Political and economic relationships 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 advancement and infrastructure connectivity and facilitate trade. By the end of 2009, China had overtaken the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and in 2020 the value of China-Africa trade totalled US$176 billion.
Trading 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 food processing.
In 2013, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a diplomatic and political strategy to promote connectivity and trading relations with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa through major debt-financed infrastructure projects. In South Africa, for example, China has invested in several projects including expanding Durban’s port facilities, constructing a coal-fired power plant (Kusile) and establishing the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone in Limpopo.
Chinese-funded infrastructure projects have raised controversies due to the size of the loans contracted between 2000 and 2019 by African states worth US$153 billion, and the risk of debt distress and defaults.
Resources for infrastructure deals, also known as the ‘Angola mode’, have sparked criticism over debt sustainability issues and left some African countries including Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia with heavy debts.
Furthermore, increasing reliance on confidential contracts between Chinese lenders and African borrowers has prevented citizens from knowing the terms and conditions of these agreements and from holding their governments accountable.
The rapid growth of Chinese-owned companies operating in Africa has also been a cause for concern for academics, practitioners and activists. Issues of lack of transparency and the environmental and labour conditions and practices of Chinese companies have been at the centre of these concerns.
For example, research highlighted the unsafe working conditions in Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia and the abusive labour practices among Chinese companies in several other African countries.
Other comparative research has revealed differences and similarities between Chinese and non-Chinese companies’ labour practices. Chinese labour practices in Africa are affected by numerous variables. These include domestic labour dynamics, the peculiar features of labour-intensive sectors more prone to informality, and the liberalisation of trade, which has increased the need to cut labour and production costs, increasing vulnerability in the workplace.
Working conditions and labour practices at Chinese companies in six Southern African countries – Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are the subject of a forthcoming Institute for Security Studies (ISS) report. The study focused on specific sectors in the six countries, including construction, mining, textiles and fisheries. The research employed 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 representatives in the respective countries.
It notes differences between sectors and companies in the six countries. However, in general, interviewees who spoke to ISS field researchers raised concerns about labour rights violations and precarious employment conditions impacting the relationships between workers and Chinese employers.
In particular, wages, especially for low-skilled workers, remain low – sometimes below the sector’s minimum wage. And in some cases, employers don’t compensate workers for all hours worked.
Non-compliance with occupational health and safety legislation and procedures was also raised as a concern, particularly in the mining sector. This ranged from the lack of inadequate protective clothing and visible labelling of machinery and buildings to poor lighting and ventilation and scant company training programmes on safety policies.
Most labour disputes concern the unfair dismissal of employees without following the disciplinary and dismissal process. This aspect was prevalent throughout all six countries. In Zimbabwe, Labour Department officials reported that labour matters were complicated due to the connections between Chinese companies and the Zimbabwean political and military elites. In Lesotho, remedies for unfair dismissal are lacking due to an inefficient and understaffed justice system and bribery.
The lack of justice and legal remedies for those who are unlawfully dismissed may have severe socio-economic implications. For example, the ISS research found that some Basotho men dismissed by Chinese textile factories may end up migrating to South Africa for greener pastures, while some women may become sex workers.
Given this background, trade unions can play a fundamental role in enforcing labour standards, addressing issues of non-compliance and ensuring safe working conditions and fair labour practices. However, in Southern Africa, relationships between employers, trade unions and governments are plagued by corruption and intimidation.
In the Angolan fishing industry, conflicting relationships between trade unions and the labour inspectorate have led to a situation of impunity for widespread labour abuses. In Zambia, participating in union activities is considered risky, while in the DRC trade unions are organised mainly by employers to discourage independent unions.
In African countries where trade unions have antagonistic relationships with political elites and their members are threatened or intimidated, it’s necessary to strengthen trade unions’ resources and ability to intervene to hold governments and employers accountable.
Furthermore, the right of workers to organise and associate in a labour union must be protected, and trade unions must be allowed to advertise and recruit members without the risk of being victimised.
African governments need to define strategic priorities and a common policy that can guide China-Africa relations. It’s the responsibility of states to create an environment where the rights of all workers are protected and ‘promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all,’ as stated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. – ISS
Sergio Carciotto and Ringisai Chikohomero, Research Consultants, ISS Pretoria