(Pictures in old network, final draft-2018-February 13-‘Jerry Photo’ folder)
Traffic came to a halt at the crossroads housing the new site for the ministerial complex in the 540 community yesterday, when protesting casual workers blocked all vehicular traffic passing the gates of the construction site over the alleged failure of the Chinese contractors to pay the workers their agreed upon wages.
The aggrieved workers in their hundreds swarmed the gates of the construction site demanding their pay after they said their Chinese employers and contracting company, Kuangdu Construction Company, reneged on their word to settle the workers.
Worker Lawrence S. Kounjue , standing by the road outside the ongoing construction site, told the Daily Observer that they decided to stage the protest after their Chinese overlords refused to pay them the US$0.70 (seventy U.S. cents) they had agreed to pay the downsized workers as overtime pay for the duration of the time they worked at the site.
The group of day-workers made up of masons, plumbers, carpenters, steel benders, electricians, and heavy duty mechanics and drivers said they had been working with the China aided construction company for as far back as a year and a half constructing the new ministerial complex at the old Ministry of Defense site in the 540 community.
“Last year when we first started working, we had agreed that the Chinese pay us US$2.50 as overtime pay, which they would pay us at the end of our contract,” said Kounjue. He said they were paid US$5 per day across the board – for skilled and unskilled workers – after the former Minister of Public Works, Gyude Moore, negotiated with the Chinese on their behalf.
It was then agreed that the amount of US$1 per worker should be paid for working on holidays or Sundays.
“The first protest we had in August last year was over them going back on their word to pay us this US$1 a day for working on Sundays and holidays. We worked without insurance and other benefits so we saw it fit to negotiate for the holiday pay to boost our pay,” said one of the leaders of the workers, Daniel Siawhat. “We also made some other demands, such as transport fare, food, and salary increment.”
According to the men, yesterday’s protest action was necessitated by the Kuangdu Construction Company officials’ refusal to pay the men their severance package that included their overtime pay. Some of the men said they started working at the site since the start of the construction project over a year and a half ago, adding that some started as recently as three months ago.
Nimba County Senator Thomas Grupee, who the men had called to help negotiate with the Chinese, said the trouble started after the leaders of the workers met with the Chinese on Monday, January 8 this year where, instead of the US$2.50 per hour for overtime pay that was agreed upon sometime last year, they grudgingly accepted the Chinese’s demand of US$0.70 (seventy cents). “But when it came time to pay, the Chinese again changed the amount to US$0.50. That was what led to today’s protest action against the Kuangdu Construction Company,” the Senator said.
Descending on the gates of the site of the new ministerial complex, the aggrieved laid off workers not only blocked traffic but attacked individuals and damaged properties belonging to innocent bystanders and businesses close to the site. From the east of Tubman Boulevard, traffic was blocked from the Palm Spring Resort past the ministerial complex as far west as the offices of Lonestar MTN; even the Congo Town back road was congested as protesting workers stopped traffic until the intervention of officers from the Liberia National Police (LNP), Senator Grupee, and District #10 Representative, Yekeh Kolubah.
“The protest action worked, because the Chinese decided to pay the men off. But the question is why did they have to deny the men their pay only to now pay them after they blocked traffic and caused damage to properties?” asked Senator Grupee.
Arriving at the construction site, a visibly upset Representative Kolubah admonished the Chinese paymasters that it was unethical for them to push the workers into protesting and causing the traffic jam and damage to properties.
“You will be responsible for all the damage these men caused. This process started three weeks ago when you agreed to pay the men, but then changed your mind. You will make sure that you pay them all today, even if it means leaving here at 4 a.m. tomorrow, you will pay every one of them. You will also be responsible to feed them and the officers here,” Rep. Kolubah instructed.
He then advised the workers to behave themselves and cause no further problems as their demand for pay was being met.
Speaking to a Chinese worker who refused to state his name, he said the men were laid off because the work at the construction site has reached a point where workers with highly technical skills are needed.
After receiving their pay, several of the ex-Kuangdu Construction Company temporary workers said they not only regretted the protest action, but also regretted the fact that the Chinese didn’t pay them the US$2.50 that was originally agreed upon.
Unconfirmed reports say the men were paid anywhere from US$350 downwards, according to the calculations of the Chinese bosses.
Meanwhile drivers and community residents caught up in the fracas said while they were against the violence, they nonetheless understood the aggrieved workers’ need to protest for their pay.
“It shouldn’t have come down to this (the protest and violence) though, but I am happy that at least they are now getting paid,” said a taxi driver.
It can be recalled that apart from working from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., the workers blamed the causes of the August 2017 protest action on poor labor practices, including no insurance, non issuance of protective gears, not being fed and transported, being underpaid, and being demanded to pay US$5 for a company issued helmet, which is refundable at the end of the contract.
A gift from the People’s Republic of China, the complex, which sits on 24,000 square meters, will host most of the Government of Liberia’s agencies and ministries, and would be the second largest Chinese constructed building on the continent next to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
It is being constructed at the cost of US$60 million.