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.
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.
The Chinese companies’ policy mirrors Beijing’s domestic zero-COVID policy, which resulted in tens of millions of people being put into lockdown in megacities like Shanghai and Chengdu.
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.__abc.net.au