HE was known as 'the boss'. A chubby, middle-aged Frenchman who ruled the Thai labour camp at Kwai Chung with a smile. Thai workers drafted to Hong Kong for the airport-related project thought him easy-going, and above all, helpful. Daniel Carpentier was much friendlier than his deputy, a Thai named Thitikorn Pangsuksang. While Mr Carpentier cheerfully greeted workers on the rare days he showed up at the work site, Mr Thitikorn would snap 'I am tired; I am busy' whenever he was approached for help. Eight hundred Thai labourers worked under them. Since arriving in Hong Kong, they have followed a tough schedule: work begins at 7am, but overtime can take the shift up to midnight. But the workers were content. Most of them, who would earn little more than $30 a day in Thailand, counted themselves lucky to have a job in Hong Kong. That is until September 26, when tempers flared at the work site at the Kwai Chung Route 3 viaduct. That day, workers downed tools in the worst labour dispute to hit the Chek Lap Kok airport core programme since work began in 1991. The bone of contention was pay. According to official contracts shown to the Government, salaries of the workers, who were employed by CBF Joint Venture, the principal contractor of the Kwai Chung viaduct, ranged from about $10,000 for an unskilled labourer to about $14,000 for a skilled worker, in line with minimum wage requirements. But the workers never saw their bank accounts and the copies of contracts they held stipulated a much lower wage. The money transferred on their behalf to their homes in Thailand, they say, tallied with the amount they believed was their due. So they were shocked to hear allegations from the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) that part of the amount paid into their bank accounts every month had been siphoned off into that of a Hong Kong-registered firm. Strikers initially thought their employer, CBF, was responsible for almost halving some salaries, but there is no evidence to show that CBF knew of this action. Now, three weeks on, officers from the Commercial Crime Bureau (CCB) called in to investigate an alleged conspiracy to defraud are still to locate Mr Carpentier. 'We are still looking for one man, who has left Hong Kong,' said superintendent Ng Sai-kuen. CCB officers said they had also arrested a Thai national, who they would not name. Mr Thitikorn, who as camp boss is responsible for the welfare of workers, disappeared soon after the strike but was seen at the camp site last Wednesday, flanked by police officers. Meanwhile, evidence was mounting that although Mr Carpentier had a key role to play in the dispute, others could not escape responsibility. The Kwai Chung labour camp where the workers live is a disconnected place, made up of rows of four-storey metal structures. The street near Container Port Road is dark and deserted at night, the drains outside the site pungent in the still air. Outsiders are not allowed into the camp these days. But workers gathering outside told the South China Morning Post they were not given decent food or facilities. Under Hong Kong law, employers are allowed to deduct a quarter of their basic wages for food and accommodation. But a worker said: 'Our living quarters are cramped. We drink from tap water, always get eggs for breakfast. If today is hard boiled eggs, tomorrow will be fried eggs. We are sick of eggs.' Ever since Thais started to seek opportunities overseas in the early 70s, they have been prey to job sharks. Almost all are employed through brokers who take hefty commissions. The Thai Ministry of Labour has even bowed to this practice: its new maximum legal commission for finding a foreign job has jumped from 38,000 baht to 56,000 baht (HK$11,856 to $17,472) a head. But many Thai workers, perhaps most, pay much more. The high fees demanded by job brokers force workers into a debt trap from which they can only escape if the work turns out to be as remunerative as rumours suggest. Kwai Chung worker Pratheep, 30, said he borrowed 60,000 baht to secure a job in Hong Kong a year ago. He has only earned enough to pay off his debts. 'I have no savings,' he said. Officials from the CTU, who helped organise workers to negotiate with Labour Department officials and CBF management, said the biggest flaw in the labour importation scheme was the near impossibility of halting exploitation. Lee Cheuk-yan, legislator and CTU chief executive, said Hong Kong law cannot stop job brokers from demanding high fees. 'And we never know whether brokers have made secret deals with employers,' he said. HONG Kong law states overseas workers must be paid a minimum salary, and employers should pay the full amount to workers' bank account every month. 'But what if an agent makes a worker promise to give him some of his wages every month as a condition of giving him a job?' said Mr Lee. 'We have seen cases when labourers from the mainland secretly returned some of their wages to the employers.' In the Kwai Chung row, irregularities are alleged to have occurred only after wages were paid in to the workers' accounts. As the dispute involved 800 workers, Mr Lee estimates more than $10 million was involved. Documents recovered by unionists showed CBF had paid workers full wages. The money was transferred by autopay to their bank accounts. But one document seen by the Post shows that in one case, $2,542 of the wages was transferred to a little-known Hong Kong-registered company, Yn Yang International, of which Mr Carpentier is a director. What puzzled unionists was the ease with which money was transferred out of the worker's bank account - apparently with his authorisation - into Yn Yang. Unionist Mung Siu-tat of the CTU said: 'One worker who was shown the authorisation letter which apparently carried his signature told me he never signed it.' Unionists also discovered that while workers held a copy of the employment contract, wages shown in the document were considerably lower than promised in the originals. 'There were two contracts for each worker, giving different wages,' said Mr Mung. 'Copies held by workers show a lower, illegal salary.' Mr Mung said these and other discrepancies could only be explained by Mr Carpentier. Assistant Commissioner for Labour, Alfred Chan Wing-kit, confirmed Mr Carpentier's role as a recruiter. He said Mr Carpentier was with Phothinan Engineering, the company that recruited Thai workers to Hong Kong for CBF. The Frenchman was last seen on September 25 at the Kwai Chung site. Suwan, a worker who saw him that evening, said: 'I discovered my name had gone missing from the salary notice. I thought something was wrong so I went to see the manager. Daniel was standing at a distance. He did not talk to me, but he knew what it was about.' Suwan had had niggling doubts over his wages for a while. Only the day before, he had accompanied a friend to the Thai Labour section of the Thai consulate. He said the friend, on completion of a one-year contract with CBF, discovered miscalculation of his overtime hours. It was while checking this at the Thai Labour section that Suwan's friend discovered his salary should be considerably more than shown in the copy of the employment contract he held, explained Amphan Calixterio, chairman of voluntary agency Friends of Thai, who is helping Thai workers in the dispute. That night, Suwan and his friend returned to the Kwai Chung camp, and from their tiny room, rumours began to circulate that the workers had been cheated. Adding to Suwan's doubts was the mysterious disappearance of his name from the monthly salary notice. Every month as pay day approached, camp boss Thitikorn would stick a pay record on a bulletin board in the camp canteen so that workers would know the amount of overtime hours they had clocked up and their total wages for the month. As it turned out, someone had forgotten to renew Suwan's work visa, making him an illegal worker. It was apparently due to his illegal status that his name did not appear on the pay record. Suwan said on confronting the manager, he was promised $5,000 and a plane ticket home. 'I went to consult my friends. They told me not to accept the money. They said there were 800 of us. If each of them gave me $10 I would have $8,000. They said I did not need the $5,000. They told me I should fight for what I was owed.' Suwan said he was finally told he would get a reply from camp management early next morning. 'They promised they would get back to us at 6 o'clock. We waited until 7. There was no reply, so we struck.' The Thai workers said it was not until then that they discovered what they now believe are the true colours of 'the boss'. 'We used to like him. But we are very very angry with him now,' said a Thai worker representative. But not everyone sees the Frenchman in such a light. Daniel Sztanke, a Bangkok-based associate of Mr Carpentier, told the Post last week: 'He's a good man. He has been a friend for 20 years.' Mr Sztanke, who is also a director of Yn Yang International, claimed however that he had not done any business with his friend for 'many years' and has not spoken to him for about a month. Mr Carpentier's address registered with the Companies Registry in Hong Kong is that of a French restaurant called L'Hexagone, in an upmarket suburban district off Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. On Thursday night the smart restaurant was empty of customers although a score of covers were laid; the head waiter said Mr Carpentier had not been seen for quite a while. 'He used to be here, but now he doesn't come any more,' he said. Mr Sztanke said Yn Yang International was formed some eight years ago when he was still Mr Carpentier's active partner. 'Daniel went on to concentrate on the manpower business, which has been his speciality.' Mr Sztanke said he found it hard to believe that his friend would be mixed up in payment shenanigans. 'He earns money - that's normal. But every time he takes care of the Thai people. 'Whenever there is a problem he'd be the first to try to solve it.' That, too, is the Labour Department's attitude, its officials say. Alfred Chan was quick to point out he had helped solve the dispute, obviously pleased that the Thais had returned to work. But as the Labour Department was in charge of the labour importation scheme, should officials be held responsible for looking after the welfare of overseas labourers? Mr Mung said: 'Employers are required to provide workers free of charge with a copy of the employment contract which states among others, their monthly wages and overtime rates. In this incident, workers were not given a copy of the contract.' Mr Chan said from now on this would be made compulsory. The procedure will have no legal bearing, he admits, but failure to do so 'could affect an employer's future application to import workers'. He said foreign workers would also be required to attend briefings on arrival in Hong Kong so they would be told of their rights. He said workers are advised to use the Labour Department hotline to make inquiries or complaints. The hotline is in three languages: English, Chinese and Mandarin. 'We will have a Thai-speaking hotline soon. This is an improvement of service. We want to do even better.' Additional reporting by William Barnes in Bangkok.