'Desperate' workers from China languish for months in Jakarta airport hotels

Mr Wang and dozens of other Chinese nationals have been unable to return to China, owing to strict testing requirements and too few flights. PHOTO: JEFF HUTTON

JAKARTA - When Mr Wei agreed to take a management role at a nickel smelting project in South-east Sulawesi, in Indonesia, in early 2020, his company promised that after six months of working seven days a week, it would pay for him to return to his family in Jiangsu, China, to spend a few days with them.

It did not happen.

Instead, as China all but cut itself off amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the 55-year-old said he continued working without a day off, earning 15,000 yuan (S$3,100) a month until he and 200 others quit in October in protest against the lack of holiday time.

Mr Wei, who would only give his family name because of concerns that he and his family would face retribution if he spoke publicly, said he paid his own way to Jakarta to wait for the company, Obsidian Stainless Steel (OSS) - a unit of China's Jiangsu Delong Nickel Industry and logistics company Xiamen Xiangyu Co - to arrange health checks and flights home.

He has been living in an airport hotel ever since.

"We came to Indonesia to support the motherland's Belt and Road initiatives," Mr Wei told The Straits Times through an interpreter.

"I just want to be allowed to fly home."

Rights activists say Mr Wei's predicament reflects the often harsh working conditions and treatment that many Chinese workers face toiling on Chinese-funded smelting plants, rail and other projects spanning Africa, Europe and Asia that have come to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

While it is not clear how many are stranded, an April report from the United States-based non-profit China Labour Watch reckons hundreds of thousands are stuck like Mr Wei, owing to strict testing requirements and too few flights, which make airfares unaffordable for workers desperate to hold on to savings they have put aside for a house or school fees.

China Labour Watch interviewed nearly two dozen Chinese workers stranded in countries such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan as well as Indonesia for reasons that also included high fines to break contracts and because employers had confiscated their passports.

"The purpose of working overseas is nothing more than to earn more money, so that our family can live a little better when we return," said Mr Wei.

Chinese workers languishing in the transit hotels around Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport often rebuff requests for interviews out of fear they will be singled out for retribution.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a volunteer who helps deliver hot dishes like stewed pork belly and steamed vegetables to those stranded in hotels shared records with ST that showed the group can serve as many as 70 meals a day.

In recent weeks, the volume of deliveries has more than halved to 30 a day, in part because some workers have returned to China but also because many are refusing meals on worries that accepting them may tip off their employer that they are talking to outsiders about their predicament.

A review of WeChat messaging groups provided by three OSS workers now housed in two airport hotels suggests there are at least 51 Chinese workers trying to get home. The workers said the chat group has been discontinued at the urging of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta.

OSS did not respond to a request for comment written in Chinese, English and Indonesian that was hand delivered to its office in Jakarta.

A call seeking comment from Jiangsu Delong Nickel was directed to a man who confirmed workers for the company were waiting in Jakarta for flights to China and that the workers were under the auspices of China's embassy in Jakarta.

The official said that the workers were waiting in Jakarta because flights to China were unavailable. But an online search revealed that, though limited, direct flights from Jakarta to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Fuzhou were available through early June.

Requests for comment to Chinese embassy officials were also unsuccessful.

The long wait for the workers is taking its toll.

Mr Wang, 41, an office administrator from Shanghai, said that he has considered taking his own life. Since he arrived at his hotel in late March, he has left his 27 sq m room only four times - all for Covid-19 testing.

Mr Wang - who asked not to reveal his real name - said the lengthy quarantine means that he and his family are burning through savings because he is not working.

"If I can't go home, I can only commit suicide at the gate of the Chinese embassy," Mr Wang told ST through an interpreter.

Mr Wang paid 30,000 yuan - three month's salary - as a deposit to OSS, a practice that Mr Li Qiang, director of China Labor Watch, said is aimed at ensuring acquiescence among workers.

"The workers are asked to pay a high deposit for the purposes of holding them hostage," he told ST.

"They are desperate."

The US$2 billion (S$2.65 billion) OSS stainless steel venture, which went into operation in Konawe, South-east Sulawesi last year, comprises the lion's share of Jiangsu Delong's first overseas foray into nickel smelting and steel production outside China. A neighbouring US$1 billion PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry (VDNI) smelter went into production in 2017.

In December, VDNI made the news when it was forced to shut down temporarily after protesting workers calling for better pay and permanent contracts set fire to equipment.

Complicating the plight of many workers are China's strict Covid-19 diagnostic and antibody tests that scan not only for current infection but also for antibodies that can turn up signs of past exposure and potential that they may still be a carrier of the virus, according to Mr Li.

As for Mr Wang, a photo of his May 15 test results indicate he is negative for Covid-19. But serological testing suggests he was exposed to a virus similar to the Sars-CoV-2 virus. A handwritten note in English on the results says he is not contagious.

Even so, his agonising wait continues.

"I am a citizen of China," he said. "I don't understand why I can't go home."

Additional reporting by Lina Miao in Beijing

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