Chinese state-owned enterprises operating flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects are enforcing Beijing’s harsh COVID-19 restrictions across Asian and African countries, effectively putting thousands of workers in lockdown and separating them from their families.
- PowerChina says zero-COVID restrictions are in place at its plant near Karachi for the health of its workers
- The company has thanked the Pakistan Army for its support in enforcing the restrictions
- Workers at the plant told the ABC of being required to isolate for weeks in “inhumane” conditions without pay
The latest flashpoint is Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where hundreds of workers have been ordered not to leave a multi-billion-dollar power plant without permission since March 2020.
That policy is being enforced with the assistance of the Pakistan Army.
“We are not allowed to go home, meet with our loved ones, celebrate our religious or cultural festivals or pursue further education,” said Yusuf*, a Pakistani engineer who is working on the project.
“Many of us had developed suicidal thoughts, and we are treated like prisoners.”
“We have no freedom in our own country,” he said.
The policy is so strictly enforced, the company operating the plant has been unable to hire any local doctors to live on-site to treat sick workers, because Pakistani doctors are unwilling to accept the restrictions.
A local branch of PowerChina — the world’s biggest power construction company, with more than 80 subsidiaries around the globe — operates the plant.
In Australia, PowerChina owns and operates the Castle Hill Wind Farm in Tasmania.
The company, in a letter to Pakistan’s National Electric Power Regulatory Authority, admitted “the management of the project immediately carried out the lockdown in the plant since March 2020”, but said that it allowed the employees “to enter or leave the plant for regular holidays all the time”.
It explained: “Lockdown is the most-effective measure to ensure the situation [is] always under control but with the lowest cost.”
Zhao Tao, a director of the administration department for PowerChina’s local subsidiary, told the ABC the company had given workers extra bonuses for staying inside.
“We are implementing the zero-COVID policy for the health of our workers,” Mr Zhao said.
He said another coal-fired power plant operated by a Chinese company in Pakistan was also in lockdown, and this was not unusual.
However, PowerChina’s measures are in stark contrast with Pakistan’s own health guidelines: The country lifted all its COVID-19-related restrictions in March this year.
China’s BRI is an ambitious foreign and economic policy that aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic dominance via hundreds of infrastructure, energy and resources projects across six economic corridors.
The trillion-dollar initiative is also expanding China’s foreign influence in the 146 participating countries.
ABC Investigations has learned at least three Chinese companies running the BRI projects around the world are enforcing tough COVID-19 policies.
At another BRI project in Pakistan, the Saindak Copper-Gold Mine in Balochistan, at least 1,000 workers have been stopped by Chinese company MCC Resources Development Limited from leaving its mine site for several months.
In March, family members of the affected workers, mostly women and children, staged a march, demanding change to the draconian policy and to allow freedom of movement.
One year earlier and 10,000 kilometres away, in Zimbabwe, energy workers complained about the same COVID-19 policy at another PowerChina subsidiary, Sinohydro’s coal-fired power plant in Hwange.
Wang Yaqiu, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Beijing’s COVID-19 policy was “abusive” and “a symptom of a top-down, rigid political system that disregards experts’ opinion, community concerns and individual’s human rights”.
“Governments, where these BRI projects are located, must speak up for the workers, whether they are Chinese or citizens of their own country,” Ms Wang said.
High unemployment means workers have few options
The bustling, crowded and ever-growing megacity of Karachi is home to 16 million residents, including more than 1.7 million illegal migrants.
When the multi-billion-dollar PowerChina project was first announced in 2015, the city’s political elites welcomed it, and it represented potential job opportunities for many low-income or unemployed citizens.
The Chinese state-owned enterprise hired about 500 Pakistani workers, mostly from Karachi and its surrounding townships and villages.
However, since the zero-COVID policy was implemented in 2020, many workers have been unable to leave the plant. They told ABC Investigations they feared losing their jobs if they asked to go outside.
Since the pandemic, Pakistan’s unemployment rate rose to 6.5 per cent in 2021. More than 31 per cent of Pakistan’s youth are currently unemployed, according to research.
Workers from the Karachi plant spoke to the ABC on the condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals.
One worker claimed he received permission to visit his family in February but was not called to go back to work until August. He claimed management feared he might bring the deadly virus back to the plant.
ABC Investigations has seen copies of some workers’ leave application forms, including a request for going back home “after six months” of being locked down inside the plant.
From the window of his room, Yusuf can see the contours of the mountain on which his home town, Gulshen e-Hadeed, sits.
“My home is only 30 minutes’ drive from here, but I can’t see my mother, my brother, when I miss them”, Yusuf said.
He misses his mother’s home-cooked biryani, and food inside the plant is poor, according to Yusuf.
He said his brother tried to bring him food from home, but the security guards stopped him at the gate, claiming outside food might contain the virus.
Bilal* also lives in Gulshen e-Hadeed. As the father of two young children, he said his family “suffered a lot” from the prolonged separation.
He was not able to take his 3-year-old child to the hospital when he was ill and could not attend his uncle’s funeral.
“I decided to leave the company after seeing the difficulties my wife and family were facing,” Bilal said.
“But the company did not pay me for at least five months.
“Most of the workers [at the site] are forced to work there because there is huge unemployment in the area, and it is difficult to get a job easily these days.”
Video captures ‘inhumane’ living conditions
Workers returning to the plant claim they are subjected to prolonged isolation periods without payment.
The quarantine rooms are located near a guarded entrance to the site, near two cooling towers with the PowerChina logo.
ABC Investigations obtained footage from inside the quarantine facility and its surrounds.
Inside, up to eight workers sleep in crowded rooms on bunk beds without mattresses and rain leaks through the roof.
Outside, uncollected rubbish is strewn on the ground and in dirty water that surrounds the compound.
Quarantined workers claim the living conditions inside the quarantine facility are “inhumane”.
“There was no electricity for 48 hours. There was no drinking water. There is no water in the washrooms,” said one worker, who was subjected to 40 days of quarantine after spending 45 days outside with his family.
Another video shows the power plant’s canteen kitchen with food and cookware infested by cockroaches.
Hamza*, an engineer in his 30s, said Chinese and Pakistani workers received different food.
“There is segregation in the canteen for Chinese and Pakistani workers. Chinese workers get their food of good quality, but Pakistani workers get low-quality [food],” he said.
Workers claim the poor living conditions have made several workers ill, and that there is no medical support available inside the complex.
Mr Zhao said the company was struggling to find a Pakistani doctor to be based on-site, due to the strict policies.
“We have [a] Chinese doctor here, but Pakistani doctors want to go back home daily,” he explained.
Mr Zhao denied claims the company required returning workers to quarantine for more than a month but said, in some cases, workers might isolate for longer than 14 days if they tested positive to COVID-19. He said workers had been paid in full during their isolation period.
A ‘supercritical’ project
The 1320MW coal-fired power plant at Port Qasim, near Karachi — which has been described by Pakistan’s government as “supercritical” — is one of a collection of infrastructure projects under the BRI in Pakistan, also known as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
A vast network of highways, railways and energy plants is being built under the aegis of CPEC that will span the length and breadth of Pakistan.
However, opacity has been a hallmark of the CPEC projects, with little public information about the development and financing of specific projects and their terms.
With a total foreign debt topping $US245 billion ($387 billion), Islamabad’s growing dependence on foreign money has been a concern for some experts. The CPEC projects alone account for more than $US80 billion ($126 billion).
Many say this debt has provoked growing resentment against China in some quarters.
In April, an explosion caused by a suicide bomber ripped through a van parked on a university campus in Karachi, killing three Chinese nationals.
Pakistan’s government vowed to safeguard CPEC projects and ensure “foolproof security of Chinese working across the country”, including setting up a foreign security cell, comprising more than 9,000 regular soldiers of the Pakistan Army and 6,000 paramilitary personnel.
The ABC has confirmed members of the Pakistan military are policing the Karachi power plant.
In a letter addressed to the Private Power & Infrastructure Board, PowerChina thanked the Pakistan Army for its “strong support” for its management of COVID-19 restrictions, singling out the assistance of “the 441 brigade commander and the 36th battalion commander”.
Until now, the military deployment inside the plant has been confidential.
A group chat message obtained by ABC Investigations shows Chinese manager Shao Lian Qiu warning a group of Pakistan workers “not (to) publicise or discuss the configuration of security facilities and security forces in the promises”.
“It is forbidden to take pictures and send them to the outside world. If the above incidents are discovered, military police will confiscate their mobile phones and, at the same time, dispose[sic] of relevant personnel,” Mr Shao wrote, meaning any informants would be laid off.
In China, the unrelenting COVID-19 restrictions have triggered anger and concern among Chinese citizens, who feel they are being held hostage by the government’s harsh lockdowns and policies.
Workers from Pakistan share the same despair.
“My biggest wish is that I should find a job in a reputable organisation so that I could leave this place in the morning,” one worker said.
“Karachi is a big city. Many of us have our own dreams, but we are losing our dreams and hopes,” another said.
The mother of Yusuf, the young engineer working in the plant, told ABC Investigations she wanted her son to come home.
“It has been almost three years and the gates still are not open. And I’m worried for my son,” she said.
“Someone needs to do something. Even the government is not putting in any effort to help our kids.”
ABC Investigations contacted Pakistan’s federal minister for planning, Ahsan Iqqbal, and the chairman of CPEC’s parliamentary committee, Sher Ali Arbab, for comment but received no response.
The National Electric Power Regulatory Authority and Private Power & Infrastructure Board also did not respond.
Third term for Xi a bad sign for human rights, observer says
China analysts say China’s zero-COVID policy won’t be reviewed until after the 20th National Party Congress on October 16.
Mr Zhao said there had been discussions among the project’s senior management about lifting the restrictions after January next year, but it would, ultimately, be the Chinese government’s decision.
“It is complicated — even our CEO can’t make that decision [to lift the lockdown],” Mr Zhao said.
“But, maybe, after the party’s meeting the situation will change.”
The next National Congress, held once every five years, will be one of China’s most-important political meetings in a decade.
By the end of the meeting, China’s next top political leadership will be announced.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is poised to be “selected” for a third term, breaking an unspoken two-term limit since the Communist Party-led government undertook political reforms in 1979.
“President Xi’s precedent-breaking third term bodes ill for human rights in China and around the world,” Ms Wang said.
“As the space for civil society activism further shrinks in China, it is imperative for the international community to take consequential actions to constrain Xi’s abuses.”
* Names have been changed