MADE IN CHINA - S'pore woes start at home
21 February 2011
By Sim Chi Yin, For The Straits Times
While China has been the world's factory for some years now , it is also fast becoming a big exporter of cheap labour. By 2009, there were almost 800,000 Chinese workers in more than 190 countries
BEIJING/SINGAPORE: When welder Zhu Baonian packed his bags and boarded a plane for the very first time, he dreamt of earning three times more in pay when he got to Singapore.
But the 31-year-old got a reality check almost as soon as he landed in the 'garden city' he had heard so many good things about: The construction job was not what he had signed up for, he would get less than the $1,700 monthly pay his Chinese labour agent had promised, and he had to surrender all but $200 of his salary for the first three months as a 'security deposit'.
While many Chinese workers go home with plump savings and pleasant experiences after working in Singapore, others face a range of problems, say two new research reports.
One distinctive feature about the Chinese workers is that quite often, they are employed by China-owned companies.
As Chinese companies, some of them state-owned, spread their wings through South-east Asia and Africa, they take armies of workers from China, in the process exporting labour practices which flout local and international labour standards, say the reports.
'Some of the practices China companies use here actually contravene Singapore's regulations,' said Mr Jolovan Wham, executive director of the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) in Singapore, author of one of the reports based on the group's work with about 400 Chinese workers last year.
His paper and the one by the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental group which helps mainland Chinese workers, are among the first in-depth studies on the growing ranks of Chinese workers in Singapore.
Mr Zhu's woes are typical of what Mr Wham has found and terms 'rampant' abuses: salaries and jobs different from those promised; 24-hour shifts; unauthorised salary deductions and 'miscellaneous' payments; and poor accommodation.
While many of these problems are not uncommon to work permit holders of other nationalities in Singapore, the two studies - done through interviews with workers, labour experts and union leaders - highlight at least two features peculiar to Chinese workers.
They are often brought in by China-owned companies, and typically, the workers are made to put down a 'guarantee deposit' - baozhangjing in Chinese - with the China agents.
'This could be as much as 10,000 yuan (S$1,900) - over and above the 15,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan they pay in agents' fees to come to Singapore - and is meant to ensure that workers 'behave' and don't terminate their contracts prematurely,' Mr Wham said.
As both reports note, many of the workers arrive in Singapore with only verbal agreements about their work and wages. Those who signed work contracts did so hastily at the airport just before boarding their flights from China, and the contracts are full of terms and clauses which do not comply with Singapore's labour regulations.
'The contracts that the China workers sign are among the worst I have ever seen in my almost seven years working with migrant workers of all stripes in Singapore,' said Mr Wham.
The Chinese workers often sign contracts which threaten the 'cessation of work' as punishment, warn workers not to lodge complaints at Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM) or state a complicated wage calculation method with unspecified deductions.
Another common practice among the Chinese companies: withholding the workers' salary for the first three months as a 'deposit'.
The MOM did not yet have a response to the two reports but a spokesman told The Straits Times: 'Statutory benefits such as sick and annual leave, public holiday entitlements and overtime payment should be provided. And where contracts - regardless of whether they are signed Singapore or outside - provide less favourable terms, the terms are null and void.'
Workers who find themselves at the short end of the stick can seek redress through the MOM, and employers who flout Singapore's laws are liable to be prosecuted, he said.
Overall, the number of Chinese workers who have sought help from the MOM for problems with their employers has fallen over the past three years, said the spokesman.
While there were around 1,500 cases filed by Chinese workers in both 2008 and 2009 - as the economic downturn hit - there were 978 cases last year as the economy picked up. About 60 per cent of those claims were over salary arrears, while another 12 per cent had to do with non-payment or short-payment of overtime pay, the MOM said.
No data is available on what percentage of Chinese workers in Singapore work for China-owned companies.
The MOM has boosted efforts to inform foreign workers about their rights, providing them with Chinese-language materials.
Still, when something goes awry, workers like Mr Zhu often find themselves clutching the bits of paper they signed before leaving China.
Indeed, many of the problems Chinese workers face in the Republic start at home, according to economist Lin Mei, who did research in Singapore for three months in 2008, gaining access to files and data on labourers at the Chinese embassy.
'The recruiting process here is messy, with many illegal labour agents and different government agencies overseeing the export of labourers. By the time the workers get to Singapore, they face a complicated chain of problems,' said Associate Professor Lin, who is deputy director of Xiamen University's School of South-east Asian Studies.
China has about 600 labour agencies that send workers overseas licensed by the Ministry of Commerce. They have to meet strict criteria like having five million yuan in capital and trained staff.
'All those are administrative requirements,' said Prof Lin. 'In practice, there are many illegal agents.'
Acknowledging the problem, China's foreign and commerce ministries ordered a crackdown on so-called 'black labour export agencies' last August.
As for Chinese workers already in Singapore, the fact that they are hired by state-owned construction firms with huge projects in the Republic does not offer them more protection as one might expect, said Prof Lin.
'In theory, they will have more protection but whether state-owned or private, the companies are still out to make a profit, so that still factors into how they deal with their workers,' she said.
With the Chinese government promoting work overseas as a means to ease domestic unemployment, a growing number of Chinese - particularly from the coastal areas - have set sail.
While China has been the world's factory for some years now, it is also fast becoming a big exporter of cheap labour. The number of Chinese workers employed abroad has grown steadily over the last two decades.
By 2009, there were almost 800,000 Chinese workers in more than 190 countries, remitting more than US$4 billion (S$5 billion) back to China, according to the China Labour Bulletin.
Stories of Chinese workers going on strike in Tanzania or camping outside Chinese embassies or government ministries in Romania and Singapore have appeared in the local press.
Singapore has had mainland Chinese workers since the 1980s, with the numbers increasing steadily over the years.
It is the second-most popular destination for Chinese workers, trailing just Japan in terms of value of work contracts signed, said the China Labour Bulletin, citing official Chinese data.
Singapore's Manpower Ministry does not reveal foreign worker statistics by nationality.
There are about 200,000 Chinese workers in Singapore, said Prof Lin, who reckons it is a 'conservative' estimate.
Most Chinese workers in Singapore hail from Shandong, Jiangsu and China's three north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning all of which have labour surpluses and have promoted labour export aggressively, said the China Labour Bulletin.
Ms Li Yu, a recruitment agent in Beijing, said: 'Many Chinese workers like to go to Singapore. It's Asian, they feel more at home and they can speak Mandarin there. Also, workers feel safer there because it has strict laws.'
That is what Mr Zhu, who is from eastern Jiangsu province, is banking on now. His hopes of growing a nest egg for his family of seven were crushed when he was hit by a 100kg metal beam at a worksite last April - just one month into his new job.
He has been waiting for his compensation since. He said: 'I can only get a lawyer's help to take on my employer to try to get some compensation and some of the 30,000 yuan I paid my agent to come here.'
He is getting legal aid and shelter through Home.
Likewise, carpenter Cui Zhaowei saw his Singapore dream shatter when his head was struck by a falling wooden beam two months into his job.
Still nursing head injuries 11/2 years on, he has returned to his village in eastern Shandong province to no job and little compensation.
The father of three has hired lawyers to fight for compensation from the China-owned company that hired him in Singapore and the China labour agency that sent him there.
'I'm just waiting for news from the lawyer in Singapore. I can't think of or do anything else right now.'