China repatriates trafficked 'illegal' SE Asian workers found at Guangdong factory

Nearly 50 Vietnamese nationals have been sent back home, while four Myanmar nationals will soon follow.
By Qiao Long and RFA's Myanmar Service
China repatriates trafficked 'illegal' SE Asian workers found at Guangdong factory A file photo of workers from Myanmar gathering in front of a police station in the Chinese border city of Ruili (Shweli in Burmese) seeking arrangements to be repatriated, Aug. 19, 2021.
Citizen journalist

Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have repatriated dozens of Vietnamese migrant workers found working illegally at a factory in Yangjiang, with four Myanmar nationals awaiting repatriating, RFA has learned.

The 48 Vietnamese workers were sent home recently following their arrests on Jan. 20 during a raid on the Yangjiang Huaqiang Hardware Factory by local police, a police officer who answered the phone at the Baisha police station near the factory told RFA on Thursday.

"This case is being handled by the Jiangcheng branch of the Yangjiang police department, and we assisted them by sending officers," an officer surnamed Guan told RFA. "They are foreigners who aren't allowed to work here ... without a work visa, so they should be deported."

Repeated calls to the Jiangcheng police station rang unananswered during office hours on Thursday, as did calls to the factory.

While some Myanmar nationals managed to evade arrest during the raid, four -- who hail from Sittwe county, Pauktaw township and Myauk U township -- are now awaiting repatriation, sources told RFA.

According to family members, the arrested workers were identified as Maung Maung Chay (or Nay Myo Aung) of Kundaung Village, Ponnagyun Township, Min Thein Naing and Nga Soe Aung from Nga-wet-swei village, Pauktaw township, and Moun San Myint from Mrauk-U township, all in Rakhine state.

Myanmar sources in China said the workers had been smuggled into China by labor agents and employed illegally, Hla Hla Win, the wife of one of the arrested men, Min Thein Naing, said police once used to notify the factory of raids in advance, but hadn't done so for the Jan. 20 raid.

"He was arrested by police on the morning of Jan. 20," she told RFA. "I think they were working in cahoots with the factory owner because it was going to be closed down on Jan 26."

"The factory has two gates. Usually, when the police would come for an inspection, the guards at the gate would inform the supervisors. But there was no warning that day," Hla Hla Win said.

"We think the owner worked with the police because he owed the workers two months of salary amounting to about three million kyat (around U.S.$1,700) each."

Hla Hla Win, who also worked at the factory but managed to escape during the raid, said she now faces repaying two months' worth of her husband's salary to the agent who brought him to China.

Meanwhile, Khin Than Maung, the father of arrested worker Maung Maung Chay, from Rakhine's Ponayun township, said he is worried about his son and daughter, Hla Hla Win.

"I don't know what is happening to him, and because he is overseas, so I won't hear about it," he said. "When my son was in Myanmar I could at least ask how the was doing."

"I'm worried he is in trouble, and I'm also very sad ... how is he living right now?"

Myanmar nationals Maung Maung Chae (aka Nay Myo Aung) (L) and Min Thein Naing were arrested in China's Guangdong province, Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: Maung Maung Chae/Min Thein Naing
Myanmar nationals Maung Maung Chae (aka Nay Myo Aung) (L) and Min Thein Naing were arrested in China's Guangdong province, Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: Maung Maung Chae/Min Thein Naing
Remittances support families

He said Maung Maung Chay had been working in China for the past four years to help out with the family's financial difficulties, and the family had relied heavily on his remittances.

His wife Oo Khin Yin, mother of Maung Maung Chay and Hla Hla Win, said she wanted the two released as soon as possible.

“We have had no contact with them since that day," she told RFA. "My daughter said she had has no contact with the two men and she didn't know where they were being held."

She added: "I just want them released as soon as possible. If the owner doesn’t want to pay, it’s okay. I just want my son released as soon as possible."

Min Thein Naing's sister, Daw Ma Win Nwe, said all family members were worried because they hadn't been able to contact him.

"It makes me very worried that I haven't been in contact with him," she said. "Where are they now? How are they doing? All the brothers and sisters are worried."

"Honestly speaking, their families depend on them," she said. "The money they would send was enough for us to live on. Now that they are in trouble, their families are in trouble too."

Hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar work in China in any given year, crossing into the southwestern province of Yunnan by border checkpoints at Muse or Chin Shwe Haw, yet there is no formal agreement between China and Myanmar about how to handle this migrating workforce.

Ko Htay, head of the Humanitarian Aid Network for Migrant Workers based in Muse, Shan State on the Chinese border, said Myanmar nationals working in mainland China are suffering due to the lack of any agreement.

"You can just compare Thailand with China," Ko Htay said. "On the Thai side, there is an MOU, a memorandum of understanding for workers."

"According to their laws, the Chinese are not wrong [to arrest people]. If you cross the border and work illegally, you break the law. I would like to advise workers to travel there only after China and Myanmar sign a labor agreement," he said.

Repeated calls to the Myanmar embassy in Beijing requesting comment had met with no response by the time of writing.

The Chinese embassy in Myanmar told RFA in an email dated Mar. 10 that it was unaware of the details of the arrests.
It said China welcomes foreigners wishing to work in China, but will punish those who break the law.

No legal status

According to its website, Huaqiang Hardware Factory makes kitchen, bathroom, office and stationery products that are sold to more than a dozen countries and regions in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

Zhang Shengqi, a businessman who is familiar with the situation in Myanmar said labor agents are currently recruiting young people between the ages of 25 and 35 to work in Chinese factories, mostly in Guangdong and Yunnan provinces.

"They have no work or income in Myanmar; they can only farm. They may have passports, and there is also a red book [pass], which is a pass for residents of Myanmar’s border areas to travel to and from China," he said.

But he said working in China wasn't easy.

"The wages are relatively low, because they have no legal status," Zhang said.

China currently allows Myanmar nationals to work in the border towns of Dehong and Jinghong without a work permit, but not the rest of China.

"Once they leave that area to work elsewhere in China, they are considered illegal workers," he said. "Now they will probably not be sent back to Myanmar if they are caught, but to [border regions of Yunnan] where they are let go."

Article 80 of China's Exit and Entry Administration Law says illegal foreign workers can be fined up to 150,000 yuan and deported. Zhang said employers face fines of up to 300,000 yuan for hiring illegal foreign workers.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Luisetta Mudie.


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