by prol-position (July 2009)
About 50 Chinese construction workers (all male) staged a protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Warsaw, Poland, from July 17 to 25, 2009. They had worked in Warsaw since March. Since April they had not received any more wages. In June they stopped working, and in July the Polish subcontractor they had been working for fired them and threw them out of the hostel where they had been staying.
This report describes the development and outcome of the protest, discusses the tactics of the supporting activists from Warsaw, and gives some additional information on the situation and struggles of migrant workers in Poland and elsewhere.
All information for this article came from the supporting activists, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, and from the Chinese workers themselves.
From China to Poland
Most of the Chinese workers are migrants from villages in Fujian Province, South China, a few are from Jilin Province, North China. Many are farmers and have experience in construction work in Chinese cities, some even in Russia. The Fujian workers were hired in China by a labor agency from Shanghai. They were employed in Poland under regulations that allow foreign companies to offer labor services in EU-countries to local firms. They were promised to get around 700 Euros wage per month (for 250 hours of work) plus free food and free accommodation. That is about three to five times more than they could earn on construction sites in China. But they had to pay around 1.000 Euros to the labor agency to get the job and the necessary visa, and they had to pay for the one-way flight to Poland. They managed that by borrowing money from relatives and friends. When they arrived in March 2009, they had a work contract (written in Chinese) and got a Polish visa for 2 years.
After their arrival they started working on a construction site for JW Construction, the biggest developer in Poland. JWC also employs workers from other Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and various former Sowjet Republics. (Many migrants in Poland are from these countries.) The Chinese workers were supposed to work for the Polish subcontractors Eko-Energia and V-Agra (which belong to the same owner). Although the workers were officially employed by a Chinese company they were told they would receive Polish contracts by Eko-Energia and V-Agra in Warsaw. When they arrived in Warsaw the subcontractors acknowledged the fact that they should give them contracts in principle, but refused to do so because of alleged problems. Furthermore, apart from rice no food was provided, so the workers had to use their own food supplies until these were finished.
No wages but dismissals
After one month their contracts were changed from wages paid by the hour to some system were payments were linked to „quality”. Anyway, they just got paid for the first month, not for the following two months. They stopped working in early June and demanded their wages. The subcontractor fired them in mid-June because of an „illegal strike”. In its letter of notice to the workers, V-Agra claimed that the Chinese labor agencies had not paid the accommodation costs and the flight-tickets back to China. The company also informed the workers that their visas had been cancelled and asked them to leave Poland before the 12th of July, or else the Polish border police would deport them.
The workers stayed and held up their demands, including a refund for the 1.000 Euros they had paid to the Chinese labor agency to get the job. At the end of June the workers asked the Chinese embassy in Warsaw for help, but they were not allowed to enter the building. A representative of the embassy asked them to wait for a solution. In mid-July, when they were asked to leave their dormitory and were threatened again with deportation, they decided to return to the embassy and started camping outside on a narrow strip of grass in front of the embassy compound.
Makeshift tents outside the Embassy
Soon, local people brought them food and camping materials. The local government set up a toilet, and after some days, the Red Cross occasionally supplied them with food. The police harrassed the Chinese workers a few times, telling them to leave. Embassy staff came and tried to control them, telling them not to talk to media and local people, but the workers continued to do so. The local mainstream press managed to talk to the workers with the help of interpreters and publish several decent articles summing up most of the facts.
When the Red Cross and other social organizations offered them to stay in hotels for free they refused. It was clear, that they could only continue their protest and keep up the pressure if they stay together in front of the embassy, visible to the embassy staff and public.
Among the 50 were the local foremen of the construction workers, who mainly came from four villages in Fujian. They played an important role in the protest, for the determination to keep up the protest camp and to pressure for a solution. At this time, most of the workers expressed the wish to return to China, a few wanted to stay in Poland or Europe and find another job.
After a few days, they had their first success: The embassy started negotiating with the Polish and Chinese companies involved to settle the conflict.
Some activists of local anarchist groups also brought food and other supplies and tried to find out what had happened, especially which companies were involved and where and under what conditions the workers had worked.
One anarchist group also gave information to the Polish labor inspectorate (PIP) which investigated the issue, checking on the legality of the labor contracts and work permits, the compliance with Polish labor laws and the legality of the termination of the contracts by the Polish company, all that increasing the pressure on the Polish contractors.
Back to China without money
On the 24th of July the Polish and Chinese companies involved and the Chinese embassy finished their negotiations and presented an outcome: The Chinese embassy would pay for the workers’ flights back to China, and they would get their wages in China within two months.
Some of the workers were disappointed and very skeptical whether they would actually get their wages, others were more optimistic. However, it was not clear to them, how much they would exactly get, the full wage or less. Most workers had expected to win some compromise and had no idea how to continue the protest after the deal was made. They just wished to return home and work on their farm or find other jobs.
At this point the embassy acted very quickly: Right after announcing the deal they made the workers abandon the camp, split them into small groups, and put them on taxis to different hostels where they had to wait for one to three days to get on different flights back to China.
Even though the outcome leaves room for skepticism, because it is unclear if they will actually get their wages, the struggle shows, that these Chinese construction workers showed in Warsaw that despite of all the problems there is a chance to fight back. They used tactics they know from the struggles of construction workers in China, staying together as one group, asking the state to intervene on their behalf, staging an open protest on the street, and using the media to increase the pressure. It can stay as an example for other migrant workers how to confront the bosses.
Support by activists: Rally, leaflets or what?
During the protest, anarchist activists in Warsaw discussed how to support the Chinese workers and decided to put pressure on the Polish building companies. Some organized a rally on Saturday, 25th of July, outside the site of a nearly finished apartment building of the main contractor, JW Construction, where the Chinese workers had been working. JWC had a sales office there, and the idea was to inform potential buyers about the working conditions and turn them off. Unfortunately, only about 25 people from various anarchist and leftist groups came, showing their flags and making speeches. Since the construction was nearly finished, there were hardly any construction workers on the site, so the speeches were made mainly to the police and the private security forces guarding the site. The Chinese workers had been told about the rally by the anarchists but did not want to attend. They acknowledged that the same employers would probably continue to rip off other workers but argued that a deal for them was in the making and that they did not want to put that at risk. After the rally, some of the activists returned to the camp in front of the embassy to find out that the workers were already packing up and leaving after the deal had been made.
It is fairly difficult to support migrant construction workers in their struggles since they are highly mobile, and even more so if they do not speak neither the local language nor English. The above mentioned rally was meant to put pressure on the responsible construction firm but has remained mostly invisible outside of activist circles. Activists want to support the workers but sometimes reproduce an image of the workers as victims who do fight back but are in too weak a position to win their own struggles.
How strong are migrant construction workers really? Could they impose their own conditions on capitalists if they had more contacts amongst themselves: between different groups from different countries working for different employers? And if they did: what would this mean for interventions by local activists to support their struggles? It might make a lot of sense to inform and agitate other migrant building workers on the construction sites, to write leaflets for them in different languages and inform them about each other’s struggles, about the general situation and of course about legal issues and potential local resources in case of problems or a strike. These debates have just begun.
It would be good to collect more information on the situation and struggles of Chinese workers in other countries and spread them amongst other workers who come to Europe or elsewhere to work (for some information see below).
Additional Information on the described struggle
Chinese migrant workers…
Officially about 500.000 Chinese workers work outside China. The actual number is probably far bigger. They work in factories, on construction sites, in restaurants for Chinese and foreign companies. Many leave China as tourists or illegally and pay high sums to middle men. Others pay similar high amounts to Chinese labor agencies to get contracts and visas. They go to Russia, Europe, the USA, Africa, the Middle East…
… in Poland
According to Polish Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, in 2008, 2040 Chinese received a working permit for Poland, which made them the second-largest group out of 18,022 non-EU foreigners officially working in Poland. Most of them worked in trade (720) or in manufacturing (651), only 186 in construction. 820 of them worked for so-called export service companies in China, the rest worked directly for companies in Poland. Half of the Chinese workers in Poland worked in the Warsaw area.
Other examples of Asian workers in Poland
(The list can easily be extended by searching the net…)
1. In 2009 a group of Chinese workers was cheated in Mysłowice (Silesia). They came to Poland to work for a big construction company and were not paid for a month, but had to stay in the house without electricity, water and furniture. In June 2009 the deportaion procedure was started, although the company has not paid the wages. See (Polish):
2. In fall 2008, a Polish construction company employed Chinese workers from Fujian Province in Poznan, but did not get the right legal papers for them so that they could not start working after their arrival. All of them had paid for the work contract and air fare and had borrowed money for that, so they were left with high debts.
3. In early of August 2009 another subcontractor of JW Construction called the police on one of their Warsaw construction sites to arrest illegal workers from Uzbekistan for stealing. During the investigation it turned out that the workers were hardly paid at all.
4. Last summer the company Cegielski in Poznan, producing among other things ship engines and train cars, employed 19 Filipino workers as welders and mechanics, and 10 more in January (Cegielski did still need workers then). They were employed by a job agency – Weldserv –, specializing in providing workers from the Philippines, as they still anounce on their website. The Filipino workers were promised to get 700 euro per month. In November 2008 Cegielski did not need them anymore and somehow fired them. But they stayed in the factory and worked until February 2009. In January they got 600 Zloty (while Polish workers earned at least 2.000 Zloty), and February they were paid nothing. They got support form a local church and left left Poland in March 2009. See (Polish):
5. In May 2009 Polish media reported the case of 17 workers from China who were cheated by the owner of Chinese restaurant in Gdansk, Northern Poland. He organized the passage of the workers to Poland himself, offering work for the shipyard in Gdansk. They come from Gucheng (Hebei province) and were promised 888 Euros per month. They had to pay 10.000 US-Dollars to get to Poland. After two weeks without work, the workers went to the local goverment with all their luggage, but were kicked out of there. So they spent a night on the train station. From there they were sent to the police station, then a homeless shelter, and finally to the deportation camp in Bialystok (for breaking the law for foreigners, that states that they have to have a certain amount of money per day to cover their living expenses in Poland). The Chinese restaurant owner who brought them from China offered taking them to other EU-countries for additional 2.000 Dollars (some of them used that opportunity). An unknown person destroyed the car wheels of the Chinese restaurant owner. Finally, the workers were doported.