PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos – The global financial meltdown turned an idyllic Atlantic island into the site of an ugly dispute Thursday when hundreds of Chinese laborers on a stalled resort project allegedly detained Israeli contractors.
The standoff at a Ritz-Carlton luxury resort in the Turks and Caicos — financed by the bankrupt Lehman Brothers — vividly illustrates the scope of a financial crisis that spans the globe and a broad financial spectrum.
The dispute centers around the unfinished Ritz-Carlton Molasses Reef project on West Caicos, a 9 square mile island belonging to the British overseas territory. The developer, Logwood Hotel Development Co., said on Oct. 1 that it was forced to halt work because of the Lehman bankruptcy.
Turks and Caicos Premier Michael Misick told The Associated Press that Chinese workers brought to build the project have not been paid for several weeks and are demanding back wages from the contractor, a subsidiary of Israel-based Ashtrom Group Ltd.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy said the Chinese workers put West Caicos island "under siege" and prevented the contractors from leaving — a claim disputed by Misick, who said his government is mediating the dispute.
One of the contractors, Motti Bachar, told Israel's Channel 2 TV that about a dozen of his colleagues are stranded and have been held hostage for three days by about 300 Chinese workers.
"Because of the financial crisis, the Chinese haven't been paid by the Chinese company so they are holding us hostage," Bachar said. "There is no police or government, nobody is protecting us."
He said they had enough food but were worried it would run out and their lives would be in danger.
Yigal Yancovitz, a manager for contractors for the project, said the Chinese workers are angry, but are not holding anyone hostage.
"We are trying to control the situation," Yancovitz told AP. "We are trying to work out a situation with them."
Israel's Army radio later reported that six of the contractors had been released.
Authorities hope to secure pay for the workers and arrange for their return home, Misick said. They would return to Turks when work resumes on the Molasses Reef project, which is 75 percent completed, he said.
The island's Ministry of Home Affairs was mediating and police and security were on hand, the premier said.
The Molasses Reef project includes plans for a 125-room hotel, marina and condominiums on secluded West Caicos, an otherwise uninhabited island and popular diving destination. The global financial meltdown has made it difficult to secure additional financing for the project after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.
Just north of the Caribbean, Turks and Caicos has only 22,000 residents and has brought in hundreds of workers in recent years to work on tourist projects.