Zimbabwe: Working for the Chinese in Zimbabwe

Over 300,000 teenage school leavers in Zimbabwe are currently working for Chinese shop-owners. One of them, Meagan Ngwenya, claims to be heavily exploited.

Meagan Ngwenya (18) is an orphan who has already worked for a variety of Chinese employers. She accuses them of unfair labour practices.

Ngwenya spoke to RNW at her current Chinese-run shop which sells clothing and vehicle-parts. “Since 2012, a year after I dropped out of school, I have been working for one Chinese boss after the other; often for little or no payment, which renders life hard for me.”

She claims to have been exposed to cruel treatment and extremely long working hours. “There are limited formal jobs here and I have found it hard to secure one, and as a result I continue to toil in shops owned by Chinese. This is my sixth job working for Chinese shop owners.”

She says she has no choice but to keep working for Chinese employers. Indigenous business people are exploitative in another way: only hiring workers on a temporary basis for as little as 5 dollars for a 12-hour day.

Officially, no employee is required to work continuously for more than five hours, according to Zimbabwe’s Public Holidays and Prohibition of Business Act (Chapter 10:21).

Look East policy

“Chinese easily attract school leavers like me, because, unlike local business people, they don’t hire people on part-time basis. But under such masters, I have often been beaten up or shoved and scolded in front of customers over trivial issues,” says Ngwenya.

Chinese investors have flocked to Zimbabwe since 2000 after President Robert Mugabe’s government adopted a Look East policy shortly after irking Western governments with the seizing of white-owned farms. As Western countries became less comfortable with doing business in Zimbabwe, the economy took a nosedive.

Approximately 126,000 Chinese nationals are currently in Zimbabwe either as investors or working for Chinese-owned firms, according to a 2012 report from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat).

Meanwhile, in 2012 and 2013 711 companies in the Zimbabwean capital have shut down, resulting in the unemployment of 8,336 individuals, according to a 2013 report from the National Social Security Authority (Nssa) Harare Regional Employer Closures and Registrations.

Chinese response

Declaring that she is not afraid of the consequences of speaking to the media about her plight, Ngwenya says she wants the world to know about the injustices faced by young employees like her.

“Lin Yeng is the name of my current Chinese employer here and I don’t care what he will do if he sees me in the media talking about him, because I have suffered enough working for him [… ] just for the monthly 90 US dollars.”

Shop assistants in Zimbabwe earn an average of 150 US dollars monthly.

But Yeng dismisses Ngwenya’s claims as false. “Most Zimbabweans were jobless before. We came to their rescue here. It’s unfair for them to throw stones at us, blaming us for giving them low wages after we gave them jobs,” Yeng tells RNW.

Ignored by authorities

“I have made police reports and even made strides to lodge my cases with the Labour Court here about my plight at the hands of Chinese employers,” says Ngwenya. “But because these Chinese business people have money, they buy their way to freedom.”

An estimated 312,000 school leavers in Zimbabwe are currently working for Chinese shop-owners nationwide, according to figures released by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) earlier this year.

“Chinese employers here have created an oppressive working environment characterised by victimisation of workers, prohibiting the establishment of workers’ unions at workplaces, subsequently not taking into consideration the rights of workers,” a ZCTU official speaking on the condition of anonymity, told RNW.

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