IT’S incredible that in less than a decade, China has overtaken the United States as Africa’s single largest trading partner.
By 2009 roughly six years after adopting a more aggressive expansionist policy, Sino-Africa trade stood at about US$90 billion, surpassing US and European markets which at the time were battling a global recession. While the West struggled to save banks and industry from the devastating impact of the economic downturn, African economies grew and continue to grow rapidly — thanks in part to China. This confirms a growing belief that Africa is going to be the future centre of global growth, like China currently is.
All over the continent China’s industrial footprint can be seen in the construction, energy and mining sectors, but along with the successful Chinese model of development come serious problems.
From Sudan, Cameroon, DRC to Angola, down to Zambia and Zimbabwe, stories of problematic Chinese-African labour relations have made headlines. Often Chinese employers, who are used to cheap labour practices, are accused of overworking, under-paying and ill-treating their employees.
While disputes are a common feature of labour under capitalist conditions, what draws global media attention to China in Africa is the sometimes brutal boss-employee model practised by the continent’s new imperial masters.
Although China has come a long way in its domestic labour relations, mass social unrest, worker exploitation and walkouts over pay show the ugly side of the Red Dragon’s rapid industrialisation.
Cheap labour has entrenched exploitative labour practices which are now being exported to different countries around the world, some of which have poor labour records of their own. China is no longer just exporting mainly cheap goods, but also cheap labour practices.
Chinese exploitation and ill-treatment of workers, sometimes like slaves, is rampant across the continent, from Cape to Cairo.
For instance, in October 2010, two Chinese managers opened fire on hundreds of protesting Zambian miners at Collum Coal Mine.
The managers claimed it was in self-defence and the case was dropped.
The decision not to pursue the matter implied that there was no justice for Zambians demonstrating against the US$4 per day wage and unsafe working conditions because China invests more than US$1 billion a year in infrastructure projects in Zambia.
In Zimbabwe a similar pattern of brutal iniquity exists between the workers, the ruling elite and the Chinese investors and their managers.
Arguably, the most well-known case involves Anjin Investments, a controversial diamond venture between Zimbabwe’s security establishment, the army, police and intelligence services and Chinese investors.
Through Anjin, top political and security figures have reportedly staked their claim to Marange diamond fields. This has contributed to lack of transparency and accountability in the Marange diamond mining activities. Diamonds’ contribution to the fiscus remain low due to lack of accountability.
Commenting on the structure of Anjin’s management, Farai Maguwu, director of the Marange-based Centre for Research and Development once said: “Some very senior military personnel and well placed politicians are directly involved in the mining operations of Anjin. The involvement of the army in diamond mining in Marange is the saddest thing that has happened to the find of the century.”
Extensive research by international organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Global Witness shows that since its mining venture began in Zimbabwe in 2009, a litany of abuses have also characterised Anjin’s operations.
In a report released in August 2011, HRW noted with concern that “Zimbabwe police and private security guards are shooting, beating and unleashing attack dogs on poor, local unlicensed miners”.
It’s alarming that such violent methods of policing mines have become habitual practice in Marange since 2008 when 20 000 small-scale miners invaded newly-discovered fields before being removed by military force.
They were forcefully removed by soldiers and police and rights groups claim an estimated 200 people were killed, but the government strongly denied this.
Deny it as they might, when thousands of people are violently displaced to make way for companies which now control the majority of output in Marange, it signifies a treacherous alliance between a self-serving government and investors which have no interests of the poor at heart.
This is now the face of Anjin Investments and other diamond mining companies in Marange.
On the labour relations front, Anjin management recently ended a two-day strike by agreeing to a 25% wage increase for miners.
An unidentified representative from the striking workers committee was quoted in the local press saying: “We are getting between US$188 and US$266 as monthly pay, yet at other mines workers are getting a minimum basic of US$600.”
According to Zimbabwe’s National Employment Council for Mining’s salary guide for 2010, the minimum wage for the lowest grade miner is US$175 for gold producers and US$188 per month for non-gold producers.
A 25% increase from US$188 may be acceptable to the strikers for now, but US$235 is peanuts compared to the US$500 minimum wage reportedly paid by Mbada Diamonds.
Wage disputes and industrial action against poor working conditions have plagued companies like Anjin since in Zimbabwe which are likely to face more industrial action as long as remuneration is low and Chinese bosses “randomly beat up people” as workers allege.
In a separate incident workers at a glass-making factory in Harare accused its Chinese owner of forcing them to work overtime for as little as US$1 per hour.
Disturbing claims of racism have also been made against the employer by Leonard Moyo, a former employee. Moyo told NewsDay that his former boss “uses his own separate toilet, which he doesn’t share with blacks and if a worker uses a water glass that he uses, he breaks it and throws it away”.
Surprisingly, the report alleged that the police were not investigating the matter.
It’s widely accepted that racism and beatings are not the norm in independent Zimbabwe’s business culture, but it appears some politically-connected Chinese firms are exempted from abiding by the country’s laws.
Maintaining good diplomatic relations is crucial to sustaining US$500 million worth of Chinese investments in Zimbabwe, but when the “great friend of Africa” also starts to look like a brutal extractor of wealth, protecting the rights and interests of ordinary Africans becomes critical.
The model of brutality and racism being exported by some Chinese firms and endorsed by many African governments sets a dangerous precedent for the continent expected to become the new centre of global growth led by Brics.