|As China Exports Labor, a Backlash Grows [NYT]
By EDWARD WONG
TRUNG SON, Vietnam — It seemed as if this village in northern Vietnam had struck gold when a Chinese and a Japanese company arrived to jointly build a coal-fired power plant. Thousands of jobs would start flowing in, or so the residents hoped.
Four years later, the Haiphong Thermal Power Plant is nearing completion. But only a few hundred Vietnamese ever got jobs. Most of the workers were Chinese, about 1,500 at the peak. Hundreds of them are still here, toiling by day on the dusty construction site and cloistered at night in dingy dormitories.
“The Chinese workers overwhelm the Vietnamese workers here,” said Nguyen Thai Bang, 29, a Vietnamese electrician.
China, famous for its export of cheap goods, is increasingly known for shipping out cheap labor. These global migrants often work in factories or on Chinese-run construction and engineering projects, though the range of jobs is astonishing: from planting flowers in the Netherlands to doing secretarial tasks in Singapore to herding cows in Mongolia — even delivering newspapers in the Middle East.
But a backlash against them has grown. Across Asia and Africa, episodes of protest and violence against Chinese workers have flared. Vietnam and India are among the nations that have moved to impose new labor rules for foreign companies and restrict the number of Chinese workers allowed to enter, straining relations with Beijing.
In Vietnam, dissidents and intellectuals are using the issue of Chinese labor to challenge the ruling Communist Party. A lawyer sued Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung over his approval of a Chinese bauxite mining project, and the National Assembly is questioning top officials over Chinese contracts, unusual moves in this authoritarian state.
Chinese workers continue to follow China’s state-owned construction companies as they win bids abroad to build power plants, factories, railroads, highways, subway lines and stadiums. From January to October 2009, Chinese companies completed $58 billion of projects, a 33 percent increase over the same period in 2008, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
From Angola to Uzbekistan, Iran to Indonesia, some 740,000 Chinese workers were abroad at the end of 2008, with 58 percent sent out last year alone, the Commerce Ministry said. The number going abroad this year is on track to roughly match that rate. The workers are hired in China, either directly by Chinese enterprises or by Chinese labor agencies that place the workers; there are 500 operational licensed agencies and many illegal ones.
Chinese executives say that Chinese workers are not always less expensive, but that they tend to be more skilled and easier to manage than local workers. “Whether you’re talking about the social benefits or economic benefits to the countries receiving the workers, the countries have had very good things to say about the Chinese workers and their skills,” said Diao Chunhe, director of the China International Contractors Association, a government organization in Beijing.
But in some countries, local residents accuse the Chinese of stealing jobs, staying on illegally and isolating themselves by building bubble worlds that replicate life in China.
“There are entire Chinese villages now,” said Pham Chi Lan, former executive vice president of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We’ve never seen such a practice on projects done by companies from other countries.”
At this construction site northeast of the port city of Haiphong, an entire Chinese world has sprung up: four walled dormitory compounds, restaurants with Chinese signs advertising dumplings and fried rice, currency exchanges, so-called massage parlors — even a sign on the site itself that says “Guangxi Road,” referring to the province that most of the workers call home.
One night, eight workers in blue uniforms sat in a cramped restaurant that had been opened by a man from Guangxi at the request of the project’s main subcontractor, Guangxi Power Construction Co. Their faces were flushed from drinking Chinese rice wine. “I was sent here, and I’m fulfilling my patriotic duty,” said Lin Dengji, 52.
Such scenes can set off anxieties in Vietnam, which prides itself on resisting Chinese domination, starting with its break from Chinese rule in the 10th century. The countries fought a border war in 1979 and are still engaged in a sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea.
Vietnamese are all too aware of the economic juggernaut to their north. Vietnam had a $10 billion trade deficit with China last year. In July, a senior official in Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security said that 35,000 Chinese workers were in Vietnam, according to Tuoi Tre, a progressive newspaper. The announcement shocked many Vietnamese.
“The Chinese economic presence in Vietnam is deeper, more far-reaching and progressing faster than people realize,” said Le Dang Doanh, an economist in Hanoi who advised the preceding prime minister.
Conflict has broken out between Vietnamese and Chinese laborers. In Thanh Hoa Province in June, a drunk Chinese worker from a cement plant traded blows with the husband of a Vietnamese shopkeeper. The Chinese man then returned with 200 co-workers, igniting a brawl, according to Vietnamese news reports.
One reason for the tensions, economists say, is that there are plenty of unemployed or underemployed people in this country of 87 million. Vietnam itself exports cheap labor; a half-million Vietnamese are working abroad, according to a newspaper published by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.
Populist anger erupted this year over a contract given by the Vietnamese government to the Aluminum Corporation of China to mine bauxite, one of Vietnam’s most valuable natural resources, using Chinese workers. Dissidents, intellectuals and environmental advocates protested. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the 98-year-old retired military leader, wrote three open letters criticizing the Chinese presence to Vietnamese party leaders.
No other government in the world so closely resembles that of China as Vietnam’s, from the structure of the Communist Party to economic policies and media controls. Vietnamese leaders make great efforts to ensure that China-Vietnam relations appear smooth. So over the summer, the central government shut down critical blogs, detained dissidents and ordered Vietnamese newspapers to cease reporting on Chinese labor and the bauxite issue.
But in a nod to public pressure, the government also tightened visa and work permit requirements for Chinese and deported 182 Chinese laborers from a cement plant in June, saying they were working illegally.
Vietnam generally bans the import of unskilled workers from abroad and requires foreign contractors to hire its citizens to do civil works, though that rule is sometimes violated by Chinese companies — bribes can persuade officials to look the other way, Chinese executives say.
At the Haiphong power plant, the Vietnamese company that owns the project grew anxious this year about the slow pace of work. It sided with the Chinese managers in pushing government officials to allow the import of more unskilled workers.
The Chinese here are sequestered in ramshackle dorm rooms and segregated by profession: welders and electricians and crane operators.
A poem written on a wooden door testifies to the rootless nature of their lives: “We’re all people floating around in the world. We meet each other, but we never really get to know each other.”