Armed Chinese guards are forcing Lao workers in the country’s northern Oudomxay province to labor in banana plantations contaminated with dangerous chemicals, local sources tell RFA’s Lao Service.
A chief of the Nongbouadeang village in the province’s Houn district told RFA that 50 Lao workers in a Chinese-owned banana plantation in the neighboring village of Nammieng were working under Chinese overseers armed with automatic rifles.
“In Laos, it is against the law to have a gun because only soldiers and police are allowed to have guns,” said the chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The plantation owner uses the weapons because he is scared that Lao workers will resist his orders, but he does not have permission to have firearms," he said.
Police Lt. Col. Nilavong Cheaungsavalath, chief of the Oudomxay province’s police force, told RFA that authorities will investigate the report.
“We have not been informed of this case, but we will follow up and investigate,” he said. “It is not right, if the Chinese are doing that.”
Northern Laos has emerged as an important source of fresh bananas for the Chinese market, and several different Chinese investors have established plantations covering thousands of hectares in the area. A Beng district official, who declined to be identified, told RFA that a half-dozen Chinese companies hold banana plantation concessions in Oudomxay province.
Low pay, dangerous conditions
Banana production provides jobs for Lao agricultural workers, but laborers there say they are forced to work in hazardous conditions for low pay while they live in squalid company-provided housing.
The majority of workers in the plantations come from nearby Phongsaly and Houaphan provinces and receive about 50,000 kip (U.S. $6.25) a day. They are not paid if they are sick and are forced to work in unsanitary conditions around dangerous chemicals, according to the village chief.
An agriculture official from nearby Bokeo province, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Chinese weren’t issuing workers with the proper protective gear.
“The problem is that the workers do not have uniforms when herbicide is being sprayed in the plantation,” the agriculture official said. “Some workers have problems with skin disease, and their residences are dirty and have poor sanitation.”
Plantation owners also prevent Lao laborers from working on the plantations for longer than three years because the owners fear the workers will die there.
An official from the provincial labor and social welfare ministry confirmed to the RFA that a 59-year-old laborer died in the Bokeo provincial hospital last year “due to working in the banana plantation in Pha Oudom, but the Chinese employer only paid 500,000 kip (U.S. $62) to help with his funeral.”
Not just a local issue
The provinces of Bokeo, Luang Namtha, Phongsaly, and Sayaboury also suffer from pollution from agricultural chemicals and other unhealthy conditions caused by banana production, the sources tell RFA.
It is not just the workers who are in danger as agricultural chemicals also leach into Oudomxay's Beng River, despite an agreement between Lao officials and the Chinese to reduce the dangerous chemicals used on the plantations. The river supplies water to 15 different villages in the province.
“In late 2015, provincial authorities signed a memorandum of understanding with the six Chinese companies requiring them to use organic fertilizers, because they were seeing that a lot of chemicals being used,” the Beng district official said. “But that practice is not being followed.”
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.