as the place was patrolled by armed guards.

“You basically couldn’t leave the site, and they had security guards with guns guarding it,” Zhang said. “There were people with guns at the dormitory area too.”

There were other changes made to the terms of the contract, too.

“They said it would be for six months, but the boss told us we wouldn’t be going home in six months,” he said. “Before we left, they told us we’d have to leave a month’s wages as a deposit, and that the rest of our wages would be paid monthly, as normal.”

“Once we got there, they didn’t give us any money in the first month, and after that, they just handed out 10,000 yuan (U.S. $1,450) for living expenses,” Zhang said. “The rest of our wages would have to wait until several months after we’d gone home.”

Two undated photos show the conditions workers faced at the Delong Industrial Park project in Sulawesi, Indonesia. [Zhang Qiang]

Brutal work conditions

Once work was under way, Zhang and the other workers were denied breaks and forced to work nonstop in high temperatures doing physically grueling labor. Stopping for a rest or a cigarette would also result in docked wages. They started to hear reports of frequent worker suicides at the site.

In desperation, Zhang and some of the relatives of other workers at the site appealed to the Chinese embassy in Jakarta for help. But the call only resulted in a backlash for the workers from their gang boss.

“The lower-ranking boss [Lu Jun] came to us and said ... have you been watching too many movies? Trying to complain isn’t going to work here,” Zhang said.

When the contracts finally appeared, they stipulated monthly living expenses of 1,000 yuan (U.S. $145), with the full wages only paid six months after the workers’ return to China.

“It was one of those overlord contracts, so we didn’t sign it,” Zhang said.

The workers insisted on going back to China, whereupon they were told that they would have to stump up 75,000 yuan (U.S. $10,830) each. After a period of stalemate, even that offer was withdrawn.

When asked to comment by RFA, Lu Jun said the workers were in breach of contract.

“Originally the deal was that they would work for a year, but two months after they got here, they said they wanted to go back to China,” Lu said. “They would have to pay the cost of that themselves.”

“So then five of them ran away before they’d paid what they owed me.”

But the five workers weren’t out of the woods yet. They managed to find another gang boss, Liu Peiming, and paid him 250,000 yuan (U.S. $36,100) after he said he would have them home within a week.

But he secretly arranged to have them sent to Phase II of the Delong project instead.

“We kept telling them that we wanted to go home, but he didn’t care anymore, and just said there was no way we were getting home for 50,000 yuan (U.S. $7,220) [apiece], and that he’d need another 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (U.S. $2,890 to $4,330),” Zhang said.

Eventually, Zhang and his colleagues got the story out via the media, and higher-ups and Delong got involved.

“We have said they should first refund the 250,000 yuan to us and give us back our passports, because this is illegal detention,” Zhang said.

Liu eventually did return the money, but Delong still has their passports.

Repeated attempts to contact Liu Peiming’s assistant and Delong for comment had resulted in no reply at the time of writing.

Undated photos show the conditions workers faced at the Delong Industrial Park project in Sulawesi, Indonesia. [Zhang Qiang]

Smuggled to Malaysia

Eventually, the group fell in with the proprietor of the Peony Hotel near Phase II, who promised to smuggle them into Malaysia, for which they had to pay 13,000 yuan (U.S. $1,875) each.

“We had to take an eight- or nine-meter (26- or 29-foot) speedboat used for fishing and make a two-hour crossing at sea, making us jump down when the water was shallow enough to stand in,” Zhang said. “As soon as we reached the Malaysian border, the coastguard caught us.”

The Peony Hotel’s proprietor denied taking money from the group when contacted by RFA.

“I recommended an interpreter who could arrange for people to go that route, and put them in touch so they could sort it out between them,” she said. “I also recommended someone in Jakarta who could change their money.”

“Don’t come asking me about it; I never made money out of it.”

Zhang and his four companions eventually made it home to Henan in February 2022 after being deported by the Malaysian authorities.

They are now heavily in debt, leaving them with no choice but to get straight back to work again.

“I wanted to sue them, but there were various debts hanging over me when I got back, so I went back to work,” Zhang said. “Life is so stressful.”

He now works as a courier, and feels he had a relatively lucky escape.

“These sites are completely closed off ... which puts you under a very intense kind of psychological pressure,” Zhang said. “Two people committed suicide during our two months at Phase III, and I read about several more online after I got home, too.”

Since 2010, an estimated 10 million Chinese nationals have taken jobs overseas, with 570,000 believed to still be working overseas as of the end of May 2022, according to the New York-based rights group China Labor Watch.

Many travel on tourist or business visas and work without a contract, however, meaning that the true figure may be far higher. Even where contracts do exist, breaches of their terms are very common, the group said.


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