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'Crushed Like Ants:' Chinese Workers Meet Harsh Reality In Belarus

More than 4,200 Chinese citizens currently work in Belarus on Chinese-funded projects.
More than 4,200 Chinese citizens currently work in Belarus on Chinese-funded projects.

DOBRUS, Belarus -- Katsyarina lives in what was once a quiet neighborhood of Dobrus, a small town in southeastern Belarus.

Since authorities approved the construction of a cardboard factory two years ago, however, the neighborhood has been teeming with Chinese workers.

"They are punctual like clockwork. They go to work at 5:30 a.m.," says Katsyarina, whose street flanks the construction site.

Authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country with an iron fist for more than two decades, has been wooing Chinese investors in a bid to offset Western sanctions slapped on Belarus in response to its poor human rights record.

According to authorities, more than 4,200 Chinese citizens currently work in Belarus on Chinese-funded projects.

About 1,000 of them live in Dobrus, a sizable contingent in this sleepy provincial town of just 18,000 inhabitants.

Belarus has granted another 6,663 visas to Chinese workers hired to build a massive industrial park near Minsk that is a joint venture between the two countries.

Most of the Chinese in Dobrus paid an agency between $200 and $2,000 to land a job at the construction site.
Most of the Chinese in Dobrus paid an agency between $200 and $2,000 to land a job at the construction site.

The $5 billion manufacturing hub, a pet project of Lukashenka's, is planned to stretch over 80 square kilometers, which would make it the largest Chinese industrial park in Europe.

Belarusian authorities, however, appear to be providing little, if any, oversight of working conditions for Chinese immigrants.

On June 2, about 200 angry Chinese workers took to the streets of Dobrus to protest unpaid wages.

After walking to the nearby city of Homel, they set off for Minsk, 300 kilometers away, to petition the Chinese ambassador.

The demonstration was a rare sight in Belarus, where Lukashenka has cracked down harshly on any form of dissent.

Local media initially reported that Chinese Embassy staff had persuaded the workers to peacefully disband and board buses back to Dobrus.

But a video has since emerged showing the workers clashing with the Belarusian police:

Chinese Workers Clash With Belarusian Police
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Chinese workers told RFE/RL in Dobrus that the Chinese company contracted to build the cardboard factory, Xuan Yuan Industrial Development Co., had in fact called the Belarusian police and told them that the workers were rallying against Belarusian authorities.

"This is why we were stopped and brought back to Dobrus," one worker told RFE/RL through an interpreter.

Workers say their employer has now paid two of the three months' wages it owed them.

But many, discouraged by the harsh working conditions, want to return to China.

The builders say they work 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, with just a 15-minute lunch break.

They live in rudimentary dorms on the construction site, sleeping on three-tier bunk beds and cooking in cramped kitchens shared by dozens of workers.

"We work like slaves," said one of them. "I've never worked outside China before. After such an experience, I'll never go abroad again."

Some of the workers told RFE/RL that the Chinese contractor had confiscated their passports and barred them from purchasing local SIM cards for their mobile phones.

"We cannot give interviews, otherwise our boss will crush us like ants," one of them said. "If we speak to you, we will have problems."

Most of the Chinese in Dobrus come from the countryside and paid a Chinese agency between $200 and $2,000 to land a job at the construction site.

Their salaries, while two to three times higher than the $600 average monthly wage in Belarus, are still a far cry from the huge sums they were promised back in China.

Despite lingering wariness toward the migrants, the Chinese protest has drawn unexpected solidarity from Dobrus inhabitants.

Many Belarusians, all too familiar with unpaid wages and impressed by the Chinese workers' pluckiness, have backed them in their quest for fair pay.

"They did the right thing. I fully support them," says Uladzimir, a Dobrus resident employed at a construction site in Homel. "We have salary arrears, too, and we put up with it. But three whole months? There's a limit to everything."

Like many Dobrus residents, Alyaksandr is shocked by the long hours Chinese workers are being asked to put in.

"Sometimes I walk past the building site at night and I see them working," he says. "The projectors are switched on and the trucks are driving back and forth."

Back at her house near the building site, Katsyarina, too, feels only sympathy for her new foreign neighbors.

"I feel sorry for these kids. They work so hard," she says.

The Chinese workers she once caught pilfering cherries from her garden, she adds, have long been forgiven.

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