A Chinese labourer looks on at a US$ 1.4 billion Chinese funded land reclamation project in Colombo (AFP)
Many years ago Sri Lankans used to look down upon anything that was Chinese. Now China has established itself as a growing economy and Sri Lanka can’t think of any other nation better than her to rope in when planning and developing its infrastructure.
The result of such dealings is the Sri Lankan ‘market’ getting flooded with Chinese workers. The latest news that puts them under the spotlight is the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) trying to accommodate a request made by a Chinese envoy to import a Chinese brand of cigarettes to cater to the demand by Chinese workers here. This initiative has encountered opposition from the country’s Health Minister Rajitha Senarathna; an ardent supporter of the anti-smoking lobby.
Requests such as these are only an indication of the Chinese workers attempting to establish their culture here. It also sends a strong signal to the Sri Lanka tobacco industry that its products aren’t favoured by the Chinese.
"But there are observers who affirm that these Chinese workers are full of spirits and can work as long as 10 hours per day and still remain cheerful when they sign off for the day"
The Mahinda-Rajapaksa regime is responsible in bringing the Chinese here. Critics point out that Rajapaksa would have preferred Indian support, but had to give over the Hambantota Port project to China because of their superior knowledge in this type of construction. Rajapaksa never mentioned the fact that Sri Lanka was accommodating China because of the later’s overwhelming influence in South Asia through its ‘China Belt Road Initiative’.
There was a time when expatriates were not willing to invest money here because most of them complained about Sri Lanka not having stable business policies and also because such policies do change when regimes change. But it has been different with the Chinese with the United National Front Government and before that the Yahapalana regime gleefully continuing with contractors and investors from China who were introduced to them by the
The Chinese workers here are peace-loving people and their presence here has enabled house and lodge owners to rent out their apartments and rooms to these expatriates and earn a revenue. In Hambantota, where the Hambantota Port has come up, over 60 local farmers in the area are said to be involved in producing Chinese type vegetables to these expatriates. Hence there is a Chinese influence on the community in this area.
China had the world’s second largest economy in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2018, but a large number of workers from China are seeking employment in construction sites, in countries like Sri Lanka. This is a bit strange because China is a country which tops the list among countries which worked towards bringing people out of poverty. China achieved this goal by working hard between the period 1978-2018.
"It also sends a strong signal to the Sri Lanka tobacco industry that its products aren’t favoured by the Chinese"
The country’s agitated citizens, who haven’t done their homework, unreasonably criticize all regimes for opening the doors for the Chinese workers to enter the island. There are arguments that some of these Chinese workers have denied working opportunities to the locals. But there are observers who affirm that these Chinese workers are full of spirits and can work as long as 10 hours per day and still remain cheerful when they sign off for the day; something which the Sri Lankan workers are not known for.
The arrival of Chinese workers here has also been supported by another factor. Sri Lanka, which was once known to have a ‘labour sending economy, has acquired another status which makes it known as a country which is now receiving labour. Another factor that has added to the flood of expat workers here is Sri Lanka deciding to extend residing visas. The authorities have also acknowledged the fact there is also a drop in the departure of workers going abroad; a feature that has a bearing on the job opportunities in Sri Lankan work sites and companies.
But critics warn that the country’s authorities must revise Immigration and Emigration Laws, so that the current mobility of individuals in and out of Sri Lanka can be better monitored.
They also point out that a weakness in the institutional framework can’t exists because it can create a negative environment which gives rise to hostilities between Chinese and Sri Lankan workers.
Sometime back there was a television programme telecast by the Independent Television Network and dedicated to drama in Sri Lanka. In one of the dramas telecast these is a scene where a Sri Lankan waiter is attempting to lick the remains of a chicken dish which had been ordered by a Chinese couple. When inquired by one of the ‘heads’ of the kitchen as to why he is indulging in this disgraceful act, his response comes in a flash, “In future we will have to get used to eating the scraps of food that the Chinese leave on their plates’.
"As more and more Sri Lankans seek white-collar jobs and move away from hard manual work, the Chinese see this as an opportunity to grab because back in their homeland the picture painted for labourers isn’t rosy"
That’s drama or in other words life on the stage. The real life situation is not that scary because there the script is different. China being a super power will script the future of many nations working closely with it. For the record there are as many as 152 countries that have benefited from China’s infrastructure development and investment projects. These projects are carried out as a global development strategy and countries like Sri Lanka, rather than moving away from China, must think of getting the best out of this Asian giant through these deals.
The Chinese workers enjoy a puff from their favorite cigarettes and a sip from the green tea they have. Any products imported to Sri Lanka for the benefit of these Chinese workers, if brought in through the proper channels, will generate tax revenue for the GoSL. Associating with China and these Chinese workers seems to be beneficial after all because Sri Lanka lacks the techKnowHow when it comes to massive construction sites like the proposed Central Expressway; to be build using a loan worth US $ 1 billion offered by China Maxim Bank.
A good number of construction sites in Colombo are flooded with Chinese workers. The majority possesses legal visas and a handful might be here working on the sly. As more and more Sri Lankans seek white-collar jobs and move away from hard manual work, the Chinese see this as an opportunity to grab because back in their homeland the picture painted for labourers isn’t rosy. And the Chinese here know that even if there is a regime change in Sri Lanka, any new government that takes over would continue pursuing with existing Chinese initiated projects.