JINTANG, China — Cheap labor has helped China become the world's top producer of a variety of consumer goods, including televisions and DVD players and apple juice and clothing. So it seemed only a matter of time before China would come up with a new export: the laborers themselves.
Recruiters come to hamlets around counties like this one in Sichuan Province in southwest China and offer salaries double or triple what workers can make at home.
"They said, 'If you go abroad, you can earn a lot more,'" said Yang Mingxian, whose husband traveled to Saudi Arabia to work on a construction project late last year. "He just did it for the money."
However, Beijing is discovering pitfalls in looking after workers overseas. A scattered few are getting killed in terrorist attacks. Others have been kidnapped or encountered peril in their host countries. Still others say they've been cheated by the companies that hired them and faced sudden deportation back to China after they lodged complaints.
He Shengjun, a 30-year-old manual laborer, and his friend, Feng Shiyong, who's in his 20s, were deported from Saudi Arabia in mid-January, after barely a month at a work site there.
"They cheated us," He said, seated on a stool in a rural dwelling in this county.
Chinese companies winning bids for projects overseas are recruiting workers in the hinterlands and taking entire work crews with them. However, China still isn't on the scale of countries such as Mexico, the Philippines and Bangladesh: Millions of workers from those countries travel abroad to seek their fortunes.
As of the end of November, 794,000 Chinese citizens were officially listed as working overseas, and the number is likely to climb to 1 million people before the end of the decade, the Commerce Ministry says. Experts say the unofficial figure may be much higher, making China a major source of foreign migrant labor.
Feng and He said recruiters from far away Guizhou province came to their village last fall and easily rounded up a group of men to leave for Saudi Arabia on Oct. 30. The two were among a second group of 32 men who left for the Arabian Peninsula on Dec. 11. A third group of 54 men left on Dec. 28.
"They promised us that we would get at least 200 yuan (about $29) per day, that that was the lowest rate. They said they would pay for our food and lodging," Feng said.
Neither man recalled the name of the location in Saudi Arabia of the work site — not surprising given their modest education levels and the bewilderment at their surroundings. They said they signed contracts in a foreign language, presumably Arabic, and that the contracts were later taken away.
Like all the contracted workers, the recruiters demanded Feng and He pay a broker fee of 1,200 yuan ($175) to process their work papers.
It was only 17 days after the two men arrived in Saudi Arabia and began working that they realized their wages were far lower than promised. Dozens of disgruntled workers decided to take action on Jan. 4, doing something that might draw punishment in their own country, where work stoppages are dealt with severely.
"We just slept. We didn't go to work," Feng said. "We didn't call our behavior a strike. . . . They called it a strike."
Translators arrived at the dormitories and gave the laborers three choices: go back to work, return to China or wait for Saudi police. The workers decided to wait, the two men said.
Feng said police held the striking workers for three days. During that period, officials from the Chinese contractor offered them their jobs back only if they agreed to lower wages.
Some of the workers quickly sent text messages on their mobile phones back to their home province to warn fellow Sichuanese not to fall for the recruiters' promises and make the journey to Saudi Arabia. Soon, a Chinese official showed up at the detention facility.
"Somebody who said he was from the Chinese Embassy came to talk to us. He said, 'Please go back to China. We will get your belongings for you.' We still aren't sure who he was," He said.
The labor dispute made headlines back in China, and the Foreign Ministry pledged to intervene but declined to say whether the workers or the Chinese contractor were in the right.
Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Beijing supports "qualified enterprises to go overseas" as long as they follow international practices. "If there are any issues, we hope the relevant parties could adopt an attitude of active consultation and handle the problems based on local laws and signed contracts," she said.
One economist put the blame on labor brokers, adding that during a recent trip to Africa he saw Chinese workers who were trapped and the victims of "human traffickers."
"Some local governments have granted permission to unscrupulous agents to handle labor export. So it's hard to tell who should shoulder the responsibility in case a dispute arises," economist Xiao Lian of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the China Daily newspaper.
"This is a problem that needs to be solved urgently. The Saudi Arabian case once again proves it," he added.
While cheating of workers is a problem, real danger lurks abroad for Chinese workers. In October, assailants killed five Chinese oil workers in Sudan, a key energy supplier to China. Nine Chinese oil workers were slain in Ethiopia in April 2007. Chinese mining and oil engineers have been abducted in both Niger and Nigeria.
At least six Chinese died in targeted bombings and shooting attacks in 2006 and 2007 in Pakistan, a close ally of China.
Feng said that he has no desire to go back to the Middle East, even for higher wages.
"We don't want to go back to the (Persian) Gulf area. If something happens, they show guns," he said as more than a dozen villagers gathered around.
"If you steal things, they cut off your fingers," Feng said, making a reference to Islamic law that drew astonishment from his listeners. "If you look at a woman for longer than three seconds, they can call the police to take you away."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY