WINDHOEK, Namibia — China has become Africa's biggest trading partner, but its companies are among the continent’s worst employers, according to a new study.
Many Chinese firms operating in Africa pay their local staff far below legal minimum wages and skirt even basic workplace safety rules, charges the report, the first of its kind to examine working conditions at Chinese companies in 10 African countries.
The African Labour Research Network report, funded by trade unions across the continent, acknowledges that many Chinese workers “are themselves struggling against exploitative practices.”
China's interests in Africa have multiplied in recent years, with trade rising tenfold since 2000 to nearly $107 billion in 2008, according to Reuters.
"Chinese Investments in Africa: A Labour Perspective" reports on the conditions in Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In all 10 countries, researchers found a “common trait” of Chinese companies being “among the worst employers everywhere,” said Herbert Jauch, senior researcher at Namibia’s Labour Resource and Research Institute and an author of the report.
China’s relationship with Africa is that of “classical colonial exchange,” with China exporting raw materials and importing goods, Jauch said. “This should signal a warning. It locks Africa once again into being a supplier of raw materials … Is this the best option for long-term development?"
For Jauch, the message to China should be: “Your rhetoric about a new partnership with Africa, about not being a new colonial master relationship, has to be matched by better labor standards.”
Operating at lower costs, Chinese companies undercut African firms and push them out of business, meaning even fewer benefits to local economies, the study said.
“If we complain, they fire us,” said one Namibian worker at a construction site in Windhoek, the capital, just out of view of his Chinese manager. Construction sites dot the city’s downtown, and Chinese contractors have landed some 70 percent of all Namibian government projects including the new presidential residence.
Namibian workers at Chinese construction sites in Windhoek confirmed the findings of the study. One man said that he is paid $0.55 an hour by a Chinese company that is building the new Works and Transport Ministry headquarters — about half the legal minimum wage of $1.10 per hour for entry-level construction workers.
At several Chinese-run projects in Windhoek, workers were not wearing safety helmets. The Namibian workers said they must pay for their own safety equipment — for example, $3.65 for a helmet, $1.20 for gloves and $9.75 for overalls. “It’s not a nice place,” said another worker.
Recurring problems among Chinese employers in Africa included low wages, unpaid overtime and a lack of safety equipment such as helmets and gloves. At a construction company in Malawi, workers had to mix cement with their bare hands, the report states. In Ghana, construction workers worked nine to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, according to the report.
Workers for the most part had no contracts and received no benefits, even those required by law. In some countries, women were fired by their Chinese employers if found to be pregnant.
And at some companies, workers were “locked in” during working hours and not allowed to leave the factory even during breaks.
“In Nigeria, for example, 20 workers were killed by a fire while locked inside a Chinese rubber and plastic factory. In Kenya, 29 workers that had been locked up were killed when their factory caught fire in 2007,” the report said.
In Namibia, government and Chinese embassy officials argued that “low wages should be endured as a means towards a prosperous future,” said the report. “Let people be paid lower wages now and attract more FDI (foreign direct investment) and set up manufacturing so that the future generation will reap the benefits of the sacrifices,” a Chinese diplomat told researchers.
Namibian workers, meanwhile, blamed their government for their poor treatment, saying that it has the power to enforce labor laws but doesn’t want to risk losing foreign investors.
The poor working conditions at Chinese companies don’t square with official rhetoric about a more equitable “South-South” partnership between China and Africa, Jauch said. “When it comes to treatment of African workers there is none of that. It’s a case of using global capitalism and local unemployment to your advantage.” African government officials “don’t feel what it’s like to be a worker for a Chinese company,” he added.
State-owned Chinese firms have made a major push into African countries in recent years, with interests in mining and natural resources extending to investments in infrastructure such as roads and railways. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner.
Chinese construction companies have also reaped the benefits of the boom, securing contracts for large projects such as soccer stadiums and state residences. Many are built as gifts from the Chinese government.
In terms of infrastructure, China has a lot to offer African countries, Jauch said. “But African workers are going back to the same horrific working conditions that their fathers suffered under colonial rule.”
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