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Influx of illegal workers from South Asia to alleviate labour shortage in China

Thousands of illegal foreign workers are pouring into Shenzhen, the manufacturing hub of Southern China and other inland cities. These workers, mostly coming from Vietnam, Myanmar, etc use snakeheads (people smugglers/traffickers) to sneak into China via the border between Vietnam and Guangxi or Myanmar and Yunnan.  They are lured to taking low-pay jobs offering as low as around RMB 1,000 a month, compared to the legal minimum wage of RMB1600 a month in Shenzhen in 2013 on top of all other stipulated insurances. Yet the pay is a few times more than that these foreign workers could earn in their home country. According to the statistics provided by Shenzhen Procuratorate Authority, hundreds of illegal workers from Vietnam and Myanmar were involved in charges of illegal entry and illegal employment in the second half of 2010, and 135 employers and other related personnel including 7 snakeheads were charged and finally received an imprisonment. The Guangdong border control authority also states that 865 illegal immigrants were arrested in 2011, 943 in 2012 and 734 in 2013. Most of them are South-east Asians heading to work illegally in China.

Who are these illegal workers?

These illegal workers, some of them female, are aged from 18 to 45 coming mainly from Vietnam and Myanmar. Having finished only junior high school or even illiterate, they possess a lower skill level and have to  work in the labour intensive production lines of small and medium sized factories, such as factories making shoes, socks, paper and plastic products.  Their wage, around RMB 1,000, is always one third of those Chinese workers in the same position, and from which the snakeheads dock a certain amount. These workers provide a new source of manpower alleviating the shortage of migrant workers in Southern China. They are hard working, easy to manage, willing to bear heavy workload and they expect far less than Chinese workers.

Who organize these illegal workers sneaking into China?

The snakeheads engaging in this cross-border people smuggling are well organized and they handle each ‘administrative’ step skillfully. They offer ‘a through-train’ service from recruiting, illegal border crossing, long haul transportation, job hunting, personnel administration to payment calculation. They strictly control the life and earnings of the illegal workers by deducting the expenses spent on the smuggling and appropriating a lump sum from the workers’ wages based on a ‘commission rate’. 

How do smugglers get the illegal workers sneaked into and hired in China?
The snakeheads speak both languages and could buy relations to travel freely across the China- Myanmar border. They joined hands with the un-licensed labour dispatch agents operated by the locals in Yunnan province. Workers are recruited by the snakeheads in Myanmar and brought Yingjiang county in Yunnan bordering to Kachin state of Myanmar. They took routes over mountains and crossing rivers to stay away from the border control. A border visa may be secured by bribery if the number of illegal workers is small. When the number of illegal workers is big enough, the snakeheads will arrange them for human smuggling from the border straight to the capital city of Yunnan, Kunming and heading from there to the coastal cities of Guangdong province. The illegal workers are at the hands of the Chinese agents at the place of work who arrange jobs, deliver salaries after deducting all the smuggling expenses such as travelling, meals and lodging expenses etc. Some of the illegal workers are given forged Yunnan household licenses and ID cards disguising themselves as ethnic minorities from Yunnan who doesn’t speak Mandarin.  

According to the Shenzhen Procuratorate office, the biggest smuggling party cracked down this year had trafficked almost 1,000 illegal workers to Shenzhen. Each of these illegal workers was paid RMB 1,400 a month by the employer, from which the Chinese agent docked RMB200 whereas the remaining RMB 1,000 was further deducted to pay the snakeheads at various points before ending in the pocket of the illegal workers. The Chinese agent and the snakeheads at the Myanmar border were finally arrested in June 2011 and sent to 9-year and 4.5-year imprisonment respectively. Most of the illegal workers were repatriated to Myanmar, yet 61 of them were still working in Shenzhen. The employers are punished less severely usually under a fine.

Other cases of illegal workers from Vietnam

Vietnamese workers come to work in China on tourist visa through agencies in northern Vietnam connected to their counterparts in Guangxi province in China. The snakeheads charge RMB 1,000 from the employers and a commission of RMB 200 from the monthly wage of RMB 1,400 of the illegal workers. The illegal Vietnamese workers, some of them under-aged, are sent to work in electronics, toys, garment and other industries for as long as five years. In some cases, the illegal foreign workers jump on board to become the snakeheads once they are connected to the network and start to recruit their fellows from Vietnam. For each foreign worker, these snakeheads can get RMB 1,100 per head which is good income compared to working as a illegal worker in the production line.


20 December, 2013



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