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Keeping overseas Chinese workers safe
By Xing Zhigang (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-07-14 15:53

The security of Chinese citizens living or working overseas has generated a great deal of public interest after terrorist activity recently brought the issue into the headlines.

A worker at a construction site in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Meanwhile, accidental injury insurance covers only a very few number of Chinese workers overseas. [newsphoto/file]

Among those exposed to the terrorist threat are more than 500,000 contracted Chinese labourers working around the world.

In the past two months alone at least 14 Chinese workers were killed and 13 injured in terrorist attacks.

On June 10, about 20 gunmen burst into a construction site in Afghanistan, killing 11 Chinese workers and wounding four in one of the bloodiest attacks on foreigners in that country.

The attack on a Chinese aid project in northern Kunduz Province occurred two days after about 100 Chinese workers arrived at the site.

On May 3, a group of Pakistanis used a remote-controlled car bomb to attack Chinese engineers at Gwadar port in southwestern Pakistan, killing three and injuring nine.

The deaths and injuries of Chinese workers, along with other incidents involving Chinese tourists, students and business people overseas, has prompted the Chinese Government to strengthen the protection of its citizens abroad.

Related government departments, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are working to establish more effective mechanisms to ensure the safety and security of Chinese citizens while they live, work, study or travel abroad.

Anti-terrorism experts, however, say the most pressing task is to enhance security consciousness among migrant Chinese workers as well as Chinese international contractors.

"It is not up to just the government to provide better protection for Chinese citizens overseas," says Professor Li Wei with the Centre for Anti-terrorism Research under the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

"Any Chinese organization or company is duty-bound to take precautionary measures to protect the lives and safety of their staff sent to work or study abroad."

He suggests all Chinese international contractors set up specialized institutions to be in charge of the security work of their overseas projects and workers.

The institutions should first give safety training to workers who are going abroad and then maintain regular contact with Chinese embassies and consulates where they have projects.

What is more important, Li notes, is that Chinese firms conduct safety risk appraisals and make budgetary assessments of safety costs before they bid on overseas projects.

Security training

In fact, the Chinese labour export industry has moved to improve security work, given the heavy casualties in past accidents.

Fifteen men from Tuocheng County, Henan Province, get ready to work as seamen in Singapore. [newsphoto/file]

Peng Aiguang, a project manager with ZTE Corp, says his company has taken concrete measures to ensure the security of its overseas projects.

The enterprise, a listed telecommunications equipment provider, has projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are both high-risk locales.

The company has hired local security guards for its overseas projects and invited security experts to teach workers about security knowledge such as how to deal with kidnappings and avoid bombings, Peng says.

Most Chinese companies, however, lack precautionary measures and security training - as evidenced by the increasing number of incidents involving overseas Chinese workers.

To address the situation the China International Contractors Association has stepped up efforts to promote security consciousness among its 1,067 member companies.

Zhang Xiang, a public relations manager for the association's Secretary and Research Department, says the association issued a notice in early July, asking its members to strengthen security work for their overseas projects.

The number of Chinese workers overseas hired by the association's members accounts for more than 90 per cent of the country's total.

"We have asked our members to attach unprecedented importance to security work so as to safeguard the lives and property of Chinese workers," says Zhang.

The notice requires member enterprises to conduct a safety check-up in their overseas projects and to prepare for any emergencies.

These firms should set up sound emergency mechanisms in their headquarters as well as overseas institutions and enhance security training for their workers abroad.

The notice advises the enterprises to supplement anti-terrorism knowledge in their training materials.

Members of the association should first consult Chinese embassies about security conditions in the countries where they have projects before dispatching their workers, according to the notice.

Overseas institutions of Chinese international contractors are also being asked to maintain close contact with Chinese embassies and local governments and demand protection from local police when necessary.

The association's notice says all members should conduct safety risk evaluations before tendering for overseas projects and a budget for safety costs should be included in the bid.

Member enterprises should also guarantee ample funds for reasonable expenses on security work and buy accidental injury insurance for their overseas workers, according to the notice.

Zhang says her association is planning a series of training courses among high-level managers of its members to help them implement the measures put forward in the notice.

Experts experienced in diplomacy and anti-terrorism along with researchers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government bodies and academic organizations will be invited to give lectures during the training, she notes.

Zhang admits that accidental injury insurance covers only a very few number of Chinese workers overseas, partly because Chinese companies have traditionally paid little attention to the importance of commercial insurance.

Furthermore, domestic insurers have developed few accidental injury insurance products suitable to Chinese workers abroad, according to Zhang.

"Most Chinese international contractors have come to realize the necessity of buying accidental injury insurance for their workers abroad," she says.

"Otherwise, they themselves have to face any potential risks and a huge amount of compensation for their workers in case of any deadly incidents."

Due to the absence of accidental injury insurance, Chinese international contractors have to pay compensation to families of the victims, pushing up their production costs.

After the terrorist attack in Afghanistan, for example, the contractor on the aid project, Jinan-based Fourteenth Branch of the China Railway Construction Group, paid damages of 400,000 yuan (US$48,367) to each of the 11 murdered workers.

Meanwhile, the company has paid all medical expense for the four injured in the attack and will pay them compensation later.

To help reduce risks for Chinese international contractors, Zhang says her association will co-operate with Chinese insurance companies to develop accidental injury insurance products specially designed for migrant workers.

The associate professor Zhou Yongsheng at China Foreign Affairs University, however, stresses that the best way is for the government to establish a risk fund for exported labour.

The workers, the government and Chinese international contractors should each contribute a certain sum of money to the fund, Zhou says.

The fund could then provide subsidies for Chinese workers who suffer from accidental injuries or disease abroad.

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