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Caribbean nerves over Chinese business settling
Despite early expressions of concern from several quarters, official nervousness in the Caribbean appear to be easing in the face of a new and steady stream of business-led Chinese immigration into the region.
Labourers in the latest wave of arrivals from China are generally known to earn much lower wages than local counterparts in the construction sector, appear prepared to work longer hours without benefits regulated by domestic law and, among the entrepreneurs, there have been fears about the corresponding arrival of “the Chinese Mafia” and the facilitation of human trafficking.
The former People’s National Movement (PNM) administration was the focus of much criticism for engagement of Chinese firms for several, now-notorious public infrastructure projects and some trade unions were up in arms over the open flouting of industrial relations regulations and practices by these companies.
In Guyana, labour laws have however recently been translated into Mandarin to help avoid the exploitation of Chinese workers. In Suriname, batches of applications for Surinamese citizenship from Chinese residents sometimes measure in the hundreds and are usually favourably processed. Two weeks ago, for example, the Suriname parliament considered citizenship petitions from over 900 Chinese nationals.
The country’s police commissioner, Humphrey Tjin Liep Shie, when interviewed by T&T Guardian was also hard-pressed to identify any recent example of organised crime to justify fear of a “mafia” presence – a source of considerable speculation in countries such as Guyana and T&T. One senior immigration official in T&T has meanwhile pointed to the fact that the inflow from China has generally been orderly with just one Chinese national currently in custody at the Immigration Detention Centre in Aripo.
“They usually come here with their papers in order,” the official said. Initial fears of the Caribbean being over-run by lawless immigrants appear to have been quelled over time. China-funded infrastructure projects from Jamaica to T&T to Guyana in recent years witnessed the greatest influx of arrivals from the world’s most populous nation since the advent of at least three waves of Chinese immigration from the early-1800s onward. The development had initially generated nervousness among politicians, business leaders and trade unions.
The most recent wave, associated with Chinese “state capitalism”, via a growing list of state-owned enterprises (SOE) entering under government-to-government arrangements, has persisted alongside inflows associated with a variety of commercial enterprises including restaurants and supermarkets.
Chinese restaurants owned and operated by the most recent wave of arrivals dominate the urban commercial landscapes of many Central American and Caribbean capitals. Full-service Chinese supermarkets are also supplanting corner shops in some parts of T&T and Suriname. In an interview with T&T Guardian, Surinamese MP, Carl Breeveld, said that as a nation of immigrants, “we are not against the Chinese … but it is important for them to integrate.”
The issue of “integration” looms large in many Caribbean capitals. The President of Guyana’s Chinese Association, Shilong Chow, requires an interpreter to speak with journalists, and the Caribbean Community (Caricom) mainland territory is popular among immigrants in Suriname as a reliable catchment area for Chinese brides. Surinamese immigration laws accord immediate citizenship status to females marrying naturalized immigrants.
In T&T, an increase in Chinese operated SOEs and other enterprises has also not led to greater involvement in business groups. “We have not had an uptake in Chinese businesses as new members,” Chamber of Industry and Commerce CEO, Catherine Kumar, told T&T Guardian. There is, as well, concern that much of the financial proceeds of the big contracts are not retained in domestic Caribbean economies.
“What they (Chinese) earn is going to China,” Breeveld said. “The re-investment is not there.” Anxieties have been global with major investments blocked in the United States and Canada and attempts, even in Trinidad and Tobago, to put a brake on new contracts particularly in the construction sector.
T&T Guardian has however reported on a variety of energy projects with relatively heavy Chinese SOE involvement in the economy, including investments from the China Investment Corporation, Sinopec and the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). China Jiangsu International is also currently engaged in construction of the University of the West Indies (UWI) South Campus in Penal/Debe.
The easing of nerves appears to be evident even among the harshest erstwhile opponents of this most recent wave.
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