African-Chinese labor relations turn increasingly icy

Chinese and Tanzanian workers

Africa Review, 20 October 2010

Janet Otieno, Johnstone Ole Turana and Saudah Mayanja, Nairobi

Africa has been witnessing an influx of Chinese investors and labourers

Beijing has even gone an extra mile by opting for the softer approach of “not interfering in the continent’s political affairs” to justify its economic pursuits in Africa. But the Chinese stand accused of not being any better than Africa’s former colonial masters when it comes to their labour practices.

Late last week, Chinese mine managers shot and wounded 11 of their employees in southern Zambia over a pay dispute, sparking a countrywide outrage in the southern African nation.

And this is not just the first incident in the country. A few months ago, local workers at a Chinese-owned copper mine went on strike demanding better working conditions. The strike turned into a riot with reports of a Chinese manager firing at the crowd and injuring people.

Complaints raised

More episodes on the continent capture the increasingly icy Afro-Chinese labour relations.

A year ago in Mozambique, an argument broke out between a provincial governor, Mr Mauricio Vieira and the China Henan International Cooperation Group (CHICO). After winning a contract to build a new water supply system to service the capital Maputo and other surrounding towns, the firm had barely began work than complaints from local workers about poor treatment at the hands of the Chinese bosses surfaced.

The complaints raised — lack of overtime payments, unwritten employment contracts, arbitrary pay cuts — have become commonplace amongst Africans working at Chinese-owned companies. The worst reported indignity, of workers wearing badges bearing the word escravo (slave), turned out to be a case, apparently, of mistranslation.

However, unwittingly, those badges have turned prophetic of the nature of labour relations between Chinese enterprises in Africa and their employees.

From Mali to Madagascar, Kenya to Zambia, workers’ restiveness abounds.

In Niger, the local Tuareg community dubbed the SOMINA mining operation Guantanamo, whereas in Namibia, on taking issue with their ill treatment, workers were told to “suffer now so that future generations can enjoy”.

In 2008, a Kenyan community blocked road construction works demanding that they be provided with water for domestic use and for their livestock. This was at the height of a severe drought and the Chinese contractor had denied the community access to the only borehole with water within a radius of the road work.

In Niger and Zambia, the workers live too close to the uranium pits and they work without any protective gear in the mines, exposing them to hazardous substances.

Resentment toward the Chinese practice of importing labour from their home country is increasingly visible.

Many African countries have high levels of unemployment and want the Chinese-run firms to hire more local workers. Chinese firms have been accused of taking away local jobs while robbing their natural resources, violating labour laws and fuelling corruption.

In February, the National Union of Mine Workers organised a protest in South Africa following a government decision to award special visas to 50 unskilled Chinese labourers, who were to construct new premises for the Chinese consulate in Cape Town.

In Kenya, where a number of Chinese firms are constructing major roads, the expectation was that they would involve local labour. But the preference to use machines has led to discontent, putting the Kenya’s Government labour intensive programme in the spotlight.

There are around 70,000 Chinese living in Angola. This has brewed hatred leading to violent attacks ranging from robberies to kidnappings.  Some see this recent trend as a means of local Angolans getting revenge for discriminative labour practices whilst to others, the Chinese are simply easy prey because of their presumed affluence.

Three years ago in Ethiopia, nine Chinese oil workers were killed and seven of their colleagues kidnapped by the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front.

In Botswana, grievances in the construction sector are at the forefront of public debate. More recently, four Chinese were arrested after they assaulted their Botswana colleagues on the Francistown stadium construction project.  The Africans earned themselves the beatings after revealing their miserable working conditions to some visiting parliamentarians.

On various manufacturing and construction projects, the Asian and African employees have different pay structures. Most African workers are undocumented and treated as casual employees, thus depriving them of corporate benefits like insurance, allowances and paid vacations.

The availability of labour has emboldened the Chinese firms to disengage restive workers and hire new labourers.

Local businesses have also voiced their concern over the refusal by Chinese firms to use locally available materials in their projects.

Preferential trade deals the Peoples’ Republic of China signs with African governments, cheap Chinese goods and state subsidies, have provided Chinese businesses with an upper hand over local businesses, denying them the linkage necessary to grow their income.

For instance, in Kenya, local cement manufacturers and paint makers have complained about being locked out of the multi-billion deals Chinese firms are undertaking.

“The Chinese firms are importing all the materials they need, even those that they can source from the local market, denying linkage to the local economy hence loss of revenue to the government,” said Mr Rakesh Rao, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Crown Berger, the leading local paint manufacturer.

Mr Rao’s contention is that the Chinese firms are importing road-marking paints and his company- quoted at the Nairobi Stock Exchange (NSE) –is able to supply the same.

“The government should have ensured such materials are obtained from local industry, boosting our revenue and subsequently the national revenue,” said Mr Rao.

Similar protest have been registered by cement makers as the Chinese firms import cement for the road projects. “We have the capacity to supply cement for the road construction projects,” said Mr Pradeep Paurana the managing director of Athi River Mining (ARM), a Kenya-based cement producer with operations in Tanzania.

Besides being locked out of these lucrative projects, local businesses have also complained of dumping of imported materials such as cement and paint into the local markets, distorting prices. “The materials imported are not taxed and when they find their way into the local markets, they not only interfere with prices, but lead to loss of sales,” said Mr Paurana.

Various African governments have failed to ensure the transfer of technology and skills training.

The Chinese companies bring their mentality and business practice from home, ignoring the local civil society, while focusing on working with the politicians. They eschew carrying out risk assessments and analyses, centring instead on building powerful political relations through bribery and cronyism.

The technologies

In Niger, officials at China Nuclear International Uranium Corporation (Sino-U) have turned down numerous invitations to discuss working conditions with the local elected officials.

To Li Ansham, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies, “employing African workers entangles Chinese enterprises in local laws to a higher degree than employing Chinese nationals”. He believes Chinese workers are better than Africans because they are more familiar with the technologies and encounter fewer language and cultural hurdles in communicating with management.

Somehow, it is perceived that a Chinese man would be more compliant to the demanding labour practices Chinese managers insist on, would work longer hours and not take too much time off like weekends and public holidays.

Other than these localised disputes, the most critical challenge is the lack of systems to allow transferability of skills.  Failure to have inbuilt partnership system to allow local entities to learn from the Chinese firms is bound to have long-term effects and create dependency culture.

Most of the public work undertaken by Chinese firms should be transferred to the host government, but lack of linkage will affect future management of these projects. For instance, since Beijing Government handed over to Kenya Kasarani stadium, a sports facility, it has faced numerous maintenance challenges due to lack of local skills. The government had to seek China’s assistance for its renovation.

Such occurrences are expected to rise as China undertakes more projects in Africa. Despite these challenges, the involvement of China in Africa development effort has enabled it to break from the stranglehold of the West, where funding was tied to conditionalities.

Major infrastructural projects in power production, roads, railway, and water have opened up Africa economies, providing them with the necessary facilities to expand.

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