Scores of laborers who work for a Chinese-backed potash plant in Laos have held a rare protest in the one-party communist nation to demand salary they say the facility’s owner never paid them, according to sources.
Operators of the plant, located in Xaythany district about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) outside of the capital Vientiane, have also drawn the ire of local residents who complain that its wastewater is polluting the area and destroying their farmland.
Around 70 Lao workers at the potash plant, which produces fertilizers, held a protest at the facility on March 18 demanding two months of back pay and expressing anger that they have not received regular pay like their Chinese coworkers.
“We protested because we don’t have enough money to feed our families,” one worker told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We see the Chinese get paid and wondered why we don’t. So we all agreed in the dormitory to protest for our money, without any leaders, as it wouldn’t matter one way or another if the employer fired us.”
The managers of the U.S. $94.6 million joint venture between Chinese firm Sinohydro and the Lao government, which employs more than 100 people, met with the protesters and agreed to pay them one month of the salary they were owed, he said, adding that workers had since returned to their jobs.
“We are waiting to claim the remainder of our salaries on April 5, and if we do not get paid, we will protest again because our demands were partially met after last week’s action,” the worker said.
Last week’s protest was the second held at the plant since Lao workers demonstrated in 2014 to demand a salary increase, he said, but their demands were not met and two workers who had led the protest were fired.
A Lao official from the local Labor and Social Welfare Department, who also asked to remain anonymous, denied that a protest had taken place at the plant on March 18, despite several workers confirming the demonstration to RFA.
“There was a misunderstanding between the workers and the employer, but now the matter has been settled,” he said, adding that the disagreement stemmed from a group of workers who “wanted to receive an advance payment.”
A labor union official, however, acknowledged that “a problem” had occurred at the plant and said local government officials had been dispatched to discuss the matter with the plant management.
Outside the factory, local villagers told RFA that runoff from the potash plant was destroying the ecosystem and their livelihoods.
“We cannot plant rice in the fields as we did in the past,” one of the villagers said.
“In addition, the field is soaked with salty water from the potash plant, which has caused the grass in the fields to die. We have been unable to grow either rice or vegetables since the potash plant was built.”
According to the villager, his family had farmed rice every year until the plant went online in 2012, but was forced to abandon agriculture because of the damaged land and now he works as a day laborer.
“The rice fields of over 20 families [in Viengkeo village] have been affected by the wastewater draining from the plant,” he said.
“Last year we informed the relevant authorities about the pollution, but no one has come to investigate. The problem has become worse, but we have received no compensation for our losses from the plant owners.”
An official with the Vientiane Natural Resource and Environment Department told RFA that he was unaware of wastewater from the plant damaging local farmland, though officials were investigating a mass death of fish in the area.
“We have not received a report on this issue yet, but we recently heard that fish had died in a pond located downhill from the plant after saltwater leaked into it, so we have sent officials to investigate.”
According to the Vientiane Times, the potash joint venture paid more than 4.6 billion kip (U.S. $566,500) in compensation to residents of Xaythany’s Viengkep, Houaytouy and Huaydaenmeuang villages in 2011 after their land was appropriated for the project.
The report, written while the plant was under construction, quoted deputy general manager Tong Hong Pin as saying that the Lao government, local authorities and local residents were all in favor of the project, which he said was in compliance with Lao law and requirements.
The company had stated that it would use environmentally friendly technology in the excavation and production processes.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.