Jul 15, 2014 01:37 PM

A Day in the Life of a Chinese Worker in Iraq

(Beijing) -- The story of every Chinese person who enters Iraq begins at the airport.

State-owned enterprises with major construction projects in the country pay for police or security forces to meet workers when they land.

"There are special bullet-proof armored vehicles," said Ma Xin, a man from the northwestern region of Ningxia who has worked in Iraq for a foreign trade company. "Local police and security escorted us the whole way. Then when we arrived at the (China National Petroleum Corp.) construction site security was provided by an Italian company."

Once the workers arrived in the country, they begin dull lives at their worksites with no more than one or two square kilometers of space to move about.

"We didn't have opportunities to leave," said Wang Xucheng, a temporary worker for a private subcontractor of CNPC. "We mostly stayed at the site, completely sealed off. It was like being in prison."

If a worker needs to leave the camp for work reasons, he must apply for armored transport, Wang said.

Most workers who are not on duty are either sleeping or buying daily necessities from Iraqis. The only recreational activities are surfing the Internet or talking with family online. Cell phones work only rarely because the signal is weak.

The worksite is the safest place to be, workers say. Although many Chinese workers say they have heard gunshots, there have been no attacks on building sites.

Zhang Yu, who worked for a subcontractor for China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co. (COSCO) in Iraq, said that a typical site with more than 500 workers is surrounded by chain-link fencing and security forces constantly patrol the area.

"As long as there isn't a major armed clash, terrorists are unlikely to be able to break into Chinese compounds," he said. "Every campsite is a sturdy little fortress, and Chinese people aren't the targets of insurgent attacks."

Chinese workers at private companies have more freedom. After they become familiar with the local environment, they can walk around the local bazaar or take a trip with colleagues.

Ma, who was doing business in Iraq for the foreign trade company, travelled a lot in Iraq to put on exhibitions.

"The roads to almost every city have checkpoints every kilometer or two," Ma said. "Even if it's a three-lane highway, one car can pass at a time."

Ma said the guards manning the checkpoints sometimes asked to see foreigners' passports, and that drivers had to slow down and lower their windows to show the guards who their passengers were.

Restaurants, supermarkets and busy streets all have security guards armed with assault rifles standing in the doorways.

"Even if you're just strolling in the vegetable market, you can still be searched by security guards," Zhang said. "But the guards don't usually search Chinese people, only the locals."

When he went out, Zhang usually went with several Iraqi security guards, not because he feared terrorists, but because he was afraid of being robbed by poor Iraqis, he said.

Ma said that during the weekends he could go out for tea or a short walk, but that otherwise his only recreation was smoking water pipes and playing billiards.

The Islamic month of Ramadan is a difficult time for Chinese workers. Muslims cannot eat, drink or play music from sunrise to sunset, so the restaurants are closed until evening. Iraqis and Chinese get along well, but conflicts arise when Chinese workers fail to observe the Ramadan fast and are caught secretly eating, Zhang said.

(Rewritten by James Bradbury)

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