Illegal immigration -- India-style

Chinese laborers sneak into the subcontinent to work on big construction projects. But who is being exploited?

Published November 3, 2009 7:40PM (EST)

Opening paragraphs I wish I'd written:

It's after sundown in Chandankiyari, a village near Bokaro in Jharkhand, and the only sound audible is of howling hyenas in the distance. But strain the ears and you catch snatches of a foreign movie playing. The film, strangely, is in Mandarin and it's for the benefit of the hundreds of Chinese workers here at the site for a steel plant. Watching one of their movies on the big screen is a relaxing way to end the day.

So begins an investigation conducted by by India's Outlook magazine into a sticky labor issue. (Found via ChinaDigitalTimes.) Chinese construction companies contracted to build power plants and steel mills and other big infrastructural projects in India are importing as many as 25,000 Chinese laborers to do much of the work -- and skirting or outright disobeying Indian visa rules that are supposed to only allow entry to "skilled workers."

American technology professionals who look askance at Indian H1B visa immigrants as unfair, low-wage competition might want to hold off on indulging in their schadenfreude. The weird twist to this story is that, according to Indian workers, the Chinese workers get paid wages far higher than their Indian counterparts. So it's not exactly your standard case of cheap foreign labor exploitation.

However, Outlook did gain access into the Chinese walled residential compound. Built like a military base, it had air-conditioned barracks and amenities like a basketball court, a Chinese canteen and cable TV, among other facilities the Indian workers couldn't possibly dream of. As an Indian worker put it, "The Chinese get rum bottles, water bottles and we don't even have a tubewell." The compound is constantly guarded given the tensions with the locals.

Clearly, the Chinese, despite being famous for cheap products, do not come cheap. But the Indian management isn't complaining. R.S. Singh refused to divulge financial details but says the Chinese are very "cost-effective". "They'll set up this plant in 15 months whereas a plant of a similar nature would take an Indian enterprise eight years," he says. D.S. Rajan, director, Centre for China Studies, Chennai, agrees on that point. "They behave very well collectively with an inclination to complete projects in time. Indians tend to be more individualistic."

I suppose an economist could make a case that the overall welfare of the Indian people will rise faster than it would have otherwise if Chinese laborers build new roads and power plants and airports at an accelerated pace. But as we know from the U.S. example, arguments about the impact of outsourcing or illegal immigration on our collective prosperity tend not to make much of an impact on the individual who has been downsized or otherwise lost out competing in the job market with foreign imports.

But is international labour mobility something to be shunned? Not at the cost of resentment at home, says Rajan. "At no point should the locals feel that outsiders are taking away their jobs," he says. you can plug in your schadenfreude meters.


By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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