Lao workers hired six years ago to build homes for villagers displaced by construction of a China-backed dam are still waiting to be paid, while those who were resettled have yet to be compensated for lost land, a Lao-based coalition of government-monitoring groups says.
Payment for work on the Namtha 1 Dam Resettlement Villages is long overdue, Khamchanh Phomsengsavanh, vice president of the Lao Front for National Construction, told a meeting of the Lao National Assembly on Nov. 8.
“The wages of workers who built the resettlement villages in the Nalae district of Luang Namtha province in 2015 have still not been paid. And compensation to the villagers who lost land, crops, and other property to the dam project has not been paid either,” she said.
Dam developer The Namtha 1 Power Company hired two subcontractors, the Sengphet Company and Soakxay Company, in 2015 to build eleven resettlement villages — including homes, health centers, offices, roads, and schools — to house villagers displaced by the dam.
Dozens of villagers were then hired to do the work but have never been paid, former workers told RFA in interviews.
“I built a health center five years ago, and I still haven’t gotten paid,” one worker said. His employer had said he would pay him three million kip (U.S. $300) for the work, but then "just ran away.”
“Many carpenters and masons didn’t get paid, either,” the worker said, speaking like RFA’s other sources on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. “The employer never came back and never told us whether he’s going to pay us or not. The authorities haven’t said anything about our payment either,” he said.
Another former worker said he had been part of a group of ten who had built homes and offices in a resettlement village.
“Most of us never got paid, and those who did get paid never got the full amount. We worked hard. The company still owes us,” he said.
“I asked an employee of the company about this, and he told me to ask my foreman. When I asked the foreman, the foreman told me to ask the company owner. Then I asked the owner, and he said that the payments had already been made.”
“It’s been going on like this for five years,” the worker said.
Financed by the China Southern Power Grid, parent company of the dam’s developers, the Namtha 1 Dam became operational in April 2019 after displacing more than 10,500 villagers who now live in resettlement towns on mountaintops near the dam’s reservoir.
Power generated by the 168-megawatt dam is now sold to two Chinese Special Economic Zones (SEZs) — the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo province and the Boten Special Economic Zone in Luang Namtha, both bordering China.
Difficult living conditions
Living conditions for Lao villagers displaced by the dam remain difficult, with farmland, rice fields, and vegetable gardens destroyed when the dam filled its reservoir to produce electricity, sources told RFA.
“They closed the dam’s gates and water flooded our crops,” said one villager in Nalae. “The dam developers and local authorities came to assess the damage three times, and we signed some papers, but nothing happened and no payment was ever made,” he said.
“We have no land for farming, and we have no jobs,” said another villager who moved to one of the dam’s resettlement areas five years ago.
“Neither the dam’s developer or the government will give us any land, so we have no choice now but to clear land on the mountain to grow whatever crops we can, and to raise chickens and pigs,” he said.
Speaking on Tuesday to RFA, an official in Nalae district’s Natural Resources and Environment Department said that authorities still have no plans to distribute land to the villagers displaced by the Namtha 1 Dam.
“The villagers will have to wait a little bit longer,” he said.
“And as for the unpaid wages and compensation, neither the dam developer or authorities in the district or the province have talked about this recently.”
Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries in its quest to become “the battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the electricity to other countries in the region.
Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.