Happily married for nine years, with two daughters, Zhang promised his youngest that he would buy her a princess-style bed for his room with the extra money, then left his hometown of Anyang City, the central province of Henan, to take the job. .
“At that time, I had just put a down payment on a house in China and taken out a mortgage,” Zhang, 32, told RFA. “My youngest told me that when we moved into the new place, she wanted a princess bed.”
“I told him yes. I said I would definitely get him one when I made that 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 (72 US dollars) a day. After working on that… I can come back to China.”
Zhang applied for the job at Rongcheng Environmental Protection, alongside more than 20 other workers recruited at the same time, but the company said signing the contract would have to wait, citing COVID-19 restrictions in Nanjing at the time. era, and the lack of access to a printer.
“They came up with an excuse after I arrived in Nanjing why we couldn’t sign the contract…then, after a week of quarantine, we flew to Indonesia,” he said.
The reality was far from what he had been promised.
Upon arrival in Indonesia, Zhang’s passport was taken from him and he was forced to sign a contract for less than advertised salary, locking him in longer than expected.
“As soon as we got off the plane, they arranged for us to take a COVID-19 test, then they made us throw our passports in a box,” Zhang said.
Zhang’s group was brought in to work on the Delong Industrial Park project in Sulawesi, which is part of a Chinese-invested nickel mining project under the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
“They told us before we left that we would work nine hours a day,” he said. “Once there, it became nine-thirty, plus overtime in the evenings.”
“They would block your salary if you refused to work overtime.”
Once inside the migrant worker camp, Zhang also found that escaping was not easy, as the place was patrolled by armed guards.
“You basically couldn’t leave the site, and they had armed security guards guarding it,” Zhang said. “There were also people with guns in the dormitory area.”
Other “changes” were also made to the terms of the contract.
“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 leaving, they told us that we had to leave one month’s salary as a deposit and the rest of our salary would be paid monthly, as usual.”
“Once we got there, they didn’t give us any money for the first month, and after that they just distributed 10,000 yuan ($1,450) for living expenses,” Zhang said. “The rest of our salary would have to wait several months after we return home.”
Brutal working conditions
Once work started, Zhang and the other workers were denied breaks and were forced to work non-stop at high temperatures doing physically exhausting labor. Stopping to rest or smoke a cigarette would also lead to lower wages. They began to hear reports of frequent worker suicides at the site.
In desperation, Zhang and some of the relatives of other site workers appealed to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta for help. But the call brought only backlash for the workers from their gang leader.
“The Lower Rank Boss [Lu Jun] came to us and said…did you watch too many movies? Trying to complain won’t work here,” Zhang said.
When the contracts finally emerged, they stipulated monthly living expenses of 1,000 yuan (US$145), with full wages not being paid until six months after the workers returned to China.
“It was one of those overlord contracts, so we didn’t sign it,” Zhang said.
The workers insisted on returning to China, after which they were told they would have to pay 75,000 yuan ($10,830) each. After a period of deadlock, even that offer was withdrawn.
Asked by RFA, Lu Jun said the workers were in breach of contract.
“Initially the agreement was that they would work for a year, but two months after their arrival they said they wanted to go back to China,” Lu said. “They would have to pay the cost themselves. “
“So five of them ran away before they paid what they owed me.”
But the five workers were not yet off the hook. They managed to find another gang leader, Liu Peiming, and paid him 250,000 yuan (US$36,100) after he said he would take them home within a week.
But he secretly arranged for them to be sent to Project Delong Phase II instead.
“We kept telling them that we wanted to go home, but he didn’t care and just said it was impossible for us to go home for 50,000 yuan ($7,220). [apiece]and that he would need another 20,000 to 30,000 yuan ($2,890 to $4,330),” Zhang said.
Eventually, Zhang and his colleagues spread the story through the media, and senior brass and Delong got involved.
“We said they should first refund us the 250,000 yuan and return our passports, because this is illegal detention,” Zhang said.
Liu eventually returned the money, but Delong still has his passports.
Repeated attempts to contact Liu Peiming and Delong’s assistant for comment had yielded no response at the time of writing.
Smuggled to Malaysia
Eventually, the group met the owner of the Peony Hotel near Phase II, who promised to smuggle them into Malaysia, for which they had to pay 13,000 yuan (US$1,875) each.
“We had to take an eight or nine meter (26 or 29ft) speedboat used for fishing and make a two-hour sea crossing, blowing us up when the water was shallow enough to hold us upright. “, said Zhang. said. “As soon as we reached the Malaysian border, the coast guard caught us.”
The owner of the Peony Hotel denied taking money from the group when contacted by RFA.
“I recommended an interpreter who could get people to go down that route and put them in touch so they could work it out among themselves,” she said. “I also recommended someone in Jakarta who could change their money.”
“Don’t come and ask me about it, I never made any money from it.”
Zhang and his four companions finally returned to Henan in February 2022 after being deported by Malaysian authorities.
They are now heavily in debt, leaving him with no choice but to get back to work.
“I wanted to sue them, but there were various debts weighing on me when I got back, so I went back to work,” he said. “Life is so stressful.”
Zhang now works as a courier and feels he had a relatively lucky escape.
“These sites are completely shut down…which puts you under very intense psychological pressure,” Zhang said. “Two people committed suicide during our two months in Phase III, and I read about several more online after I got home as well.”
Since 2010, an estimated 10 million Chinese nationals have found jobs overseas, with 570,000 still working overseas at the end of May 2022, according to New York-based advocacy group China Labor Watch. .
Many travel or tourist or business visas and work without a contract, however, which means the actual figure can be much higher. Even where contracts exist, breaches of their terms are very common, the group said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.