Cash-in-hand and underpaid jobs, fake passports and fear of being discovered by the police – these are just some of issues facing Chinese illegal immigrants in Switzerland. swissinfo.ch spoke to a young migrant to find out more.
Huxian* is Portuguese, born in 1981 on the island of Macao, near Hong Kong. At least, this is what it says on his European Union passport, issued in 2007.
In reality, Huxian hails from Fujian, a province in south-east China. He is not yet 30 and doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese. He has only ever been to Macao once. “All the passport data is registered, but it belongs to another person,” he said.
Clad in white trainers, jeans and shirt, he has just finished work for the day. He obviously takes care of his appearance and is on time for our meeting. We are sitting outside in a bar in the Bern region, near the flat he shares with another Chinese.
As Huxian speaks only a bit of German, he prefers to speak in his own language. He explained that he arrived in Switzerland five years ago, “by chance”.
Huxian came by car from Hungary, his first step into Europe. “I only stayed three days. Then somebody told me that there was work in Switzerland, so I seized the opportunity. At that point I had a Chinese passport with a Schengen visa for Hungary, which allowed me into Switzerland legally as a tourist.”
After his visa and passport expired, it was not hard to get hold of a new document. “I spoke to someone on the phone; we never met. No names were used. That’s how it works,” he explained.
Two months and CHF3,000 ($3,200) later, Huxian received his new passport. “It was sent from China. They are good at making copies there.”
There are Chinese with legal Portuguese passports – inhabitants of the former Portuguese colony of Macao, which now belongs to China.
As European Union citizens, it is easier for them to gain residency and work permits as they are covered by the free movement of people accord between Bern and Brussels.
Chinese restaurant help
Huxian has been working since he reached Switzerland. “That’s what I am here for. I have worked all over the place,” he said, without going into details. But he has never seen a contract and it is always cash in hand.
He now works in a shop from morning to evening, six days a week. The hours are not counted and when the boss needs him, he is always there, for example to cook during a party.
The pay is good, he says, CHF1,600 a month – half of the minimum wage, but three times more than the CHF500 he earned when he first came to Switzerland. “I am lucky. I know people who aren’t paid at all,” he said.
Jing Li*, manager of a small Chinese restaurant in the Bernese Oberland, says Chinese workers are the salvation of many Asian businesses. “If I had to pay the minimum wage and pay social security to everyone, I would not be able to stay in business,” he said.
One of his four employees is illegal. “It’s CHF70 per eight-hour days. That’s a maximum of CHF1,500 a month,” he said, adding that the others – all Chinese – are legal and get CHF3,200-3,800 net per month. He himself gets CHF50,000-60,000 a year from the restaurant.
Swiss police raid
At the beginning of June 2013, the Federal Police Office coordinated an operation against a criminal gang of people traffickers. Nine cantons were involved: Aargau, Basel Country, Bern, Fribourg, Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Vaud, Zug and Zurich.
Under scrutiny were Chinese citizens suspected of obtaining work permits using fake European documents and working illegally in Chinese catering establishments, the police office said in a statement.
349 people were detained and questioned. Another 57 were taken into custody. In Switzerland, unauthorised residency and carrying out unlawful gainful employment is punishable with up to a year in prison or a fine.
The police office says that human trafficking suspects are not just working in the restaurant sector.
“We have seen increased numbers of Chinese working in prostitution since 2012. People know that the costs of getting someone here from China are pretty high. They can’t be paid back in a short time. This creates a situation of dependency in the country of arrival,” said Boris Mesaric, head of the Swiss Coordination Unit against the Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants at the Federal Police Office.
A recent police operation in Spain and France confirms this. There, police smashed a human trafficking ring which was charging €40,000-€50,000 to smuggle Chinese immigrants to Europe and the United States. In some cases, Spanish police said, there was also sexual exploitation.
Form of slavery
According to Xavier Ganioz, secretary-general of the Fribourg branch of the union Unia, the use of Chinese illegal immigrants is gaining interest “among the less well-intentioned employers”.
The newspaper La Liberté has called it “a modern form of slavery”.
Chinese illegal immigration is, however, relatively new to Switzerland, with estimates saying it affects around 1,000 people.
“Chinese migration is internationally very significant, for example in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands and Italy. It’s still relatively contained in Switzerland,” said Boris Mesaric, head of the Swiss Coordination Unit against the Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants at the Federal Police Office, without giving official numbers.
“The authorities are assessing its importance for our country, as well as how it works,” he explained. “They are using evidence gathered during a recent police operation.”
In June 2013, police from several cantons conducted an investigation into a criminal gang of people smugglers, suspected of bringing in illegal immigrants from China. More than 400 people were detained and questioned (see box).
“To understand how this system works, we are looking at the situation abroad where it has already been established that networks and organisations are behind the trafficking of migrants and the falsifying of documents.”
Just a friend
From his restaurant, Jing Li takes another view. He doesn’t consider himself as taking advantage and shakes his head when we ask him about people traffickers and organised networks.
“I have never heard anything about that. I simply give a hand to those who are finding it hard to get work. There’s a crisis in Europe and in recent times there have been increased numbers of illegal Chinese workers in Switzerland.”
In restaurants, most illegal workers are employed as head chefs because Chinese restaurants need good staff to attract clientele and to survive.
“Competition is strong. If you sell your dish at CHF10, somebody else will do it for CHF9,” Jing Li added.
There is lots of red tape involved in hiring a cook legally from China, he said. Often permits are not granted. The restaurateur, who is 50 and married, knows the law well and also the risks: a fine of up to CHF20,000 for illegal workers. But if the authorities arrived unannounced, he always has an answer. “I would say that it’s simply a friend or a client helping out.”
Want to work
Huxian is also afraid of the police, whom he has so far avoided. “If they get me, I’ll end up in prison for sure. But they can’t hold me for long, I haven’t done anything serious.”
In any case, he believes that prison is better than going back to Fujian. “At least here I have something to eat and somewhere to sleep.”
“All I want is to be able to work and to save some money, without creating any problems,” he added. He tries to put aside some of his pay every day for his parents in China. “In our country it’s expected that children look after their parents,” said Huxian, an only child.
He spends his free time doing other small jobs or sleeping. He often stays in his CHF300 a month rented room or goes out with other Chinese migrants. As he has no health insurance, he gets all his medicines from China. As for more serious conditions, he says he’s never really thought about it, “but I can’t go to hospital. I’m being careful”.
He doesn’t have any ambitions or dreams for the future. “I only want to work and stay in good health.” But he is aware that he’ll have to get a new passport when his old one expires as “renewing a fake one is more difficult”.
After a beer and a few cigarettes, we say goodbye to Huxian. He thanks us for letting him tell his story. “It’s all true,” he insists, repeating that his only aim is to have a better life. He then sets off down the pavement and stops at the pedestrian crossing. The road is deserted, but he looks both ways before crossing.
(Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)