China: A blessing or Africa’s curse?

BUSINESS: A construction crew puts final touches on the Namboole Stadium floodlights.

From Mali to Madagascar, Kenya to Zambia, Niger to Uganda, Chinese investors and labourers have infiltrated the continent. In some of the countries, their actions have been lauded but in others loathed, as Sunday Monitor Correspondents Janet Otieno, Jonstone Ole Turana, Saudah Mayanja & Caesar Abangirah narrate:-

Africa has witnessed an influx of Chinese investors and labourers in recent years. So important has the continent become in the eyes of the Asian country that Beijing has adopted the softer approach of ‘not interfering in the continent’s political affairs’ to justify her economic pursuits.

However, the Chinese have been accused of not being any better than Africa’s former colonial masters when it comes to their labour practices. A few weeks ago, Chinese mine managers shot and wounded 13 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, and reports indicate that the mine’s Chinese manager fired into the crowd, injuring several people in the process. 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 begun work when complaints from local workers about poor treatment at the hands of the Chinese bosses surfaced.

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 around.

In Niger and Zambia, workers live too close to uranium pits and work without any protective gear, exposing them to hazardous substances. Resentment toward the Chinese practice of importing labour from Asia is increasingly visible.

Many African countries have high levels of unemployment and want the Chinese-run firms to hire more local workers. The firms have been accused of taking away local jobs while robbing the continent of its 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, like in Uganda, where a number of Chinese firms are constructing major roads, the expectation was that they would involve local labour. However, the preference to use machines has led to discontent, putting the government labour-intensive programme in the spotlight.

In Uganda, China has invested heavily in road construction, trade, manufacturing, ICT and Agriculture. And while their most notable constructions are the Mandela National Stadium, Foreign Affairs and President’s offices, Chinese have occupied many shops in the country selling mechanical and electrical appliances, enamel products, footwear, pharmaceuticals, textiles and garments.

Brewed hatred
There are around 70,000 Chinese living in Angola. This high (and growing) number has brewed hatred among the locals, leading to violent attacks that range from robberies to kidnappings. Some see this trend as a means of the locals getting revenge for discriminative labour practices, while, 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 Batswana colleagues working 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, 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 fidgety 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.

In Uganda, according to Kampala City Traders Association spokesperson Issa Sekito, most Chinese in the country register as investors only to end up as petty traders. “The Investment Code has been violated to allow them do petty trade and when they make the money, it is taken back to China,” he said.

In 2007, 15 petty Chinese traders were arrested in Kampala. Mr Sekito said these traders did not have any documents or even trading licences. “But they were released on orders of some high-ranking government officials,” he told Sunday Monitor this week.

Preferential trade deals the Peoples’ Republic of China signs with African governments, coupled with 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,” said Mr Rakesh Rao, the Chief Executive Officer of Crown Berger, a local paint manufacturer.

Biggest contention
Mr Rao’s contention is that the Chinese firms are importing road-marking paints yet 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 industries, boosting our revenue and, subsequently, national earnings,” said Mr Rao.

Similar protests have been registered by cement makers as the Chinese firms import the commodity for use in their road projects. “We have the capacity to supply the cement used in these 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 the dumping of the imported materials (cement and paint) into the local market, distorting prices. “The imported products are not taxed, and when they find their way into the local market, they not only interfere with prices, but also lead to loss of sales on our part,” said Mr Paurana.

Various African governments have failed to ensure the transfer of technology and skills training. Most Chinese companies prefer to employ the practices of their motherland in their multi-billion government contracts, ignoring the local civil society and, instead, opting to forge alliances with the political class.

In Niger, officials at the 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.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project