Workers exploited, detained by Chinese farm owners overseas

By Kou Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-3 19:58:02

Migrant workers from China pick tomatoes in a greenhouse in Chelyabinsk, Russia on July 9, 2009. Photo: CFP

After working on a vegetable farm in Russia for seven months and being trapped there one month, 12 farmers from Songxian county, Henan Province finally headed back to China on Tuesday, empty handed.

The workers said they were offered a 5,000-yuan ($789) per month job at a farm owned by Chinese bosses. But they say that it was like a labor camp, and that they ended up earning nothing.

"Lü Hongxing, the owner of the farm, told us we had failed to finish our work, thus we would not receive any money and had to pay compensation for his loss. He withheld our passports and detained us," a 55-year-old farmer surnamed Meng told the Global Times.

Before Meng and the others were rescued by volunteers, they had been in Russia for eight months and had spent the last month not working.

This was not the first time Chinese workers were trapped like this, the volunteers said. As many Russian farms are now owned by Chinese nationals, cheap migrant workers are lured to the farms with promises of lucrative wages, but often find only exploitation.

A green pipe dream

Their ordeal began in February, when an agent surnamed Lin came to their village and offered them a chance to work on a farm in Russia.

According to Lin, apart from the monthly salary, their employer would cover the farmers' travel expenses, visa fees, room and board. In return, the farmers had to pay him 2,000 yuan each as a commission fee.

"Lin told them the work is not heavy and well-paid, all they need to do is to plant cucumbers and maintain the greenhouses," Meng's son, Meng Liang told the Global Times.

Eighteen farmers signed contracts and left for Russia on February 24.

Meng called his son after arriving in Russia, saying that his passport had been taken away by the owner of the farm.

"My father said he did not know where exactly the farm was," Meng Liang added.

Not everyone was pleased with their living conditions. Some began to come back to China, complaining that the job was not as good as promised. The five that left had to pay Lü to leave.

According to another farmer, Zhou Huaqun, they had to work at least 17 hours per day planting cucumbers. They were poorly fed and barely had time to sleep. The farm was located in a remote part of Sverdiovsk Oblast and without passports, without work visas and without the ability to speak Russian, they could not escape.

"I could not take the toil and went back home after four months. Instead of getting my salary from Lü, I had to pay him 17,000 yuan," Zhou told the Global Times.

The other 13 people chose to stay on, hoping to eventually get paid.

On October 19, Meng Liang got a call from his father, who said that the boss claimed he had sustained losses and was refusing to pay the farmers.

"My father told me I had to send 63,000 yuan to Lü, or he would not be released," Meng Liang said.

"The cucumbers they planted were unsuitable and we lost hundreds of thousands of yuan due to their mistakes. The farmers were lazy and did a lousy job," the owner's father, Lü Zhongfu, told the Beijing Times Friday. He also denied that the farmers' passports were taken away.

Rescue operation

Meng Liang, along with relatives of other farmers later contacted Xu Wenteng, the president of China Volunteer Union in Russia, a non-governmental organization that helps Chinese people, hoping they could help the farmers.

"It was not an easy to save them, because they could not tell us where they were," Xu told the Global Times.

Xu said he made several attempts to negotiate with Lü, hoping he would release the farmers.

"He refused to disclose the farmers' location and threatened that he would ask local police to arrest them if they tried to escape," Xu said.

On October 26, Xu and another five volunteers found the vegetable farm in Krasnoufimsk, a small town located on the Ufa River. After a failed attempt to negotiate with the farm staff, Xu called the local police and had the 12 farmers released. Xu said the farmers were locked in a room when he found them.

But Li Suping, one of the 13 farmers, insisted on staying. "She was told that she would be paid, so she chose to stay," her husband said.

Meng and the others were sent to the immigration office in Yekaterinburg. Holding only business-trip visas, these farmers were not supposed to be working in Russia according to the country's immigration laws. The local court later sentenced them to be repatriated to China.

A hopeless situation 

"We have rescued more than 200 farmers like Meng so far this year," Xu told the Global Times.

Xu said that the growing demand for vegetables and a shortage of labor in Russia mean Chinese farmers are increasingly going to the country. The salaries on offer are tempting, as most of them are from poorer areas.

"Many Chinese farm owners in Russia used to be migrants like Meng. When they saved enough money, they would start their own businesses and hire farmers from China," Xu said.

Xu also noted that more than 90 percent of Chinese farm owners run their business without governmental permits or working licenses. Instead of arranging working visas for the farmers, the owners would prefer business-trip visas, which are cheaper and easier to obtain.

"It's illegal to work in Russia on a business-trip visa. The owners just bribe the authorities to keep their business running," Xu added.

The Global Times called the Krasnoufimsk authorities on Monday, but they refused to comment.

A Chinese official working in Russia who requested anonymity said that most Chinese farmers who come to Russia do not have strong legal awareness. Some of them don't even know their employers' contact information and the contracts they sign with their employers are often illegal.

"We have called the police in Henan, but they told us the incident happened in Russia, so they could not file our report," said Li Jinchao, whose wife is one of the farmers.

"The contract was signed in China, the employer and employees are Chinese citizens, so the Chinese police should investigate this case. The employer might be accused of fraud, since he did not arrange a legal visa for the farmers," said Mo Shaoping, a law professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics.

Newspaper headline: Escape from Russia

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