SINGAPORE—Chinese laborer Zhang Qiang set off for Indonesia in March to work for a Chinese steelmaker. Six months later, he was wading through the waters off Malaysia’s shores with four other men, fleeing what he called a scam.

“I felt we were cheated, yet also felt I was helpless,” Mr. Zhang said in an interview from Malaysia, where the men were detained by local authorities.

Mr. Zhang said he was lured to Indonesia by the promise of a better paying job, but his passport was taken once he got off the plane. He and other workers were asked to sign contracts for lower pay and longer durations than they had been promised.

Around 600,000 Chinese migrant workers were employed abroad at the end August, according to official government data, with many of them working for Chinese companies on projects connected to President

Xi Jinping’s

signature Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.

Chinese laborer Zhang Qiang in his home province of Henan, in China, in an undated photo.


Wang Lan

China Labor Watch, a labor rights group based in New…

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