Workers paying the price for Belt and Road Initiative

In China's official discourse, the Belt and Road Initiative is a mutually beneficial economic project of multilateral cooperation. However, under the glamorous façade to promote economic development, the Belt and Road Initiative has many negative effects on various stakeholders, while corruption scandals have frequently surfaced in recent years. In view of this, we visited Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia last year to investigate the domestic impact of the Belt and Road Initiative in the region. As a result, we found that in addition to the effects on local people's livelihood, Chinese-funded projects also pose various labour rights issues, including suppression of labour unions, lack of skill transfer, unfair treatment, and ethnic conflicts between workers. The economic gains enjoyed by major countries come at the price of labour rights.

The Belt and Road as Neo-colonialism

The claim that the One Belt One Road as "neo-colonialism" was first put forward by the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Bin Mohamad, in 2018. At a joint press conference with Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, Mahathir pointed out that "the emergence of new colonialism has made it difficult for small nations to compete with large nations." Although he did not directly specify China, he later rejected several Chinese-funded projects, including the major "East Coast Link Railway" project. Mahathir’s refusal to buy into China’s masterplan has also made the international community suspicious of the One Belt One Road initiative, and doubts that the Initiative is not welcome by participating countries. The Republican Chief Congressman of the US Foreign Affairs Commission, Michael McCaul, published a research report in mid-September, revealing the negative impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on various participating countries, expounding that China has led them into a debt trap by lending funds and providing technology. Subsequently, their reliance on Chinese funds and technologies would, in return, helps China to consolidate her economic and political status in these countries.

Michael McCaul (Image: Flikr)

Workers poorly treated; Trade union suppressed

In addition to being considered colonialist, during our investigations of participating countries in the Belt and Road Initiative, we also found that Chinese investment has generally failed to improve workers’ livelihood. Workers employed in Chinese-funded projects are often faced with long working hours and low salaries, while the occurrence of wage arrears and occupational health and safety conditions of Chinese companies are more serious than those of other foreign investors. In face of harsh working conditions, workers employed in Chinese-funded projects attempted to organize themselves through industrial actions, but these actions were often suppressed by the management. For instance, in Cambodia, after various workers expressed their intention to organize a trade union to the factory management, the motorcycles of the workers were sabotaged by unknown assailants. The company even dismisses union leaders to undermine organization at the workplace. In addition to capital, governments also act as accomplices to suppress workers struggle in Chinese-funded investments. For example, workers in a Chinese-funded mobile phone manufacturer, OPPO, in India went on strike in 2017, but was subsequently suppressed and arrested by local police.

In Sihanoukville, workers protested against the wage arrear of the Chinese subcontractor.

Unreasonable job arrangements, ethnic conflicts emerge

In addition to poor labour conditions, Chinese overseas projects have also led to ethnic conflicts. The influx of large numbers of Chinese workers into local areas is one of the main causes of such conflicts. For the locals, the importation of Chinese workers has taken away their employment opportunities, coupled with unequal treatment at workplace and cultural differences, augmenting the tensions between local and Chinese workers. For example, workers in Morovali County, Indonesia, protested that the factory ignored their need to pray on Friday; while workers in the Cambodian construction industry faced the teasing of Chinese workers slapping their heads, described as “a manner of greeting in China." These conflicts have occasionally led to physical clashes. Serious violent conflicts have also occurred in Bangladesh and Kenya. The former resulted in the death of a Chinese worker. It is apparent that the influx of Chinese capital in various places have intensified local ethnic conflicts.

Many countries reject the Belt and Road proposal

As mentioned above, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has severely tarnished global economy and also affected the international political landscape. Various countries’ scepticism in China's expansion is becoming more obvious. This year alone, Belt and Road Initiative has met with opposition in various countries: ​​African Tanzanian President Magufuli abolished the Bagamoyo port project that involved a USD 10 billion loan in April, and pointed out the clause “can only be accepted by a drunkard." Tanzania became the first African nation to turn down the Belt and Road Initiative. Entering the second half of 2020, Romania and Estonia have respectively vetoed nuclear power and undersea tunnel projects, indicating that the participating countries of Belt and Road Initiative are gradually aware of China's ambitions.
In the past year, European and American parliaments and governments have significantly strengthened their policy research efforts on China issues. For example, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) was established by members of the 13 countries’ parliaments to monitor the problems brought about by the development of China’s expansion. While during the formation period of the Belt and Road Initiative, many livelihood and labour issues have started to emerge, coupled with growing distrust from foreign governments and protectionism derived from the Covid-19 pandemic, the CCP’s plan to “buy off” allies may now faced with obstacles. Amid rising anti-Chinese sentiment in various countries and resistance in Chinese investments, it is yet to be seen whether the Chinese government will make a next wave of counteroffensives.

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1. Hong Kong Economic Times: Tanzania abolishes the loan agreement on the Belt and Road Initiative with China. President: Only drunks will accept the terms (April 27, 2020)
2. Apple Daily: [One Belt One Road] Romania halts nuclear power projects involving China. Prime Minister: Cannot cooperate with China (June 15, 2020)
3. Hong Kong Economic Times: Another setback for the Belt and Road Initiative? Estonia vetoed China-funded construction of the longest undersea tunnel (August 3, 2020)