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‘If we go home now, we’ll die’: Chinese couple in Saipan back-pay row vow to fight on despite US labour deal

Husband and wife from rural Liaoning province say they can’t return without enough money to pay back loan sharks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2018, 12:57pm

Five Chinese construction workers stranded by a pay dispute on the US-administered Pacific island of Saipan have vowed to fight on for more compensation after US authorities announced a US$14 million settlement in the case.

Most of the roughly 2,400 Chinese workers owed back pay over a multibillion-dollar casino-hotel building project have returned home but Xu Longcai, 51, and his wife Niu Xinru, 45, said on Tuesday they would not feel safe going back to their hometown in Liaoning province without adequate compensation to pay loan sharks.

Like other workers, Xu and Niu were lured more than a year ago to Saipan in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands on false promises of good wages.

In December, a number of the workers told the South China Morning Post that they had to pay a hefty upfront “recruitment” fee to agents in China, and once they arrived in Saipan, had to work long hours at below legal US minimum wage with no holiday.

They mounted a series of protests but many of those owed money could not wait for a settlement and went home. 

Chinese firms told to pay millions in back wages over US Pacific island casino project

This week the US Department of Labour announced that it had reached a deal with four China-based contractors over the unpaid wages.

“Four China-based construction contractors – MCC International Saipan, Beilida New Materials System Engineering, Gold Mantis Construction Decoration, and Sino Great Wall International Engineering – have entered into formal agreements to pay US$13,972,425 in back wages and liquidated damages to more than 2,400 employees,” the department said in a statement. 

Bryan Jarrett, the department’s wage and hour acting administrator, said: “These settlements ensure that thousands of workers will receive the wages they legally earned, while simultaneously sending a strong, clear message to other employers.” 

It was not clear how much each worker would receive but if divided equally, the payments would be about US$5,800 per person.

Xu and Niu said they would need at least US$25,000 just to cover the 110,000 yuan (US$17,350) plus interest they owed to loan sharks in Shenyang, Liaoning province.

The rural couple borrowed the money to pay recruitment agents who promised them construction jobs that would then pay them 15,000 yuan a month each for five years. 

‘American dream’ becomes a nightmare for Chinese workers left stranded in Saipan

But when they arrived in Saipan in late 2016, they were told women were not allowed on the building site and Xu would be paid about 9,000 yuan a month. 

If we go home now, we will all die
Niu Xinru

Xu’s job lasted a little over three months before FBI agents raided the construction site after a worker died in a fall in March last year, they said. 

“I’m numb. I can’t feel anything even after the settlement was announced. I don’t know what to feel any more after a year of waiting around for nothing. I don’t see the end of it and don’t know when we could ever go home,” Niu said. 

Niu said her 29-year-old son fled to Saipan in January after their home was vandalised. 

“If we go home now, we will all die,” she said. 

The US$ 3.1 billion casino and hotel development is owned by Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International, which contracted China-based construction firms to bring workers in for the site.

A decades-old blot on China’s conscience: unpaid migrant workers

According to the US Department of Labour, investigators determined the Chinese workers were brought in as tourists under a “tourist visa waiver programme” issued by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. 

They were paid below minimum wage and overtime pay required by the US Fair Labour Standards Act. The workers on the site without proper work visas also incurred debts of US$6,000 or more when they were required to pay their own airfare and recruitment fees before their employment on Saipan, according to the department. 

It said its investigation was continuing.

Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and research fellow at New York University law school, welcomed the settlement for the workers who were “seriously defrauded and exploited”. 

Doubts raised over US$7.1b plan for Imperial Pacific's Saipan casino

We still must ask: what is being done to prevent abuses like this in the future?
Aaron Halegua, lawyer

“Back pay and liquidated damages is the minimum that employers who engage in such egregious violations of the law should be forced to pay,” Halegua said.

“If an employer could get away with just paying the wages that it should have in the first place, but suffered no additional penalty for breaking the law, there would be no incentive to comply. 

“The casino project is far from over and we still must ask: what is being done to prevent abuses like this in the future?

“The US Department of Labour should insist that Imperial Pacific require any future contractors that it hires to subject themselves to third-party monitoring of the working conditions.”