Tuesday’s attempted march into the capital, by dozens of Chinese workers, living in a “squalid camp” at Cunupia, must have been the very last straw. These persons have lived under and endured conditions in their country unknown and unimagined to local labour. For them to have finally decided to get up and march — not even knowing for sure where they were heading—was an act of great courage on their part. And it would have been an act of courage borne out of great desperation.
For this act of protest, 70 workers were “arrested,” and face the firing line from their jobs. Their work permits may be cancelled, and they may be sent back to China.
But what are their rights, if, indeed they have any rights at all? Certainly no local employer can fire their workers if they engage in a protest march. Which laws of our sovereign nation were broken by these workers during their protest walk? And what of our international image? Their actions can’t be good for Trinidad and Tobago’s international profile.
We certainly hope that the police presence was not the result of any intervention by the Chinese contractors employing these workers, or by the Chinese Embassy, which has been quick to wash its hands of any responsibility, saying the workers must obey the laws of Trinidad and Tobago. We certainly agree with that statement, but we must ask if the Chinese contractors who brought the labourers here are also required to obey the laws of this country. And the laws to which we refer are the rights of workers to organise and be represented by a trade union of their choice, and the health and safety laws governing working conditions and living conditions under which these workers are kept. And we use the word “kept” quite deliberately.
Yesterday’s march throws the spotlight on something that has only been whispered in the past. And that is the conditions of employment and the social life and recreation needs of the thousands of Chinese workers who have been brought wholesale into our country, and hidden away in work camps, only being visible on the actual construction sites.
We now call for an immediate and thorough investigation into the living and working conditions under which these people are brought here and engaged. We do so out of concern that Trinidad and Tobago may be accused of complicity in the worst type of international labour practices possible. We see the need for the Ministries of National Security, Health, Labour and Social Services to investigate the whole issue of the labour camps set up in our communities, and the salaries and work permit requirements imposed by their employers. Every Government construction contract contains Fair Employment conditions for workers. Do these conditions apply to Chinese contractors?
Who provides them with food? How many persons live in a room, what sanitary facilities are provided, and what recreation is allowed? Are these workers “allowed” to leave their camp to go shopping, liming, or attend a sports event?
There is so much at issue here, and the trade union movement must be clear in their condemnation—which is long overdue. We hope that Government’s Vision 2020 is not being fulfilled by slave labour.