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Report: Chinese bad employers in Africa

Labor study finds Chinese firms pay under minimum wages and ignore safety conditions.

Chinese contractors are helping to build the new State House, the official residence of the president, in Windhoek, capital of Namibia. A new study has found that many Chinese companies in Africa ignore safety regulations and pay their local workers far less than the minimum wage. (Erin Conway-Smith/GlobalPost)

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.