News and events

Transport workers uniting along the Belt & Road

Series: Labour Perspectives on China #6

– Sean Sayer

Transport workers move the world. Trade and travel cannot function without us. This means that transport workers are some of the first to be impacted when governments or companies invest in and change the way the world moves and trades.

Waves of international investment in transport have created millions of good jobs throughout recent history. But we have also seen how this overseas investment has been used to undermine our rights, pay and conditions. The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s US$1 trillion overseas infrastructure development project – is one of the latest attempts to change how the world trades. What does this mean for transport workers?

In 2022, trade unions affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) from thirty-eight countries and from every continent met in Manila to try to answer this question.

In context

First, it is important to put the BRI in context. The American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker estimates that between 2013 and 2020, the BRI invested US$400 billion in overseas transport infrastructure, the World Bank Group invested UD$178 billion, and the Asian Development Bank invested US$83 billion. In 2021, Chinese outward foreign-direct investment represented less than 7% of the global total. The US (23%), Germany (8%) and Japan (8%) all spent more. So, the first decision by our affiliates was to understand the opportunities and challenges posed by all types of international investment, not just BRI.

Transport workers around the world have seen how all types of international investment pose risks to recipient economies, societies, communities and workplaces. For example, International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Nicaragua and Pakistan required ‘structural adjustment’ programmes which demanded that governments privatise or dramatically cut spending on public services, often including transport. When the World Bank disperses aid to a low-income country, the amount of cash in offshore accounts controlled by the country’s elites tends to increase on average by about 7.5%.

The World Bank (2018) estimates that, if completed, BRI transport projects could reduce travel times along economic corridors by 12%, increase trade between 2.7% and 9.7%, increase income by up to 3.4% and lift 7.6 million people from extreme poverty. BRI is also estimated to create thousands of transport and supply chain jobs in most recipient countries, including Kazakhstan (200,000 jobs), Kenya (more than 60,000), Mongolia (50,000), and Pakistan (more than 60,000).

In 2019, China signed a series of agreements relating to the BRI with the ILO and three Chinese ministries. These agreements (1) promote decent work, social justice and a ‘human-centred future of work’; (2) support occupational safety; and (3) promote the effective implementation of the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention along the BRI. This could signal that the Chinese ministries acknowledge that international labour rights and laws apply to workers in the countries they are investing in and building transport infrastructure in, as well as to the cross-border workers who are working between them.

However, Chinese project-based, migrant workers tend to make up a significant proportion of those working in BRI investments. Often, local labour laws are not applied to these non-resident workforces. Many of these workers are reported to suffer from egregious human rights violations. For example, in Serbia, the local labour laws were suspended for Chinese nationals working there. In the Serbian Zijin Mining Group Co. copper mine, Chinese employees worked 12-hour days, were forced to hand passports over to employers, and had little to no health and safety protection, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Linglong Tyre Co. factory in Serbia, Chinese workers experienced poor housing conditions, no access to medical services, issues with or absences of wages, and were again forced to give their passports to employers, leading to allegations of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Labour rights abuses and divisions

Furthermore, local workers are often subjected to human rights and labour rights abuses. For example, working conditions in the construction of the new Phnom Penh International Airport show systemic human rights abuses. Imported Chinese workers are paid US$50 to US$70 a day, while local Cambodians are paid US$7.5 to US$15 a day, and women are paid less than men. Accommodation is in local temporary settlements, where workers’ children live on site, with no food, education, healthcare, water or electricity provided. There is minimal provision of sanitation facilities and personal protective equipment, and uneven and inconsistent provision of compensation for health and safety failures.

In Mongolia, truck drivers reported that BRI investment into infrastructure built for the extraction and transport of coal had put truck drivers and railway workers in direct competition with new groups of informal, cross-border workers and employment models. Furthermore, the development of rail and logistics infrastructure continues to threaten a shift away from unionised labour in trucking.

In Pakistan, BRI projects avoid collective bargaining by avoiding railways, instead focusing on trucking. Where collective bargaining cannot be avoided, alliances between Chinese interests and local elites are challenging the industrial models and labour movement.

In Kenya, the flagship US$3.6 billion Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, and the special economic zones (SEZs) around the connected ports and logistics centres, are estimated to employ around 60 000 workers. However, rail exclusively moves the freight coming in and out of the SEZs, bypassing the better-unionised truck drivers and collective bargaining.

Transport needs nearly US$50 trillion of investment by 2040. Transport workers around the world recognise that to create decent work, resilient supply chains, a fair economy, gender equity, climate justice, and a more sustainable transport and development model, we must welcome spending on transport infrastructure. However, this financial commitment must be conditional on the guarantee of fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, and all our fundamental labour rights.

What international investment should guarantee

Therefore, transport workers’ representatives in Manila agreed that international investment must be:

Safe – occupational health and safety is a fundamental right at work. Applicable laws and regulations must be respected and enforced to protect to all workers, regardless of their gender, occupation, terms of employment and contractual status.

Democratic – local and international laws, regulations and democratic processes must be respected. Trade unions must be treated as equal partners by governments and employers in collective bargaining. Critical infrastructure must be owned by, and operated for the people it serves.

Fair – secure, permanent, and formal employment must be offered to all workers equally, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or background, and respected by employers. Governments and employers must ensure that informal work and other non-standard forms of employment are not used to deny workers their rights.

Open – workers must be included in the negotiation and agreement of investment. No governments should sign deals in secret. Full transparency and accountability of negotiations of contracts and trade deals must be a minimum standard for international investment. Trade unions must be recognised as effective and critical partners for ensuring transparency and accountability at all levels.

Skills-based – local workers must be trained and skilled to construct, operate and maintain transport infrastructure built using international investment. The ITF and its affiliates oppose any exploitation of non-resident workers and unfair labour competition.

Fundamentally, BRI and other forms of international investment are connecting workers in new, exciting ways. In Manila, we witnessed the birth of a new family of transport workers connected by patterns of international investment, born of solidarity, unity and understanding.

Trade unions representing transport workers in Central and Southeastern Asia are cooperating with those in Africa and Europe to develop organising models for third-country nationals. Transport workers are connecting with construction workers, learning from their experiences working under Chinese and overseas employers or investment. Governments seeking to ensure transparency and accountability of projects stemming from international investment are looking to trade unions for assistance. New human rights due diligence laws that require government and companies to check and fix their domestic and overseas supply chains are giving trade unions a legally recognised role in upholding labour rights in the BRI and global trade. To do this, we must work across borders and organise some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers in supply chains that are adjusting to international investment.

By focusing on workplace rights, experiences and solidarity, trade unions are building a new future amid profound change. Supply chains may ebb and flow – becoming more local, regional or again global – but the solidarity among transport workers has always been, and will always be, global. This is where real workers’ power is built today, tomorrow and forever.

Sean Sayer is a policy advisor at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), based in London, UK. He coordinates the ITF’s supply chain programme, working with transport workers and their trade unions across the world.