Five Chinese Workers Attempting to Escape Forced Labor in Indonesia Wash Up in Malaysia

By Victor Westerkamp | October 29, 2021
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Zhang Zhenjie, Wei Pengjie, Guo Peiyang, Tian Mingxin, and Zhang Qiang after being collected by Malaysian authorities.
Zhang Zhenjie, Wei Pengjie, Guo Peiyang, Tian Mingxin, and Zhang Qiang after being collected by Malaysian authorities. (Image: Malaysian Infantry)

A laborers’ rights organization has sounded the alarm after five men from China who were being exploited as contract workers in Indonesia washed up on the Malaysian shore.

China Labor Watch (CLW), an independent not-for-profit organization that advocates for workers’ rights, issued an alarming report on Oct. 15 about five Chinese contract workers who were lured into engaging in working for Rongcheng Environmental Protection Engineering located at Delong Industrial Park in Kendari, Sulawesi, which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Indonesia.

The five workmen from Henan Province, Zhang Zhenjie, Wei Pengjie, Guo Peiyang, Tian Mingxin, and Zhang Qiang, said that in early 2021 they were coaxed into entering into an agreement with the prospect of higher wages and better working conditions than they would ever possibly obtain inside China.

However, upon arrival in Indonesia, it turned out they lost almost everything: their passports, their freedom, and even their hope to return home, which now seemed impossible because of physical and illegal obstructions posed by their employers combined with stiff COVID regulations imposed by Chinese authorities.

The five never had the opportunity to sign a formal employment contract and were not allowed to leave the work site, which was guarded by armed security. Furthermore, they were made under duress to work longer shifts than agreed for less compensation. Therefore, they decided to resign and return home, a move which turned out to be easier said than done.

First, one of their handlers attempted to extort 75,000 yuan (US$11,735) from each one of them. Then, another pressed for 50,000 yuan from each, but failed to return the men home, and would not refund the money.

Then, the Chinese Embassy stepped in and demanded the men get their passports and money back. But, the story doesn’t end there. Even if they regain their items, there were still enormous COVID protocol hurdles to take to get home.

All workers are subjected to nucleic acid and serodiagnosis testing at the industrial park; only those who pass both tests with a low IgM and IgG reading are permitted to travel to Jakarta. On arrival, they must self-quarantine and undergo a series of additional testing; only those who pass those tests are allowed to enter the final 48-hour pre-departure testing queue from airlines.

The quintet decided not to wait for more bureaucratic tugs-of-war and decided to employ the aid of a human smuggler to take them to Malaysia by boat. Then, they hoped to arrive at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, get new passports, and fly back to China.

On Sept. 18, they, along with a group of 10 Indonesian immigrants, were dropped by boat on the shores off Kota Tinggi, Johor, where the Malaysian coast guard arrested everyone.

On Oct. 10, Malaysian authorities decided not to press charges against the Chinese nationals, and, having completed their 14-day quarantine after a long odyssey, were allowed to return home.

“If you want to leave the country, make sure you use the official channels, and before you leave the country, sign a contract first. Don’t be like us,” Zhang, one of the laborers, told the Wall Street Journal.