Authorities have detained about 40 undocumented Myanmar migrant workers in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong after they complained to their embassy about forced unpaid labor at a seafood plant, while 60 others are still working there without pay, one of the affected workers told RFA.
The 100 laborers are among a pool of some 230,000 workers who’ve sought work in China in the wake of armed conflict, environmental destruction and natural disasters in Myanmar, the Mekong region’s largest source of migrants, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Myanmar migrants working in factories, construction sites, farms, restaurants, and as domestic helpers in China are not legally allowed to work in their giant neighbor, leaving them vulnerable to abuses including forced labor, wage theft, human trafficking, extortion, and debt bondage, aid groups say.
One of 100 Myanmar workers who had been working without pay since April at the Nishi Haitai Marine Food Co., Ltd. plant in the Shandong port city of Weihai contacted the Myanmar Embassy about the abusive practices.
Police first raided the plant in early June and arrested some Myanmar workers, but they were not sent to the Myanmar border for deportation and remain as forced laborers in the same factory, said the worker, who used the pseudonym Phoe Taung in his communication with the embassy and with RFA.
Around 60 Chinese police raided the plant in a second raid in August, and arrested 40 of the 100 workers, including Phoe Taung’s brother, Aung Myat Min, he said.
“The company must have bribed the police to raid and arrest Myanmar workers,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“They arrested them instead of paying the wages for three months they were owed. The workers later realized the police were not bogus and that they were working together with the owner.”
Police confiscated the Myanmar workers’ cellphones, money, and other possessions, and have not yet announced when they would deport them back to Myanmar, said Phoe Taung.
Police officers came to the seafood processing plant, but the Chinese owners “had some police in their pockets,” Phoe Taung said.
The officers detained Aung Myat Min in handcuffs in a kitchen away from other workers and left him there for four days, he added.
Phoe Taung is now in hiding from the plant owner and Chinese police, who have been looking for him since he reported the abuse of Myanmar workers to the embassy and the media.
Myanmar’s embassy in Beijing told the workers that Chinese police would help them return home, but so far none of relatives of the detained workers have been contacted by the embassy, and their families have not been able to contact them while they are being held by Chinese authorities, Phoe Taung said.
Phoe Taung and his brother, from Taze township in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, worked in the Shandong plant for a monthly salary of 5,000 yuan (U.S. $773) before the coronavirus pandemic, Phoe Taung said.
The father of the two migrant workers said that during the pandemic his son hired a middleman to travel to Shandong for the factory job through an illegal border crossing at Muse in northern Shan state.
“He worked for the same company before, so he trusted them, assuming that the situation would be the same,” Win Myint said. “They gave meals to the workers, but they hadn’t received their wages for a long time.”
No Sino-Myanmar labor agreement
The Myanmar embassy in Beijing told him that officials there would take care of the arrested workers, but “they just ran away from the responsibility,” he said.
Win Myint said as he has been contacting Myanmar embassy, but everyone who answers the phone immediately hangs up on him.
RFA contacted the Myanmar embassy in Beijing on Aug. 30, but a staffer told a reporter to call back later, and subsequent calls were not answered. RFA also contacted the Chinese embassy in Yangon by email, but has not received a response.
Myanmar authorities have been issuing red permit booklets with one-year expiration date for residents of northern Shan state to cross the border into China for travel.
Migrant workers from other states and regions can get a green permits for a single-trips to the Chinese border town of Ruili, across from Muse.
Volunteers who provide assistance to Myanmar migrant workers said many laborers use the border-crossing permit booklets and cards illegally to work in China.
Ko Htay, chairman of Muse Humanitarian Aid Network, said his organization receives requests from detained migrant workers every day.
“Some people from Kunming contacted us yesterday [because] they are too afraid to contact Myanmar consular office there as they don’t want to be charged,” he said.
The lack of a bilateral agreement regarding migrant workers is the cause of the problems, Ko Htay said.
“Myanmar has a bilateral agreement with Thailand, so migrant workers in Thailand have got some form of protection,” he said.
“In Thai-Myanmar border towns like Maesot, migrant workers assistance groups are operating their activities legally. It is not the same in China.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.