More than a hundred Lao workers building a China-backed high-speed railway connecting that country with Laos have gone without pay for almost two months, prompting one foreman to cut power to the project to force payment to his men, Lao sources say.
The laborers, who work in two villages in the capital Vientiane for several Chinese subcontractors, had been told they would be paid for their work at the end of each month, but one worker said their pay had been held back.
“We finished all our work, but our Chinese employer wouldn’t pay us,” the worker in Dong Phonhae village in Vientiane’s Hatxayfong district told RFA on Sept. 16. “He said he would pay us later today or maybe tomorrow, but he never did,” he said.
“We haven’t been paid since last month, and we have no money left to buy food. We’re from Luang Prabang province, and we’ve been working here for four months,” he said.
“Our employer promised yesterday that he would pay us today, but today has almost gone and we still haven’t gotten anything,” another Dong Phonhae worker said, with a third worker from the same village saying he has never been paid.
“I’m new here and have been working for more than a month, but I’ve never been paid. And my coworkers haven’t been paid for almost two months.”
“The employer keeps saying, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow,’” he said.
A fourth worker frustrated by the delays said he would quit his job on the rail line as soon as he is paid. “As soon as I receive my money, I’ll go back home to Oudomxay province and won’t come back again,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, a foreman at the Dong Phonhae village work site said he has about 100 laborers working under his supervision.
“They earn between one million kip (U.S. $100) and two million kip each month, and the company still owes us all together 100 million kip for the work we did in August and the first half of September.”
A different group of workers from Dong Phosy, a second village in the district, said they had also not been paid by their Chinese subcontractor on the Lao-China Railway Project or almost two months, with one worker saying they had completed all the work assigned by their employer but had still not been paid.
“Many of us quit, and some others are still waiting for their money,” the worker told RFA on Sept. 17.
‘He never showed up’
Another worker on the same work site told RFA the same day that their employer after speaking with his business partner had promised the day before to pay them that evening but never showed up. “We waited until 11:00 p.m., and today it’s almost noon but no one has come now, either,” he said.
“Our employer has given no reason so far why he can’t pay his workers their salaries,” another Dong Phosy worker said, adding that some workers at his work site had given up waiting for their money and had now returned home.
“I don’t have any money for travel, myself, so I have to wait for my pay,” he said.
A fourth worker from the same village who had worked at the site for more than a month said his own promised salary was three million kip [$300] per month, but that he had not been paid anything at all.
“Our employer just disappeared,” he said. “My wife and I can’t go anywhere, because we have no money. We will just have to wait to be paid.”
“I’m not expecting any payment from our employer anymore, and I’m going back to my home in Borikhamxay province,” a fifth Dong Phosy worker said. “Labor officials keep asking me for a record of the work I’ve done and proof that I haven’t been paid, but I don’t have anything that I can show them.”
“Most of the other workers here are still waiting, too, and the authorities aren’t helping us,” he said.
A constant dispute
Other workers at Dong Phosy said the Lao workers and their Chinese employer are in constant dispute, with one worker saying their employer sometimes complains to district officials that assigned work is sometimes left undone, saying they won’t pay the men until the jobs are completed.
“The workers sometimes say they can’t finish their work because it’s raining too much,” he said.
“Many Lao workers are not serious about their work,” added a Lao supervisor working for the Chinese subcontractor on the Dong Phosy site.
“They don’t work hard. Some fall asleep on the job, some others are high on meth, and some steal. The employers cut off their wages and sometimes call the police on them,” he said.
The workers must continue their fight for their pay, though, a labor expert said, speaking like other RFA sources on condition of anonymity for reasons of personal security. “They should first keep demanding their payment from the employers, and if that fails, they have the right to sue their employers in court,” he said.
Lao laborers working for Chinese companies need to have a contract clearly stating when and how much a worker will be paid, though, said one former employee of a Chinese company working in Vientiane. “If you don’t have that contract, it’s hard to sue your employer,” he said.
Speaking to RFA, an official at the Lao Labor and Social Welfare Ministry said his ministry has not yet received a complaint from the unpaid workers, and suggested they launch a formal complaint so that the ministry can help them.
Requests for comment from the Chinese companies working in Vientiane went unanswered.
Some are now paid
Around 20 of the unpaid workers in Dong Phonhae have now been paid, one villager said on Sept. 21, adding that he quit as soon as he received the two million kip [$200] that was owed to him. “I’ll look for a new job somewhere else. Here, the payments come too late,” he said.
“Around 20 of us got our pay after we cut off power to the work site.”
“The employer paid our money right away,” another worker said. “But almost all the workers who received their money have now gone home.”
“More than 100 other rail workers employed by other Chinese subcontractors here have not gotten their pay yet and are still waiting,” he said.
Work on the $5.9 billion Lao-China railway link began in December 2016, with the project expected to lower the cost of exports and consumer goods in Laos and boost socioeconomic development in the landlocked nation of nearly 7 million people.
The 260-mile railway connecting Luang Namtha province on the Lao-China border to the capital Vientiane is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure lending and construction to support trade with China, and is now almost 94 percent complete.
China is Laos’ largest foreign investor and aid provider, and its second-largest trade partner after Thailand.
Reported and translated by Max Avary for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.