More than 100 Lao people, working on a mainland Chinese-funded high speed railway between the two countries, claim they received no wages for months on Sept. 16.

Multiple Lao-China Railway Project employees complained about receiving no payment despite having already worked on Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative in two villages, near Vientiane.

They claim their subcontracting employer promised to pay at the end of each month and withheld their income for more than two months.

“We finished all our work but our Chinese employer would not pay us,” one worker from Dong Phonhae village in Vientiane’s Hatxayfong district said according to Radio Free Asia

“We have not been paid since last month, and we have no money left to buy food,” the same worker said according to the broadcaster. “We are from Luang Prabang province, and we have been working here for four months.”

A different worker claimed he was never paid at all.

One foreman, who supervises the Dong Phonhae village construction site, is seriously considering to cut the project’s power supply to make employers pay.

“They earn between 1 million kip ($100) and two million kip ($200) each month, and the company still owes us all together 100 million kip ($10,000) for the work we did in August and the first half of September,” he said.

About 20 other workers were recently paid up to Sept. 21. Those employees have already left the work site and returned home.

However, laborers from Dong Phosy village are still waiting for their wages.

“Our employer has given no reason so far why he cannot pay his workers their salaries,” one worker said.

Affected workers complained local authorities are unable to help them since most of them did not have contracts. The employer is reportedly uncontactable.

A Lao Labor and Social Welfare Government representative received no complaint about unpaid workers, and urged them to make a submission so the ministry can help them.

Wages withheld for up to a year

Previous experiences show anyone who works under CCP control is unlikely to be paid on time, regardless of nationality. This includes the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

According to Global Slavery Index’s 2018 study:

The construction sector in China is known for the common practice of paying workers in arrears, with wages sometimes being withheld for up to a one year. Construction workers are reportedly subjected to other exploitative practices such as withheld wages and non-payment, excessive and illegal overtime, and widespread lack of employment contracts–all of which are indicators of forced labour. Amid a recent slowing of economic growth in China after decades of robust growth, in 2015 nearly 3 million Chinese workers reported not being paid on time, with workers in construction being most at risk of underpayment.

U.S.–based Chinese Labor Watch released an April report which collected testimonies from 100 workers employed at “One Belt, One Road” projects in various countries around the world. The report revealed employers withhold employee wages and are constantly make late payments. They sometimes even reduce wages without notice.

“A worker who went to Jordan worked in the desert for five months but only received his salary for the first six days,” the report said.

A subcontracting company separately threatened two men with losing “six months of salary that had not yet been paid.” They had to stay on for “maintenance and installation” at a project in Algeria to receive full payment during 2019.

“They did not get paid until October 2020 due to the resignation of the former manager, which is equivalent to 16 months of wages in arrears, and the workers had to borrow money for food,” China Labor Watch said.

$5.1 billion debt trap

The 260-mile railway is worth $5.1 billion. The new infrastructure runs between Luang Namtha province on the Lao-China border and the capitol of Vientiane.

There are growing concerns that CCP money borrowed to fund project could put Laos in a “debt trap.” If the South East Asian country is unable to repay its Chinese creditors, the infrastructure could fall into Beijing ownership by default. This is especially risky during a global economic slowdown.

Debt has already strained on Laos. Research published in the Financial Times during 2018 shows national external debt was 93 percent of gross national income. Repaying the China-Laos railway construction costs could cost nearly 40 percent of national gross domestic product (GDP). Laos’s debt levels accounted for at least 65 percent of national GDP at the time of publication.

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