Out of options and desperate for work, Huang Guomeng left his hometown in the central Henan province for what he hoped would be a good job in Indonesia.
But once he reported for work at a nickel industrial park in Morowali County on Sulawesi Island, hope gave way to despair. The outsourcing company in Indonesia that recruited him and promised better wages confiscated his passport.
“We come to Indonesia on business visas, not work visas, so we don’t have any legal protection,” he says. “Our contracts are also informal ‘unilateral contracts.’ We had to sign a piece of paper that said we ‘must comply with arrangements.’ Confiscating passports is common.”
Lured to Indonesia, Huang, now in his 40s, has worked in Sulawesi since May 2021 and is still gradually sorting out the many irregularities he’s now mired in.
He’s not the only Chinese worker stuck in a foreign country with little support and no passport. But compared to five of his brethren from Henan, Huang believes he’s “lucky.”
In March 2021, Zhang Qiang, Zhang Zhenjie, Wei Pengjie, Guo Peiyang, and Tian Mingxin left for Indonesia on business visas through an outsourcing company — just like Huang would two months later. They, too, worked on nickel mining projects in Sulawesi, first in Morowali County and later in Kendari city.
The five workers soon realized they were being paid far less than had been promised, in addition to several other irregularities. When they decided to quit and return to China in June, they realized they had no passports.
On Sep. 2, they appealed for help on a WeChat public account in a vain attempt to convince their company to return their passports. Then, on Sep. 19, their families received text messages that the five men had been detained by the Malaysian military off the coast of Johor.
Desperate to return home, the five men approached traffickers to smuggle them out of Indonesia and back home to China.
“They believed the traffickers who promised they could help smuggle them into China via Malaysia,” Zhang Qiang’s wife Wang Lan told The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.
With help from their families and Malaysian human rights lawyer Lau Yi Leong, the Malaysian government decided in October not to prosecute the five men. They would be deported instead.
Wang Lan and relatives of the other men underscore that the trapped workers only took such extreme measures believing they had no other way to return home.
In December, all five were transferred to the Pekan Nanas Immigration Depot in Johor. Wei Pengjie has since flown back to Xiamen, while the remaining workers are expected to return to China in January and February in groups of two.
Huang, however, has little hope of returning. He says he’s given up on getting back to China before the Spring Festival.
Zhang Qiang’s working and living areas. Courtesy of Wang Lan
For Chinese workers like Huang Guomeng and the five men awaiting deportation, trouble began in 2020, when China’s construction industry ground to a halt amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was looking for a job in 2020 on my phone and came across a recruiter in Beijing. At first, I was unsure. The recruiter had posted many messages about working in Indonesia on his WeChat moments, so I believed him,” says Huang.
Having worked abroad successfully in the past, Huang says he let his guard down with the Beijing recruiter, to whom he paid a fee of 4,000 yuan ($630).
Only later did Huang realize that the agent did not have the requisite qualifications nor was his company licensed. “The agent told me that the conditions in Indonesia are really good, and he comes from my hometown, so I thought he wouldn’t cheat me. I trusted him.”
Last May, Huang boarded a flight to Indonesia.
“Once I got off the plane, the recruiter all but abandoned me. Whenever I had a problem, he just told me to speak to my bosses and that it was none of his business,” says Huang.
He worked almost every day, often starting at 6 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on the Phase II project at the Delong Industrial Park in Kendari. “We had no holidays or shifts off,” he says.
He was promised 14,000 yuan a month but received only around 10,000 yuan — and payment was often delayed. “When I signed the contract, I was told I’d be paid every two months. Now, it’s been two months and I haven’t been paid anything.”
Moreover, workers who took days off had money deducted from their wages — more than 400 yuan each time. “Deducting wages is also a form of punishment, and workers can be suspended if they displease their supervisors,” he says.
Huang recalls feeling like he was in prison. “My accommodation is like those two-story cabins you find on construction sites in China. It’s really hot and the sun is very bright. We eat rice and steamed buns, and the food tastes bad too. If you want better food, you can make some instant noodles. It’s also expensive to drink to relax.”
Delong Phase II is an integrated smelting project in Indonesia run by PT Obsidian Stainless Steel. The company is a joint venture between two Chinese companies, Jiangsu Delong Nickel Co. Ltd. and Xiamen Xiangyu Group, a large-scale iron and steel enterprise integrating nickel-iron alloy production and stainless-steel smelting.
At Delong Phase III in Morowali County, Li Junyang, who is in his 50s and from Hunan province, echoes Huang’s distress. “It’s 30 or 40 degrees Celsius, but we have to start work after lunch at 12:30 p.m. If you’re 10 minutes late, you’re docked an hour’s wages. If you’re half an hour late, you’re docked half a day,” he says.
In April last year, he paid an agency 5,500 yuan to work in Indonesia. “It’s been almost eight months and they’ve given me only 10,000 yuan, which includes the 5,500 yuan-deposit. They haven’t paid the other workers any money either,” says Li. “I can earn at least 400 yuan a day in China. The agent told me it wouldn’t be lower than that, so I decided to come here. But now I get only 350 yuan a day.”
From late April to mid-May, the work was bearable, but starting around late May, he says he was subjected to long-term “physical and verbal abuse, obstructive behavior, and arbitrary wage deductions.”
When Li complained to his superiors, they retaliated violently. He recalls an incident in September when the other workers were called to work but he was left alone in his room, where three managers assaulted him.
He woke up swimming in pain and found himself in a local hospital. He was sent back to the industrial park just two days later.
After the assault, Li Junyang suffered chronic headaches. He requested treatment but the park’s strict entry-exit system prevented him from leaving. Finding it difficult to work, he had no choice but to just sleep off the pain. “There are Indonesian security guards at the gate — we can’t get out,” he says.
Several others spoke of similar physical clashes on-site as a method of control. “If I dared to complain about my withheld passport or confined movement, my superiors threatened to report me to the local police station for fighting,” says Zhao Yaxin, who previously worked at an industrial park for another Chinese-owned nickel mining company on Sulawesi.
According to Huang Guomeng, the guards at the gate require workers to present a permit to leave. “Even by car, it takes 40 or 50 minutes to reach the nearest town. The mountains are steep, so I didn’t dare wander,” he says. And because of the language barrier, Huang couldn’t file a police report. “If we complained, the authorities called the Indonesian security guards to threaten or lock us up.”
Chinese media reported in May 2020 that following the COVID-19 outbreak in Indonesia earlier in March, the Delong Phase II project implemented a closed management policy to “assume social responsibilities.” A former Delong employee told The Paper that before the pandemic, workers were free to enter and leave the park outside work hours.
But the prevention measures didn’t apply equally. Chinese workers said Indonesian employees were allowed to leave after their shifts and return to their nearby accommodations.
Wei Pengjie, 31, is among the five workers who were detained at the Pekan Nanas Immigration Depot. Like the others with him, he traveled to Sulawesi through recruiters. His wife Zhang Yajie says he has worked as a laborer previously in Anhui, Hunan, and Hubei provinces.
“A day’s wage in China for him is around 300 yuan, but the recruiter said he’d earn 500 yuan per day in Indonesia, and 10,000 yuan a month in living expenses. At first, I didn’t want him to go because of the pandemic situation abroad. I agreed only when he told me the recruiter had assured him there was no coronavirus in Indonesia,” she says.
The tantalizing monthly allowance of 10,000 yuan, however, stopped after just two months. And their working hours increased from the agreed nine hours to 9.5 hours.
Zhang Yajie says her family only received 20,000 yuan for two months’ expenses, which was split into multiple transfers. “My husband always said that he was tired at work and had no time to rest even on the weekend.”
“Later, they heard that many Chinese workers were struggling to return to China, that some had suffered injuries and couldn’t get timely access to medical treatment. There was even a report of a Chinese worker committing suicide. Plus, the security guards at the park were really harsh, so they decided to leave,” she says.
Indonesia’s reserves of nickel stand at around 1.3 billion tons, of which Sulawesi accounts for around 80% of the total. Delong, Tsingshan Steel, PT Titan, and several other nickel mining enterprises are distributed across the island. However, Sulawesi is relatively undeveloped and has limited transportation options to the island of Java, Indonesia’s political and economic center.
Zhang Qiang and four other workers were transferred from Morowali to Kendari before they finally decided to return home as soon as possible. And when the company delayed returning their passports, they posted pleas for help, saying they were willing “to walk from Kendari to Jakarta” if they could get their passports.
Since such a trip isn’t feasible given the vast stretches of water between the islands, they decided to take the risk and attempt being smuggled out of Indonesia.
In September, Malaysian media reported that 10 illegal immigrants from Indonesia were detained along with the five Chinese workers. Malaysia is home to many undocumented workers from Indonesia — Zhang Qiang and the other Chinese workers tried leaving Indonesia via the route Indonesian workers use to illegally enter Malaysia.
“Malaysians were shocked to see the route these five workers took,” says lawyer Lau Yi Leong. “None of us know what they went through on their way from Kendari to Johor on the coast of Malaysia.”
A map of Southeast Asia.
Back in China, Wang Tianyi, who specializes in overseas labor law at the Shanghai River Delta Law Firm, underscores that labor companies must train employees to check their rights before going abroad to work.
“Before going abroad, a worker should confirm the labor relations, working conditions, and their rights and interests with the dispatching unit, as well as the responsibilities of each party. If someone is being sent overseas by a labor dispatch company, we recommend that they check the company has the relevant qualifications,” she says.
However, Huang Guomeng, Li Junyang as well as the families of the five detained workers, said the labor service companies they paid did not conduct any pre-departure training; they hadn’t even heard of that requirement.
Shan Desai, a scholar at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada who studies cross-border labor, maritime law, and occupational health and safety, says Chinese workers going abroad cannot directly sign labor contracts with overseas employers, even if the companies involved are Chinese-funded.
“According to the relevant laws and regulations, overseas enterprises, natural persons, and foreign companies in China are not allowed to directly recruit labor personnel in China,” says Desai.
“Based on specific projects, the company’s personnel requirements must be fulfilled by overseas labor dispatch units. A contract between the overseas company requiring workers and the domestic dispatcher specifies labor and remuneration terms, and the handling of work-related injuries and deaths, and whether China’s labor laws or local labor regulations apply. However, the agreement is a kind of commercial contract and generally isn’t made known to the Chinese workers.”
The Paper reached out to Jiangsu Delong for comment. An employee who answered the phone claiming to be from the HR department said he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, and that the company did not, and never would, work with outsourcing companies on its Indonesian projects.
“Zhang Qiang told me once that workers who sign directly with Delong are treated better, and that Delong’s leaders seemed helpless about disputes over non-compliance by outsourcing companies,” says Zhang’s wife, Wang Lan. “Relations with outsourcing companies are really messy — local Chinese workers often don’t understand the relationship.”
“Delong has many directly recruited employees and its own labor service company: Shenlong Labor Dispatch. However, there are also recruiters who use Delong’s name to attract workers and then send them to external commissioned construction units of Delong projects in Indonesia,” says Lin Senyu from Sichuan province, who previously worked at nickel industrial parks run by Delong and Tsingshan respectively.
A view of Lin Senyu’s business visa. Courtesy of Lin Senyu
According to Shan Desai, it is impossible for the general contractor to handle the information of all workers, who are often recruited through various layers of outsourcing recommendations. While it may appear that the overseas employment agency is legitimate, the agency doing the dispatching is not.
Huang Guomeng says his contractor does not have a formal license while Zhang Qiang and the other four workers said their contractor, Rongcheng Environmental Engineering Co., is licensed in Jiangsu province.
However, the company could not be found on the Ministry of Commerce’s “Unified Platform of Business System” website or the “Jiangsu Comprehensive ‘Going Out’ Service Platform.”
At the time of publication, Rongcheng had not responded to an email from The Paper asking for comment and could not be reached by phone.
Lawyer Wang Tianyi says that legally, if Chinese workers in Indonesia have labor relations with a Chinese company, they can make appeals according to China’s labor and contract laws.
“If a worker’s labor relations are established and signed with an Indonesian company, then they can obtain relief through relevant provisions in the Indonesian Omnibus Law on Job Creation and Labor Dispute Settlement,” says Wang Tianyi.
Huang Guomeng doesn’t have a copy of his contract. But even if he did, his legal rights may not have been guaranteed. Wang Lan and Zhang Yajie recall that their husbands recognized the importance of having contracts early on and continually pushed the company to sign one.
“My husband Wei Pengjie and his colleagues thought the job would last six months at the most, so they didn’t sign a contract,” says Zhang Yajie. “Later, worried they might not be able to return to China for a year, they urged the company to sign. Only after continued pressure did the company agree.”
However, after receiving sample contracts in June — once they were already on-site — the five workers found they were unable to accept the stated working conditions.
“The working hours were increased to 9.5 hours, the money for living expenses dropped from 10,000 yuan to 1,000 yuan per month and the work period was left open-ended,” says Zhang Yajie. “If he can’t come back to China soon, he’ll have to go to another site after finishing his current work. Plus, the contract can’t be terminated within six months. They felt like they were being asked to sell themselves.”
The five workers decided that if they signed, they’d be putting themselves in an even worse situation.
It’s not just the contracts. Non-compliance with visa requirements makes it difficult for workers to protect their rights.
Wang Wenzhen, a Chinese national who has helped many of his stranded countrymen, says most workers he has contacted in Indonesia entered the country on business visas and were often unaware of the visa requirements.
In Indonesia, a “211 business visa” is valid for 60 days per visit and can be extended four times. It can be used for business study, business visits, business meetings, and similar activities, but cannot be used for employment.
Many recruiters state online that the processing time for this type of visa is faster — around three to five days. They also warn that when asked by immigration officials, workers should deny that they were coming to work when entering Indonesia on a business visa.
Wang Tianyi stressed that those without work visas should urge their companies to apply for them as soon as possible, or quit. But amid the pandemic and sky-rocketing ticket prices, Chinese workers who have had their passports seized are unable to simply walk away, leaving them stranded on construction sites in Indonesia.
Shan Desai pointed out that while the seizure of foreign workers’ passports was a common form of physical control, the problems faced by the Chinese workers include the suspicion of forced labor and criminal offenses.
“At present, the Chinese government departments mainly dealing with such disputes are the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security,” says Desai. “It also depends on whether local law enforcement departments and the Chinese embassies and consulates are willing to intervene.”
Wang Lan and Zhang Yajie pointed out that before turning to traffickers, the five men sought help from the authorities. In June, the workers and their families complained to the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia about the unpaid wages, and the embassy helped them recover some money.
The seizure of their passports, however, wasn’t resolved. “We reported it to the police here in China, who said it would be difficult to intervene since they worked in Indonesia and fled to Malaysia,” says Wang Lan.
When she sought help through official channels such as the WeChat account of the China International Contractors Association’s dispatched labor service personnel complaint center and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ global emergency hotline, she initially received promising responses.
However, when it came to specific issues such as unpaid salary and repatriation, Wang Lan made no headway.
“We called everyone we could to file reports, calling lots of wrong numbers and finding hope in some of the responses,” she says. “But often our hopes were dashed by the next phone call. We were going around in circles, and ended up back where we started.”
Between the cracks
In 2004, the Ministry of Commerce enacted measures to regulate Chinese laborers going overseas. In May 2012, the State Council approved rules which required foreign project contractors to provide proper working conditions, pay remunerations in strict accordance with contracts, and fulfill its obligations as an employer.
The 2012 regulations also ordered foreign project contractors to employ workers through legal intermediate agencies. In 2016, the Ministry of Commerce also formulated a mechanism to handle complaints and labor disputes from workers abroad.
However, the multiple official organizations and government departments involved in overseas Chinese labor issues often hinder complaint resolution.
In an article published after the Lujiazui Law Forum in 2017, Lu Jingbo, Shi Qing, and Wang Tianyi noted that, following the withdrawal of organizations like the All-China Federation of Trade Unions’ (ACFTU), Overseas Rights Protection Coordinating Office, and Bureau of Foreign-Related Labor Rights and Interests, China lacks an institution and corresponding mechanism to protect the rights and interests of overseas workers.
In Indonesia, the model of local unions offering protection to foreign workers used in developed countries is not feasible. Labor conditions in Indonesia are not as advanced as in developed countries. Despite the development of the country’s labor movement, there is a strong tendency toward protectionism.
The issue of Chinese labor has always been a sensitive topic in Indonesian political circles too, and political opponents of the current president, Joko Widodo, often sensationalize the “invasion of Chinese workers.”
According to an Indonesian media report from July 2020, Luhut Pandjaitan — Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment and Coordinator for Cooperation with China — said workers from China who arrived in Sulawesi after the COVID-19 outbreak were filling vacancies in positions not taken by local workforces.
Jobs included “handling high-tech machines,” and transferring “specific sets of knowledge to Indonesian workers.” Huang Guomeng corroborated the claim, saying “We all need to ‘transfer, assist, and lead’ Indonesian workers here.”
However, amid the administrative chaos in Indonesia’s management of foreign workers, hostility toward Chinese workers still persists.
In a 2017 paper, Pan Yue, a scholar at Jinan University’s School of International Studies, underscored the lack of communication and coordination between Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower, Directorate General of Immigration, and Ministry of Law and Human Rights. This resulted in a wide discrepancy in the data provided by various departments on the number of Chinese workers.
The author cited one survey which found many Chinese companies felt that their projects in Indonesia were seriously affected by labor problems, including difficulties in obtaining work visas for Chinese workers.
Pan pointed out that many Chinese enterprises are forced to find ways to bring Chinese workers to Indonesia to accelerate the work, including covering the work visa fees, agent fees, and management fees, as well as paying for workers’ food, lodging, and travel expenses.
As Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower continues to tighten work visa requirements, many Chinese companies prefer taking the risk of having their employees work on business visas.
It is also difficult for recruiters to comply with visa processing, and some cheat enterprises with non-compliant visas. Meanwhile, some Chinese employees even use travel visas to make multiple trips to get around the regulations.
According to Pan, Chinese laborers in Indonesia are trapped in a vicious circle: A lack of skilled workers in Indonesia encourages Chinese companies to hire illegal Chinese workers to speed up their work.
Relevant Indonesian agencies then discover workers with non-compliant visas during investigations, thus fomenting hostility among the public. And the Ministry of Manpower again tightens the issuing of visas for Chinese workers, making it more difficult for these workers to enter via official channels.
Despite the perennial struggle, Huang Guomeng decided to stay in Indonesia and continue working. “A flight to China costs more than 40,000 yuan now, which is much higher than usual,” he says. “At most, our salary is a little over 10,000 yuan a month, so a plane ticket costs a few months’ salary. Most ordinary workers can’t afford it.”
Huang thanked the five Henan men who took the risk of approaching traffickers: “Since the ordeal of the five Henanese, some of the outsourcing managers in Delong Industrial Park have been treating the employees a little less harshly these days.”
In addition, several Chinese workers have said that the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia has contacted relevant enterprises, mandating that they investigate working conditions.
Since Wang Lan and others lost touch with their husbands on Sep. 19, they have been in contact with the Chinese embassies in Indonesia and Malaysia as well as major airlines. “I thought that if our husbands’ issues could be solved, it would help more Chinese workers overseas feel that they could also find a solution,” says Wang Lan.
On instructions from the Chinese Embassy in Malaysia, in mid-November, Wang and relatives of the other detained men bought five plane tickets on Xiamen Airlines for Dec. 3.
Initially, the airline refused to allow the five to board since they arrived from a detention depot judged “high risk” due to the pandemic. After more complaints and calls from lawyers as well as coordination from the Chinese Embassy, Xiamen Airlines decided to allow the five men to return to China.
In an email response to The Paper on Dec. 1, the airline’s Kuala Lumpur office said: “In light of the passengers’ situation, we have specially approved the passengers’ tickets and will adjust them according to rescheduled travel dates. We plan to help the passengers return to China in batches starting from Dec. 24, in compliance with the quarantine requirements.”
According to a statement posted on Nov. 14, the Chinese Embassy has coordinated with the airlines and inspection agencies. In full consideration of the present difficulties facing Chinese citizens, the airlines and testing institutions have said they will lower the ticket prices and testing fees.
In May 2020, Wang Wenzhen set up the “COVID-19 Relief Team” to serve medical staff at local hospitals in Indonesia with other volunteers. Since September last year, he has received numerous messages from other Chinese people stranded in Indonesia.
He has since also started collecting supplies and money for stranded workers again.
The relief team has now launched an online project offering free counseling to those stranded. The team’s official WeChat account continues to receive pleas for help from people stuck abroad. “There’s a limit to what we can do, but the team will continue doing everything we can,” says Wang Wenzhen.
After Wang Lan and the families of the other four men posted messages asking for help, many Chinese workers in Indonesia added her on WeChat to ask about her and the workers awaiting repatriation. “Some people sent me donations, but when I saw that they were from Chinese workers in Indonesia, I didn’t accept them,” she says.
The Henan workers in Indonesia and their families have set up WeChat groups to share information about protecting their labor rights and ways to return to China. They also aim to boost the spirits of those stranded who are struggling with their mental health.
“I hope everything goes well for those workers making their living overseas far from home,” wrote Malaysian human rights lawyer Lau Yi Leong on Facebook on Sep. 30. That day, he arrived at the immigration office to assess the situation of the detained Chinese workers and start providing legal aid for them and their families.
To this day, his work continues.
Huang Guomeng, Li Junyang, Lin Senyu, and Zhao Yaxin are pseudonyms.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Topic Images/People Visual)