MAC/20: Mines and Communities

African workers now resent Chinese influx

Published by MAC on 2006-08-13

African workers now resent Chinese influx

By Shapi Shacinda, Reuters

13th August 2006

Chambishi, Zambia - When Chinese investors bought struggling copper producer Chambishi Mining, miners in the Zambian town of the same name gave them a heroes' welcome for averting the mine's closure and for creating more jobs.

Three years on, resentment is rising openly against the new owners, NFC Africa, as workers complain about pay and conditions.

Last month miners destroyed property at the mine in a violent protest during which Chinese managers opened fire, wounding five workers, according to miners and the police. Management denies this, blaming the police for the shooting.

The Chambishi unrest is the most serious demonstration of the mounting anger over how Chinese firms do business as they spread their wings across the world's poorest continent, which is hungry for foreign investment and the jobs African nations are desperate to create.

Complaints over cheap Chinese products swamping the continent, forcing local industries to close with catastrophic job losses, are common across Africa. Tensions over labour practices are relatively new, but they are spreading.

From Angola to Nigeria to Algeria, resentment is overshadowing the euphoria that originally greeted Chinese investors, who are drawn by Africa's minerals to help fuel China's frenetic growth.

In countries like Angola, which is drawing on its huge oil wealth in order to rebuild infrastructure and social services after nearly three decades of war, Chinese investment covers everything from oil concessions to construction of roads, railways and houses.

China's Roads and Bridges Corporation is rehabilitating thousands of kilometres of road over the next two to three years, using an oil-backed multi-billion dollar Chinese credit.

Together with the money, China is also pouring in thousands of its own blue collar workers.

"There is a lot of resentment," said Joao Banga, the head of the ministry of the environment in Huambo in central Angola, where Chinese companies are rehabilitating the local railways.

"Any project associated with Chinese money is only obliged to contract 30 percent of it to domestic companies - in a country with some 80 percent unemployment."

The fact that Chinese workers are kept in dormitory-style housing on the outskirts of town with little contact with the local people only adds to suspicion and prejudice.

Some of the more common complaints against Chinese firms include poor pay; lack of safety clothing or boots for workers in textiles, copper and coal mining; and the use of short-term contracts as opposed to long-term employment.

In 2004 the Zambian government asked Chinese managers at Zambia-China Mulungushi Textiles, in northern Kabwe, to stop locking in workers at the factory at night.

In June authorities shut down Collum Coal Mining Industries in southern Zambia, saying that colliery miners had been forced to work underground without safety clothing and boots.

The government said the mine would be allowed to reopen only once it was satisfied that conditions had improved.

"The Chinese have annoyed us because they don't treat us as important partners in their business," said a Chambishi mine worker, who declined to be named.

"All they are interested in are higher profits and not the workers who earn them these profits," added the miner, who was involved in the violent protest in July.

Union officials said miners at Chambishi were the lowest-paid in the entire mining sector, the lowest salary being $100 (R680) a month. By comparison the lowest-paid miner at Konkola Copper Mines, Zambia's largest copper producer, earned $424 monthly, they said.

Chambishi Mining's company secretary Xu Ruiyong acknowledged that some conditions of service were "not good".

"We are favourable in certain conditions and, yes, some areas are unfavourable, but this is a matter for the management and the union to streamline," Xu said.

Weak regulatory regimes in Africa are easy to exploit.

Lesotho's department of trade says Chinese operators are licensed to run only big retail shops or supermarkets, but in reality this has meant that locally owned grocery stores have virtually disappeared.

"I had to close down my small shop because I'm now in competition with the big Chinese supermarket at the corner," former store owner Thabo Seutloali said.

He said local people had rented their shops to the Chinese because "they get a better profit from rent than from running the shops themselves".

Chinese business operators approached for comment said they could not speak English.

In Algeria, rebuilding after years of political violence and the resultant reduction in labour skills, China has been quick to fill the skills gap with trained engineers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and masons.

Some Algerians resent them taking jobs but admit that the Chinese worker will be a feature of the labour market until Algeria can catch up.

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