Unemployed and underemployed Costa Ricans have been hanging around the construction area for the new National Stadium in La Sabana Park on the western edge of San José, hoping for a chance to be one of the 200 Ticos to be hired for almost a year’s worth of work on the project.
Construction of the $80 million stadium is being financed by the government of China. Although President Oscar Arias had originally said that workers building the stadium would be mainly Costa Ricans, the tables have turned in favor of Chinese workers.
Six hundred Chinese workers are being shipped to Costa Rica for the construction of the new stadium, whereas only 200 Costa Ricans, mainly tradesmen such as electricians and plumbers, will be hired, according to Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute Vice Minister Osvaldo Pandolfo.
“I don’t know who is worse off in this case,” said Bernardo Solano, an unemployed Costa Rican. “Either the Chinese who arrive here and have to live knowing nothing of the language or the country, or the Ticos who, during this time of crisis, are shoved out of potential jobs.”
He has been waiting outside the lot where the Chinese are building temporary residences for their workers, hoping to get more information on when hiring might begin.
When foreign workers are employed in Costa Rica, employers must respect the General Immigration Law, the Labor Code and related laws such as occupational health laws. There are no restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to work in Costa Rica.
Supplies began arriving from China last week, and the project will be under way soon, according to Pandolfo.
“They have already brought an enormous amount of supplies from China,” said Pandolfo. Some 2,400 containers arrived in Caldera port with supplies for the stadium as well as for temporary shelters for the 600 visiting workers being constructed in barrio Don Bosco, approximately a two-and-a-half kilometer walk from the site.
Caja Receives Its Due
Pandolfo said that even though the Chinese workers are being contracted by a Chinese company and have to pay for their own social and medical insurance in China, the workers also will have to pay into Costa Rica’s Social Security System (Caja). The Caja is adamant that any employee working in Costa Rica must pay for health care here, regardless of coverage elsewhere.
“It’s illogical that they are paying double,” said Pandolfo, “but the Caja won’t budge.” José Luis Campos, a San José lawyer specializing in labor law, says it’s completely normal that the foreign workers adhere to the same regulations as Costa Ricans.
“Regardless of what company pays them, a Costa Rican one or a Chinese one, they can’t work more than eight hours without getting paid overtime, and they can only work four overtime hours at a maximum,” he said.
The Arias administration at first resisted the Caja’s decision, and in an attempt not to offend China, decided to pay Social Security fees for the imported workers from a previous donation by the Chinese government, according to Pandolfo.
Yan Bin Kan, a construction team foreman, has already been in Costa Rica for two months. At 37, he has a wife and daughter back home in An Hui, China. A large number of the workers are also from that city, as the An Hui Foreign Economic Construction Group is the project’s principal contractor.
Yan Bin said they will be working around the clock in order to finish as much of the project as possible before the onset of the rainy season. Workers will be split into two rotating shifts, with one group working eight hours, followed by the other group for another eight hours.
“Eight hours of rest and then eight hours of work, continuously,” said Yan Bin, “but if it’s raining, we will split into groups of three and work six hours each.”
“I am only going to be here for another two or three months,” said Yan Bin. “Then there will be more workers brought in to replace me. We usually only stay for short periods of time, so we don’t have to be away from home for so long.”
Yan Bin doesn’t know how much they are being paid, but knows that accommodations and food are completely covered, making it possible for the workers to never leave their temporary homes or work place.
Campos said that in terms of providing living conditions, the company must ensure that these are safe, clean and meet all basic necessities. The temporary living quarters established by the project for the 600 workers are about the size of one city block.
“Every worker should know how much they are getting paid before starting work, and especially before coming halfway across the world to do so,” said Campos. “In some countries we would call that slavery.”
Said Yan Bin, “I don’t notice much difference in policies when we work in other countries; we bring our own regulations and restrictions with us.”
Which is precisely Campos’ concern. “What worries me is that they are going to use the excuse of following Chinese law and policy to get away with methods not approved in this country,” he said.
Eager to Enjoy ‘Pura Vida’
Another Chinese worker, Daniel Song, who is 24 years old and just recently finished his university studies, seems keen to stay and experience as much of Costa Rica as possible.
He watched the soccer match between Costa Rica and Honduras on Feb. 11 and would love the opportunity to cheer at a soccer game in the new stadium.
“I love it here,” said Song. “It’s so beautiful and different, and I’d love the chance to actually explore the country afterwards … if we have time … and are allowed.”
According to the Labor Law, every worker is entitled to one day of rest after every six days of work.
Pandolfo said he isn’t sure how much time the Chinese will be allowed to stay after the stadium is finished, and he knows that everyone is eager for the project to be completed as quickly as possible. The contractors have permission from the Labor Ministry tooperate 24 hours per day, as long as work hours are in line with Costa Rican labor laws and regulations regarding noise levels are respected at night.
Normally the stadium would take 23 months to construct, and despite promises to speed the process as much as possible, it most likely won’t be done before Arias leaves office.
Sebastián Valverde, another Costa Rican lingering at the Barrio Don Bosco site hoping to be hired, said that if speed of construction is a problem, maybe they should hire some Costa Ricans now.
“We asked them when we could start working, and they said maybe in a month or so, because they’re only hiring Chinese workers right now,” said Valverde.
Pandolfo said construction is set to start the week of March 10 on the northwest end of the Sabana Park.
Repeated requests for information from the Chinese Embassy were unanswered by press time. n
Translator Derek Yiu and Tico Times reporter Gillian Gillers contributed to this story.