A new wave of Chinese immigration is sweeping Trinidad and Tobago, triggering a baby boom and unearthing a ring of exploitation which appear to go unnoticed by the authorities.And while the Chinese businesses flourish, more reports of deplorable living conditions continue. Apart from recent exposures of horrendous conditions at construction sites, health officials have reported that many of the Chinese who work in restaurants, sleep inside cupboards and on top of tables as they have no beds.
With no money for rent, the poor Chinese labourers are forced to bunk in often shoddy fast food outlets. In light of these exposures, questions were raised by officials of the Penal/Debe Chamber at a function last week about how illegal Chinese are being brought into the country. Who is issuing their work permits and who is providing drivers licenses to the immigrants?Sources indicate that a local "Chinese connection" arranges the business operations but several Chinese immigrants said they were told not to speak about the transactions.
Once the Chinese get here, they immediately set up their businesses, paying as much as $5,000 per month to rent a venue in urban areas. The Chinese fast food outlets are often located at street corners, spanking new buildings or under people's homes. Some locals are hired but the majority of cooks and cleaners are of Chinese descent.Checks at 12 restaurants in south Trinidad reveal that most of the Chinese women who work at the restaurants opt to have children in Trinidad as they are not allowed to have more than one child in China.
Under China's one child policy, couples are limited to having one child, because of strict family planning restrictions. The policy was established by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to limit communist China's population growth. In some parts of China, fines, pressures to abort a pregnancy, and even forced sterilisation are imposed to prohibit second or subsequent pregnancies.
During an interview, a Chinese restaurant owner of San Fernando, who spoke little English, said she bore her three children in Trinidad. "I sent two back China. This one will go soon," she said, pointing to a cherub two-year-old girl. The businesswoman explained that if she had a son in China, then she could not have another child. If she gives birth to a girl, then she has one more chance to try for a son.A Chinese translator who has regular business transactions with the Chinese immigrants said they were given strict instructions not to speak with the media. He explained that many of the Chinese who came to Trinidad were better off than they were in the over-populated China.
Strain on the health system
But while this is so, health officials complained that the Chinese business expansion is taking a toll on the health inspection operations.Chief Public Health officer at the San Fernando Health Department John Ramkhelawan said the Chinese restaurants gives them a heavier workload. He explained that only 16 officers worked in the San Fernando region, which extends from Marabella to La Romaine.
Ramkhelawan noted that apart from this, there were also constraints with respect to the language barrier. "Some of them are not versed in English, so we have problems communicating with them. When we do food handlers lectures, they cannot understand, so we need to address that deficiency in our lecture material to effectively communicate with them," Ramkhelawan revealed.He said former mayor of Chaguanas, Dr Suruj Rambachan last year developed a lecture in Chinese language to deal with this problem. "When we want to explain to them to do certain works in their business, we have to give it to them in writing and then they could get it translated and interpreted.
This is a long process," Ramkhelawan said, adding that inspectors are having difficulty with many Chinese restaurants."Many of them need to have better extractor fans, fridges and waste disposal. Because fast food generates a lot of oil, we have to regularly monitor their disposal of this," Ramkhelawan said. He added that at least two more Public Health Inspectors must be hired to assist with the additional workload.
Meanwhile, in the Penal district, Chief Health Inspector Shesat Mohammed also complained that communication problems with the Chinese were hampering sanitation. He said during visits, they are often appalled at the living conditions."We see evidence that they sleep in the restaurants. They do not have alternative homes. On one occasion, we pulled a partially opened drawer and found a baby sleeping," Mohammed said.
He explained that the petite Chinese labourers curl up on shelves in their cupboards and sleep until the next day. "They are humble people, accustomed to hard work but the way they live is definitely cause for concern. Housing is substandard. Sometimes we have about 20 Chinese sleeping in a two room," Mohammed added.And even after the Chinese workers register for their businesses, Mohammed said it is difficult to positively identify the faces because their features are similar.
Mohammed recommended that the Government find solutions to ensure better communication with the Chinese.Meanwhile, Carlina Boodram complained that in some Chinese supermarkets, customers are unable to read labels or bills because it is written in Chinese. "The Government must regulate this because it is illegal for us to buy products which are not properly labelled," Boodram said.
Positive contributions from Chinese
Despite the setbacks, the contribution of the Chinese people in T&T is undeniable. Several sales representatives from merchandising companies said they preferred to do business with the Chinese immigrants. One representative who asked not to be named said: "The Chinese pay in cash. Most business owners want a 30 day credit, but they don't wait for this. As soon as they get their goods, they pay cash."
He explained that in south Trinidad alone, more than 12 successful new Chinese supermarkets have sprung up at Gasparillo, Point Fortin, La Romaine, Marabella, San Fernando and Debe. Among the newly opened Chinese supermarket chains are Fugian, Flourishing, Rong Yang, Peiping and Tang, Lin Zhi, Song Han and Hang Yu supermarkets. In Debe alone, two new supermarkets Jinxiu and Classics opened their doors to the public last year.
In addition to the supermarkets, Chinese restaurants have been successfully established under people's home, in spanking new buildings and popular street corners. Between Penal to Duncan Village, alone, a total of 11 Chinese restaurants line the SS Erin Road. Along the East West corridor, scores of Chinese restaurants could be found offering an array of delicious Chinese and Cantonese dishes.Usha Basdeo, who was shopping in Jinxiu, said the Chinese supermarkets have better prices. "A few of my friends have been saying that the prices here are cheaper than anywhere else and I have been checking the shelves for the past half hour and its true," Basdeo said.
She explained that the Chinese supermarkets were well organised and although the workers did not speak much English, they were very helpful.Harripersad Pooran said locals had a lot to learn from the Chinese."They have a good work ethic and they are very hard working. I believe that our people can learn a lot from the Chinese," Pooran said.On October 12, 2006, former prime minister Patrick Manning gave a one off holiday to celebrate 200 years of Chinese arrival and contributions in Trinidad.Manning lauded the Chinese for their input in T&T's economic sustainability.