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CARIBBEAN: Influx of Chinese Workers Irks Local Unions

Bert Wilkinson

GEORGETOWN, Guyana, Jul 27 2007 (IPS) - When references are made to China in the Caribbean, eyes and ears are turned more to its ongoing dollar diplomacy fight for recognition by regional governments than to trade or other aspects of Sino-Caribbean relations.

But a new issue is slowly beginning to attract the attention of Caribbean people – a protracted fight by trade unions against what they see as a systematic invasion of lower-paid Chinese labourers to complement a building boom throughout the region.

At least two Caribbean countries, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, among the most prosperous and developed, have in recent weeks been forced to confront the issue following complaints from various quarters.

Chinese workers’ brigades have also appeared in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada to much less criticism, but unease is growing everywhere as their presence is being blamed for job losses by locals.

Governments, hoteliers and others undertaking mega-construction projects say they are cashing in on the “better work ethic” of Chinese workers compared to locals, some of whom are reluctant to work overtime or every single day until projects jobs are completed.

Others like Achal Moorjani, president of the Barbados Association of Contractors, see it as something else.

“It is alleged that the productivity of the Caribbean workers is low. What they are failing to say is that the Caribbean workers will not work for them on poverty wages, which they pay to their workers from China,” he said.

Earlier this week, a hand-written, anonymous letter listing alleged abuses of Chinese workers in Trinidad was delivered to the Trinidad Publishing Company.

The word “help” was written at the top of the note, which is addressed to the “Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.” It alleges that Chinese workers are being physically abused, threatened with deportation and forced to work long hours without pay, and that workers who were injured were sent back to China without payment.

The letter blames the China-based Shanghai Construction Co, which is contracted to the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott), for the poor working conditions – an allegation the company has denied.

“Investigation and observation of site activity reveal that no such actions are occurring,” Udecott said in a statement. “Workers on sites under construction by Shanghai Construction Company are, in fact, paid on time, and there are documents to support the same.”

But it is in Barbados, a tourist paradise of about 300,000 people, where the fires of resentment against Chinese workers are burning with the greatest intensity.

Local labour unions are urging the government to require that construction projects first recruit construction workers from Barbados, then turn to the wider Caribbean to fill remaining vacancies, with Chinese labour being used as a last resort.

Sir Roy Trotman, general secretary of the Barbados Workers Union (BWU), says the time has come for a comprehensive review of the situation, as the current brigade of about 500 Chinese labourers working on construction sites has undermined the booming local job and construction market.

“We realise you can’t stop greed. Some employers told me that they heard the buildings we are going to put up at Mangrove will be put up with Chinese labour. I don’t know if they are getting mixed up with me or someone else, but that will happen in another world, at another time, under another general secretary,” Sir Roy said.

Dick Stoute, president of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce, predicts that local contractors will soon begin complaining about the lack of a level playing field, as he was unsure whether the Chinese state and private sector construction companies are enjoying greater tax and other benefits than locals.

A local daily newspaper in Trinidad recently ran a series on the presence of Chinese in the oil and gas-rich republic with Tobago, looking at their work ethic, they way they live and their apparent assured future in the country.

Five hundred of them are in the country completing work on some very big projects, such as the national academy of performing arts, a diplomatic centre, the new official residence of Prime Minister Patrick Manning and the ministry of education. Work will soon begin on a performing arts theater in south Trinidad as well.

Newsday said the Chinese have come without their families, work six days a week and spend their spare time watching television and preparing for the next day’s work. Most live in temporary structures set up near construction sites.

In Antigua, where 400 Chinese workers built a 20,000-seat stadium that was completed well ahead of the February deadline for the Cricket World Cup in March, Chinese Ambassador Ren Xiaoping spoke of the sacrifices of his workers even as Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer sang their praises at the stadium ceremony

“Their sweat has soaked this land. During the past year, five of these workers have lost their parents and seven became fathers for the first time. But none of them went home. Why? Because they knew their responsibilities,” he said at the ceremony.

“They knew we didn’t have the money,” says Winston Baldwin Spencer, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. “If we didn’t have the Chinese workers, we wouldn’t have been able to complete the stadium,” he claimed.

Chinese labour also built an 8-million-dollar international convention centre on the lower east coast in Guyana right next to the headquarters of the 15-nation Caribbean Community. That centre was opened last year and used in February-March for the summit of Rio Group members from Central and South America.

The mixed feelings about the Chinese workers clearly coincide with the ongoing fight for diplomatic recognition and for the hearts and minds of Caribbean people by the “two Chinas”, Taiwan being the other.

Just recently, St. Lucia’s seven-month-old government kicked out mainland China and recognised Taiwan in a dirty row that not only split the cabinet but led to the firing of Foreign Minister Rufus Bousquet and the rank reduction of two other ministers.

In the last decade, Taiwan has lost the Bahamas, Grenada and Dominica, but still holds onto Haiti, Belize, St. Kitts, St. Vincent and now St. Lucia among Caribbean trade bloc members.

As an indication of how serious the fight has become, China last year announced that it had set aside a billion dollars to develop relations and boost trade with the Caribbean and Latin America.

“We know that China has one of the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world of over one trillion dollars. As a trading partner with the Caribbean it ranks third after the U.S. and the EU and there is little doubt it has growing influence in the region and that its influence will grow over the years,” said Henry Jeffrey, Guyana’s Foreign Trade Minister.

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