bne IntelliNews -
Hundreds of Chinese construction workers employed by a paper mill in Belarus have marched on the southern city of Gomel on July 2 over pay delays in a rare protest in the authoritarian former Soviet republic.
Around 250 labourers building new production facilities at the Dobrush Paper Mill downed tools and set off on foot for the city, which is located 25 kilometres away, Belarusian media at the scene reported. As well as pay holdups, the protest concerned penalties imposed by the general contractor, China's Xuan Yuan Corporation, for failure to meet construction schedule deadlines, which has had a kick-down effect on the men's reimbursement.
The workers were demanding a meeting with China's ambassador to Belarus and said they were prepared to take their protest 300 kilometres further to Minsk if necessary, using public transport to reach the capital.
Coming one day before Belarus' July 3 Independence Day celebrations, the strike is a potential embarrassment to both countries following the announcement in May of $3.5bn in credit lines and investments in local banks and companies during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing is looking to use Belarus as a staging point in its New Silk Road project to hook up to western European markets, and has launched a series of infrastructure and other development projects in the former Soviet republic.
Belarus in 2011 agreed a $348mn loan with the state-owned China Development Bank to build the new mill facility near Gomel, with construction due to be completed by the end of 2016. According to Minsk-based Internet portal TUT.by, up to 900 Chinese workers are employed by Dobrush Paper Mill. It was not immediately clear why their ranks were apparently divided over the protest march or if more were expected to join.
Meanwhile, the spontaneous Chinese protest march has attracted widespread interest in Belarus, which has rarely seen strikes and rallies during two decades of authoritarian rule by President Alexander Lukashenko. The republic's last anti-government rallies took place in Minsk and other major cities in 2011 during a crisis over balance of payments that stripped the Belarusian ruble of two-thirds of its value.
In June of that year, about 3000 demonstrators took part in a 'clapping protest' in the main square of Minsk, in which protesters clapped instead of chanting slogans while demanding Lukashenko's resignation. The president responded by banning clapping in public, which preceded the arrests by plain-clothed police of scores of protesters.
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