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Total Chinese workers 25,000
Where The Chinese Are Working
It’s after sundown in Chandankiyari, a village near Bokaro in Jharkhand, and the only sound audible is of howling hyenas in the distance. But strain the ears and you catch snatches of a foreign movie playing. The film, strangely, is in Mandarin and it’s for the benefit of the hundreds of Chinese workers here at the site for a steel plant. Watching one of their movies on the big screen is a relaxing way to end the day.
They are not alone. Across the country, several thousands of Chinese workers are at work on infrastructure projects bagged by Chinese contractors. But the arrangement is not without controversy—the hordes of unskilled/semi-skilled imports from China are taking jobs from the unemployed Indian. One estimate put their total number—skilled and unskilled together—at around 25,000. Things have come to a head of late—at least three instances of xenophobic violence have been reported between Indian and Chinese workers in less than a year. Differences arise notably out of language problems and the “obscene” pay disparities—domestic workers get Rs 87 a day while a Chinese co-worker, according to one account from an Indian worker, gets Rs 1,700 a day. Things get that much more tricky because these workers are here in complete violation of Indian visa guidelines which prohibit entry of such labour.
As an EIL worker put it, “About 25% of the Chinese are manual workers...not much to learn from them.”
The upcoming steel factory in Chandankiyari for the Calcutta-based Electrosteel Integrated Limited (EIL) clearly illustrates the problem. The Indian firm has contracted the construction to two Chinese firms: China First Metallurgical Construction Company and 23rd Metallurgical Construction Company. With a contract valued at over Rs 11,000 crore, the plant will be spread over 2,500 acres and is expected to be completed in June 2010. Construction began in March this year. Working at breakneck speed to achieve this ambitious deadline, around 500 Chinese engineers and workers are currently at the site along with 3,000 Indian workers. Their presence has come down from about 1,200 earlier this year after Indian authorities cracked down on ‘illegal’ foreign workers.
What has caught the government unawares is that almost all of these ‘illegal’ personnel were here on ‘business visas’—explicitly meant for skilled people here on short-term visits who will not take up employment. This raises two worrying possibilities. The first: the Chinese are regularly passing off semi-skilled labour as skilled to bypass Indian regulations. The second: the Indian visa-issuing authorities in Beijing have been slipshod with their work.
Alka Acharya, associate professor of Chinese studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, asks, “The Chinese may be bringing in unskilled labour as skilled. But is there an agency that verifies how exactly the visa is issued and what information is sought from agencies and workers?” Waking up to the problem, Union home minister P. Chidambaram said recently that no visas will be issued to Chinese unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Acharya adds, “What the government is doing at stage five today should have been done long back, at stage one.” A peeved labour ministry has also made it clear that visa guidelines must be respected (see interview). Trade union leaders aren’t pleased either. G. Sanjeeva Reddy, Rajya Sabha member and president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, says, “This creates a labour surplus when there are already so many unemployed, semi-skilled Indians. We need to act, focus on organising migration from states where there is a skilled labour surplus.”
When Outlook visited Chandankiyari, nearly all the Chinese workers seemed engaged in “semi-skilled” activities related to construction like bending and cutting iron rods, sawing wooden planks, driving and erecting foundations for tall structures. But plant director R.S. Singh maintained they were “skilled technicians of high quality”. “They may be carpenters but they have special skills suited to build plants,” he says. That said, of the 500 stationed here, only 150 now have job visas. Given India’s troubled relationship with China, they find it difficult and time-consuming to get employment visas as it requires clearance from the ministry of home affairs.
Meanwhile, at the work site, there are further complications. Almost nobody among the Chinese workers speak Hindi or English and the few English-speaking interpreters are hardly at hand. Communication is mostly through gestures. “They just point forcefully in a direction when they want us to work,” says an Indian worker. “Often we end up bringing rods when they want us to bring pipes.”
Meal time at the Chinese quarters
The Chinese presence has also generated tension among those who had given up land for the factory—but have not got jobs in return. Abul Ansari, member of the Jharkhand Raiyat (land-givers) Sangharsh Samiti, says, “Much of the work the Chinese do can be done by us, like that of carpenters and welders.” Group members and villagers from nearby Chandaha can often be seen protesting outside the plant, but if you believe R.S. Singh it’s this year’s drought that has “created the additional unemployment”.
Inside the plant too, work has not been incident-free. In May this year, violence flared up after one of the Indian workers was sacked for being absent. Police had to be called in but not before workers from both sides suffered injuries. Xenophobic altercations have also been reported from Bengal, including one in March this year at the Durgapur Projects Limited plant after Indian workers questioned the Chinese technical experts on site. As an EIL worker put it, “About 25 per cent of them are manual workers like us. There’s not much to learn from them.” The Indian workers requested anonymity for fear of retribution. The Chinese officials, on the other hand, refused to speak to us, even after an interpreter had been arranged.
However, Outlook did gain access into the Chinese walled residential compound. Built like a military base, it had air-conditioned barracks and amenities like a basketball court, a Chinese canteen and cable TV, among other facilities the Indian workers couldn’t possibly dream of. As an Indian worker put it, “The Chinese get rum bottles, water bottles and we don’t even have a tubewell.” The compound is constantly guarded given the tensions with the locals.
Clearly, the Chinese, despite being famous for cheap products, do not come cheap. But the Indian management isn’t complaining. R.S. Singh refused to divulge financial details but says the Chinese are very “cost-effective”. “They’ll set up this plant in 15 months whereas a plant of a similar nature would take an Indian enterprise eight years,” he says. D.S. Rajan, director, Centre for China Studies, Chennai, agrees on that point. “They behave very well collectively with an inclination to complete projects in time. Indians tend to be more individualistic.”
A Chinese supervisor in his quarters
While the Chinese firms may feel the need for workers from home, given linguistic and cultural compatibility, what may be the real driver is their government’s “Go Abroad” policy. With high unemployment in China, the state financially assists Chinese firms in expanding worldwide so as to provide employment to its nationals. Of late, Indian enterprises also often prefer them because of the “complex and restrictive” labour laws Indian workers are governed by.
Chinese workers now work for private and government projects—on the one hand it’s projects for Reliance Industries and Adani Group while on the other it’s government power projects in Bengal. The Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) has 56 of them working on a “glass curtain wall”. A DIAL spokesman did not comment on why they had made an additional request for 140 Chinese workers earlier this year (a request the government shot down). And the Chinese force working on a road in Himachal Pradesh was recently trimmed from 80 to an “essential” ten. This brings up the hotly contested question: are all Chinese workers here “engineers” and “technicians” with skills irreplaceable by Indians? Speaking at a meet in China, Indian ambassador S. Jaishankar said he couldn’t recall any projects requiring “such large manpower support from home” and urged the Chinese to think of an “India-specific approach”.
But is international labour mobility something to be be shunned? Not at the cost of resentment at home, says Rajan. “At no point should the locals feel that outsiders are taking away their jobs,” he says. To get there, Gautam Mody, secretary of the Delhi-based New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI), insists on three things: registration of agencies, clear classification of skills that need to be imported and certification of those skills. Given our controversial experience with Chinese workers, India is nowhere near establishing those three.
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Bokaro; Photographs by Jitender Gupta