By Sergio Carciotto and Ringisai Chikohomero*
Political and economic relations between China and Africa have grown stronger over the past 20 years. In 2000, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established to support industrial progress and infrastructure connectivity and facilitate trade. By the end of 2009, China had overtaken the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and by 2020 the value of China-Africa trade stood at $176 billion.
Trade relations are based on the extraction of mineral resources and the import of manufactured goods from China, but also on investments in key economic sectors such as retail, finance and agribusiness.
In 2013, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a diplomatic and political strategy to promote connectivity and trade relations with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa through large debt-financed infrastructure projects. In South Africa, for example, China has invested in several projects, including the expansion of port facilities in Durban, the construction of a coal-fired power plant (Kusile) and the creation of the Musina-Makhado special economic zone. in Limpopo.
China-funded infrastructure projects have raised controversy due to the size of loans taken out between 2000 and 2019 by African states worth $153 billion, and the risk of over-indebtedness and default.
By the end of 2009, China had overtaken the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner
Resources for infrastructure deals, also known as ‘Angola mode’, sparked criticism over debt sustainability and left some African countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia, heavily in debt.
In addition, the increasing reliance on confidential contracts between Chinese lenders and African borrowers has prevented citizens from knowing the terms and conditions of these agreements and holding their governments accountable.
The rapid growth of Chinese companies operating in Africa has also been a source of concern for scholars, practitioners and activists. Issues of lack of transparency and the environmental and labor conditions and practices of Chinese companies have been central to these concerns.
For example, research has highlighted unsafe working conditions in Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia and abusive labor practices among Chinese companies in several other African countries.
Other comparative research has revealed differences and similarities between the labor practices of Chinese and non-Chinese companies. Chinese labor practices in Africa are affected by many variables. These include the dynamics of the domestic labor force, the particular characteristics of labour-intensive sectors more prone to informality, and trade liberalization, which has increased the need reduce labor and production costs, thereby increasing vulnerability in the workplace.
Unions must be allowed to advertise and recruit members without risking being victimized
Working conditions and labor practices in Chinese companies in six southern African countries – Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are the subject of an upcoming report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). The study focused on specific sectors in the six countries, including construction, mining, textiles and fishing. The research used mixed methods for data collection.
In-depth individual interviews and focus group discussions were conducted using a semi-structured interview guide to understand the experiences of African employees working for Chinese companies in the selected countries. The research also requested interviews with Chinese companies and government officials in the respective countries.
He notes differences between sectors and companies in the six countries. However, in general, interviewees who spoke to ISS field researchers expressed concern about labor rights violations and precarious employment conditions impacting the relationship between workers and Chinese employers.
In particular, wages, especially for low-skilled workers, remain low – sometimes below the industry’s minimum wage. And in some cases, employers don’t pay workers for all hours worked.
Lack of compliance with occupational health and safety legislation and procedures was also raised as a concern, particularly in the mining sector. These ranged from a lack of inadequate protective clothing and visible labeling of machinery and buildings to insufficient lighting and ventilation and a lack of company training programs on safety policies.
In Southern Africa, relations between employers, unions and governments are plagued by intimidation
Most labor disputes concern the unfair dismissal of employees without following the disciplinary and dismissal procedure. This aspect prevailed in all six countries. In Zimbabwe, Department of Labor officials reported that labor issues were complicated by links between Chinese companies and Zimbabwean political and military elites. In Lesotho, remedies for wrongful dismissal are lacking due to an inefficient and understaffed judicial system and corruption.
The lack of justice and legal remedies for those who are unlawfully dismissed can have serious socio-economic consequences. For example, ISS research has found that some Basotho men laid off by Chinese textile factories may end up migrating to South Africa for greener pastures, while some women may become sex workers.
In this context, trade unions can play a fundamental role in enforcing labor standards, addressing issues of non-compliance and ensuring safe working conditions and fair labor practices. However, in Southern Africa, relations between employers, unions and governments are undermined by corruption and intimidation.
In the Angolan fishing industry, contentious relations between unions and the labor inspectorate have led to a situation of impunity for widespread labor abuses. In Zambia, participation in trade union activities is considered risky, while in the DRC trade unions are organized mainly by employers to discourage independent trade unions.
In African countries where unions have adversarial relationships with political elites and where their members are threatened or intimidated, there is a need to strengthen the resources and capacity of unions to hold governments and employers to account.
In addition, the right of workers to organize and associate in a union must be protected, and unions must be allowed to advertise and recruit members without risking persecution.
African governments should define strategic priorities and a common policy that can guide China-Africa relations. It is the responsibility of States to create an environment in which the rights of all workers are protected and to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, as stated in the Development Agenda sustainable by 2030.
*About the authors: Sergio Carciotto and Ringisai Chikohomero, Research Consultants, ISS Pretoria
Source: This article was published by The ISS today