— The illegal immigrants come seeking higher wages, steady employment
and a chance at better lives for their families. They cross the border
in remote stretches where there are no fences, or they pay traffickers
to sneak them past border guards.
On the other side they work as maids, harvest crops or toil hunched in sweatshops.
As familiar as this sounds, this is not
which is attracting an increasing number of undocumented workers to
fill the bottom rungs of its booming economy. Tens of thousands of
Among the most active borders for the furtive crossings is
“People are struggling for money in
Labor shortages in
export-heavy eastern coastal regions are driving demand for foreign
workers. So are Chinese workers’ calls for higher wages, which are
cutting into employers’ profits.
“This is an economic phenomenon,” said Zhang
Wenshan, a professor of law at Guangxi University who has studied the
rise of illegal workers. “It’s globalization. Labor costs are
This is hard on employers who don’t necessarily need sophisticated
laborers. So a lot of foreigners are motivated to come here. … It’s
like how many Chinese have gone to the U.S. to seek better lives.”
It’s an unlikely reversal for a country that until
recently seemed to have an endless supply of cheap labor. But rapid
development and urbanization are just as quickly raising workers’
expectations. Young, rural Chinese have fled the farms for cities.
Factory workers are choosing to strike rather than accept minimal pay.
In their wake they’re leaving openings that foreign workers are eager
With their numbers still relatively small and
Still, tensions are growing. The Chinese government
— historically wary of foreigners — has granted permanent residency to
only a few thousand migrants in the last three decades. Sporadic
roundups of illegal workers are on the rise. Friction between
authorities and African merchants exploded into a riot last year in the
southern city of
Controlling the influx of illegal workers isn’t easy, even for an authoritarian state.
shares a border with 14 countries. The nation famous for its Great Wall
has virtually no fencing or barriers along this boundary, which
stretches 13,670 miles through tropical forests, mountains and deserts.
For many Vietnamese, the quest for the Chinese Dream
often begins in border communities such as Aidian, a shabby village of
8,500 in the province of
On a recent rainy afternoon, two young men wearing
basketball jerseys sat on plastic stools on the Chinese side of the
border collecting 10,000 Vietnamese dong, about
from a steady flow of people entering from the Vietnamese side. The
visitors showed no documents, even though a passport and visa are
required by law. The men collecting the entrance fees declined to say
whom they worked for.
Wei Haiguang, a contractor whose business is just up
the street from the border crossing, said corruption in the region was
endemic. He said friends of his had helped guide Vietnamese workers
The government “won’t ever be able to control the
border,” said Wei, a stocky 38-year-old wearing Buddhist bracelets and
an ivory pendant around his neck. “There’s too many small roads and
passes. Besides, who else is going to work in the fields?”
The job of Chinese authorities is particularly
challenging here because it’s tough to tell who’s who. Members of the
Zhuang ethnic minority group dominate parts of
“There’s really no big difference between the
Vietnamese and us,” said Qin Zhongjiang, who runs a health center in
Chongzuo, a city 40 miles from the border whose central bus station
often serves as a pick-up point for undocumented workers.
Chinese farmer Lu Qixue hires Vietnamese laborers
before the autumn sugar cane harvest. For up to five grueling months,
the foreign workers put in 10-hour days thwacking sugar cane stalks
“They work slowly, and we always have to train them,
but we can’t find enough skilled Chinese,” said Lu, a rail-thin
58-year-old village chief with gravelly stubble. “If we don’t hire the
Vietnamese, we won’t be able to grow as much.”
A capable Chinese worker is paid about
Lu said he has no choice but to rely on the illegal help because his
three sons have no interest in working the fields. Two are contractors
and one is a taxi driver.
“I don’t want to carry sugar cane down the
mountain,” said his youngest son, Lu Xinghuan, 26, who aspires to own a
trucking company. “It’s hard work.”
Labor activists said the growing use of undocumented foreigners is undermining gains made with
“These (foreign) workers have no legal protection at
all and are often complicit with their employers in keeping their
presence out of sight of the authorities,” said
Officially, businesses that hire undocumented aliens are fined up to
Despite the crackdowns it remains to be seen if
illegal immigration will spark much resentment among natives. Zhu
Guanqiao, a restaurant owner from
“Everyone has to eat,” said Zhu, 38, standing near a
border gate in the Chinese city of Pingxiang. “The Vietnamese are poor
and their living standards are lower than ours. We’re a richer country
now. If they come here just to work, I think we should let them.”
(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.
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