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Repression Of African Workers In Chinese Firms

November 26, 2010

Restiveness is spreading through Chinese firms across Africa, as cases of high handedness, and even the shootings of agitating workers assumes rampant proportions, especially in Zambia, where workers have been shot thrice in the last few months.

Restiveness is spreading through Chinese firms across Africa, as cases of high handedness, and even the shootings of agitating workers assumes rampant proportions, especially in Zambia, where workers have been shot thrice in the last few months.

This have led to some tensions in Afro-Chinese relations, even while the states, which rely more and more on Chinese capital, try to explain away this despicable acts. There seems to be a palpable need for the trade union movement on the African continent to take a position on such untenable highhandedness and violence in industrial relations. Examples abound that buttress this need.

Last year, in Mozambique, African workers were made to wear badges inscribed with the word escravo which means “slave” in Portuguese, by the China Henan International Cooperation Group (CHICO). The company eventually explained away the incident as one of mistranslation, but most of the workers that were affected, describing the work regime they suffered in CHICO’s operations, do not seem convinced. The use of these badges have however been stopped, after protests by the unions.

In Namibia, workers in Chinese firms have also raised their voices against the nature of inhuman way they are treated and over-worked against the extant labour laws of the country. The firms merely respond that they should learn to bear the hardships of today for the benefits of the future, since they (the firms) are injecting much needed investments. Probably because of this, the Namibian state seems to give a tacit support to the Chinese corporations by turning a blind eye.

In Niger, as well as in Zambia, workers in uranium pits run by the Chinese have to live close to these pits in shacks and do not have protective gear despite the radioactive dangers posed by their exposure. Demands for better living conditions and respect for occupational safety and health measures have been met by the Chinese employers with scorn and disdain. Barely two years ago, as well, some Kenyan communities had blocked the road construction works by a Chinese government supported civil engineering and construction firm. This was to further their demand for access to the only borehole in the vicinity during a period of severe drought, so that they and their livestock could have some water. The borehole was within the precinct of the company. Several communities in countries such as Mali, Senegal and Madagascar had equally had running battles with Chinese firms.

Earlier in the decade, some two hundred workers in a factory at Ikorodu, Nigeria had burnt to death when a fire burst out during the night shift simply because the Chinese employers had locked the doors of the workplace and gone home with as a labour control measure. Beyond the very important issue of occupational safety and health are also the employment policies of the Chinese firms in Africa. The foreign direct investment that come with Chinese economic interests have very limited impact on employment simply because these firms, often in violation of the expatriate quotas of most African countries, tend to bring in even unskilled Chinese to take up jobs that could be easily done by locals. This was what led the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa to organise a protest earlier in February when the South African government granted the request for special visas by a Chinese firm in the mining sector for 50 unskilled Chinese.

Without any doubt though, despite this condemnable situation across Africa, the worst scenario of repression in recent times is being played out in Zambia. In 2006, 46 Zambians had been killed in a Chinese-owned explosives producing factory due to the neglect of occupational safety procedures. Some months ago, workers at the Collum coal mine owned by Xu Jianxue, a Chinese industrialist in the Zambian had demanded better working conditions from their Chinese employers. A manager of the firm shot into the crowd of protesters, injuring some of them. By the end of October, there was once again a dispute, this time around over wages. Chinese managers shot into the crowd of protesters again, seriously injuring 11 persons. In the third week of November, miners were once again shot at by Chinese managers in the same mine, wounding several workers.

Unions in the country, particularly the Gemstone and Allied Workers Union of Zambia have voiced their strong objection to this dastardly development, which is getting repetitive. The country’s labour minister, Austin Liato however, hardly seems convinced about the dangers such backward industrial relations practice and disregard for the lives of workers holds for workers and indeed for the long-term development of the country. He argues that: “we’re an economy in transition, and we can’t afford
to lose the cow that gives us milk today,” This line of argument, if one puts investments over and above the lives and security of citizens, could seem tenable, when it is realized that the Chinese pumped $1.2b into the Zambian economy, in the last year alone.

Mr. Liato further states, not exactly wrongly that: “we have bad employers that come from everywhere, including from Zambia”. This is not an unimportant point in itself, as the point should not be to raise an abstract Sino-phobia within industrial in Zambia and Africa as a whole. There really are “bad employers...from everywhere”, considering the antagonistic interests of workers for increasing profits and workers for better wages. But it is a statement of fact that a pattern of hyper-repression of workers and wanton disregarded, and indeed insulting of the sensibilities of workers and communities by Chinese firms can be established.

A study of Chinese firms’ activities in Africa, with focus on the industrial relations sphere was conducted by the African Labour Researchers Network (ALRN), a few years back. Similarly the Building Workers International (BWI) had commissioned Herbert Jauch of the Namibian workers’ research institute LaRRI to assess Chinese construction firms’ roles in West Africa. These two studies confirm the concrete reality of Chinese industrialists, managers and unskilled workers highhandedness against workers in Africa, including their frustrating of union presence in within their establishments, as much as they can.

It is also an undisputable fact that in recent times Chinese investment in Africa is quite significant, making states more pliant on such “mundane” issues as industrial relations. ITUC Africa and the different trade union federations in the country have to however assiduously work on intervention strategies to make the concerned firms respect the human rights and trade union rights of workers and their combinations, in line with international labour conventions and recommendations. This has to be expedited on before many more lives are unavoidably lost due to such condemnable acts as bear on the criminal, that we can see happening all over Africa, and especially in Zambia.


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