Pacific nations

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

Dozens of men say they cannot afford to leave the US commonwealth island until they are paid the wages they are owed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 December, 2017, 11:48pm

Liu Guoxin, a 45-year-old construction worker from central China, will be spending New Year’s Eve in Saipan, a commonwealth of the United States in the western Pacific. He would rather be back home with his wife and two children, but he cannot afford to leave until he is paid the wages he says he is owed.

In 2016, Liu responded to an advertisement by a recruiter in his hometown of Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. The advert offered a monthly salary of at least US$2,300, free accommodation with just three or four men to a room, and even the possibility of a US green card.

Despite being asked to pay US$6,250 as a recruitment fee – half of which came from his relatives and the rest from a loan shark – Liu thought it sounded like the chance of a lifetime and signed up.

On December 14, 2016 he landed in Saipan, picked up his on-arrival tourist visa and began his pursuit of the American dream.

Liu’s employer was an engineering company based in eastern China that specialises in curtain walls for buildings. His job was to help put together the metal frames used to hold the huge glass panels on the outside of a US$3.1 billion casino and hotel development owned by Hong Kong-based Imperial Pacific International.

But what started as a dream, soon became a nightmare.

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“I came here thinking that it was the actual US, but Saipan is far from what I had imagined,” Liu said.

“It was all a scam. The cosy staff quarters turned out to be a dirty flat of about 30 square metres where 20 men slept on bunk beds and shared a single toilet.

“I often had to work 13 hours a day, got hardly any days off and was told I would be paid just 7,500 yuan (US$1,150) a month, half of what I’d been promised.”

However, the worst was yet to come.

In late March, FBI agents raided the construction site he was working on after a man died in a fall. Several supervisors with Chinese contractors were arrested or fled, and dozens of undocumented Chinese workers were left stranded, according to The New York Times.

Nine months later, Liu and dozens of other Chinese are still in Saipan. He said he was paid about US$5,200 before his bosses disappeared, but was still owed the equivalent of about US$11,500.

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Thankfully for Liu and 23 of his colleagues, a local Catholic church took them in and gives them with three hot meals a day.

Despite the threat of arrest, the men are fighting for what they say they are owed in unpaid wages as well as compensation for the huge recruitment fees they paid. Given the language and cultural barriers, their lack of legal knowledge and fear of being repatriated to face loan sharks empty-handed add to their anxiety.

Aaron Halegua, a lawyer and research fellow at the New York University School of Law who is familiar with the Chinese workers’ struggles, said the case showed “how profoundly vulnerable foreign workers are to exploitation”.

“This fear is further compounded by the large debts incurred by the workers to get to Saipan, as many would face angry loan sharks if they were fired and sent back to China,” he said.

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Another man determined to get what he is owed is 42-year-old Guo Qinghui, from eastern China’s Shandong province, who said he paid a recruiter about US$6,000 to find him a job on the casino project with MCC International Saipan, a company owned by state-run China Metallurgical Corp. But soon after arriving in November 2016, Guo said his agent severed all contact with him.

According to legal documents issued by its lawyers, casino operator Imperial Pacific in November offered Guo about US$4,000 to cover his unpaid wages after MCC failed to do so. He declined the offer.

“Many MCC workers who worked for just 10 days got US$7,000-8,000. Another worker, Wang Chunlin, received US$25,000 before he left in May. We’re not asking for any more than what MCC paid to other workers,” he said.

“I can’t just go home like this. There are loan sharks waiting and we must find ways to get by until our case is resolved.”

According to the labour department for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which includes Saipan, foreign workers on the island are entitled to a minimum wage of US$6.55 an hour, and time-and-a-half for every hour over 40 they work each week.

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In April, the first batch of 189 workers were paid and repatriated by MCC, after a deal was made with the US Department of Labour, according to local newspaper Marianas Variety.

A second group, of about 90 workers hired by Chinese contractor Gold Mantis Construction Decoration, were sent home in May after being compensated for unpaid wages, recruitment fees and damages.

But not everyone was so fortunate. The stranded men said several of their colleagues returned home with nothing, while others took jobs at construction companies still operating in Saipan.

“It’s not that we don’t want to leave,” Liu said. “We have family members back home who desperately need us too, along with unsettled bills and loans waiting to be repaid.”

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Guo and his several colleagues were evicted from a dormitory they previously stayed on December 20.

Guo said he and three colleagues then found a “shed” to live in, but even that costs US$350 a month, money they just do not have.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do next. My mind is numb,” he said.

Halegua said countries that sent workers abroad and those that received them must do more to protect them.

“As Chinese firms continue to undertake projects as part of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ … greater attention must be paid to labour issues,” he said.

A spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry said the Saipan case was a labour dispute and would remain so unless the workers filed for consular help.