By Chen Zhouxi
Published: 2008-05-05

From Nation, page 13, issue no. 365, April 28, 2008
Translated by Zuo Maohong
Original article:

Though having arrived safely at home, Lin Tianmin* was still tormented by malaria he caught in Equatorial Guinea. The disease, however, was not his worst memory of the alien land.

The sound of gun shots and frantic yells continued to resonate in his ears while images of his fellow co-workers soaked in blood and tumbling dead would haunt him for life.

On April 1, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spokesperson Jiang Yu told a routine press conference that two Chinese workers had died and four others injured during a strike in Equatorial Guinea.

The mishap could be traced back to a labor-contractor dispute over salary that escalated into a strike and open conflict, which was then put down by the police of Equatorial Guinea.

The EO learned that the laborers involved were mainly from Donghai county of Lianyungang in Jiangsu and Weihai in Shandong province. Lin was one of those from Donghai.

The construction project's main contractor was a Dalian-based company but the workers who went on strike were under sub-contractor Jianyu Overseas Development Limited, a subsidiary of Weihai Construction Group.

A Golden Opportunity Turned Awry
Lin recalled the seed to his ordeal was sowed last March, when a recruitment advertisement caught his attention.

The advertisement, published by a Lianyungang-based employment agency named Huanyu, promised a minimum monthly pay of 540 dollars and a 90,000 to 110,000-yuan income after two years of work in Equatorial Guinea.

"We went there for the 110,000 yuan," Lin said,adding it was about five times what he earned in Donghai.

The temptation lured Lin to pay a 20,000 yuan deposit, 3,000 yuan fee for employment services, and 2,000 yuan for a passport and other miscellaneous charges to fulfill his dream to work abroad.

In turn, he received a vaccination against malaria and was promised a catastrophic life insurance upon signing a labor contract with both Jianyu and Huanyu. He was also told that salary would be settled at the end of every month.

Things turned out to be quite different after a period of work on the ground in Equatorial Guinea, Lin said. There were workers suffering from malarial fevers every day, and some even developed kidney stones, he recalled.

Later, some workers found the company failed to buy them insurance as promised. What's more, the Donghai workers also claimed to be at a disadvantage as the project manager and all the team leaders were from Weihai.

The Donghai workers tolerated all the above, Lin claimed, as all they cared about was the pay. However, unlike the initial agreement, they were not paid until last October, five months after they began work. The second payment wasn't made until another four months later, Lin recalled. Meanwhile, they found their wages remained the same in US dollar yet it had depreciated against the yuan.

Suppressed at Gunpoint
After a few days of murmurs about whether the company would maintain the value of their future wages in the continuously depreciating US dollar, a worker finally expressed his worry to the project manager Yang Hui on March 7.

At a meeting two days later, the workers were told not to mention the matter any more and that their wages would remain fixed regardless of the US dollar depreciation. Over 60 Donghai workers quit working after the meeting, and those from Weihai followed.

The next day, the company sent Yang and another manager Liu Zhiqing to negotiate with the workers. The latter demanded their wages be made known monthly and its value be retained in yuan. For the next ten days, however, they received no response from the company, Lin claimed.

On March 20, about 15 policemen came to the workers' dormitory and urged them to return to work as strike was against local law. To the workers' understanding, Lin said, the police were called in by Yang to "suppress" them.

Four days later, the police, this time armed with guns, paid a second visit to the dormitory. They tried to take away thirteen workers but failed as the rest held them back in anger, Lin recalled. According to another worker who declined to be named, the 13 workers had quarreled with Yang before.

To Lin, the ensuing clamp down using fire arms was a deliberate plot. The night before the violence, he said, Yang and all the team leaders had disappeared.

At 11:40 on March 25, some 40 policemen visited the dormitory again with a batch of soldiers. Through the interpreter, the workers were told the police came on behalf of the local government and they must go back to work as the law forbade strike.

"Since we work, they (the company) should let us know how much wage we earn," the laborers had replied, according to Lin. They also asked the police where the manager was as it should be his responsibility to handle the strike, Lin said.

The workers got angry when they found the police knew where Yang was but refuse to take him to the scene for negotiation. After some ten minutes of talk, the police began dragging people into their cars, Lin recalled.

The workers then stood in lines, hand in hand, and tried to force the police out of the hostel yard. When they were only about 20 meters away from the police, Lin said, the latter fired shots into the air.

"They don't dare to shoot at us," Lin recalled someone shouting. This prompted the line to move on until one of them threw stones at the police, and a storm of violence broke lose.

The police started targeting the crowd and fired about ten shots. Some workers among the front lines fell and the earth began turnin blood red. Lin recalled some workers ran chaotically while others bent down or laid on the ground.  

That night, over 100 workers were detained.

Dashed Hopes
On March 28, China's MOFA stated on its website that it had contacted the Equatorial Guinean government and demanded an investigation. On April 4, it made another statement that a team from China had been sent to probe the matter.

After ten days and nine nights in detention, the captured laborers were sent directly to the airport on April 3 for deportation. The next day, over 180 laborers, two of the injured and the bodies of the dead arrived in Shanghai. On April 6, another 171 laborers were sent back to Shanghai.

Upon arriving home, Donghai Disease Control Center collected blood sample from 121 Donghai workers and later found ten to have been infected with malaria.

Despite the Chinese government's assurance that the issue would be investigated thoroughly, Lin said so far Donghai workers had yet to hear of an outcome. Rumors had it that the deceased's families were paid 300,000 yuan each as compensation.

Lin said some of the deported workers had gone to the employment services agency upon returning to demand for a refund of various service charges. The demand was turned down and one worker, who wanted to stay anonymous, claimed the agency had even beaten up a worker.

Many workers involved in the incident had declined to be interview while those who agreed had requested anonymity. One of them said: "(we are) fearful of revenge and that our chances to go abroad for work in future would be jeopardized." 

Soon after the fatal incident, the MOFA had issued a statement saying as more Chinese went abroad for work in recent years, more labor disputes involving Chinese had occurred overseas, mainly due to failure to adjust to a different working environment and culture. The Ministry cautioned Chinese labors working abroad to "do as Romans do when in Rome" and "act in accordance with the law to seek redress".

*note: names of the workers involved have been altered to protect their identities