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Xiao Qiang’s story

Xiao Qiang’s story

Published 3. Jan 2019

written by Risto Rumpunen

the following text is based on papers provided by a police investigation, Helsinki District Court, Helsinki Court of Appeals files and interviews. All the files are publicly available. All names and places have been replaced in order to protect victims.

 

In China

Xiao Qiang was looking for opportunities to work abroad. He was a 35 years-old man with a wife and a two-year-old kid. In China he had taken loans, built a house and started his own wholesale company but his businesses had failed. He was faced against harsh reality that he had to pay back his approximately €20 000 loans that he had borrowed from twenty people. He had six years elementary school behind him and practical training in restaurants so he was able to get a certificate to work as a chef. He had worked in three different restaurants, the last of them had twenty chefs working in a shift and thousand seats for clients.

 

1st meeting

 

The idea to work and live abroad appealed to Xiao Qiang as he wished to pay back his loans faster than he could have done, had he stayed in China. He had already applied for a working permit and visa to Germany but it had been turned down, when he went to a restaurant school where he was expecting to get his cook’s certificate. There by coincident he met 70 -year old lady, who befriended him and told him about her daughter, who was living in Finland and running a Chinese restaurant there. The old lady asked if he would be interested in working in Helsinki. Her daughter’s restaurant business was thriving and expanding so they were short of staff. They had already placed an open application on a Finnish job-seeker’s website where it said: A Chinese restaurant is looking for a chef, who knows how to prepare Chinese food, and speaks Mandarin Chinese.

 

In Shanghai, a legal representative of the restaurant that operated in Helsinki, Finland, had also applied for a working permit for a chef from local Finnish consulate a year before Xiao Qiang’s name came up. According to the legal representative they had tried to recruit chefs locally in Helsinki but after failing to find anyone, who matched the criteria, they decided to search for an applicant in China.

 

The old lady and her daughter Mrs. Xf offered Xiao Qiang the job. Mrs. Xf sent from Finland to China her mother instructions how to fill up an application form in China. Xiao Qiang went to a medical examination and filed all the required applications that were available in Chinese. His health certificate was thorough and proved that he was healthy and in fit both physically and mentally.

 

In China the old lady then explained to Xiao Qiang what he has to say when he goes for his working permit interview at the Finnish Consulate in Shanghai. During private conversation with his employer, the employer promised to pay him €400 per month in cash. The old lady and her daughter Mrs. Xf explained to him that taxes and living costs in Finland were so high that they could not afford to pay him more than that. During his interview at Finnish Consulate in Shanghai, Xiao Qiang repeated the lines he had been told to say to an interviewer. He was expected get paid approximately €1600 per month, his normal working hours would be eight to ten hours per day and he would get a month-long holiday each year.

 

In a letter sent to the Finnish consulate before Xiao Qiang’s interview, a representative on the behalf of the restaurant explained in English to the Finnish Immigration Services about Xiao Qiang’s motivations to move abroad. On the letter written on his behalf – in language he didn’t understand – the writer explains that his salary will be €1650 per month before tax. On the statement it reads: He will keep some money for his living expenses in Finland. The rest of his salary will be sent to his family in Wenzhou...He is supposed to work 38 hours per week. He will have one day off per week, and one-month holiday per year. Accommodation will be provided by the boss but he needs to pay the rent. He will have 3 months’ probation period in the restaurant. If he can pass, he will get 5 years contract. If he can’t pass, he will return back to China. He will contact his family via internet and phone when he is in Finland...he has no relatives or friends in Finland. He has a wife and a kid back home. He wants to see the outside world and broaden his eyes…

 

Under the English statement, Xiao Qiang had signed his name with Chinese alphabets whilst his representative, who had written it, had signed it with western letters.

 

According to the Finnish consulate’s interviewer’s emails - that became public few years later after a trial – the interviewer felt that the applicant’s, Xiao Qiang’s, written Chinese languages skills in writing recipes were poor but his cook’s certificate was so high standard and his verbal skills explaining how to prepare meals were so impressive, that the interviewer became convinced the applicant is truly a chef. After the interview, the immigration officer accepted Xiao Qiang’s application. His working contract was written only in English and signed by the old lady because Xiao Qiang couldn’t write western letters and understand English. The last chapter on the contract said clearly: This agreement will be governed by the Finnish Labour laws.

 

Arriving to Helsinki

 

After getting his working permit, Xiao Qiang paid his flight and flew to Finland. He had less than hundred Euros in his pocket. His new boss Mrs. Xf and her husband Mr. Hy picked him up from the airport and drove him to an apartment that was owned by Mrs Xf’s sister. He stayed at the apartment for the next three months living with his boss’s sister, her husband and their son. 

A day later after arriving Xiao Qiang was at work. Couple of days later he went to a bank with his boss Mrs. Xf, whose mother had introduced him the idea of moving to Finland. Xiao Qiang had no idea what was talked at the bank between his boss Mrs. Xf and a bank’s official.

 

Xiao Qiang’s working days started usually from 9.30 am or 10.30 am and regularly ended ten to twelve hours later around half past nine in the evening. Occasionally he had shorter days and sometimes he had to stay later till midnight if customers were still in the restaurant after closing time. In the beginning he was often the only chef in the restaurant.

 

Trip to Sweden

 

Xiao Qiang had only been in Finland for couple of weeks when his boss asked him to participate with them on a boat trip to Sweden. This took place during the midsummer celebration time when a lot of people leave from Helsinki and most restaurants close down for a few days.

 

Xiao Qiang was reluctant to join his boss because all of the rest were part of a family. He felt as an outsider and had no money to spend on. The boss promised to pay the trip and expenses. During the trip the boss took away Xiao Qiang’s passport and justified it by explaining that she is taking it as a collateral so that he will pay back his loans, will work in the restaurant and can’t leave to work abroad. 

 

Too much work, no money, no holidays

 

Xiao Qiang started to work from morning till late in the evening seven days a week. Occasionally he had half a day off. He spent his first cash salary renewing his hygienic passport and buying a computer. He started to feel more pressure as his boss started to bully him by verbally abusing him whenever he showed symptoms of tiredness. After the first three months he had moved into a two-bedroom apartment that he shared with another chef and his boss Mrs Xf’s brother son. He walked or cycled to work.

 

The restaurant in a Helsinki suburb, where Xiao Qiang worked, was officially owned and run by Mrs. Xf. Her family was also operating another restaurant about 25 kilometres away from HeLsinki. This other restaurant was registered to Mrs. Xf’s 59-year-old husband Mr Hy and their 23-year-old son Hq. In practise Mrs. Xf was running the show on both restaurants. According to official records both restaurant companies’ fields of activity were all legal activities.

 

In November 2011 flooding destroyed the family’s other restaurant, that was situated about 25 kilometres outside Helsinki. Prior to damage, the restaurant had employed an elderly Finnish waitress. When the damage forced to close it down, she decided to retire. She didn’t understand Chinese so she couldn’t follow discussion between other members of the staff. A Chinese chef moved to the family’s other restaurant at the shopping centre, where Xiao Qiang was also working. 

 

Nice but crowded apartment and only a key

 

Xiao Qiang moved into another cramped apartment with another chef, who had been working for the other restaurant that the family was running. The two chefs shared it with their boss’s sister’s son. The two-bedroom apartment was situated in one of many grey blocks of eight stories high apartment buildings that rise nearby the restaurant. The place was clean and in good shape. The two chefs were free to move in and out from the apartment but since they were practically at work all the time and no money to spend they had invisible chains.

 

There were only three keys to the apartment. One of them was held by the owner, another one was used by the owner’s son whilst Xiao Qiang and the other chef had to share a key. “Sometimes it was difficult because...the other chef...was listening music so loudly that he couldn’t hear when I shouted to him from outside to come open the door, so I had to wait a long time”, Xiao Qiang later told in an interview. After working long hours every day in a week and no language skills his only past time was to watch television. The two chefs were not allowed to use a fridge, keep lights or computers switched on for a long time because the owner’s son wanted to save on electricity bills. Regardless of this the restaurant owner couple, where the two chefs worked, regularly brought food to the apartment where they had a large freezer.

 

A new signature for a loan

 

In the beginning his tenure, Xiao Qiang received €400 in cash as promised but as the payments stopped, he felt forced to ask a loan from his boss so he could give money to his wife as her financial situation back home in China was getting worse. His boss and her mother agreed to give him a loan. His first loan, that he received from his boss in December was €4500 and the second loan in March 2012 was €5000. These loans were given to his wife in China. She had to sign them. In addition, she was made to renew another loan that the restaurant owners claimed to have given to the family when they had first signed the chef’s contract.

 

Since Xiao Qiang’s arrival in June, he had practically no holidays except on Christmas. He was working all the time even when he was sick. Once he had stomach pains and asked to take day off but his boss bluntly told him to get back to work.

 

Co-incidence and a meeting

Xiao Qiang had no other contacts in Finland than his employers and two or three other restaurants workers until by co-incident he met a Chinese student. She was married to a Finn and knew something about Finnish labour laws. She told him about Finnish-Chinese Alliance (SKA Suomen Kiinalaisten Allianssi ry) and gave him the organization’s human rights representative’s contact number.

 

Xiao Qiang called the rep and the next day the two men met. The rep told Xiao Qiang about his legal rights in Finland. He should be expected to get paid minimum €1680 per month plus extras for working in the evenings, nights and on Sundays. After consultation Xiao Qiang prepared to asked his boss for a raise. He wasn’t getting paid what he deserved. He talked about the situation with the other chef who shared apartment with him. He knew that his working permit was set be renewed. He had initially applied and received a yearlong working permit. Regardless of his harsh working conditions he was prepared to continue working in Finland but he wanted to raise his salary and start earning according to standard rates. When his boss became aware of his dissatisfaction and contacts to other Chinese speakers, she wasn’t happy about it. She told him that his application for extension on his working permit had been turned down and he didn’t have right stay in Finland anymore. He will be an illegal immigrant if he decides to stay, so he has to return back to China.

 

Working permit

 

In reality on March 2012 the Finnish Immigration Services had already granted Xiao Qiang a four-year extension to his work permit, a new tenure starting just as his old permit was due to end in May. In effect Xiao Qiang had right to stay and work as a chef next four years. But he didn’t know this because he couldn’t read Finnish or English.

 

Xiao Qiang’s employer Mrs. Xf asked him to go to a police station with her. They went together to Tikkurila police station, near Helsinki airport. Mrs Xf asked to meet an immigration officer and then explained the situation to an immigration officer. 

 

According to Mrs. Xf, who acted as if she was translating and helping out Xiao Qiang,

Xiao Qiang wanted to go back home. The immigration officer told the two that they should write his plans including a date and a flight number when Xiao Qiang was expected to leave from Finland.

 

Mrs Xf then called her son and asked him to buy a flight ticket to China for Xiao Qiang. Mrs Xf’s son bought it as he had been told by his mom. At the police station, Mrs. Xf wrote a short letter. She scribbled down short sentences in poor but understandable Finnish: Me Xiao Qiang does not want working visa. Me want to go back China, plus added a flight on it, when her son called her back and told her details about the flight: HEL-CKG 17.30. Mrs. Xf then asked Xiao Qiang to sign the piece of paper. He signed it without knowing what was written on it. The officer assumed that Mrs Xf had translated to Xiao Qiang what was written on it.

 

Before Xiao Qiang was due to leave from Helsinki, he had time to contact the human rights activists and volunteer worker for SKA – Finnish-Chinese alliance. The human rights worker looked at Xiao Qiang’s application with amazement. According to official papers Xiao Qiang’s extension to his working permit had already been re-issued and extended till 2016. 

 

Revisiting the police station

 

The following week Xiao Qiang went to with the human rights rep to the police station. The rep explained to the immigration officer what had happened. The officer was perplexed. Another Chinese speaking with thick and roundly foreign English accent trying to explain that Xiao Qiang’s earlier decision was wrong. Xiao Qiang doesn’t’ want to end his work permit and return back to China on the contrary, he had been misguided and he wants to stay. The officer refused to do anything on his behalf and grant him right to stay in Finland. The human rights rep and Xiao Qiang were then forced to appeal for his right to stay in Finland, a long fight begun but it was nearly over before it had begun.

 

At the airport

 

A few days later Mrs. Xf drove Xiao Qiang to the Helsinki Airport where she was accompanied by her relatives. At the airport they made him sign a piece of paper where it stated that he had paid back €2800 of his loans and were still in debt €2200. From the airport Xiao Qiang was able to call to Finnish-Chinese Alliance’s reps, who arrived to the airport, cancelled Xiao Qiang flight and arranged a place for him to stay and find legal aid. After Xiao Qiang’s lawyer contacted the police, they started to investigate the case.

 

Everything looked fine on paper

 

Local authorities, who monitor restaurants health and safety matters in Finland, noticed that Mrs Xf’s restaurants had had some problems keeping track of staff’s working hours, but they didn’t consider it to be a serious offence because the restaurants were run and operated by a family, and all staff members were Chinese. According to the restaurant’s accountant the companies were paying their staff salaries on time and there were no signs that anyone could have been paid cash “under the counter”. The owner of the restaurant had paid his staff including Xiao Qiang’s and the other chef a normal salary according to the restaurant workers’ union rates plus all required social cost, pensions and deducted his taxes from the salary that had been paid into his bank account in the beginning of each month. So, on paper everything appeared to be fine.

 

Undercover operation 

 

The police started an unusual undercover operation. There were some clues that things were not according to book keeping. According to Xiao Qiang’s own testimony he didn’t have access to his own bank account. He had never received or used his ATM card in Finland. He had never transferred money from on Internet from his bank account from Finland to China. He had never bought anything with an ATM card that the bank made for him and sent out to him a few days after his arrival. Yet his ATM card had been frequently used and few thousand euros had been transferred from his bank account in Finland to a bank account in China. It turned out that the money had been sent to Mrs. Xf’s mother and Mrs. Xf’s bother’s son bank accounts.

 

The police used tele surveillance method and got access to surveillance footage from ATM cash point cameras. The footage clearly showed Mrs Xf and her son using her employee’s ATM cards. A series of photos shows Mrs Xf, who is trying to hide her face under a big white hat, dialling a pin code and withdrawing money from his employee’s account. She might have felt need to seal her face because she is a woman and yet she was withdrawing money from an account that has been signed to a man, who is twenty years younger than her. Another series of photos show Mrs Xf and her son Hq withdrawing money from an account together, that was signed to restaurant’s another employee. It also turned out that the restaurant owner’s 23 -year-old son Mr Hq had bought an apartment from a new suburb near Helsinki’s main airport, had withdrawn cash using the other chef’s ATM card and buying furniture for his new apartment. 

 

The police took surprisingly tough measures by arresting the entire restaurant owner family. Each one of them were interrogated individually and kept captive. At first under interrogation all of the accused denied any wrong doing, but when the police showed them evidence and played audio recording of their phone calls, they started to talk. They continued to deny any wrong doing or take any blame on themselves instead they argued that because they had given Xiao Qiang big loans that they had to get their money back from him – even by withdrawing money directly from his bank account and by using his ATM card. They had frequently withdrawn money from his bank account soon after depositing his salary into his account.

 

The accused also hinted under interrogation that Xiao Qiang had run into debts because had had been addicted to gambling and he owned money to them in China. Yet there was no evidence that he had borrowed money from the family before he signed the contract to work in Finland nor that his debts were due to gambling. Xiao Qiang’s colleague - the other chef who had shared an apartment with him – returned back to China before investigation and legal process had begun. It turned out that his bank account had also been used by the restaurant family without his knowledge or approval.  

 

1st Trial

 

Four years after Xiao Qiang had first arrived to Finland, a court case against his accused oppressors commenced at the Helsinki District Court. The case was handled under the law concerning about work related extortion. Xiao Qiang’s legal aid demanded that the accused must have pay him little over €20 000 compensation from the work he had done without getting paid. At the end of the trial all the charges were dropped and expenses paid by the state. The judge’s argument for the verdict is a complicating read and contains few paradoxes.

 

The judges’ main conclusion was that there was not sufficient evidence to prove either way what had happened between the restaurant owners and their staff members. The judges also felt that Xiao Qiang’s testimony was not sufficiently conclusive, logical and open. After the verdict, Xiao Qiang’s legal rep, a lawyer from Matti Penttinen’s law firm, filed suit to the Helsinki Courts of Appeals.

 

2nd Trial

On early September 2015 the Helsinki Court of Appeals gave its verdict. This time the only one accused of the crimes of extortion was the restaurant owner and director Mrs. Xf.

This time judges argued like their colleagues at the Helsinki District Court, that partially the victims, Xiao Qiang’s, testimony was illogical and erratic. But unlike their counterparts in lower court, they didn’t see this as a sign of untrustworthiness instead they viewed it as sign of someone who was put into vulnerable situation and taken advantage because he didn’t understand local language and customs. The judges gave Mrs. Xf six months suspended jail sentenced and assessed her to pay legal cost for both sides totalling about € 8500.

 

Mrs. Xf continues to run her restaurant at a small old and busy shopping centre in a north-eastern suburb of Helsinki. Xiao Qiang lives and works in Finland. He has received a permeant residency and work permit. He received compensation for the work but the total price of it has not been made public available.

 

end.