Many experts argue that China’s ‘robust’ engagement in Africa is being marred by reports of poor working conditions, low wage policy, lack of safety especially in mines, non-respect for contractual obligations, refusal to cooperate with trade unions, lack of transparency about economic deals, among others.
A 25-year-old Senegalese woman told Moon of the South that she had a terrible experience working for a Chinese company based in Nigeria. “First of all, they paid us low, very low wages and on top of that they wanted us to work long hours like a horse, with no break no lunch time, and no Sundays,” Alimatou Tall said.
“And when you try to complain, out you go. This is Africa, not China. For God’s sake, they must respect us and treat us like human beings.
The issue of China’s low wages policy has long been raised by US academic Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has reviewed many books about China.
In his ‘How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World’ lecture on 2 May 2007 at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), Kurlantzick blamed China for the prevailing low wages in the global labour market and its rapid industrialisation which he said was causing severe environmental destruction across the world.
A Human Rights Watch report released in February 2012 slammed Chinese-owned mining companies in Zambia, saying although some improvements have been made in supporting the oversight of the mines, there remains inadequate enforcement of national labour laws designed to protect workers’ rights.
In his book ‘Soft Power and Foreign Policy Charm in China’s Rise to Great-Power Status’, Philip Arsenault categorically described China as a country where wages are low, work ethic is high and labour standards are weak.
The world still vividly remembers China’s 9-billion USD controversial mining deal with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which was uncovered by Global Witness and slammed for its dangerous secrecy.
Lizzie Parsons, of Global Witness, explained the deal to Moon of the South: “In terms of the deal, China was to provide $9 billion to finance the nationwide construction of roads, railways, hospitals, schools and dams, as well as mine development in exchange of 10 million tons of copper and hundreds of thousands of tons of cobalt from mines in the southeastern province of Katanga.
“The project promises a 19% internal rate of return, but does not explain how this will be calculated.”
She added: “By being more transparent about what payments a company is paying to the government for example, local communities may have more confidence in the investment, in turn reducing the risk of animosity or complaints.”
Parsons urged Chinese companies to rigorously follow the laws in the countries where they are operating in order to minimise the risk of complaints.
However, there are others who argue that China’s ‘excessive’ criticism is exaggerated.
Lila Buckley, senior researcher at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), told Moon of the South: “In today’s rapidly changing world, there is a lot of fear about China’s rapid growth. I do think that the emphasis and often exaggerated role of China comes from fear of its increasingly important role in the global stage, as well as misunderstandings that stem from China’s opaque information and unclear communication on aid figures.”
Buckley urged journalists, researchers and politicians to focus more on the impacts of these different engagements and clarify what it is that they want from Chinese actors.
“Without this clarity and sense of vision, the impacts are likely not going to be good, even where Chinese actors are trying their best to ‘help’.”
Photo: Angola President Jose Edouardo dos Santos warmly welcome in China.